Cyber Vigilantes Operate Unhindered by Governments in Fight Against ISIS

As you scroll through your news feed, take notice all the articles on hacktivist groups and activities.  Through issues like the Sony and Ashley Madison breaches and the release of U.S. military personnel information by ISIS supporters, hacktivism has earned a place in our daily vocabulary.  After almost any big “real-world” event, you can now expect “cyber” action from these hacktivist groups.  They are hailed as “heroes” by some, and “terrorists” by others.  It only took a couple of days for Anonymous and Ghost Security Group, two hacktivist groups, to respond to ISIS after the Paris attacks.  But who are these so-called hacktivists? More importantly, why does it seem like law enforcement organizations only take action against them when their activities affect governmental interests, and not when their activities target the ‘bad guys’?

Attacks directed at Corporate or  Government Interests
There have been numerous law enforcement operations and legal action taken against members of Anonymous.  In May 2014, two Australian nationals and alleged members of Anonymous were arrested for hacking government computers in Australia and Indonesia, ABC news reported.  In October 2013, a federal grand jury indicted thirteen members after the group allegedly targeted financial institutions who refused to process payments for WikiLeaks, according to Yahoo News.  In March 2012, “top members” of Anonymous, and another hacktivist group, LulzSec, were arrested in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States, according to an article in the Daily Mail.  In July 2011, sixteen suspected Anonymous members were arrested after the group attacked PayPal over its action against WikiLeaks, Fox News reported.  The trend shows that action against members of these groups usually follow cyber operations against entities in which governments have an interest in — WikiLeaks is the prime outlet for revealing leaked government secrets, and is a target of a criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI, according to an article by the Guardian.

Attacks directed at “bad” Actors
It seems that law enforcement organizations largely remain silent, however, when these groups use the very same cyber tools to conduct operations against extremist groups.  In January 2015, Anonymous launched #OpISIS, an operation to take down websites it claimed to be jihadist sites supporting ISIS, as well as websites it claimed to be used by ISIS for recruiting purposes, the Telegraph reported.  Even so-called ‘lone wolf’ hacktivists have joined the fight against extremists online.  An example of a lone wolf hacktivist is The Jester who has reportedly taken down 170 Jihadist websites since 2010, according to an NBC 5 interview, (More on The Jester can be found here).  More recently, as stated above, Anonymous and another hacktivist group, GSG, have declared war against ISIS following the attacks on Paris.  GSG, itself, claims to provide intelligence to “federal governments and the intelligence community”, according to the group’s website.  So far, however, there have been no law enforcement action (that I can find) taken against these groups after they conduct these types of cyber-vigilanté activities.

Are governments willing to turn a blind eye to some types of activities, but not to others, even when both are being carried out by the same actors?  Could this ‘acquiescence’ be construed as legitimization by governments of such groups?  More importantly, how does one differentiate between these cyber-vigilantés and actual national security threats?

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Professor William Snyder

Professor William C. Snyderis a member of the faculty of the Institute for National Security and Counter-terrorism at Syracuse University after fifteen years with the United States Department of Justice.

Ryan D. White

Ryan D. WhiteRyan is currently a third year law student at Syracuse University College of Law, and is also pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree from Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Ryan spent time with Homeland Security Investigations while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University, and spent his first summer of law school as clerk for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of New York. He is a member of Syracuse Law Review, the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and participates in the Veteran’s Legal Clinic. Full biography

Shelby E. Mann

Ryan D. WhiteShelby is a second year law student at the Syracuse University College of Law. She is the 2018-9 Editor in Chief of the Syracuse Law Review, as well as a member of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and the senior editor for the Syrian Accountability Project. During her final year at the University of Missouri, she served as a full-time news producer for ABC 17 News. Shelby spent her first summer of law school at the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office in Memphis, Tenn., in the Public Corruption and Economic Crimes Unit. Full biography

Christopher w. FolkChristopher W. Folk

is a 2017 graduate of SU College of Law. A non-traditional student, Christopher returned to academia after spending nearly twenty years in the high tech industry. Christopher served in the Marine Corps, graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. In Applied Economics and Business Management, attended Northeastern University’s High-Tech MBA Program and received a M.S. In Computer Information Systems. Christopher previously worked in Software Engineering. Christopher is currently serving his second term as Town Justice for the Town of Waterloo. Christopher externed with a Cybersecurity firm in the Washington, D.C. area between his first and second year at SU College of Law. Full biography

Anna Maria Castillo

Anna Maria Castillois 2016 graduate of Syracuse College of Law. She also holds a Master of Arts in International Relations from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She has interned at a London-based think-tank that specializes in transnational terrorism and global security and at the legal department of a defense contractor. She served as an executive editor in the Syracuse Law Review. Full biography

Jennifer A. CamilloJennifer A. Camillo

is a 2015 graduate of Syracuse College of Law and is a prosecutor. She has served as a law clerk in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York and the Cayuga County District Attorney’s Office and as an extern in the Oneida County District Attorney’s Office. She was a member of the Syracuse National Trial Team and was awarded the Tiffany Cup by the New York Bar Association for her trial advocacy achievements.

Tara J. PistoreseTara J. Pistorese

holds Juris Doctor and Masters of Public Administration degrees from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and its College of Law. She wrote for this blog when a student. She is now a member of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Benjamin Zaiser

is both a scholar and a Federal Agent of the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany. (Opinions expressed here are his own and not any part of official duty.) Full biography


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