While Americans gear up for yet another gargantuan presidential election cycle, their friends to the North have been dealing with an odd situation involving Anonymous, former and current federal politicians, and a whole lot of wild speculation. It touches on issues in police violence, data security, journalistic ethics, and the ability of the internet to make even the tragic end of a human life into a protracted ideological slap-fight.
It all started a few weeks ago in the North of the Western-most Canadian province, British Columbia, near the proposed site of a hydroelectric dam project referred to simply as Site C. For various reasons, this dam has become a hot-button provincial political issue, sort of a Canadian Bridge to Nowhere, but tied up with local environmental and First Nations issues. Anonymous members eventually staged (or perhaps simply attended) a small demonstration there, which led to some sort of disturbance, the specifics of which are still fuzzy. What we know for sure is this: outside the demonstration, a man named James McIntyre, wearing an Anonymous mask and brandishing a knife, was shot to death by police. A video released shortly after showed police continuing the standoff with the man as he lay wounded on the pavement.
The following was retweeted as the last message from McIntyre’s assumed twitter account, dated the day of the shooting.
As you might imagine, this all didn’t sit well with Anonymous. There were the requisite statements of outrage and threats to not forget (ever), and some DDoS attacks again the Dawson police and RCMP websites, but within days the movement had mutated into a project headed by the Twitter account OpAnonDown. This account claimed that Anonymous members have perpetrated a massive hack against the Canadian government, and made a wide array of remarkable claims about what it had found in the documents it had obtained. An inquiry into the shooting is already ongoing within Canada, but this splinter of Anonymous demanded arrests of the officers involved, or it would release devastating secrets about members of the current government.
To prove that the infiltration really occurred, OpAnonDown released a single classified document, which the government has confirmed is genuine. It speaks of a need for major upgrades to the computer infrastructure at CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) stations around the world. The document mentions the existence of 25 CSIS stations, a much higher number than previously confirmed, and that some of these stations are in developing countries.
This document lent some real gravity to the otherwise outrageous claims being made about the contents of these alleged stolen documents. Federal ministers secretly forced out of politics for attending underage strip clubs around the world? The Canadian signals intelligence agency, the CSE, caught spying on the NSA? Obama threatening to tank a major international oil pipeline in retaliation? It all seemed a bit much, but the CSIS document seemed to indicate that there might be a grain of truth to such claims, even if greatly exaggerated for effect. Though major media outlets have (correctly) not reprinted any specific allegations without documents to support them, they have been covering the leaked CSIS document and the threats of continuing leaks.
In all this, the inherent absurdity of the situation is often lost.
Firstly, deadlines for the government to arrest the cops involved in the shooting have come and gone without the release of any great dump of documents. The original deadline was supposed to be July 27, but we got only the above-mentions CSIS document, which says nothing about cabinet ministers, or wrong-doing of any kind. When asked when the real stuff was going to drop, the answer was, as always, vague.
It’s important to realize that these demands are absolutely never going to be met. The government cannot and will not step in to interfere in an ongoing legal investigation, let alone dictate that the officers be arrested. If the hack claims are true, private threats might have quietly changed the nature of the investigation through subtle corruption — but given the scrutiny that Anonymous itself has created, this shooting investigation is one of the most untouchable in the entire country. I don’t believe that OpAnonDown has ever believed that these demands will generate any success at all.
The other issue is that Anonymous would never sit on the sorts of secrets it claims to have. The hacktivist group is a sworn enemy of the current Conservative government — if it really has these docs and messages, then it could end several major political careers and possibly put quite a few people behind bars. It seems unthinkable that Anonymous members wouldn’t release that sort of info immediately. In particular, with a Canadian election coming up in just two months, the passionately anti-Conservative hackers would never hold back on this sort of exposé.
Some of the claims are oddly off-base in the specifics, like that the group has “decrypted” incriminating text messages from a former cabinet minister. The OpAnonDown account has also been berating major Canadian journalists for refusing to cover the situation, or covering it without a positive enough editorial bent. If a real leak was actually coming, the group would be much more confident in its ability to generate interest in the mainstream media, when the time comes.
It’s also possible that this is all just a ploy to bring attention to the eventual release, that Anonymous simply wants to go through the motions of a dramatic game of chicken. If the documents do exist, Anonymous may never have entertained the possibility of not releasing them.
My theory, though, is that we are seeing the opportunistic release of documents Anonymous has had for some time. As mentioned, this isn’t the first run-in between Guy Fawkes and the Canadian security establishment, and Canada has suffered several prior data breaches of unknown size and scope. It’s assured that Anonymous has some documents from the past breaches that weren’t deemed good enough, or perhaps too security-central, for release. It’s very possible that the supposed proof-of-hack CSIS document is actually a left-over from one of these earlier infiltrations.
Apart from the mentioned CSIS document, Operation Anon Down has thus-far consisted mostly of retweeting Anon-friendly news and going back over old, leaked Canadian info. A big part of the campaign seems to be encouraging people with access to classified documents to send them to Wikileaks or a major Canadian newspaper.
Real issues surrounding police procedures are getting buried beneath this campaign’s inherent stupidity. Anonymous members are usually savvy enough to ask for things like the launch of an investigation, or an increase in transparency — not the summary arrest of those they have decided are guilty. It’s a demand that’s appealing to many political radicals; when I checked the Twitter account shortly before submitting this article, I saw one activist literally calling the institution of due process a “club” used for oppression. Leaving aside the details of the shooting itself, which may very well turn out to have been criminal in nature, this is one of the more intellectually bankrupt initiatives in Anonymous’ already checkered history.
I do, to some guilty extent, think of politics and world events like a trashy reality show; if nothing else, the juicy Anonymous-destroys-Harper-government episode is one I would very much like to watch someday. And certainly some of the claims, if true, demand a quick and serious legal response. But the reality is that this will probably come to nothing, and will achieve little more than drawing a bit of attention to the shooting. It may also give a bunch of people who were already going to vote for a left-wing party some more fuel for hating the federal Conservatives.
Truly, this is the state of the art in Canadian controversy.