The final speaker I saw at the Digital Ethics Symposium last Friday was a woman named Dara Byrne. Byrne is an Associate Professor at John Jay College of Criminal justice in the City University of New York in the Department of Communications. She titled her talk as “Digilante Ethics,” combining “digital” and “vigilantes” into one word, and told us she was going to explain what digilante justice is and the growing appreciation for it. Byrne said, “there are real crimes that take place on virtual spaces without real laws to deal with them.” And while some people ignore these crimes, other people are taking matters into their own hands to figure out how to deal with this arising problem. Groups such as Anonymous or PervertedJustice.com are two common examples of digilante groups.
To explain what she was going to be talking about, Byrne felt the need to give us a history lesson on some real crimes that have happened in virtual spaces. The one she focused on the most was the Nigerian email problem of the 90s. Most people in the room laughed, because most people nowadays are aware of those scams and know not to give their bank account information to their long lost uncle that had 40 million dollars but died suddenly and now you can inherit it all! Sadly, people still fall for this. Byrne reported that in 2006, over half a BILLION dollars of loses happened because of crimes like this. Crimes like this, where a scammer tries to convince a person to send over their account information, even if the uncle or aunt is from China or Argentina, are still referred to as “Nigerian scam.”
Byrne continued her talk with her next slide, titled “A Watershed Moment,” and told the crowd that in the 1990s, due to all of the Nigerian Scams (actually from Nigeria), there was global media coverage of Nigeria and its corporate corruption, an underperforming oil instability, political instability, and a rise in regional crime and violence. Law enforcement agencies began to categorize these crimes at 419 scams in reference to article 419 of the Nigerian Criminal Code for confidence schemes even if the criminals have no connection to Nigeria. Flash forward to the 2000s, and 419 Digitlante networks have been created as structured responses to the belief that there are deficiencies in the state security system. These deficiencies include that fraud statistics had risen three-fold in ONE year and there were widespread views that law enforcement is unable to help victims. Digilantes used social network sites to plan, codify, and share their work and progress with each other.
One of the sites we mentioned in class today while briefly speaking about Dara Byrne’s presentation was 419Eater.com, where digilantes “scam the scammer” by getting the scammers to send in pictures of themselves in humiliating, dehumanizing positions and other various scenarios (branding themselves with their scam logo is another horrible example). The digilantes of 419Eater.com then post the pictures they receive and they get ranked as “trophies,” to show that punishment has been enforced. Perhaps Byrne ran out of time and wasn’t able to finish up her concluding thoughts, but one of the final things she said was, “As citizens are being monitored by the government, we are monitoring ourselves.” But is fighting fire with fire really the best way to perform “justice,” or does fighting fire with fire count more as revenge? Is there really no better way to seek justice from scammers and digital con-artists?