Can Internet Vigilantism be a Force for Good?
The Internet has a colossal image problem. No-one can deny that. News agencies and official authorities have beaten their chests for decades over the apparent dangers of the information age. Everything from innocuous data-mining to heisting hackers has been endlessly debated and decried by advocates of online safety
For most however, the internet is an innocuous and indeed integral part of our everyday lives. From purchasing small gifts to closing multi-million-deals, the vast majority the web’s networks provide a clean, crisp service where transactions and entertainment alike are delivered safely.
But discussions have only intensified over the years, and nowhere are the issues more hotly contested than when debating the Dark Net.
Quarantined from typical internet searches, the Dark Net is essentially a network of pseudo-private websites which do not always conform to local and international laws. Normal search engines such as Google and Bing are constantly purifying their indexes to protect the public from this potentially harmful material, which can range from online drug and weapon stores to forums on child abuse.
As a result, third-party applications such as Tor are required to access sites hidden from normal view.
None of this is to say that privacy software or the Dark Net itself are inherently illegal. In fact, both can prove incredibly beneficial.
For example, hackers have been combatting malicious Dark Net sites for years. Likewise, agencies such as the FBI have also used the Dark Net’s anonymity to their advantage in catching consumers of illegal content. Most recently a hacker related to Anonymous closed over 10,000 malign Dark Net websites administered by webhoster Freedom Hosting II. Twenty per-cent of the entire Dark Net was closed-off, locked behind a simple message left by the hacktivist which read: “Hello, Freedom Hosting II, you have been hacked.”
The hacker’s testimony asserted that these websites related to scamming rings and child abuse. If this is to be believed, it was a monumental victory.
But when it comes to vigilantism, it’s only natural to be uneasy.
In an email exchange to Motherboard for example, the hacker claimed that they targeted the hoster after discovering that many of the websites maintained by FH2 were abnormally large in size.
“This suggests they paid for hosting and the admin knew of those sites. That’s when I decided to take it down instead”, the hacker claimed.
This “shotgun” approach is arguably risky at best, dangerous at worst. In attacking a hoster as opposed to specifically malicious sites, other private but legitimate communications and information may have also been put at risk. As Journalism.co.uk explains, the Dark Net can offer a safe haven to journalists (to name but one group) who wish to communicate and send files anonymously.
In particularly oppressive regimes, this can be an invaluable resource.
Alan Pearce, author of “Deep Web for Journalists” claimed that data interception is a real threat in the modern age. Even in more democratic nations tighter security procedures can see officers searching through confiscated hard drives and similar devices.
Only recently was NASA technician Sidd Bikkannavar detained by US Customs and Border Patrol at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and pressured by officials to unlock his mobile phone. The mobile, issued by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, contained sensitive material that Bikkannavar claims he was not at liberty to disclose. After finally relenting, he believes that the CPB copied the contents of the device and ran algorithmic tests. Particularly worrying in this case was that Bikkannavar’s position as a NASA technician was regularly vetted by the United States federal government.
Alan Pearce also noted that defence authorities (such as the NSA) can accidentally monitor journalists or other individuals investigating hot topics, such as terrorism, based purely on their research history. He noted that methods “off the radar” are much more viable for investigative journalists, and the Dark Net is one such sanctuary. Arguably, the FH2 hacker’s whitewashing tactic may have saved time, but compromised other sensitive information.
Before closing the sites, the hacktivist also claims to have siphoned as much private information as they could, and promised to pass this data onto the appropriate authorities.
But this gives rise to another conflict: can these individuals be trusted with this information?
According to The Verge, Anonymous offered to resell the compromised data back to Freedom Hosting 2 in exchange for 0.1 bitcoin (roughly equivalent to 100USD). Whether facetious or not, the offer demonstrates that valuable information can be ransomed at the whim of its holder.
If a less principled individual had obtained this data before the hacker, a worse-case scenario could have arisen. One doubt gives way to another. Independent hackers are not accountable and require more trust. Realistically, there is potential for this individual to have already sold this information to untold others. And if not this person, then another.
Of-course, there is also a risk of the compromised data leaking into the public domain, allowing “real-life” vigilantes to take matters into their own hands. This in fact did happen in the FH2 case, albeit in a distilled manner. Twitter user Deku_shrub, one of the first to report the hack, tweeted a database detailing some of the unearthed information, including users’ malicious searches.
Naturally, authorities keep evidence of criminal intent secret to avoid compromising both the safety of the accused and the impartiality of the investigation.
Deku_shrub however also tweeted details of the Anonymous hacker’s methods used for attacking FH2, which could have the effect of strengthening securities for clandestine sites in the future.
This is a real concern of the FBI, who investigated users of the original Freedom Hosting network by tracking their IP addresses between 2012 and 2013. This more clinical approach allowed the Bureau to gather more clues as to who was using the network and build stronger cases against malicious users.
This is not Anonymous’ first disclosure of “criminal” accounts, and while they act as positive publicity for the organisation, the information is best handed immediately to authorities instead. This way, agencies can act quickly on the severity of the data and prosecute most effectively.
There is absolutely no doubt that vigilantes can and do serve the public good. But their intervention, checked only by their consciousness, carries inherent risks and complications. When very harmful data is on the line, blind trust might not be enough.