The first hint that Gabriella Coleman might be an unusual interview came a couple days before she connected with the Straight, when we were arranging a time to talk.
“Will likely call from Skype as I don’t own a cell anymore,” she wrote in an email.
When we eventually did connect—on a friend’s borrowed mobile phone because of a poor Internet connection—the author and holder of the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University said that it’s been three years since she had a telephone number.
“It’s a post-Snowden thing,” Coleman explained, in reference to the American NSA contractor turned whistle blower. “I used to have a cellphone, but after those revelations, I decided to try not to.”
Coleman said her preferred modes of communication are Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Jabber off-the-record (OTR) messaging.
Digital security and how it is circumvented are topics at the centre of a lecture Coleman is scheduled to give at an event hosted by the UBC Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies on October 20 at the Vogue Theatre. She will present a history of the hacktivist collective Anonymous and discuss how its operations inspired other entities—from lone basement hackers to the world’s most powerful nation-states—to adopt and respond to techniques that Anonymous pioneered.
“Prior to Anonymous, there were not many people hacking into governments and corporations and leaking sensitive information,” Coleman said. “I’m going to give a kind of genealogy of their own operations that led to this tactic…and then I’ll talk about some of the moral quandaries that are associated with this style of leaking.”
Anonymous is perhaps best known for its adoption of the Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the 2005 movie V for Vendetta. From there, Coleman suggested, people have very different views of the organization—a highly decentralized association of individuals that spans the globe—depending on the event through which they first heard of it.
In B.C., Coleman continued, that means the public’s opinions of Anonymous might be more favourable than in other areas of the world.
That's because in July 2015, a 48-year-old resident of Dawson Creek was shot and killed by RCMP officers outside a public meeting about the Site C dam. He was wearing a Guy Fawkes mask at the time of the incident, and although it remains unclear how involved he was with Anonymous, the group responded to his death and threatened revenge.
“My sense is, because it was an instance of a police shooting, people were probably sympathetic with Anonymous,” Coleman said. But she noted that the group was active in Canada prior to the Dawson Creek incident.
One month earlier, in June 2015, Anonymous appeared on the national stage when it carried out a successful action against the federal government. In what the group described as an act of protest against the former Conservative administration’s antiterrorism legislation, Anonymous members used a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack to take federal websites offline and disrupt government email services.
"They did one of the biggest distributed denial of service attacks,” Coleman said. “And they were able to shut down a big portion of Canadian government websites, including mail servers as well. That was pretty impressive, in some ways."
Earlier, in 2013, cyber sleuths who identified themselves as members of Anonymous played a potentially significant role in helping the RCMP identify suspects in the rape of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old New Brunswick girl who committed suicide after photographs of the attack circulated online.
Turning to more recent events, Coleman said she’ll also discuss the role that hacks are playing in the U.S. presidential election.
Earlier this year, the Democratic National Committee and former secretary of state Colin Powell were hacked in separate operations that saw the release of thousands of private emails. Coleman said that raises questions about the ability of hackers to unilaterally make decisions about what information becomes public and when a privacy breach is in the public’s interest.
Coleman said that in these circumstances, there are obvious questions of ethics. However, she suggested that because there will always be hackers, and because the media will always report on hacked information, questions of ethics are somewhat supplemented by inevitability. Coleman argued that as a matter of pragmatism, the debate should therefore turn to security that can truly protect privacy.
“There are dynamics that no one institution is in control of,” she said. “That mirrors the hacker world, in some weird way. A lot of people will be against these hacks, but they are very hard to police.
“There have to be better security practices,” Coleman continued. “That is one of the very realistic, pragmatic approaches that can be taken. Because there are just too many actors out there affiliated with either independent hacktivist groups or nation-states or unknown parties who will engage in this sort of activity.”
Gabriella Coleman will speak at a free event hosted by the UBC Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies on October 20 at the Vogue Theatre. Registration is required.