BY ADRIAN HUMPHREYS
After a cagy meal of cheap Chinese — suspiciously eyeing diners showing any interest in our conversation — the man who has been the faceless face of Anonymous during this summer’s campaign of leaked secret government documents opens a fortune cookie: “People find difficult to resist you persuasive manner,” its broken English reads.
“I hope so,” he quips. He wants to persuade, although his tools and tactics are infinitely controversial.
This meeting was inordinately difficult to arrange. It required encrypted communication on various platforms, code words and passwords, trust and promises, travel to an undisclosed location, difficult logistics and strict technical requirements.
The result, however, is the only in-person interview with the spokesman for a cell of a secretive global hacktivist group engaged in a furious protest over July’s fatal RCMP shooting of an Anonymous protester in British Columbia.
The shooting brought a headline-grabbing vendetta: cyber attacks on police websites, demands for charges against officers, threats to reveal private information about investigators, allegations of gross misconduct by a public figure, heated rhetoric on social media and — most notably — the release of actual federal Cabinet secrets.
There have been real effects to the kind of things the authorities have done in cracking down on Anonymous. It is much harder to hide now
In return, authorities launched investigations into both the leaks and the cyber attacks, making the stakes particularly high; Anon activists around the world face long prison sentences.
Throughout this maelstrom, those behind “Operation Anon Down” remained masked, mysterious and strictly virtual.
Until this meeting.
By agreement, the Anonymous spokesman is not being named, although both his identity and his credentials within Anonymous were confirmed as best they could. When pushed for a public moniker, he reluctantly gives a nom de guerre: “Procastin8r.”
Despite the journalistic oddities, what makes speaking with him so compelling is that he undoubtedly has access to secret Canadian government documents, confirmed to the National Post by federal sources. As the Post previously reported, one document revealed the guarded secret of how many foreign stations Canada’s spy agency maintains and problems with its outdated cyber security.
I started by asking Procastin8r why such elaborate precautions were needed just to meet him and why he can’t be identified.
“We very much believe we are at risk,” he said.
“We believe that based on past experience of Anonymous and on certain threats the government made, saying they’ve got their top people investigating us.… Many Anons are no longer with us. They’ve been jailed, chased out of the hive or, in some unfortunate cases, died. And we have to do this to protect not only ourselves but those that we are working with.”
But his anonymity is also about internal politics.
“We enjoy the theatrics and dramatics too, but there is also the side that Anonymous doesn’t want to have anybody be the leader, or get all the attention or steal the show,” he said.
In some sense everything we’re doing is for the lulz. There is something that gives us a great charge out of leaking documents that get so far under the skin of the rich and the powerful
It reveals the duality of Anonymous — caught somewhere between prankster and ideologue; court jester and truth teller. Some previous Anon operations from around the globe seem immature and malicious, while others seem high-minded and helpful. They’ve hacked gaming sites and supported the Arab Spring uprising.
While Procastin8r and other Anons seem deeply earnest on their core issues, he maintains much of their motivation is “the lulz” — Internet slang for amusement.
“In some sense everything we’re doing is for the lulz. There is something that gives us a great charge out of leaking documents that get so far under the skin of the rich and the powerful and those who run the militaries and police forces and intelligence agencies of the world. So, to us, even the most serious stuff we’re doing is something of a prank.”
As a veteran of previous Anon campaigns, he said increased government attention now makes mounting subversive operations much more difficult and dangerous.
“The operation we are on currently would have moved a lot faster if this was three or four years ago. Certainly, there have been real effects to the kind of things the authorities have done in cracking down on Anonymous. It is much harder to hide now.
“This does affect our ability to communicate, this does affect our ability to operate, but the last thing we want to do is throw up our hands and say ‘that’s it, no more, we’re walking away.’ Many Anons have done that but this group hasn’t and we’re hoping that, at the very least, our operation inspires more Anons to take certain risks but to do so in as safe an environment as possible.”
Although the B.C. shooting in July of James McIntyre, 48, known as “Jay Mac,” was the trigger for this campaign, their ammunition, propaganda and standing army had already been gathered. The Anon hive wanted to influence the federal election to gut C-51, the government’s anti-terrorism law that gave expanded surveillance powers to police and spy agencies.
We’re not shy about saying that we’ve done the right thing and we’re confident in our sources. But time will tell
“We are, first and foremost, opposed to Bill C-51 and would like to see enough people in office who are opposed to C-51 to be able to withdraw it,” he said. “We also want to honour the memory of Jay Mac and put pressure on police forces to know they can’t get away with doing a half-hearted cover-up job for their fellow officers.”
Operation Anon Down is more diverse and stage-managed than most Anon operations — which are typically anarchic and chaotic. The tactics garnered media attention and criticism. The group’s Twitter account and video releases espoused strong views, purported information and harsh allegations, much of it ambiguously sourced and unsubstantiated.
Leaking classified documents, however, is what made the operation truly newsworthy, lifting their activity into the realm of a genuine national security concern.
Procastin8r won’t talk about the source of those documents, especially on the record, but he agrees the operation has many different elements, some more successful than others.
It makes this operation unique within Anonymous and, he said, it is being monitored and assessed by other Anons.
“It is true there is something very different happening in terms of Anonymous developing high-level sources themselves and then reporting on what they say. And I think, so far, it’s a mixed result, in terms of perception, in terms of the kinds of material that we’re reporting on. We’re not shy about saying that we’ve done the right thing and we’re confident in our sources. But time will tell.”
We know that we’ve got an audience that wants us to do certain things — especially hack and leak
He hopes mainstream media will investigate their claims and develop them into stories.
Throughout, those working on Operation Anon Down keep a diverse, segmented audience in mind.
“When we’re taking action as Anonymous, we know that we’ve got government sources that are criticizing us, we know that we’ve got an audience that wants us to do certain things — especially hack and leak,” he said. “We know we have traditional media that we’re competing with, independent media, and we’re often most concerned about making sure that what we’re doing works within the hive, works within the collective.
“Since we aim to work as a collective, if we’re disappointing and going astray from others in the collective — sometimes that’s necessary, sometimes that starts something new that turns out to be very good — but often its problematic.
“If it ends like it is and the operation is only marginally successful, I think other Anons will think twice, even three times and have arguments among themselves about whether developing human sources is worthwhile for Anonymous.”
The operation, he said, won’t truly be over until he and his comrades see how the shooting probe ends.
“There’s many layers at which justice for James McIntyre could go awry,” he said.
“And our message to whoever will be making those kind of decisions [is] that we are a very talented and patient and courageous crew and even if it takes us many months or many years to figure out what went wrong, we will sniff out your dirtiest laundry, procure it from wherever it’s hiding and find the highest flagpole in the windiest part of the public square and hang it up for everyone to smell and everyone to see.”
In the end, it’s the classic — ominous — threat of Anonymous.