[sixties-l] Fwd: Net tightens around the hacktivists

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: 01/03/01

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    Net tightens around the hacktivists
    Tania Branigan
    Tuesday January 2, 2001
    Big corporations and governments want to curb the protests of the
    cyber hippies.
    Rocketing numbers of political campaigners are embracing the internet
    with the fervour their parents showed for sit-ins as they try to claw
    back its independence and make online actions a standard part of
    modern protests.
    Computer activists - "hacktivists", as they have become known - are
    squaring up to governments and corporations who want to restrict their
    activities. They are not opposed to business, but their immediate
    political aims, which range from improvements in working conditions to
    political independence, are fuelled by anger at the commercial
    dominance of cyberspace. Their tactics range from sending
    straightforward emails of complaint to crashing websites or diverting
    visitors to different sites. Some have overwhelmed servers with email
    "bombs" of thousands of protest messages or launched computer viruses
    and worms.
    In the US election both Republican and Democratic sites were defaced
    with anti-Bush and anti-Gore sentiments, while the Middle East
    conflict has been fought almost as heatedly online as in the real
    world. Palestinian and Israeli computer users have defaced websites,
    set up spoof sites as propaganda and even stolen the credit card
    details of their enemies.
    But so far hacktivism has been dominated by social justice and
    leftwing issues, with the far right using the internet only to
    organise and recruit. In one case campaigners diverted visitors
    seeking the Ku Klux Klan site to hatewatch.org instead; public
    reaction is likely to be very different when someone tries to do the
    That day may come sooner rather than later, as new programs make it
    easy for activists with little computer knowledge to enter systems or
    crash a website. These newcomers have joined the original hackers:
    highly skilled and ingenious programmers who share a distaste for
    authority and belief in freedom of information. Some are malicious;
    most see their hobby as a technical challenge; and increasingly, many
    are investigating its political possibilities.
    "People don't like the way the internet is increasingly
    commercialised," says Paul Taylor, a sociologist at Salford University
    who has written a book on hackers and is currently researching
    hacktivism. "Comparisons are made with the land enclosure acts - who
    owns common land? There are a lot of insidious ways in which corporate
    power has increased and is pervading the whole social fabric. It's
    happened within the structure of the internet; big corporations have
    got an advantage over governments and their values are getting
    incorporated into government policies."
    Underlying tensions are coming to a head with the advent of new
    legislation and information-gathering techniques. In Britain, the
    Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act has given the police and
    security services the power to collect internet data without a warrant
    and to demand the keys to encrypted material. In the United States,
    the FBI is seeking the right to capture all messages sent across the
    internet with software called Carnivore. This would allow them to
    trawl for emails containing particular words.
    In both cases, the authorities insist that the measures are essential
    to combat international crime and terrorism. But others worry that
    they will be used to monitor and discourage legitimate political
    activity and will ultimately ensure that only "acceptable" voices are
    heard on the net. Hacktivists fear that politicians, often lacking
    technical expertise, will be easily swayed by business.
    "The prime minister of this country, by his own admission, gets most
    of his information on the internet from his kids," says Paul Mobbs,
    co-founder of the UK-based Electrohippies. "Politicians don't know the
    first thing about it."
    He fears that individuals may be driven off the net because they have
    no rights to access. They are dependent on internet service providers
    who, for commercial reasons, are likely to refuse to host material
    that is controversial or which could attract expensive legal action
    and who could block users requesting certain sites.
    "E-commerce has driven the internet over the past few years. Anyone
    who's not part of that is not supposed to be there," Mr Mobbs
    complains. He acknowledges the damage that some hacktivists have
    caused and accepts the need for policing. But he also says security
    forces and businesses are scaremongering and believes that the RIP Act
    and Terrorism Act are a dangerous combination.
    "These new laws, rather than enabling free use of the internet by all,
    are seeking to blur the distinction between public protest, crime and
    terrorism in order to provide a 'safe environment' for corporations to
    do their deals," he says. "The British government is seeking to define
    a 'virtual corporate free state' where corporations can do business
    free from public pressure."
    What delights the protesters - but worries their opponents - is that
    the internet acts as a magnifying glass for discontent. Individuals
    using computers can wield power they could never command on the
    street: it takes dozens, maybe hundreds, to occupy a building and
    unveil a banner but only one to hack into a computer system and take
    over a website. One person can bring down an e-commerce site,
    disrupting or halting a firm's trading.
    Oxblood Ruffin, of the respected hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow,
    suggests that the versatility and technical knowhow of protesters
    offers them a chance to redress imbalances of power in the real world:
    "Hacktivism allows us to mount better arguments, rally unseen allies,
    and take on any tyranny," writes Ruffin, who is based in Toronto. "It
    shrinks any Goliath down to his true size. Usually puny.
    "Where a large physical mass is the currency of protest on the street,
    or at the ballot box, it is an irrelevance on the internet. Or more
    correctly, it is not always necessary ... To think that it takes a lot
    of people to execute an act of civil disobedience on the internet is
    naive. Programs make a difference, not people."
    For that reason, detractors argue that hacktivists are a classic
    example of power without responsibility. But unlike the original
    hackers many are happy to discuss their actions openly: Mr Mobbs
    publishes his address and phone number on the web. The Electrohippies
    informed the World Trade Organisation before launching an attack on
    its website in November 1999, and ensured that their own site linked
    to sites supportive as well as critical of the organisation.
    They debate their tactics with passion and sophistication, citing
    Aristotle, Thoreau and Lord Acton. Many, like the Electrohippies,
    refuse to access other people's computer systems and regard denial of
    service attacks as a last resort. Oxblood Ruffin goes further and
    insists they are unforgiveable: "Denial of service attacks are a
    violation of the freedoms of expression and assembly," he insists.
    "You do not make a better point in a public forum by shouting down
    your opponent. Say something more intelligent or observe your
    opponents' technology and leverage your assets against them in
    creative and legal ways."
    It seems inevitable that many of the protesters' tactics will be
    outlawed. Dr Taylor agrees that some measures may be needed, but
    suggests that we have overreacted, encouraged by security specialists
    who have a clear commercial interest in playing up the threat to
    worried businesses and who may mislead the public with their real
    world analogies.
    One firm described the Electrohippies as "terrorists" for their WTO
    action. Yet the Electrohippies refuse to intrude into computer
    systems. "I think we have really twisted values," says Dr Taylor. "In
    the Kosovan war the Pentagon was scared of using cyber warfare in case
    it was a war crime - but they bombed civilians. It seems to me that
    it's quite skewed values by which 1,500 lives are less relevant than
    the legal elements of cyber war. People talk about the Tamils sending
    email bombs to the Sri Lankan government, but surely that's better
    than real ones."
    He predicts that a "cat and mouse" game will ensue as talented hackers
    find new ways to protest every time governments ban an old tactic.
    Oxblood Ruffin, one of the most technically advanced of the
    hacktivists, is currently working on a complex program that could mark
    the next significant stage in online activism: it focuses on giving
    people a tool rather than criticising or disabling opponents.
    Project X, which should be completed by next summer, will enable users
    around the world to access websites normally blocked by their
    governments - such as human rights sites - without attracting
    attention. Ruffin, who has recruited leading underground programmers
    to assist him, believes it could jump-start a new movement of
    politically aware hackers.
    "We are trying to keep the internet healthy. The hacking community has
    been online the longest, outside the military and academia, and we
    have something to say about how the internet develops."
    Weapons of online warfare
    Denial of service attack: One of the most popular methods of attacking
    websites. Users run a program that makes thousands of requests for a
    site simultaneously, slowing the speed at which the server fetches
    pages or in some cases crashing the server totally so that the target
    site - and others hosted there - cannot be accessed
    Mail bombing: Inundating an email address with thousands of messages,
    again slowing or even crashing the server. It inconveniences other
    server users and prevents the targets finding genuine messages in
    their inboxes
    Defacing: Changing the information shown on another person's website.
    It involves hacking into the target's computer system and is therefore
    Hijacking: Redirecting anyone trying to visit a certain site
    elsewhere. Again, it is illegal because it involves accessing the
    target's computer system without their permission
    Useful links:
    Cult of the Dead Cow homepage
    The electrohippie collective website
    Electronic Disturbance Theatre
    Hacktivism discussion list
    Internet security firm

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