Home > Commentary, Use of information communications technology > Cyber vigilantes — doing more harm than good

Cyber vigilantes — doing more harm than good

It seems we have another cyber vigilante floating around the internet who is hell bent on taking down jihadist websites. He/she is not the first and  won’t be the last, sadly.  Thankfully, most have stopped when they realise what they are doing is harmful to counter terrorism efforts. Our latest cyber vigilante however has not realised this and we’ve had quite the heated debate on twitter today.

While people like this seem to think that they are doing a good thing, they fail to realise (or *just don’t care*) that they are impeding lawful investigations and intelligence gathering.

It is up to law enforcement agencies and other agencies to determine whether or not sites need to be removed. It is not the task of a cyber vigilante, who does not have access to the reasons why a particular site may be allowed to continue. Nor do they have the lawful authority to take down sites.

Taking the law into your own hands is not acceptable.  And in cases like this can be extremely harmful to active investigations. I can’t stress enough, nor can I explain via this medium how harmful it is. But I speak from experience.

I’ve tried to explain this to the vigilante in question who seems to believe they are on a personal mission to stop terrorism. Whoever it is doesn’t want to listen. And certainly doesn’t seem to understand that their activities do more harm than good.

This type of activity is extremely short sighted and obstructs investigations. Let me say that again, it obstructs investigations.

Sure it’s gratifying and in this case the person in question seems to enjoy publicising his/her exploits and may even think they are doing an honourable thing. But at the end of the day his/her activities are obstructing the ability of agencies lawfully tasked with counter terrorism to do their job.  It makes it harder for them to do their job, harder for them gather evidence to prosecute people, harder for them to gather important intelligence. Intelligence that helps keep countries safe from the threat of terrorism.

This person needs to do the responsible thing and stop. And put their obvious talent to better use and contribute something that helps, rather than hinders, the important job these agencies have in keeping people safe.

All this person is doing is making it more dangerous out there and harder for agencies to keep people safe. There’s no honour in that.

  1. 02/14/2010 at 12:16 pm

    Even in the far less stressful and far less life threatening areas of spam and general computer fraud, these sorts of attacks are not useful. If I could actually interest the FBI in going after some of the people targeting my employer, such strikes would be extremely counter productive.

    There is the temptation, though. I have certainly been tempted to turn our very fat pipe to the Internet on some of these sites that bother us. But, it is illegal and not helpful.

    Not to mention that DOSing a site is rather disruptive to whoever owns the computers they are attacking with. Perhaps the attacker is using his own resources, but probably not.

  2. John
    02/15/2010 at 6:21 am

    I don’t suppose the authorities could intervene to prevent this activity…

    • Leah Farrall, Australia
      02/15/2010 at 7:41 am

      They probably will, but they shouldn’t have to waste resources to find him/her.

  3. 02/15/2010 at 8:14 am

    2nd attempt to post different opinion.


    • Leah Farrall, Australia
      02/15/2010 at 10:10 am

      I only had this reply and I’ve approved it.

  4. j35t3r
    02/15/2010 at 9:21 am

    And while I am on the subject, your rules require you to be opaque whereas I remain transparent, right there, on tweet. I dont expect you to even allow these comments into your precious blog. But its not a problem, I’ll get eem out if you don’t, you live in a democracy, so allow it.

    • Leah Farrall, Australia
      02/15/2010 at 10:08 am

      You are being irresponsible and dangerous. There is absolutely no honour in what you are doing. Although the more you talk the more it becomes clear that this is about your ego. Perhaps you should redirect the talent you have into something helpful instead of taking the law into your own hands and obstructing vital investigations and intelligence work. You are nothing more than a vigilante.

  5. 02/15/2010 at 4:30 pm

    We are all just Vigilantes,
    there is no Sheriff on the Internet.
    But different countrys have different laws.
    We are all net citizens and we need to own this ( Internet )
    Shutting down these sites for a few min, isn’t irresponsible,
    maybe illegal? And I have a much higher opinion of our
    Intelligence boys, THIS DOESN’T PHASE THEM.

    His work pisses of the targets and reminds them
    that they are on the Internet at the discression
    of us, you and I, the net citizens.

    Iran tried to shut off its citizens from the Internet
    and the world’s internet citizens said “NO”.
    Many of us helped keep the Internet open for
    the Iranians.

    These are terrorists and they continue to threaten you and me.
    I reserve the right of self defense, I take into my own hands
    the right to take the sites if I am able, in self defense.

    n general there aint no cops here.

    We all exist to the sufferance of the other.
    If enough of us vote no terrorist sites
    on the Internet then they will be gone,
    or hidden very very well.

    The Internet is awakening as its own power.
    The WWW is slowly realizing it has power,

    We shouldn’t allow evil to exist just to
    collect evidence and intelligence about it.
    I suggest a new goal:

    We should end the evil.

    The Paradigm may have gotten turned upside down.


    • Leah Farrall, Australia
      02/15/2010 at 5:15 pm

      Yes it does phase them, I ‘ve had many conversations with many intellos from many countries. And I was one and I can tell you right now it really did bother me and those I worked with. This type of activity obstructs investigations and operations, and has very real often serious consequences. How much clearer do you need it? And this type of activity is illegal under the laws of several countries. Your right to self defense is illegal in my country. And activities like those you support interfere with important operational and investigative work going on in many countries, which is hard enough to coordinate without people running around taking the law into their own hands or deciding that they somehow know better or have a moral authority that usurps that of government. Apart from the fact it OBSTRUCTS INVESTIGATIONS AND OPERATIONS, it is irresponsible and smacks of hubris.

  6. Martin Dirksen
    02/16/2010 at 3:46 am

    Dear Leah,
    I would like to support Your opinion. No, we are not all “net citizens” that are allowed what they like to do. Yes, there are more important things than ignorant people not willing to listen to (your) good arguments.
    Sincerley Yours

  7. John
    02/16/2010 at 5:56 am

    I am really astonished at the tone of the responses to this thread. I had to take a few hours away from this to think about whether these posts deserve a response. I find it highly unlikely that people like this would be influenced by logic or rational thinking. In the end, I can’t stand to see this blog vandalized by these comments and leave only the blog owner to respond to it.

    From j35t3r: [quote]…your precious blog….I’ll get eem out…you live in a democracy, so allow it.[/quote]

    Yes, hubris is the right word to describe this attitude.

    From Gerald: [quote]We are all just Vigilantes,
    there is no Sheriff on the Internet….
    We are all net citizens and we need to own this ( Internet )….
    n general there aint no cops here.

    You style yourself as an anthropologist, but your tone is nothing like I have read in my anthropology textbooks. Words like these sound more like a 14 year-old defending his right to have his warez site.

    You talk like the internet is a place. The internet is only a tool. In front of each computer screen sits a real person in a home or business that is subject to the rule of local law. Since the internet facilitates inter-jurisdictional crime, there are international law enforcement organizations to facilitate investigation of international internet crime.

    [quote]But different countrys have different laws.
    And I have a much higher opinion of our
    Intelligence boys, THIS DOESN’T PHASE THEM.[/quote]

    When I first read this, I wondered if you lived in an authoritarian middle-eastern country. I was surprised to visit your link and see that you are in the US. Perhaps you should stick to your consulting business. Why would you think the US is so desperate for help in fighting terrorism that they would welcome your efforts in shutting down terrorist sites? If you think that is the best way you can help, why don’t you offer your services to them and see how far you get with that? It is the height of audacity and arrogance to think that you know better than counter-terrorism professionals the best way to defeat terrorism. If you think you know better than them, you are free to voice your opinions on your blog or in a political movement, but yes, interfering with internet operations is a crime.

    [quote]I reserve the right of self defense, I take into my own hands
    the right to take the sites if I am able, in self defense.[/quote]

    This, of course, is the essence of vigilantism, taking the law into your own hands without regard for the law of the land. We pay taxes. We have a government. We have agencies assigned to do this work. Again, if you really feel they need your help, go and offer your services to them.

    [quote]The Internet is awakening as its own power.
    The WWW is slowly realizing it has power,

    This species of language would fit very comfortably in a neo-nazi setting or a pre-WWII speech. Anthropology must have a scientific word for it.

    My apologies if my response has diminished the dignity of this blog.

  8. 02/16/2010 at 7:21 am

    Sophrosyne exemplified or Hubris, who owns the Internet?


    Part of the Current paradigm expands terrorism.
    And may be counter productive.

    Speaking of hubris; Australia is currently involved in an Internet Censorship
    experiment and so is Iran.

    What Governmental authority is being usurped.
    Does Australia own the WWW?

    I would suggest the net citizens have some
    ownership of the Internet as a matter piraticality.

    Who owns the Internet?
    “Taking the law into their own hands”?
    Until there is a real Sheriff on the WWW,
    its open season.
    Law on the Internet is open to question.

    Of course that doesn’t mean Albina can’t issue
    an warrant for my arrest,
    But you have no absolute moral or legal grounds for control
    of the Internet.

    If Intelligence agencys want to influence us and our actions,
    they simply have to officially contact us.

    Some of our Intelligence has been so hot we ( IATT )send out
    “KILL OFFERS”, to Intelligence agencys on some posts, and some of those offers
    have been activated, and those posts never see the light
    of day.

    The paradigm for terrorism on the Internet is still developing,
    dialog and exchanges will influence both sides by dint of reason,
    one can hope.

    I refuse to be just SHEEP on the Internet.

    China and Russia embraces their civilian activists,
    and successfully puts them to work.
    The West tends to ignore them or arrest them.

    But the Internet is developing its own force.
    Ignore it or reach out to it.

    But its there.


    • Leah Farrall, Australia
      02/16/2010 at 7:48 am

      I find it highly amusing you call yourself an anthropologist. And that you say you listen, but everything you have said so far shows you to be quite the opposite. Obdurate, hubris driven and remarkably ill informed, to the point that you continue to show a willful ignorance of the fact that activity you support obstructs investigations and intelligence work in many countries and in many continents. And some of it is illegal. But I guess you just don’t care that you make things harder and more dangerous.

  9. John
    02/16/2010 at 7:58 am

    You’ve obviously got a couple of fan-boys on your hands here. I think that further engagement with them would not be an effective use of time. I would say that approving their posts could have been a mistake, except that it does illustrate for other visitors to the blog who may not have been exposed to this kind of thinking that this element is, indeed, out there.

  10. 02/16/2010 at 8:14 am


    “China and Russia embraces”=”China and Russia embrace” (China and Russia do not embrace all of their civilian “activists,” though I’m sure they like those “activists” who work for the regime(s). In fact, many of them, particularly democracy advocates in China, are harassed and thrown in prison. Thanks to some Western companies, they are even able to get help in their crackdowns on political and social dissidents, including many democracy advocates. This is not something to celebrate.)

    “its there”=”it is there”

  11. 02/18/2010 at 6:55 am

    Leah, If you’re openly working in intel & tweeting about it, something doesn’t add up. Delusional? Paranoid? Sad. Keep blogging!

  12. 02/18/2010 at 6:57 am

    Who are you talking about, exactly? And can you provide any evidence which backs your claim? If any government entity has any issue with any people trying to do good things, perhaps the government should be in touch with them, directly, and they can work together.

    • Leah Farrall, Australia
      02/18/2010 at 8:28 am

      Some governments do have pages where members of the public should report things they see. But I’m curious as to why you think cyber vigilantism is acceptable/lawful/appropriate?
      Also, why should governments have to spend time tracking down people to ask them to stop? This is work that should be done by governments alone–especially when making decisions to disrupt or take down sites, because cyber vigilantes don’t have the full range of access to information to allow them to make a judgment about that. Nor should they. To think they do is an act of hubris that can have consequences that include damaging real investigations and operations not least making the job of these agencies harder. Disrupting these sites and taking them out has very real flow on impact that affects a range of areas. And no I’m not going to go and spell out how for all and sundry to see. There are plenty of things they can do to help, but taking matters into their own hands is not one of them.

  13. John
    02/18/2010 at 8:56 am

    This excellent article by Jim Dunnigan might help illustrate your point:


  14. 02/18/2010 at 9:38 am

    Most govs are at least2 years behind.

    Where gov fails we pick up the slack. While you study, analyze and blog, these guys still recruit and co-ordinate via the very sites you study, analyze and blog.

    Most things are good and bad in unequal amounts. The trick is to understand the ratio and act accordingly.

    I am either part of the prob, or part of the solution, and the same goes for you ‘analysts’.

    Also, my email is freely available if the ‘spooks’ wanna talk direct. But I sure as hell am not gonna talk ‘direct’ to a jumped up used-to be (maybe)- who I know as i have done my research is not very well connected, or respected, apart from the loyal following on her natty blog.

    Get real Leah, this is the ay it is going, the way it is going to be. You can use us, or abuse us (as you are doing unsucessfully – thejester has 77% support on the infosec poll). I ask for no finacial recompense, just wish you speculative has been best freinds of Jack freakin Bauer, would wake up and see what is actually happening around you, you concentrate on the enemy far to much and therefore miss your friends.

    • Leah Farrall, Australia
      02/18/2010 at 11:27 am

      Oh please do keep talking; you’re doing such a wonderful job of explaining yourself and further demonstrating to everyone how irresponsible you are, and how your ego is driving your actions. Please keep showing everyone your wonderful powers of analysis and reasoning, and highlighting for everyone the multiple contradictions in what you say.

  15. 02/18/2010 at 11:01 am

    “I’m curious as to why you think cyber vigilantism is acceptable/lawful/appropriate?”

    I never made that claim.

    “why should governments have to spend time tracking down people to ask them to stop”

    We post material on our website that is against the TOS of various companies. If one of the jihadist sites that a govt. entity was monitoring something listed there, all they’d have to do is drop us a line, and we’d probably cooperate (providing it was a friendly government entity.) If a site is breaking the TOS of a company (promoting hatred/violence, typically), then people are absolutely free to report it to the company for removal.

    I don’t view this as “cyber vigilantism” – I view it as being a responsible cyber citizen.

    • Leah Farrall, Australia
      02/18/2010 at 11:23 am

      I don’t view listing sites as cyber vigilantism. I am talking about people who decide to disrupt and/or take down sites. However, as I noted many governments offer referral services or have hotlines where this type of information can be reported, and then dealt with appropriately. The reason I asked you was that you asked me, in relation to my post. Perhaps we both could have done with being clearer in what we are talking about.

      • 02/18/2010 at 11:57 am

        No problem. Through the listing of various sites, we DO encourage people to report the material to the companies so that the proper action can be taken. Of course, if a company is working with law enforcement and if a site is part of an investigation, then the company would probably ignore our reports and continue working w/ law enforcement. In the past, my organization has disrupted/taken down sites by other means. However, none of our work involved anything illegal. This was before anyone was even talking about jihadist content on Facebook, so we did what had to be done to bring attention onto the issues – and helped to “wake up” law enforcement and others to the issues at the time.

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