The most controversial operation the online activist group Anonymous has ever planned appears to be going forward despite the danger it poses.
Anonymous members launched OpCartel last month targeting the Zetas drug cartel, one of the most violent and technologically sophisticated groups in Mexico, in response to the alleged kidnapping of an Anonymous member. In a Spanish-language YouTube video (later released in English), Anonymous said one of its members had been kidnapped while postering in Veracruz. The video demands the return of the alleged kidnapping victim by November 5 and threatens to release information on the organization, as well as police, journalists, and cab drivers whom the video claims have collaborated with the cartel.
After the video was covered by media outlets last weekend, several members of Anonymous told the Mexican newspaper Milenio that the operation was canceled out of safety concerns. There were reports of inconsistent messages from Anonymous members, with some claiming that the operation was still on and others warning participants to be very careful about hiding their digital tracks.
Barrett Brown, who has served as a spokesman of sorts for different Anonymous operations, told CNET today that Anonymous members in Mexico voted to resuscitate the operation after deciding that it was important to continue with the plan. He is assisting them to vet the information that is coming in about cartel associates, he said. The release of information won't happen on Saturday as was previously announced because the group needs more time to thoroughly vet all the information.
Brown said couldn't identify the alleged Anonymous kidnap victim for fear of putting family and friends at risk, but said he was certain that the report was accurate. Asked if he is concerned for his own safety, he said "no." "Out of principle I should not have to worry about being killed by Mexican assassins for releasing this information," he added.
He posted a video on YouTube yesterday that elaborates on his thinking.
"Operation Cartel was started by a small party of Anons a couple days back with the original intent of releasing names, [and] other identifying information of individuals in Veracruz and elsewhere who are known to be involved with the Zetas cartel," Brown said. "I decided to support the operation, which I understand is controversial for a number of reasons. In this case there are lives hanging in the balance."
Brown said he is working with others to verify the accuracy of the information to be released. He also argued that the potential risk should not stop a beneficial operation, noting that actions in Tunisia, Libya, and other countries with popular uprisings also had the potential to affect the lives of thousands of people.
"The idea that one should not even criticize or bring attention to oneself in the face of some organization is poison to me, I don't think it's the right kind of thinking in general," he says, before urging viewers to "give some thought to whether or not what we are doing is more or less responsible, more or less necessary than those things done by any number of governments, any number of private groups around the world every day."
Earlier today, Brown tweeted: "Just hours into gathering secondary intel, we have the name of a U.S. DA and evidence of his involvement." That was followed by "Requesting the assistance of any journalist who is willing to look into a DA with potential ties to organized crime."
Law enforcement officials are likely bracing for the worst. Mike Vigil, the retired head of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, told the Houston Chronicle that the Anonymous threat was a "gutsy move." "By publishing the names, they identify them to rivals, and trust me, they will go after them."
And others have echoed that warning. "If Anonymous carries out its threat, it will almost certainly lead to the deaths of individuals named as cartel associates, whether or not the information released is accurate," Stratfor, a global intelligence firm, wrote in a report late last month. "Furthermore, as Mexican cartels have targeted online journalists and bloggers in the past, hackers could well be targeted for reprisal attacks."
Mexican drug cartels are not strangers to what is happening online. Four people connected to anti-cartel blog sites were attacked recently, including two whose bodies were hung from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo as warnings to others not to write about the cartels on the Internet, according to Stratfor.
"Since we have seen evidence of cartels employing their own computer scientists to engage in cybercrime, it is logical to conclude that the cartels likely have individuals working to track anti-cartel bloggers and hackers," Stratfor wrote in a report two days ago . "Those individuals involved thus face the risk of abduction, injury and death--judging by how Los Zetas have dealt with threats in the past."
OpCartel makes other Anonymous operations look like child's play. Arrests have been made in connection with Anonymous denial-of-service attacks against PayPal late last year and alleged theft of data from Sony Pictures Entertainment earlier this year. And the group has targeted numerous law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere and even alleged child porn rings. But none of the operations have raised the specter of violence as much as this one.