The underground hacking confederacy known as Anonymous announced this week that it will launch an ‘Official ISIS Trolling Day’ on December 11.
Its goal, it says, is to ‘mock [ISIS] for the idiots they are.’
The old adage ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ notwithstanding, we should be wary of supporting a group of digital vigilantes who answer to nobody but themselves, yet wield considerable power.
Having already launched attacks on several hundred ISIS Twitter accounts, Anonymous are calling on social media users to join the mass-trolling of ISIS platforms.
Doubtless, many people will add their voice to these protests using the hashtag #Daesh. A high proportion will do so because of a passion to see ISIS/Daesh defeated; they will not intend their involvement to send any signal of support for Anonymous per se.
This is important. To give Anonymous recognition may only encourage in them a belief that they have widespread support and credibility for their other activities.
Most of us will welcome any effort to shut down communication between terrorists - and between extremists and their potential recruits. However, when it gets involved in political issues, Anonymous is often more naturally aligned with the promotion of anarchy than activism.
The distinction between the two will grow increasingly important over the next decade, as the digital economy and our individual engagement with all things digital continues to grow.
The emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) will add an entire world of new opportunities for the delivery of services, both corporate and governmental. Millions – and in time, billions – of micro-devices will be built into everything from your garden sprinkler system to the food packaging in your refrigerator.
Globally, we already have more devices hooked up to the internet than we do people linked to the internet.
Some of these connected devices, built into machines, will trigger the automatic re-ordering of worn-out parts. Others micro-processors built into window shades, solar panels and even clothing, will initiate automatic responses to online weather forecasts.
Alongside the IoT, big data analytics will help to improve traffic flow in large cities, boost economic forecasting and sharpen the accuracy of opinion polls on important civic issues.
For the first time in history we now have super-computers which are capable of collecting and analysing all of the data coming from everyday mobile devices.
This analysis is being used by businesses and governments to predict likely shifts in human behaviour. It is reshaping the design of furniture, medical prosthetics, cars – driverless and otherwise – and entire cities.
It is also being used to design new civic programmes for reducing crime and recidivism.
When handled correctly, predictive analysis will enrich our lives. It will also boost our care for the vulnerable in natural, economic and medical emergencies and improve our record when it comes to the environment.
Meanwhile, holographics, haptic virtual reality and artificially intelligent machines will move us further from simply going online to living an ‘onlife’, in which the line between the digital and the real is even more blurred than it is today.
Imagine then, within this near-future scenario, the havoc internet lone-rangers with sophisticated hacking skills might wreak on economic, transport, healthcare and security services.
Not long ago, in a test of hacking capabilities, McAfee researchers remotely programmed insulin test pumps to release what would under normal circumstances have been lethal doses of the substance. They wanted to demonstrate how vulnerable computerised medical machines can be to interference.
In theory, any computerised device can be hacked. Talk of payment chip implants to replace credit cards raises the dystopian possibility of human bodies becoming hackable (and trackable) devices.
The positive benefits of technology – and there are many – could so easily be swallowed up by the negative impact of maverick groups like Anonymous. It believes that it has a sovereign right and a civic responsibility to bring down systems it happens not to like.
Anonymous has launched hack attacks on such companies as Sony, PayPal, MasterCard and Visa. Similar hacking groups have cyber-attacked US government agencies, media organisations, military contractors and police and military personnel.
Is there a need for accountability platforms in the online media space? Absolutely. However, accountability can only be credibly offered when the body providing it is itself answerable to the wider public.
Anonymous is accountable only within its internal structures, whatever those are. Its members are faceless, hiding behind masks and computer screens. There is no vote, corporate or political, on the rightness of either its means or its ends.
Indeed, if a corporation or public institution dares to challenge the credibility of Anonymous, that organisation is liable to face an attack.
Anonymous does not, as a constituency, engage in debate or call for action through legitimate channels.
It seeks a shortcut to influence; a way to inflict its will without going through the channels accepted by society – including the voting booth or, in the case of companies, the courts.
The group also has no recognisable leadership, nobody who can be called upon to speak for the group or held responsible for actions carried out in its name.
In fact, internal dissent seems to be a feature of its culture, including disagreement about whether the group should focus on pranks or more serious political statements. It may well be that some members of Anonymous actually agree with the sentiments expressed above.
In our desire to overcome the threat of ISIS, we should think twice about giving recognition and credibility to groups like Anonymous who play by no rules but their own.