Last week, in the wake of the pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol, The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow wrote a story about an Air Force pilot turned extremist who was photographed during the maelstrom wearing combat gear on the Senate floor. The article, which named the man as retired Lt. Col. Larry Brock, struck familiar notes about a MAGA fan steeped in disinformation whose Manichaean enthusiasm for the president spurred him to travel to the nation’s capital and participate in what amounted to a violent, failed insurrection. As Farrow later reported, the man was identified from video and photographs by John Scott-Railton, a surveillance expert who reported Brock to the FBI. On Sunday, two days after the story was published, the FBI arrested Brock after he surrendered himself to local police in Grapevine, Texas.
In these debauched last days of the Trump administration, that chain of events may seem almost normal, but it’s also part of a troubling pattern: Journalists, researchers, and amateur sleuths are cozying up to law enforcement in a rush to identify, dox, and report perpetrators from the January 6 riot.
Despite the lessons of past atrocities, such as the Boston Marathon Bombing, in which Reddit-led manhunts sometimes targeted innocent individuals, people with no law enforcement responsibility are taking it upon themselves to lead open-source investigations to identify and report potential criminal suspects. That some of these investigations are led by experts like Scott-Railton is less than reassuring. Instead, his presence offers an invitation to participation for people who aren’t versed in digital forensics or—crucially—charged with investigating violations of the law.
Scott-Railton is a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, a respected Canadian organization that investigates state-sponsored surveillance and hacking campaigns as well as a growing private spying industry epitomized by companies like Black Cube, which did work for Harvey Weinstein. Scott-Railton and Citizen Lab have been an invaluable source for journalists on the shady doings of NSO Group, an Israeli spy-tech maker whose software has been widely used to spy on dissidents and journalists, especially by Middle Eastern autocracies. Citizen Lab’s work often preaches caution in the use of new surveillance technologies while advocating for civil liberties and the marginalized.
Given this history, I found it odd when Scott-Railton emerged as a vocal leader and participant in online investigations to identify and report to law enforcement the names of Capitol rioters. Along with other researchers, think tankers, and private citizens, Scott-Railton is using facial recognition—considered by critics to be a flawed, invasive technology in need of regulation—to identify rioters and report them to the FBI. On Twitter (where his bio reads, “Chasing digital badness”), he’s expressed his pride in his and his fellow investigators’ contributions. While the suspects in this case make for easy villains, it’s a strange turn of events when people known for civil liberties–oriented work become volunteer informants for the secret police. (It’s worth noting that Larry Brock was also reported to authorities the old-fashioned way: His ex-wife recognized him in photos and made a phone call.)
Scott-Railton, who did not respond to a request for comment, and others have undoubtedly contributed to the apprehension of MAGA rioters, but perhaps the most important question is why they are needed at all. Former FBI agent Michael German told The Washington Post that government agencies have far greater capabilities than amateur researchers. “How much of it is a lack of understanding of this intelligence and how much is a lack of interest in actually doing it?” German asked. The former FBI agent’s question gets at another disturbing implication: that researchers like Scott-Railton are so successful because a combination of governmental incompetence, right-wing law enforcement sympathies, and failed leadership allowed the riot to happen in the first place and is now hobbling its proper investigation.
We live in a society devoid of real accountability for many crimes, especially those encouraged and planned by the political elite. A public weary of this culture of impunity may understandably take to open-source intelligence operations, even if these brush uncomfortably close to vigilantism and show a worrying esteem for state power.
Speaking to Farrow, Scott-Railton described his identification work as part of “the digital ecosystem of accountability that has arisen around what happened at the Capitol.” There are many forms accountability can take. Organizations like Citizen Lab are some of our best safeguards against the excesses of governmental spying and law enforcement abuse. As we possibly embark on a new war on terror, this time against largely white, male domestic insurgents, the FBI has at its disposal sweeping investigatory powers. Researchers like John Scott-Railton should be monitoring them—not working for them.