The Islamic State is a notoriously tech-savvy terrorist organization—so much so that it’s implemented a 24-hour jihadi help desk, as NBC News reported earlier this week. Now the hacker group Anonymous has announced redoubled efforts to fight ISIL in cyberspace following last week’s attacks in Paris.
Several governments, including the US and the UK, have already been working to target ISIL’s digital infrastructure and communications. Anonymous arguably brings even greater technical expertise and reach to the online war. But just how much of a threat can a band of hackers credibly pose to a terrorist group?
Some of ISIL’s online modes of communication, including PlayStation 4 gaming consoles, may be more vulnerable to Anonymous than they are to government intelligence agencies. Anonymous members are not constrained in how or where they can intercept those communications. It’s also possible that Anonymous members are more intimately familiar with the ins and outs of gaming systems and their technical vulnerabilities than most governments. In fact, Anonymous has a history of successfully hacking Sony’s PlayStation network.
But ISIL has also relied on other channels of communication besides PlayStation. This week, Le Monde reported that an unencrypted cell phone with texts relating to the attacks on Paris belonging to one of the attackers was recovered from a garbage can outside the concert hall Le Bataclan, where many people were murdered last week. The company Telegram, which provides strongly encrypted messaging services, also announced this week that it had blocked 78 ISIL broadcast channels in 12 languages on its service.
The sheer number and diversity of ISIL’s modes of electronic communications suggest that it would be challenging even for a group as varied in its expertise as Anonymous to effectively block or intercept all of them. Perhaps that’s why most of Anonymous’ efforts thus far have focused on ISIL’s public-facing communications, such as Twitter feeds and Facebook accounts. This may help quell ISIL’s external recruitment efforts. To intercept or thwart other kinds of communications–for instance, the details of planned acts of terrorism-–Anonymous would have to focus more on the organization’s internal communications, which may well be harder to detect and infiltrate.
Many of Anonymous’ other operations to date have focused on publicly posting sensitive information, revealing people’s identities, or interrupting their online service in order to frustrate, embarrass or shame their targets. Some of those tactics may work to some extent when applied to ISIL. For instance, The Independent reports that Anonymous has doxxed an ISIL recruiter in Europe.
If Anonymous is able to suss out the identities of recruiters more successfully than the governments already targeting ISIL, it may well be because hackers are not burdened by the legal and jurisdictional restrictions that governments have to deal with. They can operate in any country they want, intercept or steal information by any means necessary, and reveal it to whomever they like. So it’s entirely possible that they can identify ISIL recruiters more efficiently than law enforcement or intelligence officials. But of course, with so little accountability, it’s also possible that they will unmask the wrong people, with potentially dire results.
Anonymous also has the opportunity to attempt to cut of ISIL’s sources of funding. Hackers could potentially crash the network infrastructure of the bank branches in Syria and Iraq that ISIL reportedly relies on for its access to the international financial system.
But there are good reasons why many of these steps have not yet been taken by the governments fighting against ISIL. There would be significant consequences not just for ISIL members but also for many innocent people if the PlayStation network were compromised, or if entire countries’ financial infrastructure were taken offline. Anonymous has not historically been particularly sensitive to the risks of collateral damage.
So, on the whole, taking down thousands of Twitter accounts seems like about the right level of involvement for Anonymous in the ongoing fight against ISIL. That said, even this move could have unintentionally harmful consequences. The Wall Street Journal reports that the FBI has monitored ISIL tweets to get early warnings of potential attacks. By shutting down those Twitter accounts, Anonymous might inadvertently deprive law enforcement of those alerts.
ISIL relies on the same technological infrastructure and systems that the rest of us use—things like Twitter and PlayStations and Facebook. So when ISIL asks of Anonymous’ threat, “What they gonna hack?” the underlying question is really, “What can they hack that won’t hurt everyone else as much as it hurts us?” So far, that’s a question without any good answers.