Is Anonymous vetting presidential candidates?

Anonymous Hispano's announcement on Twitter

Anonymous Hispano, the Spanish-speaking branch of the famous hacker collective, issued a statement a few weeks ago announcing that, despite their efforts, they “could not find any evidence of corruption” to incriminate the Mexican presidential candidate López Obrador. The group prefaced their message by clarifying that they “do not have any partisan agenda and do not support any one” of the candidates. The message ended with an invitation to followers to send evidence of corruption; a second tweet quickly followed, inviting the public to submit evidence of corruption of any candidate, suggesting specific hashtags for each of them.

The newspaper El Economista spoke with collective members and reported that Anonymous Hispano acknowledged having hacked into López’s financial accounts without finding any transactions that would indicate wrong-doing:

[T]the collective broke into the computer systems linked to payments or any kind of money transactions, or political influence, stored in the digital files of AMLO [the candidate’s initials] and his colleagues, and found nothing incriminating him, so the collective is still looking.

The statement received a fair amount of attention beyond the Twitter-sphere, reaching influential political blogsReddit, and mainstream news media.

Beyond the supposed lack of evidence against this particular politician, or whether Anonymous actually hacked into his accounts, there are a few aspects of this story that I find particularly interesting.

First, the coverage of Anonymous’s evidence-free statement might indicate a substantial amount of symbolic capital accumulated by this group. For example, they could have released evidence of their breaking into the candidate’s accounts; however, they confined themselves to a statement on Twitter. In the sciences, negative results are almost never reported, and more generally, the lack of evidence for something does not prove or disprove anything. So why did they get media coverage? One possible explanation is that Anonymous, after a long (by Internet standards) history of hacktivism, has accumulated the necessary credibility to pull this off. Do they have enough symbolic capital to achieve this in a country with stronger institutions? What would have happened if they had issued a similar statement about a US presidential candidate?

Second, an obvious question: why this candidate? One possible answer is that this could be a means to publicly vet and, in a way, endorse this candidate by using their tools at their disposal. It is hard to know if there a direct link between Anonymous Hispano and the rest of Anonymous, but it would be interesting to see if this signals a direct incursion on mainstream politics in the future.

Third, does this represent a move from public shaming to public endorsement? For the most part, Anonymous hacktivism has focused on public shaming by “doxing” government officials and corporations. I think this might be the first time Anonymous has changed their method, resembling a role more common to governmental transparency organizations. It was interesting that none of the reactions I read raised any questions about the ethics of hacking into politicians’ accounts.

One thing is clear to me: traditional institutions need to figure out how to grapple with Anonymous, or collectives inspired by them, as their presence and political power is only going to increase in the future.

Cross posted at Culture Digitally.
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Why Data Havens Don’t Work

Seven miles off the English coast in the North Sea stands a steel and concrete platform that was, for a time, the world’s most impractical data center. A pair of American entrepreneurs launched HavenCo in 2000 as a “data haven”–a place for gamblers, freethinkers, and dissidents to put their bits far beyond the reach of censorious governments. They set up shop offshore there because since 1967 the platform’s occupants, a former pirate radio broadcaster and his family, have called it the independent Principality of Sealand; they promised to uphold HavenCo’s right to take on the rest of the world’s governments.

It didn’t work–and the reasons it didn’t tell us something important about the Internet. In a pair of recent articles in the popular Ars Tecnica and the scholarly Illinois Law Review, I explore the history of Sealand and HavenCo and conclude that “HavenCo failed not from too much law, but too little.” A remote island “nation” with a single-digit population can’t offer the kind of security and legal stability that a serious business venture requires. HavenCo, by its very nature, couldn’t turn to any other legal system in the world for protection without conceding the very point on which its existence depened: the sovereignty of Sealand.

HavenCo is long gone, but the dream lingers on. Napster clones, the Pirate Bay, and even WikiLeaks have talked about putting servers on Sealand, in the hopes of escaping from what they see as repressive national law. But freedom doesn’t come from some farcical aquatic ceremony. It comes from building institutions resilient enough to stand up to power, and self-restraining enough not to misuse the power they themselves posess. That requires engagement in politics, social movements, legal processes, and society–everything that HavenCo rejected.

In addition to its larger lessons, the Sealand/HavenCo story is also a ripping good nautical yarn. Roy Bates, Sealand’s founder and Prince, is a scalawag of the first order, and Sealand has always reflected his charismatic scheming. He seized it by force in 1967, then defended it with molotov cocktails against competing pirate broadcasters. He’s held on to his de facto independence for decades thanks to a native genius for working the press. HavenCo’s founders were a bunch of libertarian computer geeks, but in their love of liberty, fondness for firepower, and prowess at publicity, they were very much kindred spirits. As Bates put it when talking to a reporter in 1978, “We may die rich, we may die poor. But we certainly shall not die of boredom.”

And no, this post is not an April Fool’s joke.