The above is the partial sign off of the now infamous Anonymous 'hacktivists'. In their early days the group pursued online attacks as a form of non-violent protest, essentially striking back at anyone they perceived to be an enemy of freedom (Poulsen, 2011). These strike backs were usually in the form of distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) that were designed to disrupt the communications of targeted websites. Whilst the group have been portrayed as an open source brand of radical protesters, their name in recent years has been used in other related ‘causes’, most recently for snuffing out paedophile rings.
The Telegraph, in January 2015 published the headline: "Anonymous hackers turn fire on global paedophile menace" (Telegraph, 2015). However, this is not the first time that this vigilante brand of online activism has turned its attention to indecent images of children. Operation DarkNet was the group’s first campaign against online paedophilia in October 2011. The group recognised that child sex offenders (CSA) were becoming increasingly Internet savvy and had begun to mask their online identity through ToR. Anonymous used the same technology to shut them down. Additionally, they targeted the web host ‘Freedom Hosting’ accusing it of knowingly hosting indecent images of children.
In 2011 a discussion ensued as to whether Anonymous were now a force for good, a champion to sanitise our online space. In fact, a poll commissioned by naked security revealed that just over 81% of voters believed Anonymous did the right thing by shutting down websites that hosted indecent images of children (nakedsecurity, 2011). However, the implications of such unsolicited action did not receive support from law enforcement and child protection experts who criticised them for compromising existing investigations by preventing police from gathering the necessary evidence for successful prosecutions and by inadvertently putting more children at risk.
The new mission of 2015, named “Operation DeathEaters” is designed to expose international paedophile networks in the wake of the Westminster child abuse scandal and allegations of institutional cover-ups. Anonymous states the objective of Op DeathEaters is to achieve an independent, internationally linked, victim-led tribunal or inquiry into the trafficking and “paedosadism industry” (Telegraph, 2015). This could in fact garner greater public support than its predecessor because evidence reveals that when Anonymous activists expose the shadowy workings of the state they tend to make the most impact on wider society (Coleman, 2012).
There is no doubt that sexual offending is a devastating crime and one that is currently capturing worldwide media attention, with an almost daily digest of tales of historical child abuse involving celebrities, or institutional abuse that has taken place in a range of settings. Sexual offending behaviour results in a magnitude of complex issues not only for the victim and the offender, but also for wider society as a whole. What media reports like that in the Telegraph don't tell the public is that there is no 'usual' or standard pathway whereby someone will 'become' a sexual offender. We have no idea how many people access child abuse images, but what evidence from convicted offenders does reveal is that they are heterogeneous group (Quayle, 2004).
Child abuse images online and also chat groups/forums may have removed some of the barriers that previously discouraged some people from pursuing their sexual interest in children. However, the function of abuse images and their relationship to contact offending remains unclear. Therefore, we need to question whether crusades like the one instigated by Anonymous actually do anything to prevent child sexual abuse from occurring in the first place. In debating this issue what we need to be careful of is not to lose sight of the victim in the imagery - the child who has been abused. Essentially, what must be remembered is that the computer is the tool. Sexual offending against children predates the evolution of Internet technology. What we must address is the behaviour, it is by addressing offending behaviour in an evidence based way that children will be protected.
For the general public, child sex abuse is a highly emotive topic with 'knowledge' and misinformation usually emanating from the media. The simplistic undifferentiated approach to sexual offending that is presented is a risky strategy and could in fact dissuade those who want to seek help for their behaviour coming forward to support organisations. Undoubtedly though sexual offending is an issue that the media will continue to pay attention to and, one that society expects will be dealt with. The impact and repercussions of "OpDeathEaters" remains to be seen. What we can be certain of at this stage is that these net vigilantes will not prevent child sex abuse, they will not protect children, nor will this vendetta address offending behaviour. If the ultimate goal is to make society safer and to protect children then it is evidence based practice that must be adopted, rather than vigilantes developing their own crusades which will ultimately be detrimental for the whole community.
Ruth McAlister, Ph.D
University of Ulster, UK
Coleman, G. (2012) Beacons of Freedom. Available online at:
Naked Security (2011) Did Anonymous hackers do the right thing? https://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2011/10/24/lolita-city-and-other-alleged-child-porn-websites-attacked-by-anonymous/ (accessed 31/1/15)
Poulsen, K. (2011) Anonymous raids, feds work from list of top 1,000 protesters. Avialable online at:
http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/07/op_payback/ (accessed 27/1/15)
Quayle, E. (2004) The Internet: Potential problems and pathways to hands-on sexual offending, in M. Calder (ed.) Child Sexual Abuse and the Internet: Tackling the New Frontier. Dorset: Russell House Publishing
Telegraph (2015) Anonymous hackers turn fire on global paedophile menace. Available online at:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11363303/Anonymous-hackers-turn-fire-on-global-paedophile-menace.html (accessed 31/1/15)