Friday 31 July 2015

SMARTS Update: On Anonymous

Go ahead, call me old fashioned, but I get my news from radio, television and newspapers -- in other words, from what other journalists report. I rely on major media because I know they don't like to use anonymous sources, and when they do, they're usually fairly certain that the source has no obvious axe to grind. In other words, checks and balances have been applied. Or at least that's the way things work where I've worked. Sure they make mistakes, but everyone does, and it's not for lack of trying.

So imagine my surprise to find major media publishing news brought to them by Anonymous.

Of course you've heard of Anonymous. They are the hactivist collective ( that's what they call themselves) who seek justice on our behalf, sometimes visiting web-based punishments upon misbehaving powers. Generally they do this by hacking into systems that they should not be able to touch, or, by overloading systems till they crash.

Last week, an Anon (the title the collective uses, apparently, for members), was shot dead on the street outside a restaurant in Dawson Creek, B.C. It started with a ruckus at a B.C.. Hydro information session. The company was trying to inform the public about a proposed dam. This dam is not welcomed by everyone, especially some members of First Nations Treaty 8 who will be affected.  A man inside the restaurant where the information session was held kicked up sufficient fuss that the police were called. The RCMP (the local police in Dawson Creek) came to the restaurant. But by the time they got there, that man had fled. Instead, they encountered another man in the street wearing a hood over his head and a Guy Fawkes mask on his face. The Guy Fawkes mask is the trademark of Anonymous. There was some kind of altercation. The man was shot. He died in hospital. There's a video. If you haven't seen it, there's an image with a red circle around the Anon on the Anonymous website. But I get ahead of myself

After Anonymous learned the dead man was one of theirs, it issued threats. If the RCMP failed to name, fire, and charge the officer who "murdered" the Anon (they named him as James McIntyre), bad things would result. The RCMP did none of the above: BC has an oversight body which is called in to investigate such incidents. This did not satisfy, so bad things did result. First, the main RCMP website was subjected to denial of service attacks and went down for several hours. Then, Anonymous headed down the WikiLeaks street.  Anonymous shared a very embarrassing "cabinet document" that may have been written by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) with a reporter from the National Post. Anonymous promised to release more "stunning secrets" at irregular intervals, unless....

The putative CSIS document was then described by various reporters on television newscasts and in the newspapers. Alex Boutilier of the Toronto Star said it was dated February, 2014 and appeared to be a request for funding to update the information network that connects CSIS's 25 foreign offices. The Star said that as it was marked as a cabinet document, so it was classified -- not top secret, not cosmic secret, but out of reach of the average Freedom of Information request. So if it's genuine (and the usual government spokespersons neither denied nor confirmed although you can bet real money that if it was a fraud they would have said so) its release is embarrassing -- in many ways. 

First, until recently, CSIS was a strictly Canadian intelligence service, focused on domestic bad actors. Since it's transformation into a cheaper, more polite yet more powerful version of the CIA (which is not supposed to act in the US while CSIS acts both at home and abroad and can now apply in secret to a judge for the right to violate someone's rights) it was known to have acquired offices in the UK, France, and the US. The total number of offices and their whereabouts was a secret.

Second, the document suggested CSIS's agents have been using an information network that dates back to the l980s. This is the period when CSIS was first hived off from the RCMP in order to keep the RCMP from getting into any more trouble (such as burning down barns of FLQ suspects or keeping files on too many Canadians who might be subversives, even sainted ones such as June Callwood (may she rest in peace). Callwood, journalist, author, and the founder of Nellies women's shelter and Toronto's first Aids hospice, was about as subversive as your average member of the Order of Canada, yet the RCMP kept a file on her. When the Solicitor General of the day was bringing forth the Act to create CSIS, I did a profile on him. The funniest moment of that story, other than his visit to Willy Wonderful's to try on cheap suits, was when June confronted him at a luncheon and asked for her file.

I have 1980s information technology stored in my basement. No one has used these two computers for thirty years, but then I don't run an intelligence service. They are Genuine Antiques which is why my husband imagines he will make a killing when he can finally bring himself to part with them via auction on e-bay. The idea that Canada's intelligence service uses a network dating back to the same era brings to mind that wonderful oxymoron, military intelligence.

The document argued that the Treasury Board should give CSIS $3 million more than it had already been granted to modernize this network so its agents wouldn't have to sift manually through all their emails and reports. This consumed time and "jeopardized the security of its personnel collecting the intelligence."

In other words, the document itself contained a plausible explanation as to why Anonymous had been able to lay electronic hands upon it.

I was intrigued by Anonymous' s promise of stunning secrets to come. Promise me a secret and I will follow you anywhere. So I followed Anonymous to its sites on the web.

What I found surprised me, though in retrospect, it shouldn't have.  Its web presence has the same features as that of any other group or business.  And I say business advisedly.

First, I didn't need a secret password or code or address to find it. While Anonymous subgroups may cavort through the dark net, it has a Facebook page with over 3 million likes.

The Facebook page has been designed by someone with a good eye. There is a logo which consists of a line drawing of a globe with a laurel wreath inside. The wreath in turn surrounds an image of a man in a black suit, white shirt,and tie. Instead of a head, a question mark emerges from where his neck should be. The word Anonymous ties it all together. This logo says: CIA/FBI turned inside out.

There is even what amounts to a mission statement: "The corrupt fear us, the honest support us, the heroic join us."

Okay. Giddyup.

There are ads on the site, of course, one for the TD bank and another for Friesen, the Canadian self publishers, with a charming northern forest background. I don't blame Anonymous for the particular ads that popped up on my screen. They are clearly aimed at me specifically -- Facebook keeps track of what I am interested in and sells me and my information to others who want to put their ads in front of me. But there are also stories with headlines and images on the page. There's one labelled A Hidden Genocide. There's a documentary called Earthlings. There's a podcast, episode number three, which is an interview with a fellow named Mike Berger who started a group call in 2004. He was concerned that the official story of who was behind 9/11 was not factual and that the US government or other parties who benefited from certain stock trades might have known it was coming....

Well what do you expect from a Facebook page, I said to myself. Of course it looks like other Facebook pages.

Anonymous also has a Twitter presence.

I went to their home site.

Again, the logo appeared. It had also been cleverly dropped into the word Anonymous in place of the second o signifying that they've got a good art director. There were headings to click like politics, media, rights, technology, world which link to stories. These stories appear to be rewrites or re-presentations by Anonymous members of stories or videos that originated on other media sites, which makes it a bit of a media house of mirrors. The day I started clicking, there was a story about genocide in Sudan.There was another that insisted the Ukrainian revolution was launched by fascists. There was a video that purported to show that James Foley's execution by ISIS was staged for the cameras on a set, and perhaps was carried out after the camera was turned off. The group making this claim said it got the video off the cellphone of one of Senator John McCain's staffers who apparently didn't protect his mobile device from hacking when he was in Ukraine. There was a link to Senator McCain answering back with a Tweet: he claims he has been targeted as the enemy by Russian trolls and he's proud of it. He seems to associate the Anonymous subgroup or associated party who hacked his staffer's phone with Russian trolls.

I was drawn to a story about self-aware robots. I am like a dog with a bone on anything to do with smart robots as my book SMARTS attests.  Self aware robots raise very interesting ethical and legal questions. This story's headline suggested that a professor at a very good American university had figured out a way for his robots to demonstrate that they are self aware. Bylined Vandita, the Anonymous version of this story made reference to Vice which had interviewed the professor. The Anonymous story said he worked out a variation on the three wise men puzzle having to do with white hats and blue. (One of three wise men could be elevated to the post of adviser to the King if he can infer what the color of his own hat is from a set of givens constrained by rules.) The Professor told three robots equipped with speech that he was going to give some, but not all of them, a dumbing pill which would make them mute. He made two mute. The robots were than asked to tell him which had been dumbed down. The un-muted robot said I can talk, therefore I was not dumbed down. The professor did not claim that his experiment demonstrates self awareness in his particular brand of robots, but rather demonstrates that machine logic can mimic self awareness.

At the end of this story on the not-so-self-aware robots, there was an ad for another Canadian bank, and below that, an ad that said:

Get Your Anonymous T-Shirt / Sweatshirt / Hoodie / Tanktop, Smartphone or Tablet Cover or Mug In Our Spreadshirt ShopClick Here

So I clicked.

The prices looked good. The t-shirts were particularly fetching. There was one with an image of Guy Fawkes and beneath, the word "disobey."  There was a mug that said Keep Calm and Disobey. I thought: you have a son in law who might like that. Yet I hesitated to buy it. I was a tad concerned that if I paid for it with Visa or Mastercard, as suggested, I would be forever marked by NSA as a supporter of Anonymous.

I could end up dead.

And something else made me hold back. Does anyone really want to buy a t-shirt from Anonymous? Isn't that just a bit like buying a logo from Naomi Klein?


  1. Right on Elaine... watch out for those hackers though .. I found out how they operate when I derided the Occupy idiots out east here ... hacked, disabled, deleted, frauded.. you name it.. Dan Dicks Press for Truth just did a wee video too .. ... anonymous never seemed anything but a psyop to me, ever.. people are gullible though .. maybe its because I am a Brit and we knew the dude Guy Fawkes as a terrorist [tried to blow up parliament] and so we had bon fires around our towns in November .. then I get to Canada and there's Halloween and later .. the V for Vendetta propaganda... oh people .. stop clumping.. please.. and stop covering your faces thinking its cool with the mask on.. sheesh..

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