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What the hack of Epik reveals about the world of far-right extremism

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week saw a second and bigger public release of data from Epik, a web hosting service favored by the far-right. It offers an unprecedented glimpse into the world of extremism but comes with cautions. NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism and is here to tell us more.

Hi, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about this hack and what was involved.

YOUSEF: So, Ari, the Epik web host has been called the web host of last resort. It's hosted sites like Gab, Parler, BitChute, 8Chan. The hacktivists behind this leak has called it the - you know, the web host for the, quote, "fascist side of the internet." And the data that's been released is enormous. It includes tons of personally identifying information, such as usernames, passwords, financials, including current credit card numbers, all these pieces that researchers say can really help fill out the puzzle on who's involved in far-right movements, how they're connected to each other and where the money's coming from. You know, to get a sense of how stunning it is, I want you to hear this cut from Heidi Beirich. She's co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.

HEIDI BEIRICH: You know, I'm not justifying hacking here, but the - this is a decision to expose who are behind anti-vax information, racism, hatred, neo-Nazi-ism. And it's kind of overwhelming.

YOUSEF: You know, overwhelming because it's, like, 10 years' worth of data, Ari, and it's going to take several years to extract, you know, all of the information contained within it.

SHAPIRO: What was behind this hack and the public release of the information? Why are we seeing it now?

YOUSEF: Well, you know, it's been an interesting week because, you know, we didn't just see this second Epik hack get leaked, but there was also a separate release of data of the Oath Keepers militia group. What seems to be happening is the hacktivist community is increasingly targeting sites after the events of January 6 at the U.S. Capitol and after the Texas abortion bill passed. But, you know, this is a dangerous iceberg as well. You know, some of the people, like Heidi Beirich and some journalists that have covered the hack so far, are getting threatened. Some of them have been doxed, which means that they and their family members' personal identifying information has been made public.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I'm struck by Beirich saying, I'm not justifying hacking here, but - tell us about the concerns, the dangers, of this information being public and people using it.

YOUSEF: Yeah. So pretty much everybody said, you know, there are a lot of landmines in using the data from these leaks. One of the most cautious people, actually, that I spoke to is Brian Levin. He is the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University. And he was warning that there aren't just pitfalls to using the data, but there are also ethical concerns around these leaks and using the information in them. This is what he told me.

BRIAN LEVIN: Where does it stop? Who gets targeted? And is there going to be some kind of unintended consequence? Is there some investigation that's being thwarted or breached? Or is there someone who's no longer associated getting caught up in this or someone who has a similar name? You get the idea. I think one type of vigilantism can encourage others.

YOUSEF: So, you know, don't mistake him. You know, Levin does see that this - these leaks are a potential gold mine but that, you know, they require care. When it comes to journalists on this topic, you know, he says we continually will have to weigh whether what we publish is, in fact, a matter of public interest and the harm that could come from it. So, you know, we'll have to see for years to come what we learn from everything that's been leaked.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Odette Yousef, thanks a lot.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter covering immigration, race and class. Since joining the station in 2010, Odette has covered a range of stories including local and state efforts around immigration policy, DREAMers and the impact of travel bans on Muslim-Americans and refugees. She has also delved into the reality of homelessness in Chicago, with stories about tent cities and the disappearance of affordable housing on the North Side. In 2016, Odette was part of a team at WBEZ to win a National Edward R. Murrow Award for best Continuing Coverage of how local officials in Puerto Rico were sending drug addicts to unlicensed therapy groups in Chicago, with false promises of professional treatment.Odette’s coverage includes enterprise and data reporting, and she has contributed to NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, PRI’s The World and WNYC’s The Takeaway. In 2015, she served as president of the Chicago Headline Club, which is the largest chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.Prior to joining WBEZ, Odette was a reporter at WABE FM in Atlanta.Odette received a B.A. in Economics and East Asian Studies from Harvard University.