Hot Docs 2021: Infamous Anonymous hacktivist quietly lived on streets of Toronto with a persona that 'took on a life of its own'

Elisabetta Bianchini
·5 min read

Infamous hacktivist Christopher Doyon (Commander X) largely went unnoticed living on the streets of Toronto until novelist Ian Thornton discovered his true identity and that he was on the run from the FBI, which is now documented in the film The Face of Anonymous, available to stream as part of the 2021 Hot Docs festival.

"There was an interesting character reading a thick book. I recently had published my first novel and it was a nice contrast between what I saw with him and the usual cardboard signs asking for weed on Queen Street," Thornton told Yahoo Canada.

"The day after the Brexit vote [I] saw him on the street and he was hopping around, he was quite energetic... He said it was great news because it was good news for Julian and I wanted to know who Julian was, he said, ‘well, Julian Assange and I'm going to tell you something now that is going to blow your mind, I'm his friend and I'm a cyber warlord on the run from the FBI.’"

That story may seem incredibly far-fetched for most, but after Thornton went to his computer to corroborate the story, he realized he was in fact developing a friendship with the Anonymous-affiliated hacktivist.

That's how The Face of Anonymous started, documenting the fascinating life of Commander X, from someone who had a keen interest in computers and technology, and a Dead Head who sold LSD at Grateful Dead concerts. To someone who became the most outspoken figure in the Anonymous movement who has now been granted asylum in Mexico.

"I think the important thing is to look at how the movement changed protests across the board and how that protest has become more and more global," Commander X said in an interview with Yahoo Canada.

Commander X was part of a cyber attack on Santa Cruz County computers, Operation Tunisia and Operation Egypt that targeted government sites, and taking down the websites of PayPal, Mastercard, and VISA when they blocked individuals from using their services to support Wikileaks.

The Guy Fawkes mask is an iconic symbol of the Anonymous movement, recognized all over the world. The film explores the origin story of Anonymous and gives us the true reason of why this mask was chosen.
The Guy Fawkes mask is an iconic symbol of the Anonymous movement, recognized all over the world. The film explores the origin story of Anonymous and gives us the true reason of why this mask was chosen.

Commander X persona 'took on a life of its own'

Not everyone in The Face of Anonymous is seemingly a fan of Commander X, particularly Barrett Brown, the founder of the crowdsourced chatroom Project PM who was sent in prison in 2015 for charges relating to the 2011 Stratfor hack, and Gregg Housh, who played a key role in the 2008 Anonymous protest campaign against the Church of Scientology. Housh was incarcerated for operating software pirating rings.

Throughout the documentary, Brown and Housh regularly say they don't feel like Commander X deserved as much attention as he got, exaggerated his involvement in the hacktivist group, risked people's lives by being so public and ultimately, "making the message look bad."

Commander X maintains that his persona "took on a life of its own" and his publicity was initially in an effort to save someone who was falsely identified as the person behind the moniker.

"The media seemed to really like the character of Command X," he said. "I was reachable, I was approachable, I said the things they wanted to hear, I guess, at the time especially, it just snowballed from there."

"Is this a tool? Is this a bad thing? It could be a bad thing. I mean, you could really see some grey and some really bad things to being on the run from the FBI and becoming one of the most famous hacktivists in world history all at the same time, it’s not necessarily a great choice of strategy."

Director Gary Lang identified that while he was connecting with Commander X for this documentary, the hacktivist did not have legal status in Mexico, which made access to people and information more challenging.

"None of us were interested in him being arrested for the basis of a documentary," Lang told Yahoo Canada. "I couldn't find anyone else in Anonymous or any of my other contacts in cybersecurity, because I couldn't tell [them] I was working on a film about Commander X."

"We had to play it safely throughout, there's a risk on all sides from hacktivists and from forces of the state to take an interest in what we were doing."

Commander X in exile in the picturesque city of Guanajuato. With its narrow alleys and colourful, colonial-era architecture, it’s one of the most beautiful and historically significant cities in Mexico and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Commander X in exile in the picturesque city of Guanajuato. With its narrow alleys and colourful, colonial-era architecture, it’s one of the most beautiful and historically significant cities in Mexico and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

'Question everything'

Lang's message for anyone who watches the film is to "question everything," something the director said he learned from Commander X.

"With the forces visible and invisible, we all need to be aware, and lots of us can push back and you don't have to burn anything down to push back," Lang said. 

"You can have a conversation with anyone right up to 85 year olds who are aware that their phones are listening and that their Facebook is curated in ways that they didn't ask for, and that their privacy has been invaded... We can accept them as realities, or we can change them."

Thornton, whose third book "My Year Living Anonymously" is set to be release this year, said he wants people to not judge others and notice that "beauty can be found at shin height."

"There he was, he was sleeping in the park, he was asking for two dollars and he was bringing down dictators in North Africa," he said. "If I live to be 200 years old, I will never lose the smile on my face when I think about the fact that when he brought them down, he was sleeping in a park, in a Canadian winter and they were in gold palaces."

Commander X's message is that it's an "ongoing choice" to participate in something "bigger than yourself."

"I was not alone, there were others who are in the movie who also found themselves in that moment," he said. "This is something that just sort of happens to you and your life and the choice is to pick it up and run with it and change history, or not."