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Canadian internet sleuths, anti-hate group helping to identify Capitol rioters

As more and more cellphone videos surface of the storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., last week, Canadians are leading some of the efforts to document and track down some of those involved in the riot.

Elizabeth Simons, deputy director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said her team is trying to identify three people seen in photos and video from the riot — one of them holding a Canadian flag.

The non-profit organization, which usually monitors hate groups and hate crimes in Canada, was prompted to turn its attention south of the border when the chaos erupted as U.S. lawmakers met to certify Democratic president-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the Nov. 3 election.

“We’re always watching for Canadian involvement in events like this,” Simons told CBC News. “Even though we knew there would be significantly reduced involvement on Jan. 6 due to the pandemic, we are aware of the population of Canadians who support that message.”

Simons said she’s unsure who the three people in the images are or even if they are Canadian, but through a painstaking process of looking through video footage and photographs uploaded to the internet, the team hopes to discover their identities.

The group intends to publish the names of those it can identify on its website.

“We are not sure yet if all three are Canadians or if only one of them is Canadian. We don’t know the relationship between the three people yet at this point,” she said. “We’re just investigating to see if we can narrow it down and get confirmations.”

Simons said she’s seen earlier online comments posted by Canadians that suggested sympathy with the views of some of the supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump who made their way to Washington last week.

Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions on travel, there would likely have been many Canadians at the riot, she said. “The lack of Canadians is not due to disinterest.”

Simons added that one prominent far-right group at the riot, the Proud Boys, was started by a Canadian.

The RCMP are aware that there has been open-source reporting of Canadian flags in the crowd but will not comment on allegations made on social media.

Uploaded videos, photos crucial to investigation 

Essential to Simons’s research are the hundreds of hours of video and thousands of photographs that have been uploaded to Mega, a cloud storage and file-hosting website based in New Zealand.

The owner and creator of the database is Reddit user u/AdamLynch, a Canadian. Adam Lynch is not his real name but a pseudonym he uses online. CBC News is protecting his identity, as he says he has received death threats for trying to compile and make available video and photos he’s collected of what happened at the Capitol.

He said that over the summer, he observed that video footage of instances of police brutality and violence at Black Lives Matter protests was often removed from social media platforms or blocked, and so he decided he needed to archive documentation of violence at last week’s event to preserve a record of what happened.

“When I was searching through Facebook and Twitter, it was a nightmare to try and find this content,” he said, referring to the Jan. 6 riot.

Unless you are directly connected to someone who is uploading content to social media, it can be nearly impossible to find specific posts, he said.

WATCH | Photojournalist recounts scenes during Capitol siege:

nn photojournalist 010921 frame 395

Andrew Harnik, a photojournalist with The Associated Press, recounts the moments when he sheltered in place with members of the U.S. Congress and shares some of the powerful images he took. 6:36

In the five days since he posted on Reddit’s DataHoarder community about his intent to start the archive, he has received more than 600 gigabytes of content related to the Capitol event that he thinks he would not have found otherwise.

“People were sending me tweets, Facebook posts of their actual friends and family who went to the riot,” he said. “I was seeing tweets that maybe had two likes.”

At one point, because of the nature of the content he was posting and the large number of people accessing it, Mega shut down the database.

Not long after, Mega’s chief compliance officer, Stephen Hall, stepped in to reactivate the account and provide it with a free business level account, massively expanding its bandwidth.

Hall said he looked at the content, and while it did include footage of violence — including video of a woman being shot — he decided to reactivate the account because it was presented “in the context of it being a historic archive and not promoting the behaviour but merely recording it.”

“So, it’s a little bit of a public service thing,” he said in an interview with CBC News. 

U of T’s Citizen Lab helps to identify protester

Eric Gavelek Munchel, 30, of Nashville, was charged with multiple offences on Sunday, including one count of violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. The charges were laid in connection with the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Two days prior to the arrest, John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, identified Munchel to his Twitter followers as the person pictured in a widely circulated photo of a man inside the Capitol building holding plastic zip ties — often used by police in place of handcuffs.

“What I began doing a couple of days ago was surfacing specific people who it seemed, like, needed to be urgently found because they were carrying restraints on the floor of the Capitol,” he told CBC News.

Scott-Railton first focused on the clothing worn by the man, known only as “zip tie guy.” Identifying the brands on his clothing allowed internet sleuths to trace the man’s movements through multiple videos and photographs from the riot, which helped establish who he was with throughout his time on the Capitol grounds. From there, security camera footage from the lobby of a local hotel was used to make a positive identification.

cybersecurity undercover operatives
John Scott-Railton, shown in January 2019, is a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He helped to identify a man who was at the Capitol holding plastic zip ties and was later charged in connection with the riot. (Kathy Willens/The Associated Press)

“Almost all of what I did was, we could say, a collaboration of tens of thousands [of people],” Scott-Railton said.

He couldn’t say for sure if his subsequent tip to the FBI contributed to the arrest, but he told his online followers they could be proud of their contribution to the identification effort.

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