Canadians ought to be worried about whether crowdfunding websites could be used to finance hate groups and other extremist organizations, financial crime and security experts warn.
As the so-called “freedom convoy” enters its second week of protests in Ottawa, hard questions are being asked about a GoFundMe campaign set up by convoy organizers and whether any of the $10 million raised so far might have come from malevolent sources keen on wreaking havoc in Canada.
Security experts also say they’re worried about the lack of transparency surrounding the fundraiser and whether any of the donations could end up in the hands of hate groups or people who promote hateful ideologies, including people who attended the protests carrying Nazi flags and the flags of known terrorist groups.
“The way that we’re sort of talking about this now, this event, is sort of like an extremism event. So I would argue that this is sort of a component of extremist financing,” said Jessica Davis, a financial crimes expert and president of Insight Threat Intelligence.
Davis said there’s too little information known about donors to the GoFundMe campaign to say for sure who is behind the donations. This is because GoFundMe doesn’t publish details about donors’ identities or their geographical locations on its website.
Davis also said that given the size of some donations – some are in excess of $30,000 – and the speed that the money poured in, she thinks there’s good reason to wonder where the money is coming from.
“The amount of money that’s been raised, in the short period of time that that’s happened, is very interesting,” she said.
“It raises a lot of questions about the organic nature of that fundraising activity. Were these all people who were interested in the anti-mandate aspects of the convoy? Or was there something else driving interest in the protest?”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday that the protests in Ottawa are “becoming illegal.” In previous statements he said the government would not give in to the protesters’ demands nor would it be intimidated by people who “fly racist flags” or engage in acts of vandalism.
On Thursday, members of the House of Commons Public Safety and National Security Committee voted unanimously to call representatives from GoFundMe to testify before Parliament.
The motion was put forward by NDP MP Alistair MacGregor. The committee called for representatives from the company to testify “as soon as possible.”
The focus of the hearing will be to determine how GoFundMe plans to make sure none of the money raised is being used to promote extremism, white supremacy, antisemitism and other forms of hate.
The committee also wants clarity about how the funds already dispersed to protest organizers have been used.
GoFundMe suspends campaign
GoFundMe suspended the “Freedom Convoy” fundraising campaign Wednesday evening.
A note on the company’s website says the fundraiser is “currently paused and under review” to ensure it complies with GoFundMe’s terms of service and applicable laws and regulations.
A separate statement released by the company says it prohibits content that reflects or promotes behavior in support of violence. GoFundMe added that in the case of the convoy, the organizer met its requirements for setting up a campaign and “the fundraiser did not violate our terms of service at the time of creation.”
“As the activity surrounding the protest evolves, we have been monitoring the fundraiser to ensure the funds are going to the intended recipients and that the fundraiser remains within our terms of service,” the company’s statement said.
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GoFundMe also said it is maintaining close contact with the fundraiser’s organizers and collaborating with Canadian law enforcement. If it is shown that the fundraiser does not align with the company’s terms of service, it will be removed.
Whether funds will be dispersed to the organizer or returned to donors was not specified in GoFundMe’s statement.
James Cohen, executive-director of Transparency International Canada, said that, in general, online crowdfunding campaigns have raised concerns about money laundering and something known as “threat financing” – a secretive form of fund transfers in which nefarious actors receive the money they need to carry out campaigns that can be harmful to national security.
Cohen said that in the case of the convoy fundraiser, GoFundMe has “done the right thing” by pausing fund transfers and investigating whether some of the concerns raised by politicians, police and security experts can be substantiated.
“Apparently the key indicators here are they are not sure of the source of funds in some cases, and sometimes the disbursement of funds doesn’t match what is advertised (for the convoy) on the fundraising website,” Cohen said.
Role of law enforcement
Local politicians, including Ottawa mayor Jim Watson and city councilor Catherine McKenney, have denounced the protests as violent and threatening.
McKenney, who represents a ward that includes much of the city’s downtown area, said residents feel “terrorized” in their own homes and unsafe going to work, school, or shopping.
Garry Clement, a retired police chief and former director of the RCMP’s proceeds of crime unit, said he understands why many Ottawa residents may not feel like they’re being protected by the police, but he worries taking action against demonstrators could incite violence and further aggression.
“If they try and move the people out, I can guarantee there’s going to be violence,” he said.
Clement also said he expects that law enforcement, intelligence agencies and GoFundMe are likely looking closely at the protests and seeking to identify anyone with ties to hate groups.
“I laud the GoFundMe management for saying that they want full accountability of the money,” Clement said. “If it appears that that money is going to some hate group or something like that, then obviously there may be an opportunity (to lay charges) under the Criminal Code.”
Experts like Davis and Clement say there are no indications that the GoFundMe campaign for the trucker convoy is being used to finance terrorism, which is a crime under Canadian law. There have also been no terrorist acts or allegations of terrorism connected with the convoy.
But using crowdfunding websites as a potential means of financing terror and extremism has been flagged as an up-and-coming problem.
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental group that monitors countries for anti-money laundering compliance, has reported that crowdfunding is “vulnerable to exploitation for illicit purposes” and can be used to transfer funds overseas by avoiding regulated financial entities.
“There are ongoing investigations involving the creation of false crowdfunding campaigns by violent extremists as a ruse to obtain funds,” a 2015 FATF report said.
“Individuals and organizations seeking to fundraise for terrorism and extremism support may attempt to disguise their activities by claiming to be engaged in legitimate charitable or humanitarian activities ”
When asked if CSIS, Canada’s intelligence agency, is looking into possible threat financing connected with the Freedom Convoy GoFundMe campaign, a spokesperson said the agency doesn’t comment on specific cases.
The spokesperson did, however, say it’s mandated to investigate threats including foreign-influence activities “within or related to Canada that are detrimental to the interests of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person.”
The spokesperson stressed that CSIS is not mandated to investigate lawful protests and dissent.
“While CSIS’s work is often undertaken outside of the public eye, we are steadfast in our commitment to work with partners, including other government agencies, every day to keep Canadians safe,” the spokesperson said.
“Canadians can be assured that CSIS takes any allegation of foreign interference very seriously and uses the full mandate of the CSIS Act in order to investigate, advise government, and respond to the threat.”