Hostility between the hacker collective Anonymous and the Islamic State escalated into a ‘cyberwar’ after the Paris terror attack, with Anonymous hackers claiming to have taken out hundreds of ISIS websites and thousands of their social media accounts. However, the BBC reports that a splinter group called the “Ghost Security Group” is at odds with Anonymous’ tactics, promoting surveillance of ISIS communications instead of shutting them down.
According to a BBC report, the Ghost Security Group (GhostSec) feels the methods of Anonymous’ “Operation Paris”, which seeks to target and remove ISIS websites and social media accounts, are crude and misguided. GhostSec believes it’s better to monitor Islamic State militants than silence them.
In contrast, GhostSec claims its members in the U.S., Europe, and Middle East who have linguistics skills and familiarity with “intelligence-gathering techniques.” They claim to have thwarted at least one major terrorist attack in Tunisia, a follow-up to the hideous beach massacre in June, by monitoring online terrorist chatter. They even report some success at infiltrating ostensibly secure networks that government intelligence analysts have had difficulty penetrating, in part because the Ghost hackers have greater latitude to use techniques of dubious legality.
This claim was supported by security consultant Michael Smith of Kronos Advisory, who said Ghost operatives were good at spotting and preserving Twitter messages that militants normally delete swiftly after sending them. “These people have saved lives,” Smith asserted.
CNN notes that Smith, who was initially contacted by the Ghost Security Group through Twitter, has become the group’s “conduit to authorities,” as well as serving as a counterterrorism adviser to members of Congress. He advocates official cooperation with outside groups who can help “find, finish, and fix the enemy.”
According to CNN’s report, GhostSec claims to have created software that identifies probable ISIS social media accounts, and says it has infiltrated a number of such accounts, procuring data such as IP addresses to help identify the owners. Another success story told by Michael Smith involved Ghost hackers using these techniques to track down two brothers in Saudi Arabia who used Twitter to upload video of themselves murdering someone to show support for the Islamic State.
It’s not clear how much active cooperation exists between intelligence officials and volunteer groups. Both the BBC and CNN note that the FBI has refused to comment about Ghost Security Group on the record. “It’s difficult to independently verify the claims they have made,” the BBC adds.
“Ghost Security Group is a counter terrorism network that combats extremism on the digital front lines of today utilizing the internet and social media as a weapon. Our cyber operations consist of collecting actionable threat data, advanced analytics, offensive strategies, surveillance and providing situational awareness through relentless cyber terrain vigilance.,” the organization declares on its current website, which it uses to solicit tips about terrorist activity.
In contrast, its previous website described its mission as “eliminating the online presence of Islamic extremist groups such as Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab in an effort to stymie their recruitment and limit their ability to organize international terrorist efforts,” and spoke of working to remove objectionable content instead of monitoring it, using “digital weapons to forcibly remove content where official channels fail.” The old site also used Anonymous imagery, while the new one looks like a polished, professional corporate site.
“We would much prefer to stop attacks than shut down websites,” the anonymous director of Ghost, who uses the handle DigitalShadow, told the BBC. “I don’t think DDoS attacks do a huge amount of damage to Islamic State. Anonymous are hitting some extremist forums that have intelligence value, but we would like forums to stay online so we can see what people are saying and gather intelligence from them.”
He did, however, tell the Boston Herald that his group is still interested in shutting down terrorist sites that aren’t worth keeping intact for monitoring purposes. Web hosts receive a one-week warning about objectionable material before Ghost hackers take action: “If they don’t listen to us within a week, we shut it down by force. Anything with intelligence value, we leave intact.”
The director said another strong difference of opinion between Anonymous and the Ghost Security Group is that his organization cooperates with the authorities – their mission would be impossible otherwise – while anarchic Anonymous is often in conflict with government agencies. DigitalShadow told the Boston Herald that Anonymous tends to get in the way even when it’s trying to help, because it doesn’t coordinate with government agencies, so the feds may end up wasting time and money on monitoring “undercover” Anonymous operatives instead of real terrorists.
When the Ghost Security Group officially announced itself a few weeks ago, it mocked Anonymous for their “hoodies and Guy Fawkes masks,” and their affinity for “publicity stunts and distributed denial-of-service attacks on government, religious, and corporate websites.”
“We have data. We can’t do anything with that data unless we work with the US government. They have the guns and the boots on the ground, they can disrupt terrorist operations,” the director explained.
Anonymous, in turn, accused the Ghost Security Group of “cozying up to governments and exaggerating its accomplishments,” while claiming their own crusade to shut down ISIS websites was having a more significant effect on the terror state, by interfering with its recruiting operations.
DigitalShadow told CNN his group has 14 active members, who are working an average of 16 hours a day on Ghost assignments, with no compensation beyond some Bitcoin donations from supporters. He described the Charlie Hebdo massacre last January as the event that inspired them to splinter from Anonymous, while the more recent Paris terrorist bloodbath made them realize it was time for a clean break.
“We realized for the first time, you could be [attacked] in the streets of Paris and attacked in [your] hometown in America. Everybody could become a victim. So we wanted to do what we could to help slow them down,” CNN quotes the director saying.
“If we were to stop now, lives would be at risk. It’s not a choice, it’s more of a way of life for us now,” he added.
— DigitaShadow (@DigitaShadow) November 21, 2015