Will Anonymous’ involvement in Rehtaeh Parsons case do more harm than good?

TORONTO – “What we want is justice.”

That is the message that global hacktivist group Anonymous is sending to the RCMP and Nova Scotia’s government after 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide, after years of torment stemming from an alleged sexual assault.

In a video posted on the group’s YouTube channel Wednesday, Anonymous called on both organizations to take legal actions against four boys who are alleged to have raped Parsons, taking photos of the assault and later passing them around the girl’s school – prompting years of bullying.

“Justice Minister Ross Landy says that it’s important for Nova Scotians to have faith in their justice system,” said a representative of Anonymous in the video.

“Mr. Landy – justice is in your hands.”

The RCMP launched a joint investigation into the alleged assault with Halifax Regional Police that lasted 18 months, but the case was dropped due to a lack of evidence.

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Since her death, many have begun lobbying the RCMP and the Nova Scotia government to re-examine the case and bring justice to Parsons’ family.

Update: On Friday afternoon the RCMP in Nova Scotia say they have reopened their investigation of the Rehtaeh Parsons case after receiving new and credible information. They specified that the information did not come from an online source.

Read More: Rehtaeh Parsons case spurs NS government efforts against sex assault

Anonymous claims it has confirmed the identities of the four alleged rapists. The group originally vowed to release the identities of the boys if legal action is not taken.

However, in a statement released Thursday, the group said it will withhold the names of the alleged at the requests of Parsons’ family. The group warned that others may not consider those requests.

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But is Anonymous’ involvement in Parsons’ case doing more harm than good?

Last fall the group started a similar operation after B.C. teen Amanda Todd committed suicide under similar circumstances. In this case the group released the identity of a man alleged to have been involved in online stalking and taunting of the teen – that accusation turned out to be wrong.

Read More: Why Rehtaeh Parsons case is being compared to Amanda Todd

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After the incident, a representative from Anonymous told the Toronto Star that the group wasn’t sorry for outing the wrong man, based on the fact that he was facing sex assault charges at the time his identity was released.

The RCMP cleared the man of any connections to Todd’s case.

Anonymous’ misstep was criticized by many media outlets as dampening the case.

“The fact that Anonymous might not hold itself to the highest possible ethical standard isn’t exactly shocking. You can only trust a group that by definition will not publicly identify itself so much,” wrote the National Post’s Matt Gurney.

“But there actually is a disappointing element to this — Anonymous, or tamer groups like it, actually could provide an effective counter-measure to cyber bullying, anonymous or otherwise.”

But some argue that the police also run the risk of misidentifying individuals and groups.

Director of the Infoscape Research lab at Ryerson University Greg Elmer noted that what’s at stake in this case is the fact that the individuals alleged of raping Parsons may be minors.

“There are laws in our country that serve to shield the identity of those under certain ages,” said Elmer.

“I think Anonymous and anyone else needs to seriously weigh the further harm that could come out of releasing names of minors in this case or others.”

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However Elmer argues that it is the responsibility of schools, police agencies, courts and governments to ensure that justice prevails in criminal cases, such as the alleged sexual assault.

“Anonymous, in my opinion, whether one agrees with their tactics or not, calls into question the values and effectiveness of such powerful and responsible actors. I would hope that they would restrict their actions to those institutions that are entrusted with matters of justice in our society,” said Elmer.

Trouble could lie in the way Anonymous operates

Anonymous, founded in 2003, operates as a leaderless hacktivist group – made of up of “anons” from all corners of the world. Without any leadership or ranking within the association, anyone can join Anonymous if they wish to join.

In 2008 the group established themselves on the global hacktivism stage after declaring war on the Church of Scientology. The group went on to launch several denial-of-service attacks on Visa, MasterCard and PayPal in anti-piracy protests and recently started “Operation Free Korea” in attempts to get North Koreans uncensored Internet access.

Gabriella Coleman, an expert on Anonymous from McGill University, has written many academic papers on the organization’s missions for social justice.

In an article titled “Our weirdness is free, the logic of Anonymous – online army, agent of chaos, and seeker of justice,” Coleman said, “Though Anonymous has increasingly devoted its energies to (and become known for) digital dissent and direct action around various ‘ops,’ it has no definite trajectory. Sometimes coy and playful, sometimes macabre and sinister – often all at once – Anonymous is still animated by a collective will toward mischief – toward ‘lulz’.”

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But because of the way the group is made up – its trajectories often being hard to track – Avner Levin, director at the Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute at Ryerson University, argues that it’s hard to pinpoint whether its intervention in cases like Parsons’ do any good.

“It’s a slightly complicated question because there is not just one Anonymous,” Levin told Global News, cautioning that a lot of people may use the cover of Anonymous.

“Various people take up causes; politically they could be at odds with each other over different things, but it’s all done in the name of freedom of information. There could be quite a lot of different agendas being pitched as Anonymous, but it’s not all one cohesive group.”

Levin stresses that the hackers that act on behalf of Anonymous may not have the training that police have in order to identify the correct individuals – running the risk of falsely identifying individuals, like they did in the Amanda Todd case.

The cyber crime expert said he worries that groups like Anonymous releasing suspect information could muddy the waters for law enforcement and may prevent them from following true leads in a case.

That being said, Levin noted that cyberbullying is a very complicated issue – one that we all need to learn how to correctly approach.

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“I don’t like to see people that are bona fide bullies hiding behind some kind of mantel of privacy. So if they really were convinced that they had the right people who were doing the bullying – I think this is a social issue that these people should be exposed for,” said Levin.

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