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#OpChildSafety: cyber vigilantes and the fight for innocence

The fight to protect innocence is an insurmountable power struggle between cyber vigilantes and online predators against children. While the threat is real and is a growing global epidemic, engaging in online sting operations is considered illegal.

With civilians’ hands tied, a moral question is formed, which begs for an ethical response. Does there come a time when it is ethical to break to law for the greater good?

According to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."

Of course, this defense will only stand fundamentally in the conscience of society, but not in the court of law.

It is an understatement to say that the overwhelming threats against young internet users are disturbing and have become commonplace.

According to statistics from the FBI, they suspect that over half a million online predators are active on a daily basis, using multiple online profiles. The FBI report that more than 50% of victims are aged between 12 and 15 years old, with 89% of them being approached by predators through chatrooms and private messages.

Young users don’t have to look very far before they are confronted by groomers and perverts. Even when conversations brazenly turn criminal, it seems as though there aren’t actionable resources available to assist in policing this aspect of the internet. For this very reason, online hacktivists and groups are dedicated to facilitating the regulation so desperately needed in order to keep young users safe.

Having no legal authority hasn’t stopped groups like W1nterSt0rm (formerly W1nterSec), a sub-group of Anonymous, from stepping in the help fight against the waves of predators seemingly out of the radar scope of the law.

The Law

The group, W1nterSt0rm, identifies themselves as cyber vigilantes and hacktivists. Led by a woman known as W1ntermute, who is recognized as a former Electronik Tribulation Army member, she is leading the charge to fight to make the internet a safer place for kids.

In a tweet, W1ntermute said: “There are approximately 750,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. Around 234,000 sex offenders are currently behind bars. There are around 35,000 FBI agents, and we are outlawed from doing online sting operations to help stop and catch child sex predators.”

The contrast between the number of FBI agents and known sex offenders on the radar is staggering. This means that there is certainly a demand for justice, but the workforce is few. Regardless of legal limitations, W1nterSt0rm and many others work to sanitize the web, even when they can get no help from legal authorities.

“It’s considered entrapment,” said W1ntermute. “Even though the FBI does the same thing. They alone reserve the right to use entrapment techniques to find and prosecute pedos.”

This is defined as posing as an underage person or letting the person you are talking to believe you are underage.

Additionally, entrapment can be defined below:

  • Encouraging or instilling the idea of engaging in criminal behavior

  • Facilitating or providing a chance for someone to commit the crime

  • Coercing or intimidating someone into committing the crime

In the case of performing online sting operations, posing as a minor or causing someone to believe you are a minor for the purposes of engaging in some form of sexual conversation is against the law. It is legal for law enforcement to implement entrapment as long as the above conditions aren’t committed.

However, engaging in online sting operation tactics is exclusively considered legal only when performed by law enforcement and isn’t considered entrapment, as long as it can be proven that the above conditions were not committed. This doesn’t mean the law is right. Additionally, law enforcement has historically been renowned for doing all of the above.

Cyber vigilantes acknowledge an overwhelming disadvantage for law enforcement when the statistics show the FBI only has 35,000 manpower, which does not reflect that there is that number of agents working cases involving sex crimes against children. With that in mind, then readers know that the actual agents working these cases are few.

“That’s why it’s gotta be done,” W1ntermute says. “Kids aren’t safe online because parents aren’t spending enough time teaching them about the dangers on the web or how to protect themselves from it. Plus, I’m pretty sure law enforcement hasn’t made this very high on the priority list. Like, they have a zero policy when it comes to drugs and terrorism. But this? Yeah, they don’t really want our help. Don’t even get me started on the Steubenville Rape Case.”

Referring to the notorious 2012 rape case where hacktivist Derick Lostutter, aka KYAnonymous, exposed the gang rape of an underage girl by two Steubenville football team players. The school and local law enforcement wanted to brush it under the rug and pretend it never happened.

KyAnonymous and a fellow hacker discovered the evidence on a Stubenville fan site and exposed the coverup by hacking the Stubenville Highschool athletics website. In a bizarre twist of justice, the hacktivist ended up serving a prison term that was longer than the rapists.

She also explained that because governments are unwilling to be more proactive in cooperating with citizens in fighting this epidemic, it’s created an element of desperation, hence why people and online groups are taking the law into their own hands.

Rules of engagement

W1nterSt0rm boasts of being a tight-knit sanctuary of friends that is structured on fundamental principles. Its group leader ostensibly abides and enforces policies as though holy writ.

“I see groups behaving like it’s the … Wild West. Anything goes,” she says. “I mean, when we go out and start profiling suspected predators, we have to get our information right because we’re literally about to hold someone’s life in the palm of our hands.” She describes it as a “proverbial witch hunt” where zeal clouds reason, which is why rules are necessary.

Some of the writ the group upholds are below:

  • Do NOT share links or any type of media containing child pornography in group chats or DMS. Those who do this will be CANCELED

  • Do NOT target individuals under the age of 21, unless for extraordinary circumstances

  • Do NOT make use of photos of other people, including underage persons or use images of victims for any reason

  • Do NOT break standard OPSEC practices

  • Do NOT perform defacements or cyberattacks in the name or image of [W1nterSt0rm]

Mistaken identity

The group operates over website chat platforms, utilizing a large variety of OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) methods for de-anonymizing suspects. They use publicly available online resources, including breach report data and public records databases. As sophisticated as they are, it is becoming more common for online predators to use anonymization techniques to mask their presence.

One concern is the possibility that predators may assume the identities of others, throwing pedo hunters off track during the de-anonymizing process.

This, in turn, would subject an innocent person to an unthinkable accusation with life-altering consequences.

“I haven’t seen this happen before yet, but I’m sure it’s happening somewhere,” she says. “Anyone can use someone’s picture or name. So, our hunters try to get videographic evidence of their targets. That way, we cover our bases.”

Where to report

Because independent hunters cannot supply evidence to law enforcement directly, there are a variety of intermediary non-profit organizations that handle reports and then escalate them to appropriate authorities, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

If users encounter child pornographic content, people soliciting this prohibited media online, or even if they uncover illicit conversations of this nature, organizations like this exist to process and investigate complaints.

Prevention begins with parenting focused on educating children about online dangers. “Insulating our kids from knowing about things like this isn’t helping,” says W1ntermute. “I know we want to protect our kids from everything, but not addressing the elephant in the room isn’t protecting anyone.”

She emphasized that if more parents took the time to explain what grooming is, online traps could be avoided, and pedo hunters (many of whom are also parents) might be able to sleep better at night.

Written by Jesse McGraw

Original article can be found here

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