The notorious international hacker group “Anonymous” has recently threatened to expose several law enforcement allies of Mexico’s infamous Los Zetas drug cartel on the internet unless the Zetas release a kidnapped member of their hacker movement. Whether or not one believes Anonymous’ actions should be lauded, the video is unlikely to deal the Zetas a significant blow. If these hacktivists want to strike at the heart of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), they need to sever their financial lifelines.
The event raises a potential upside to the alarmist reports on the dangers of cyber threats that have emerged in recent times, and highlights how the hacktivism phenomenon can be a force for good. While governments today are worrying about the potential threats in cyberspace – with “cyberterrorism,” “cyber war,” and “cybercrime” being the latest terms du jour in homeland security – the incident does provoke hopes of co-opting hacktivists as a tool against TCOs.
Anonymous started in 2003 on the imageboard 4chan – where users communicate through posts of pictures, and broadly tries to foment civil activism under the cloak of internet anonymity. Only since 2008 has the group taken on a more political and international role, with a clearer vision of promoting internet freedom of speech and expression. In October, Anonymous took down 40 child pornography sites and blacklisted 1,500 frequenters.
Hacktivists can be more effective than governments at attacking TCO’s financing because they exist in a more flexible networked operation. Unencumbered by government bureaucracy or adherence to standard operating procedures, hacktivists have leeway to hack or disrupt financing tools (i.e., break the law) without having to be concerned with the legal and ethical dilemmas a government official faces. Hacktivists also expose TCOs worldwide on a platform that reaches millions, which by virtue of the nature of their “business," want to remain underground. They can potentially raise awareness about the problems these TCOs cause, and put pressure on governments to coordinate internationally against these threats.
But before we raise our glass to hacktivism, whether or not the Zetas will respond, and how, is still questionable. A spokesman for Texas-based intelligence company Stratfor noted that Anonymous’ actions could threaten the lives of many political hacktivists in the real world. The threats are directed at allies in law enforcement, which, given how extensively the Zetas have managed to penetrate Mexican law enforcement, would only provide a small dent in the Zetas vast network of contacts within government. The economic impact of Anonymous’ video on the Zetas will likely be minimal – and for the profit-driven drug cartel, this is their raison d’etre. Hacktivists ultimately still operate in the online domain, and have little impact if these TCOs’ financing activities are concentrated outside the internet.
In recognition of the importance of targeting TCO financing, the Obama administration recently passed a National Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime directed against transnational organized crime groups, which includes the freezing of criminal assets. Moreover, criminal organizations like the Zetas frequently rely on money laundering in order to process their drug profits, and if hacktivists could help expose any online financial trails, it could unveil the vast network of individuals involved, and address the problem at its root by taking out its leaders.
Criminal groups ultimately operate if there are profits to be made, and if hacktivism is to be effective, efforts must be concentrated at disrupting these organizations’ weak spots – their financing, and crippling their supply chains such that financing their latest endeavors becomes too expensive, or that continuing their modus operandi attracts so much attention that they can no longer remain under the radar of the state. Governments can also look to co-opt hacktivists into serving the national or international interest- though the movement needs to focus its actions on targeting transnational organized crime group’s financing if it wants to make a significant political impact.
Photo Credit: Abode of Chaos