By Jen Gerson
The videos started to trickle in this month: the now-familiar Guy Fawkes mask, a computerized female voice, stock video graphics and bland instrumental background music.
“Hello citizens of Edmonton Alberta Canada. We are Anonymous.”
The loosely organized online activism group is at the forefront of modern cyber-dissent, protesting a range of organizations and people, ranging from Scientology to PlayStation and Sarah Palin. Their numerous operations have been both global and local in scope.
In the Edmonton videos, the group claimed to be part of a wide Internet sweep targeting Internet predators in the area, setting up fake profiles on Facebook, Plenty of Fish and Nexopia to lure pedophiles.
And, they said, they found some.
"We have been waiting patiently over the last twenty four hours for your police service to respond."
“We have been waiting patiently over the last twenty four hours for your police service to respond to us with some form of proof that they have apprehended the individuals that we lured out during our pedo sweep operation in your city. We have not received any confirmation. There has been no reply. This is unacceptable,” it said.
The video went on to name the two local men who allegedly tried to lure minors.
Police say online Internet vigilantism a growing concern in the wake of both the Edmonton videos, and cases like Rehtaeh Parsons, the Halifax teenager who killed herself after she was allegedly raped by several local boys. In that case, Anonymous scoured social media networks for evidence of the crime.
The intentions of the anonymous collective are clearly noble.
However, it takes time for police to conduct investigations and, according Sgt. Mike Lokken, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the Northern Alberta Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit, online vigilantism could not only expose potentially innocent people to censure and harm, it could also put police investigations at risk.
“Our number one goal is to protect and rescue children. The people working in my unit and in Calgary see the worst in human behaviour on a daily basis. We see thousands of images of child abuse every day. It’s very difficult work and our heart is in the right place. We are working to save these children and to have someone or some group that is not willing to fully co-operate with us question our integrity and say we’re not doing anything is just very disappointing,” he said.
"Our number one goal is to protect and rescue children."
A group of people behind the video would not identify themselves by name, but said they were all concerned parents.
Their frustration with the legal system was palpable.
One got involved with the Anonymous operation after, he said, his daughter was almost kidnapped.
Via email, he said he had stopped at a store he frequented, parked in front and left his young daughter to wait in the truck.
- Why would you leave your child in the vehicle by herself in the first place?
“I was in the store for not more than a minute and one of the cashiers asked, who is in your truck? I looked out and there was a man in the drivers seat of my truck, looking like he was going through my console, looking for something. I ran out, and he slammed the door and locked me out. I could hear my little girl screaming and he was screaming at her to shut the f— up and threw her sippy cup at her,” he wrote.
The man put the truck in reverse and tried to leave. The father then said he punched through the drivers’ side window and wrapped the seat belt around his neck until he passed out.
“I had to.”
The father then ran around the truck to comfort his daughter who was shaking. The failed kidnapper ran away.
“I didn’t care. I had my baby. I felt like such a failure. She didn’t leave my side for days.”
He said he was afraid of people who prey on children online. The group was angry at a system that no longer worked, allowing criminals back on the street again and again.
He said Anonymous had compiled lists of local predators from their online sweep. However, he added: “I mostly realize the release of that video was probably wrong. There won’t be anymore. Even if I need to distance myself and go my own route to just send the information to police and work with them, I would.”
- If you find abusive material or suspect child abuse, you should NOT take the law into your own hands, but contact police. If you do, like they said, it could hamper their investigation and the person could go free due to your criminal activity. You are not the police, so let them do their jobs!
Further, he promised to come forward and testify openly if any of the group’s information successfully puts the potential pedophiles in court.
“If our information helps and puts someone before a judge and I’m called upon, my mask comes off. I’ll be there. That’s my promise. That’s my responsibility to see it through. And I will.”
"The release of that video was probably wrong."
While police said they welcome all tips — even anonymous ones — they cautioned citizens against taking the law into their own hands.
Outing an alleged pedophile could spook him, putting ongoing police surveillance at risk.
“Sex offenders here in North America and in the world, they are diabolically elusive. If they see somebody’s on to them, bam, they pull that tent down and disappear faster than Houdini,” said Bill Pitt, a criminologist and associate professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton.
Further, obtaining a conviction involves a meticulous search for verifiable evidence. Even officers with years of training and experience can find their evidence ruled inadmissible in court.
"It would definitely be a starting point for us, but it wouldn’t be evidentiary for court."
Sgt. Lokken said anonymous tips are often only the starting point of a more detailed investigation.
“The methods that we use to collect and verify this evidence of hours, if not days, of scrutiny in a courtroom,” he said. “The methods of police who are trained in evidence collection and are up to date on current case law are under the scrutiny of the courts. If we have a person who has no training and we can’t even verify who the person is, or the methods they used in collecting this, it would definitely be a starting point for us, but it wouldn’t be evidentiary for court.”
Sgt. Lokken said he couldn’t comment in detail on the cases of the men Anonymous accused. According to the video, Anonymous — claiming to be a minor — allegedly lured at least one middle-aged man to a meeting at the West Edmonton Mall. The man then sent video that appeared to show himself masturbating.
Anonymous claimed it sent the information to the police, and was surprised when none showed up. Anonymous then released the identity of the alleged predator.
Sgt. Lokken said police had been in contact with the group responsible for the video.
“What this person, I think, fails to realize is that he’s basically trying to extort the police into investigating these crimes,” Sgt. Lokken said.
On average, Alberta’s ICE unit investigates 450 complaints of online child exploitation. Last year, 125 people were charged with child pornography or luring offensives. And, Sgt. Lokken said, the numbers are increasing dramatically. In the first quarter of 2013, the number of cases have risen 30% over last year.
“I don’t want to minimize the allegations of this person, because any time a child is at risk, of course we take that seriously,” he said. “The unfortunate reality is that we are flooded with complaints of child exploitation. We have to triage these complaints and, of course, the number one priority is a child at risk.”
Meanwhile, the man accused in Anonymous’ tape was identified by more than just his name. It also included his workplace.
His boss said the allegations put the company in an impossible situation. Short of police charges, they had no grounds to fire the employee.
The owner said the employee was put on administrative leave — which was not a disciplinary action. On Wednesday, he resigned, citing the good of the facility, she said.
“Our relationship with the Edmonton Police Service has always been exemplary and I’m putting my faith in them,” she said.