Update (August 13, 4:12 p.m. ET): Anonymous has obtained and posted St. Louis police dispatch tapes from the day of the shooting.
Update 2 (August 14, 12:07 p.m. ET): @theanonmessage, A Twitter account affiliated with Operation Ferguson has released the name of a police officer who it claims shot Michael Brown. Although the main Twitter account for Operation Ferguson retweeted the announcement, it later said that the name does not match the one provided by its source.
The police chief of Ferguson, Missouri, says he is withholding the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, out of concern for the safety of the officer and his family. But that might be easier said than done. Just a few hours later, the hacktivist group Anonymous announced on Twitter that it was now “making a final confirmation on the name of Mike Brown’s murderer,” adding: “It will be released the moment we receive it.”
I traded emails last night with one of the half-dozen core Anonymous members working on Operation Ferguson, as the group’s effort to pressure and shame the local police department is known. They were still working to verify the identity of the shooter. “I can only tell you that our source is very close personally to the officer who killed Mike Brown, and that this person is terrified to be our source,” said the anon, whom I will call Fawkes. He added that the source “reached out to us, we did not seek out this person.”
The claim to have outed the Ferguson shooter comes only two days after Anonymous announced the launch of Operation Ferguson in this video:
The computer-generated voice, graphics, and hacking threats are trademark Anonymous, but one aspect is unusual: a demand for federal legislation “that will set strict national standards for police misconduct and misbehavior.” Though Anonymous has a strong anarchist strain that disdains politics, Fawkes told me that the idea wasn’t controversial within the group. “We have done a few of these ‘justice ops’ and it seems there needs to be a larger solution to the problem on a nationwide level,” he told me. “There was no debate—everyone on the team embraced the idea.”
It has been a busy few days for Operation Ferguson. The hackers shut down the city’s website for a few hours on Sunday night and Tuesday morning, posted the home address and number of St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar, and dropped an email bomb that crammed city and police inboxes with junk messages. The goal was “to get journalists like you to do interviews with us, and incidentally maybe talk about the issue at hand in the process,” Fawkes told me. “Looks like it worked.”
In previous “justice ops,” Anonymous hackers have targeted the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system to protest the Charles Hill and Oscar Grant shootings and the transit system’s attempt to dampen protests by shutting down cellphone signals. Other Anonymous ops have uncovered criminal evidence or the names of suspects. “It’s actually back to the classics,” said McGill University cultural anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, author of the forthcoming book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, whom I met last night in a chatroom where hackers were plotting their next moves. She added that “a lot of old-school folks came back for this,” though they’ve been careful to avoid the attention of law enforcement and other anons by using fresh pseudonyms.
But the veterans’ participation hasn’t stopped Op Ferguson from seeming unhinged at times. On Tuesday afternoon, one Anonymous Twitter account threatened to release information about the police chief’s daughter unless he disclosed the name of the officer who’d killed Brown. (The threat was later withdrawn.) And the op’s Twitter account repeated a bogus internet rumor attributing a screenshot of a racist Facebook tirade to Belmar’s wife—the tweet has since been deleted.
“We are not exactly known for being ‘responsible,’ nor for worrying overly much about the safety of cops,” Fawkes told me. “After all, they have vests and assault weapons. I think they can look after themselves. This is psychological and information warfare, not a love fest.”
Half outlaw, half idealist, Anonymous has always operated at the margins of legitimacy, its tactics ranging from gumshoe detective work to illegal hacking and shameless PR stunts. It’s hard to know whether its current claim to have ID’d Brown’s killer will be borne out. “I don’t think they have it,” Coleman told me. But, she added: “I would not be surprised if they do soon.”