Stanford Scholar: US Unlikely to Prosecute Anonymous for Harassing ISIS

In the wake of the tragic and outrageous terrorist attacks committed by ISIS agents in Paris last week, the online hacker group Anonymous declared a cyber-assault against IS.

For instance, a masked Anonymous French language speaker in a video tells ISIS retaliation is coming. Anonymous has engaged in an online battle of sort with ISIS since it attacked the Charlie Hebdo magazine’s office in Paris in January, hacking email and social media accounts and taking offline Islamic State websites.

Hacked spoke with the Ghost Security Group, who told us: “I cannot speak for other groups or organizations combatting ISIS. However, I can inform you that we are coordinating our efforts with the United States government to detect attacks before they happen, as well as slow [IS] recruiting, destroy online propaganda and reduce the number of enemy combatants on the battlefield and to date have met with great success.”

But just what capabilities does the “hacktivist” group have? Stanford scholars think the group might, ultimately, be less successful than they hope in bringing down ISIS. In fact, other scholars have written that, in fact, the online battle against IS will have limited effects on the terror groups movements, but is seemingly generally welcomed by active law enforcement.

“They don’t have the capability to do the kind of things that a nation-state could do,” Herbert Lin, senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, told “The NSA, for instance, has the ability to place implants into hardware.” This is likely not Anonymous’ tactic.

“Anonymous is more likely to engage in hacking that is less sophisticated,” Lin clarified. “For example, ISIS almost certainly doesn’t have a bank account that is coupled to the international banking system; they operate outside that particular channel. But they have lots of money, some of which may be stored in a personal- or business-like bank account.”

This is one of the largest criticisms leveled at the hacktivist group Anonymous in their anti-IS work. Many critics say the group has not undermined any of IS true sources of power, such as funding. There has been some theorizing about million dollar Bitcoin accounts held by IS, but these are largely theoretical as it is very difficult to triangulate Bitcoin funds. How might Anonymous crack such accounts? Lin says simple psychological engineering could afflict some damage. This is much different than what’s typically considered “hacking.”

“…That means that it can be hacked the same way that your bank account can be hacked, by cracking the username and password,” Lin said. He also highlights where Anonymous has enjoyed success in the past against IS members’ email and messaging accounts, as well as taking down social media accounts.

“This approach clearly isn’t the silver bullet that takes down ISIS, but attacking messaging abilities or bank accounts are useful harassing activities,” Lin said. “Repairing these systems and accounts wastes ISIS’s time and annoys them – the same way it does to you when your personal accounts are hacked. Having to untangle these messes can disrupt their overall operations, which is a perfectly good thing to do.”

Lin acknowledges that the fact Anonymous aids in the online battle against IS is a difficult situation for the US government, since technically Anonymous could be breaking the law.

“I think that the official line of the U.S. government on this is that it violates U.S. law for Anonymous to take on ISIS,” he said. “It’s vigilante justice in cyberspace, which is illegal under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.” But it’s more complicated than this. In the modern age, things have changed, and law enforcement welcomes Anonymous’ help. 

“On the other hand, while the U.S. government might not be favorably disposed to it, I think it is unlikely that any prosecutor would actually indict an American for harassing ISIS in this way. And maybe the Anonymous hacker will uncover some information that is really useful to the U.S. government and be inclined to pass it along.”

In fact, as Hacked covered, Anonymous type actors routinely do get important, useful information in the hands of the authorities. Anonymous recently published guides for how to join them in their fight against terrorism. Those guides include:

The NoobGuide “explains the basic principles of DDoSing, WiFi deauth, password cracking, and various other hacking terms.”

The ReporterGuide “covers launching a reporter bot against a list of Twitter account IDs for discovering, reporting, and taking down ISIS-related accounts,”

The SearcherGuide demonstrates “how people can help Anonymous find more ISIS websites/pages/information.”

How Anonymous’ struggle against IS will evolve has yet to be seen. Taking down Twitter accounts all day is not going to change much, but it will probably give everyone a good chuckle. The coming weeks will be key for Anonymous to demonstrate just how effective it can be compared with traditional law enforcement.

Justin O'Connell is the founder of financial technology focused Justin organized the launch of the largest Bitcoin ATM hardware and software provider in the world at the historical Hotel del Coronado in southern California. His works appear in the U.S.'s third largest weekly, the San Diego Reader, VICE and elsewhere.