Trayvon Martin, Anonymous, and the problem with vigilantism

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.