Trayvon Martin, Anonymous, and the problem with vigilantism

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

DEFCON hoodie photoOccasionally Mrs W. gets a bee in her bonnet and decides to direct her energies toward a guest post on Naked Security. With vigilantism increasingly making headlines, she points out the futility of it all. Over to you Mrs. W...

Yesterday morning, as I drank my coffee and read my Twitter feed, I came across an article on The Atlantic's website describing the spread of George Zimmerman's purported address across social media sites.

George Zimmerman is the man who is claiming self-defense under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the black kid whose hoodie, Skittles, and can of iced tea have become symbols in a wave of protests against racial profiling.

Much evidence points to Zimmerman as the aggressor: Among other things, he was the one who was armed, he followed Martin after being told by a dispatcher not to, his story doesn't jive with the evidence, and he has a history of, well, suspicious behavior towards young black males.

Because some people think a good way to combat alleged vigilantism is apparently more vigilante justice, a bounty has been placed on Zimmerman's head and he has gone into hiding.

As the article points out, it has now come to light that the address of one supposed hiding spot that is making its way virally across social media is actually that of an elderly Florida couple.

Masked hackerThis instantly brought Anonymous and its offshoots to mind. We've seen them, time and again, post addresses and other personal details of people who are sometimes directly responsible for and sometimes only tangentially related to the evils Anonymous et al. are targetting.

Whether or not the addresses posted do indeed belong to accountable parties and whether those parties are guilty is not the point. The point is that some who purport to be the good guys are, because of the tactics they use, barely distinguishable from the bad guys.

What makes hacktivists who publish your personal details to intimidate you all that different from phishers who collect and sell them? The motive of personal gain?

Never forget that, while committing supposedly altruistic acts of hacktivism, Sabu took the opportunity to line his own pockets. If that had been your credit card he charged his overdue bills to, would you let him off the hook?

Vigilantism may damage or destroy its targets, but even if you could eliminate Zimmerman or Monsanto, another would, soon enough, crop up in its place.

These are deep-rooted societal problems that require ongoing conversations about how things got that way in the first place and what sustained efforts we can make to change them -- indeed, how to hack human systems -- but the very nature of Anonymous makes dialogue impossible.

The Federalist PapersContrast this with a handful of Founding Fathers who provided a consistent voice and considered arguments in the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym "Publius." Arguably, these four men accomplished more in the space of a year than all of Anonymous and its offshoots since their inception almost a decade ago.

Contrast this also with participants in the Civil Rights Movement, who deserve more than a passing nod in light of the circumstances surrounding Trayvon Martin's death.

Hacktivists are, by comparison, mere script kiddies when it comes to creating change in the world. They are a cheap sideshow to the main event.

I am proud of all the Americans who are exercising their rights of free speech and peaceable assembly, donning their hoodies, blogging, signing petitions, and turning up at peaceful protests to demand that Zimmerman be properly investigated for the shooting. I hope justice, whatever that looks like, is served.

I am also proud of the folks who took down their own websites to protest SOPA and organizations like the EFF who work tirelessly to educate the public and stand up for our rights, all within the bounds of the law.

And I hope the dialogue continues.

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24 Responses to Trayvon Martin, Anonymous, and the problem with vigilantism

  1. Dave · 886 days ago

    And they used a Photoshopped picture of him at 12 years old instead of the picture of him at 17 that they had.
    http://www.aim.org/aim-report/can-justice-survive...

    You might not want to tarnish your reputation with this garbage until you can come down on the side you really want to be associated with.

    • Mrs. W · 886 days ago

      Point out to me, verbatim, the part in which I actually state my opinion on Zimmerman's guilt and I would be happy to concede.

      But I didn't. Perhaps it was the hoodie that led you to be suspicious of me.

      No matter. I would be as content to learn that Zimmerman was exonerated as I would be to learn that he was guilty, as long as I felt we'd gotten close to the truth of what actually happened. But we don't appear to be there yet.

      If you read carefully, what I'm on is the side of due process and legal means. I am firmly against vigilantism, no matter the circumstances and even if it targets someone I think is guilty of wrongdoing.

      I am also against publishing people's PII in order to intimidate them or insinuate others should be violent towards them.

      The problem with vigilantism (I'll say this again, because I think you missed it the first time) is that the tactic itself upstages the very issues Anonymous purports to care about. Sure, you remember who they (or LulzSec, or. . .) DDoSed or breached, but do you remember why?

      Tell me again why we're supposed to be mad at Monsanto, or Sony, or any of their other targets? How much attention was paid in the media to the reasons behind the attacks versus the incidents themselves? And how long did the conversation last?

      • Sharp · 886 days ago

        "Much evidence points to Zimmerman as the aggressor: Among other things, he was the one who was armed, he followed Martin after being told by a dispatcher not to, his story doesn't jive with the evidence, and he has a history of, well, suspicious behavior towards young black males."

        Are you saying you copied and pasted this from another source and where not your own words?

        This points out your belief in the case, as you only read what the media protrayed to push a belief on people, and then you only post 1 side of the story yourself. Your beliefs and ideals are in the right place, but you have accepted the media response that Zimmerman was in the wrong without supporting facts. This is only being done to create controversy and give people something to segregate over. If you want facts to support this, read the news articles. Zimmerman is not white as all the media calls him, he is hispanic, but using the term white makes people think instantly racist, hate crime, and stereotype.

        • Mrs. W · 885 days ago

          I offered that as background story as to why people are protesting and calling for an investigation, else it doesn't make much sense that people are protesting and calling for an investigation.

          The first two points are unequivocally true. Zimmerman was armed, and he followed an unarmed Martin when told not to.

          As to the third, Martin was found with his hands underneath his body, and in the (admittedly low-quality) video from the police station, Zimmerman doesn't look like a man whose nose was broken and head smashed into the ground, and the police did not handle him as such.

          As for the fourth, Zimmerman called 9-1-1 more times in the space of a year than I have in my entire life. He clearly misunderstood the purpose of 9-1-1 -- he used it to report potholes, for instance -- and had also cried wolf a number of times on "suspicious" black males prior to Trayvon Martin's shooting. Police were dispatched and found nothing out of order.

          You can see the call log here: http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/327330-geo...

          None of this is enough to determine he's guilty. But it's enough to warrant further investigation. I don't see how you can get from this to concluding I've "accepted the media response that Zimmerman was in the wrong without supporting facts."

      • sharp · 886 days ago

        Now I would like to know where you got your facts about your last quoted line above. "history of suspicious behavior to young black males". Did you pull up police records of convictions, and did you think to pull up Trayvon's police records for comparison? Let me also note that Trayvon is also a minor, so look in the right place, and slaps on the hands for all his crimes, which include and not limited to 3 counts of possesion, 1 count of illegal fire arm possesion. Trayvon was not outstanding good citizen.

        I bet you have looked at the pictures and see this fat hispanic mug shot, next to the little kid, and then read the article of a bias news media, who only wants ratings not truth and justice. Your mind first decides this is wrong, and people have even made comments about how this little kid could beat up a 250lb man. What you don't know is Trayvon is 6'3" 150lbs and in shape. I have no doubt in my mind that Trayvon was the aggressor when being confronted, and I would have put my money on Trayvon in a fair fight vs a short fat out of shape hispanic who knew that carrying the gun was the only way he would feel safe when confronted with violence.

      • Monsanto has certainly earned their place as a target. When Monsanto uses Mob like tactics to destroy, not their competitors but rather small farmers, who by no action of their own but by the natural activity of bee's found themselves in the cross hairs of Monsanto. And now Monsanto has purchased a company that's primary research is genetically altering Bee's. Whats next? will i have to purchase my seeds and then my bee's each year from the great Monsanto so that my small farm can provide food for my community?????

      • T. Anne · 885 days ago

        I think your opinion was stated in, "I am proud of all the Americans who are exercising their rights of free speech and peaceable assembly...to demand that Zimmerman be properly investigated for the shooting." Possibly even how you think the investigation would result in your response, "even if it targets someone I think is guilty of wrongdoing." Though I'll admit I may be reading into that as "someone" could be anyone - the hacktivists or those crying for Zimmerman's head.

        However, I think the point was (please correct me if I'm wrong) that saying something is wrong and then going out and doing the same thing is very hypocritical and not going to help the situation at all. If they say it was wrong for Zimmerman to take the law into his own hands, why is it any better they take it into their own hands to hunt him down? If they say it's wrong to leave your data insecure, why is it any better that they take it and post it online for the world to see?

        The simple version - two wrongs don't make a right. And the way things are being done, won't help make long term changes.

        • Mrs. W · 885 days ago

          Yes, I was referring to Anonymous' targets, because Anonymous (and similar collectives) were the real point of the story (a point that a lot of folks seem to have missed). I agree with Anonymous that we should do something about corporate and governmental abuses, but not the way they go about it.

          Even when I disagree with their choice of targets, they'd be defensible if they used the legal means at their disposal to influence policy, rather than illegal means. And they'd get a lot further.

          So yes, you've pretty much got it in a nutshell.

  2. Adam · 886 days ago

    This article would be more credible if it avoided repeating teh false narratives being promulgated in the Martin/Zimmerman incident. http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/321817#ixzz...

  3. Texasrose50 · 886 days ago

    The evidence DOES match Mr. Zimmerman's statement, as an eye-witness verified that he saw Trayvon on TOP of Mr Z, punching him and slamming his head into the ground. Mr. Z also had a swollen nose, and was bleeding from the back of his head and from another cut on his face. Verified by police statements released yesterday. Trayvon, far from being a little kid, was 6'3" at 17 years old.
    I am not saying what happened was right by any stretch of the imagination, just that we should let the authorities sort it all out! It's been a month, let them do their job.

    • voiceofreason · 886 days ago

      And newly released video shows Zimmerman being taken into the police department without a scratch on his head and no blood on him. Additionally, the cops are not wearing latex gloves when handling Mr. Zimmerman which is standard protocol, especially for handling an injured person.

    • Owen · 885 days ago

      No evidence of swollen nose. No evidence of the black eye one would get from a broken nose. No evidence of bleeding. We have evidence of not one of these things. Furthermore, this eyewitness you cite is contradicted by many more.

  4. Fionacat · 886 days ago

    It's intresting to see the difference between racial sensitivities of here in the UK and the USA.

    In the UK a man was jailed for 56 days for sending a racial insensitive tweet on Twitter.

    In the USA a man was possibly murdered and the offender has not even be charged.

    Should we be free to shout Fire where there is none?

    Freedom of speech should not mean freedom from the consequences that speech may have.

    Back in 1993 a young man called Stephen Lawrence was atacked in a unprovoked racist assult in the UK and the effects of that are still having deep reprecussions throught UK society that a young man was attacked and killed for no reason other then the colour of his skin.

    That was 19 years ago and the UK has moved on to become a better place, where as a society we hold up the values of multicultralism to the extent that a racially insensitive message on a social networking site can results in prosecution.

    I know I prefer a society where those that hate and would destory are pushed out and punished if required rather then one that accepts and even defends those elements.

    • Sharp · 886 days ago

      I suggest reading up on your facts. This was not a racial injustice of any kind. This is suspicious behavior, that led to a bad end of results, which in an election year is great to segregate groups and create an image for a candidate.

      How about the Black Panthers that posted a bounty on Zimmerman's head? This is a crime and rasist, but the USA government will not do something about this? They got time to sieze and take down pirate sites, but when this is a great controvesy which could lead to devistating results, they would rather let it go. Downloading a movie is not a greater crime or even in comparison to saying you want a man dead and will pay for it.

      How about Spike Lee. Posted an address to promote an execution. This is also breaking the law, and yet he only posts an appology on twitter, Where is his 56 days in jail as your country would do? These people's lives are ruined because this "ignorant black man" (personally I would use the correct dictionary definition) decided to post information without supporting facts, and should not have even done this even if he had facts to support it anyways.

    • Nigel · 885 days ago

      "In the USA a man was possibly murdered and the offender has not even be charged."

      You're completely missing the point. Your characterization of Mr. Zimmerman as "the offender" constitutes a PRESUMPTION OF GUILT. You don't know that he's guilty. No one does...well, except Mr. Zimmerman himself. And he says he's NOT guilty. Evidently, you don't believe him.

      I'm not sure I believe him either, but that's the point: We don't presume someone is guilty until he's proven innocent.

      "...has not even been charged."

      That's right...he has not been charged. If you had actually bothered to dig a little deeper into the case, you might have found the following statement by the black City Manager of Sanford, Florida:

      "When the Sanford Police Department arrived at the scene of the incident, Mr. Zimmerman provided a statement claiming he acted in self defense which at the time was supported by physical evidence and testimony. By Florida Statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time…"

      Here's the bottom line: Your post indicates that you've already decided that Mr. Zimmerman should be charged with murder. Mrs. W's article says no such thing. She's willing to let the investigation run its course, and let due process try to find the truth in this matter. You're not. That's called prejudice. Shame on you.

      • voiceofreason · 884 days ago

        "Here's the bottom line: Your post indicates that you've already decided that Mr. Zimmerman should be charged with murder. Mrs. W's article says no such thing. She's willing to let the investigation run its course, and let due process try to find the truth in this matter. You're not. That's called prejudice. Shame on you."
        ---------------

        You realize that due process means that someone has to be arrested and charged with a crime right? You know, in order for a process to begin.

        That is the whole source of this outrage, people want due process to take it's course and for him to stand before a jury. You contradict yourself by saying that we should let due process take place yet you call people prejudice for wanting Zimmerman charged. Your backwards logic shows your true prejudice.

        • Nigel · 878 days ago

          "You realize that due process means that someone has to be arrested and charged with a crime right? You know, in order for a process to begin."
          ________________

          You've taken a conveniently narrow definition of due process in order to justify charging someone who you apparently already have decided should be charged.

          Nice try, but I'm not going to sucked into quibbling over semantics. I'm including in "due process" the part of the case that concerns WHETHER Mr. Zimmerman should be charged according to the laws in the Sanford, Florida jurisdiction. If you want to exclude that from what you call "due process", that's your prerogative, but then we're not talking about the same things. Go quibble with someone else.

  5. Ben · 885 days ago

    Too much speculation and not enough hard evidence. Consider this hypothetical situation:

    I walk to my local store and buy some lighter fluid and matches. My intention is to go back to my house and ignite my barbie for a home cooked meal. Another person sees my purchase, becomes suspicious because the neghborhood has experienced some unexplained fires in recent months, and follows me. I notice the person following me and I ask him if there's a problem. He becomes VERBALLY abusive towards me. I'm six inches taller than him, in better physical shape, so I start punching him. I knock him down, get on top of him and start pounding his head into the ground. He shoots me.

    Who's the bad guy in this scenario?

    • voiceofreason · 884 days ago

      But the problem is that Trayvon bought skittles, so with your story this imaginary man sees the skittles and finds them a threat?

      You are just making things up now. The video clearly shows Zimmerman without any damage done to him, the EMS was cancelled because he wasn't in need of immediate attention. What we do know is that Zimmerman ignored the dispatcher and approached Trayvon. Trayvon was on the phone with his girlfriend who confirmed that Trayvon felt threatened and that he was being followed by someone. All this suggests that Zimmerman was the aggressor and this is backed up by the video and lack of evidence backing up Zimmerman's claim that he had been beaten.

      The bad guy is the one who used unnecessary force to end the life of a child. It's so hypocritical to say that there is not enough hard evidence, but then come up with this wild story that has no backing in evidence, merely because you don't want to admit that there is still racism in this world.

      • Ben · 883 days ago

        And you obviously do not understand the meaning of hypothetical.

      • anonymous coward · 883 days ago

        Enough about the Skittles! There is quite a range of possibilities for what actually happened here. One side is arguing for the interpretation of "Big Bad White Man pursues and guns down Unarmed, Helpless Black Kid", while the other side is arguing for "Slightly-Overzealous Neighborhood Watchman is forced to defend himself from a beating by a Younger, Angry Hoodlum at least as big as he is." The truth is most likely somewhere in the vast gulf between those extremes, which is where truth tends to hang out most of the time anyway.

        The only fact not in dispute is that there was an altercation, and the armed party shot and killed the unarmed party. However, if GZ's account, as reported in the Orlando Sentinel, is true then I can't be nearly as hard on him. Yes, a human being has been killed young, but if said human was straddling and pounding me, and I had already made the decision to accept the responsibility of a lethal force option, that option might look like the only one available! (For the record, I do not condone lethal force by private citizens, and while I study self defense I have no desire to learn gun-based forms because of how easy it is to take a life with them.) While lethal force might be excessive in hindsight, the AIM article points out the difficulty of rational analysis in the moment of chaos. There should be an investigation in this matter, and their likely was one in progress even before the media firestorm. The absence of an arrest does not necessarily mean the absence of an investigation.

        But many here are missing the point. The point was not whether Martin or Zimmerman was more at fault. The point is the reprehensible conduct of offering a bounty for a man's life and freedom, or exposing his home address to make such lynching easier (and worse yet, being wrong). This is the tragedy: that we not only rush to judgement, but condone, and even glorify, blatantly illegal and wrong conduct. One individual in Florida may have been guilty of vigilantism in a moment of stress, and is certainly under investigation. Hundreds, maybe thousands are guilty of it, while under no conceivable threat, and are not even fined. Companies with inadequate protection of employee or subscriber personal information may be guilty, but vigilantes who dump it on pastebin for all to see are worse. Extreme reactions like this don't help anybody!

  6. who cares · 881 days ago

    I too hope the police arrest him. It's quite clear to me that he did not follow police instructions to return to his car. I wouldn't be surprised if he went and shot him then proceeded to harm himself all to show self defense. And what kind of law is that that gives anyone the right to kill another. Only in America, eh!

  7. Anonymous · 667 days ago

    Actually what makes them different is that Phishing personal information is 100% illegal, gaining personal information via Google, Public Records, Social Networks etc.. is not illegal and neither is posting it on the internet.

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About the author

Chester Wisniewski is a Senior Security Advisor at Sophos Canada. He provides advice and insight into the latest threats for security and IT professionals with the goal of providing clear guidance on complex topics. You can follow Chester on Twitter as @chetwisniewski, on App.net as Chester, Chester Wisniewski on Google Plus or send him an email at chesterw@sophos.com.