The man VICE spoke to for this article didn't seem a likely victim of identity theft. He isn't wealthy or particularly powerful. But without him knowing, his image was used to recruit young people—probably women—to a terrorist organisation. Strangers watched him through his laptop camera, lurked on his computer, and eventually stole his most personal moments and tried to blackmail him for thousands of dollars. To ensure he knew they were serious, the strangers sent him a satellite photo of him on the street he lived.
Having a low profile and shallow bank account can make you feel invisible, safe, and unappealing to cybercriminals. After all, who wants your Facebook chat history and student debts? As it turns out, your ordinary existence is a commodity.
The victim of this crime asked to be anonymous, out of fear of provoking further issues or attention. But he was nice enough to take us through what happens when a terrorist organisation hijacks your identity.
VICE: When did you realise something was up?
The week before it went down, my bank account was drained and someone made purchases overseas with my credit card. The bank called me and the money was back in an hour so I didn't think too much of it. Then on Sunday I received a really weird email and it was clear somebody had gone through my computer.
How did you know?
There were naked pictures and a video in the email from my laptop, both were sexual. The email pretty much said, we know who you are and we have these photos and this video. They said they'd downloaded my Facebook contact list and they'd send them to everyone I knew unless I gave them 10 thousand dollars.
What do you do when something like that happens?
I got really, really freaked out. Then I called my dad and we went to the police. The first officer I spoke to was just like, if you figure out who it is let me know, otherwise we can't do anything.
At this point, did you have any idea who it was?
I assumed someone overseas, some scheme where they hack and blackmail you. I told them I obviously didn't know who it was, the email address was just a bunch of random letters and numbers at a gmail.
Another office had overheard us, realised it was serious and told me to chill while he made a couple of phone calls. They called this government organisation called ACORN (Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network), someone from the government called me pretty soon after that.
What was that conversation like?
They asked me, have you been doing anything illegal? I said yes, I'd done some stuff on Silk Road. They made me tell them exactly what I'd done, but said they weren't going to charge me because they thought I'd been a victim of identity theft and my image and video had been used by a terrorist organisation. I spoke to them twice, I don't even know if it was the same person I spoke to both times, they didn't ever identify themselves. I'm pretty sure it was ASIO.
Did they name the organisation?
No, I assumed it was ISIS.
Tell me more about the video stuff?
They filmed me when I was on my computer through my camera. They also had a satellite image of me on my street. I don't really know how they did any of this, but they had footage of me.
So they took video of you just typing or whatever, then used that when they were speaking to people overseas so they assumed they were speaking to a young, western guy?
Yeah, they recorded me and used that video in maybe a Skype conversation, but they would be talking via type to someone. The guy from ASIO, said "usually it (the video) would be used to recruit young boys, but because you're a young guy it was probably used to recruit young women."
You said you freaked out when you realised you were being blackmailed, how did you feel when they started talking about terrorists?
It just felt so strange. Honestly, by the time I was talking to the government I felt a lot better because my concerns were safety and that they knew who I was and had access to my whole computer.
I gave them (the government) all my passwords but was too scared to go into my Facebook and email for a week. When I eventually went back into my email, I saw the original email and everything related had been deleted. Looking back, I just kind of find it really intriguing now.
I just keep thinking about how much this would change your relationship with the internet, and your sense of safety on and offline.
I've always been scared of what the government knows about me, but now they've protected me in this way—or at least helped me. It's shifted my fear towards other people, rather than just the government. Usually I'm afraid of talking about things like drugs on the internet because you fear the government tracking you. But they didn't give a shit that I was on Silk Road.
Was it awkward telling officials about trying to buy drugs?
Yeah, obviously they were able to see the email and would have gone into my computer and seen it all. What I was doing wasn't that full on, I think I bought some marijuana seeds, coke, and some bitcoins. They didn't give a fuck about it, and made it very clear that they weren't interested in the drugs.
You mentioned you dad was with you the whole time. It must have been pretty awful to have to show him this part of your life.
It was really awkward to tell my dad initially, but also I was so scared it didn't matter. When I told him he was like, "Tell them to fuck off and that you're going to the police." I was worried they were going to send around the pictures and he was like, "Mate it's fine, everyone has sex".
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