Can a bunch of hackers really take on ISIS?

writes: For John Chase, the breaking point came on Jan. 7, when al Qaeda-linked militants gunned down 12 people at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo. Subsequent attacks by a gunman affiliated with the Islamic State would take five more lives. Watching triumphant jihadi messages bounce across Twitter, the 25-year-old Boston native was incensed. They needed to be stopped.

Although Chase’s formal education ended with high school, computers were second nature to him. He had begun fiddling with code at the age of 7 and freelanced as a web designer and social media strategist. He now turned these skills to fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Centralizing other hacktivists’ efforts, he compiled a database of 26,000 Islamic State-linked Twitter accounts. He helped build a website to host the list in public view and took steps to immunize it against hacking counterattacks by Islamic State sympathizers. He even assumed an appropriately hacker-sounding nom de guerre, “XRSone,” and engaged any reporter who would listen. In doing so, Chase briefly became an unofficial spokesman for #OpISIS — and part of one of the strangest conflicts of the 21st century.

For more than a year, a ragtag collection of casual volunteers, seasoned coders, and professional trolls has waged an online war against the Islamic State and its virtual supporters. Many in this anti-Islamic State army identify with the infamous hacking collective Anonymous. They are based around the world and hail from every walk of life. They have virtually nothing in common except a passion for computers and a feeling that, with its torrent of viral-engineered propaganda and concerted online recruiting, the Islamic State has trespassed in their domain. The hacktivists have vowed to fight back.

The effort has ebbed and flowed, but the past nine months have seen a significant increase in both the frequency and visibility of online attacks against the Islamic State. To date, hacktivists claim to have dismantled some 149 Islamic State-linked websites and flagged roughly 101,000 Twitter accounts and 5,900 propaganda videos. At the same time, this casual association of volunteers has morphed into a new sort of organization, postured to combat the Islamic State in both the Twitter “town square” and the bowels of the deep web.

Chase, who has since shifted his focus to other pursuits, boasts a story typical of those volunteers who work to track and counteract the Islamic State’s online propaganda apparatus. Few of these hacktivists are hood-wearing, network-cracking, Internet savants. Instead, they are part-time hobbyists, possessed of a strong sense of justice and a disdain for fundamentalists of all stripes. Many, but not all, are young people — some are more seasoned, former military or security specialists pursuing a second calling. The oldest is 50. These hacktivists speak of a desire to “do something” in the fight against the Islamic State, even if that “something” may sometimes just amount to running suspicious Twitter accounts through Google Translate.

This is something new. Anonymous arose from the primordial, and often profane, underground web forums to cause mischief, not to take sides in real wars. The group gained notoriety for its random, militantly apolitical, increasingly organized hacking attacks during the mid-2000s. Its first “political” operation was an Internet crusade against the Church of Scientology following its suppression of a really embarrassing Tom Cruise video.

In time, however, Anonymous operations became less about laughs and more about causes, fighting the establishment and guaranteeing a free and open Internet. [Continue reading…]

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