The ongoing war between the so-called Islamic State and the western world's premiere hacktivist group Anonymous has been amped up, yet again.
Anonymous has recently stumbled in its campaign, called #OpParis, to shut down IS's social media presence. #OpParis was launched after the Paris attacks which left nearly 150 dead and hundreds more injured, and took the form of a crowd-sourced campaign to attempt to find members of or recruiters for IS on Twitter and stop them from spreading their message.
In classical masked fashion, Anonymous published a video this week that claimed 20,000 Twitter accounts affiliated with IS had been shut down thanks to its efforts and the efforts of those enthusiastic young men and women who assisted with the campaign.
Supporters of the OpParis campaign have been reporting suspected IS Twitter accounts to Twitter and relevant law enforcement authorities. Twitter declined to say how many accounts it had deactivated as a result of these reports.
Enthusiastic though Anonymous's supporters may be, the margin of error seems to have widened significantly. Many of those 20,000 purported IS affiliates had little to do with IS or were of questionable validity. The crowd-sourcing process works how you think it would: helpful Twitter users see people they think are affiliated with IS, the #OpParis account collates those suspected accounts, puts them in one place and proceeds to post them on Twitter using an automated script.
Whether Anonymous is checking any of these names is not known but several sources have called them wildly inaccurate and the groups published lists have been noted for including non-radical Muslims and people who were merely trolling IS with an implicit level of irony.
Twitter declined to comment to SCMagazineUK.com but a spokesperson for Twitter talked to tech news site, The Daily Dot, saying, “We don't review Anonymous lists posted online, but third-party reviews have found them to be wildly inaccurate and full of academics and journalists.”
One hacktivist called th3j35t3r, with a particularly strong dislike of Anonymous, has published a tweet sent to him by the #OpParis account (since taken down) confirming that Anonymous cannot confirm whether every account they publish is a sure bet.
Anonymous' level of success in pursuing its prey can vary. In some cases it can be incredibly effective; in others, amateurish. So why is Anonymous dropping the ball?
SC spoke to Olivier Laurelli, a security blogger and founder of reflets.info who made news last week by saying that the #OpParis campaign was hindering, not helping the fight against IS.
The Paris attacks, said Laurelli, “raised an important number of young ‘Anonymous', driven by emotions. Cyber investigation should never be led by emotions.”
Conversely, Anonymous's famous Scientology fight was so successful because it was a “a long-term campaign with long term hacktivists who know their targets”.
Laurelli also fears that such a diffuse organization can be hijacked by right wing activists who put terrorist-sympathisers, Muslims and immigrants in the same category.
Anonymous, Laurelli told SC, can be very useful because of the numbers they can mobilise but they need to forget about fame and Pastebin and stick to “meticulous work with a defined methodology”.
For now, Twitter, Facebook and the general authorities “already have many targets and no time to waste with some more unwanted noise. We all should have humility to accept that internet is not a battlefield where lists of public accounts would do something against kalashnikovs”.
Sean Sullivan, a security advisor with F-Secure, told SC that Anonymous's hacktivism is not as effective as it might appear: “Anonymous has a strong 'brand'. But its professionalism and organisation has always been overrated. The Church of Scientology is still around the last I checked.”
Sullivan said he stopped paying attention when several of their ‘ops' “dumped nothing but old data which was recycled and was claimed to be new”, and speculated that if there is a legitimate decline of ability within Anonymous it might be due to the arrest of Sabu, a hacker associated with the group who later turned informant for the FBI: “The group hasn't felt the same since that happened.”
Anonymous' approach might even be stilted from a practical point of view.
Rachel Bryson, a researcher for the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-radicalism think tank, told SC, “Banning the conversation” or “shutting down accounts is not a long term solution.” What is required are counter-narratives to combat the Islamic radicalism propaganda playing out over social media.
“Maybe in the short term it stops a message coming out,” Bryson said, but IS will continue to be active across social platforms spreading its message.
The online conflict between the two groups did not start with the Paris attacks but has been slowly steaming away. Considering one of Islamic State's main weapons has been its unnaturally savvy use of online PR and mobilisation, Anonymous has targeted IS's online capabilities and social media presence, shutting down various channels of communication and hounding purported members with varying levels of success.
This isn't the first time that Anonymous have failed to properly check their claims either. The hacktivist group was brought up on several instances earlier this year when they misidentified members of other Islamist groups as members of IS.
Sullivan told SC that Anonymous are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of mistakes “because circumstantial evidence is often all there is to act on when doing internet-based research – which is why reasonable people don't act on it.”
A simple Google search will come up with plenty of mistakes the group made including the publication of personal details of the policeman who allegedly shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown, the event which sparked the Ferguson riots last year. The only problem was that Anonymous got the wrong guy.
Meanwhile IS has apparently ‘retaliated' against Anonymous by publishing the names of several government officials that they encourage ‘lone wolf' terrorists to find and kill. The names published come from various government agencies involved in fighting the war on terror including the CIA, FBI and the national counter-terrorism centre and included pictures and addresses of these ‘targets'.
The identities behind these names have not been confirmed.
The banner of this current Anonymous ‘op' is painted, not with the face of Che Guevara or Edward Snowden, but the picture of 1980s white soul sensation, Rick Astley, whose move making music and pale visage smashed charts, filled nightclubs and has now been given new life to ‘Rickroll' members of the Islamic State, where members of Anonymous have relentlessly spammed IS affiliated accounts with videos of the aforementioned sensation's smash hit, Never Gonna Give You Up.
This is a trusted weapon in the Anonymous armoury: the group has used it before in its campaigns against the Church of Scientology to great success, or irritation at least.