Rape Vigilantes

04.12.13

Anonymous to the Rescue in Canada Rape Case

After Rehtaeh Parsons was raped and cyberbullied, police dropped the case. Then she killed herself. Now Anonymous is demanding justice. Winston Ross talks to the hacker in chief.

To the guys who allegedly raped 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons in Nova Scotia last year, photographed the crime, and spread those images to your buddies: Anonymous knows who you are.

The hacker collective says it has confirmed the identities of at least two of the four young men accused of (but not charged with) raping Parsons in November 2011, an act that led to a brutal round of cyberbullying and slut shaming. Parsons hanged herself last Thursday, and her parents took her off life support Sunday.

The case has generated international attention, but until Tuesday, Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry insisted he wouldn’t second-guess the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s investigation, which was dropped for lack of “sufficient” evidence to pursue charges.

“One year later the police conclude their investigation to state that it comes down to ‘he said, she said,’” Parsons' grieving mother, Leah, wrote in a powerful post on a Facebook page she established in memory of the girl. Parsons also wrote that the police dismissed the idea of child-pornography charges against those who distributed photos of her underage daughter being raped, telling her, “Well, Leah, that’s a community issue.”

In a blog post, the girl’s father, Glen Canning, also took aim at law enforcement. “How is it possible for someone to leave a digital trail like that yet the RCMP don’t have evidence of a crime? What were they looking for if photos and bragging weren’t enough?”

Late Tuesday, Landry reversed himself, announcing that he has asked his staff to present options for a review of the case. "The case would be reopened if something was overlooked or if new evidence or facts come forward," he said in an interview with The Daily Beast. "No matter how you cut it, we have a 17-year-old girl who is no longer with us. As a society, you need to question that."

On Thursday, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said he had ordered four government departments to investigate Rehtaeh's death.

But that news didn’t pacify the hackers who had already jumped into the fray. Scattered but vigilant members of Anonymous have in recent months intensified their focus on filling a perceived void in the justice system, from the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case to the prosecution—and subsequent suicide—of Internet activist Aaron Swartz. And now they’re in Nova Scotia, armed and ready to “dox”—or release the names of—two of the alleged rapists. The group is “currently working on a third” confirmation, according to an Anonymous press release, and warned, “It is only a matter of time before the fourth is identified as well.”

The group demands “immediate legal action against the individuals in question” and adds, “We encourage you to act fast. If we were able to locate these boys within 2 hours, it will not be long before someone else finds them.”

Threats of cybervigilantism have already prompted a response, both from law enforcement and from Leah’s mom. The Mounties issued a press release Wednesday urging “the public not to take matters into their own hands.” Leah Parsons issued a statement discouraging vigilantism too.

Threats of cybervigilantism have already prompted a response.

“I don’t want more bullying. Rehtaeh wouldn’t want more bullying. I don’t think that’s justice,” Parsons said.

One of the organizers of #OpJustice4Rehtaeh told The Daily Beast that this collection of Anonymous members isn’t a bunch of vigilantes, that they only want the Mounties to do their jobs, and that nothing will be released without Leah Parsons’s consent—at least, not by his group of “Anons.” The California-based Web administrator who goes by the Twitter handle @dbcoopa agreed to an interview over Google Chat.

Anonymous got involved because people in Nova Scotia “are coming to us and asking for help. Could you turn them away?” dbcoopa says. They quickly confirmed, via pictures and the multitude of reports coming in from “several sources near Halifax,” the identity of two of the suspects. One of them is widely known in Cole Harbour, dbcoopa says, “because he is easily recognizable in a photograph showing him raping the victim while she is visibly ill… why the RCMP decided these photographs aren’t evidence of rape is beyond us.” 

Dbcoopa declined to say who is providing Anonymous information, but he did say the hackers have been told the rape took place on the two suspects’ property. As that’s “unconfirmed,” though, it isn’t part of what the hackers are threatening to release.

As for the other two boys, “all we have is hearsay,” dbcoopa tells The Daily Beast. “We won’t be moving forward with unverified information.”

This particular Anonymous member said he has been involved with the group for several years, since the Arab Spring, and that he’s about 30 years old and a California resident. He worked on the group’s attack on Westboro Baptist Church and on the Swartz case, but “didn’t necessarily approve of” the way Anonymous members handled the Steubenville case—by threatening to dox every member of the football team, along with their parents and coaches, unless more players were charged with crimes in the rape of a teenage girl.

“I felt like there was potential for innocent people to be dragged into it,” dbcoopa says. “In one instance I believe several boys’ names were dropped, then the Anons conducting the operation later claimed they were not involved. There was a guilty until proven innocent feel to it.”

That’s why the names have yet to be released in Nova Scotia, dbcoopa says, and all information is being carefully vetted with “individuals that track down pedophiles online, operations that lead to arrests. We don’t operate on rumors… we don’t want anyone to take matters into their own hands, in regards to punishment. That’s why we aren’t publishing names. Our intention is to push the RCMP to continue their investigation. Being shamed in public is no substitute for a jail sentence.” 

Dbcoopa said the “six or so” hackers he is working with have set no deadline for charges to be filed and will make sure “everything we are doing falls in line with the wishes of the victim’s parents… if it becomes clear that the RCMP are not going to arrest the rapists, we will disclose the information we’ve gathered to Parsons and they can advise us on what to do with it.”

That said, there is no central command at Anonymous, and plenty of others now know who the alleged rapists are.

“We’ve received the same list of names from dozens of people already,” dbcoopa says. “It’s only a matter of time before they are doxed.”

Justice Minister Landry said he understands that people want action, but vigilantism isn't the answer: "What type of society is it that doesn't allow a person to be presumed innocent? If [Anonymous] is wrong, they just create another victim."