Hacktivism Pt. 1: Overview

On the first day of the year, I wrote a post for the blog titled “5 Tech Predictions for 2011 (a.k.a. Just Spitballing Here).” It was incredibly half-assed, I was recovering from a crazy New Year’s celebration (okay, we were watching CNN in the hotel), but I thought these were reasonable enough predictions to come true. Facebook hitting over 750 million users by the end of the year? Check. iPad-exclusive news? Check. But of the five predictions I posted, the one I felt surest of was #4. Let me repost it here, and you can see just how prescient (or lucky) I can be.

4) Web security will become a thing of the past. I honestly believe in 2011 we’ll reach a point where no one’s information is safe, and our collective security will be breached. Whether it’s by cyberterrorists attempting to destroy our way of life or a group of anonymous hackers working on behalf of Wikileaks, I feel like this is an inevitability of living in the age of information. And that’s going to push our leaders into doing some very dangerous things.

Seven months later, I would classify this as an understatement. I can’t count the number of stories involving hackers from Anonymous and groups like LulzSec that have come out in the last few months.

I am dividing this whole hacking business into three categories:

  • How the ease at which these hacking attempts were pulled off reveals dangerous flaws in our security systems.
  • How these hackers, while often malicious, are doing their part for internet freedom, while our government’s response to these hacks illustrates a double standard on freedom of information.
  • How any opinion of these hacking attempts other than “This is war!” is perceived as being soft on cybercrime.

These are all incredibly simplistic notions that I hope to dispel in this series of posts. I’ve had some fun at the expense of hackers on the show before, but on their specific actions and what has resulted from them, I’m of two minds.

The motivations behind hackers’ actions have grown considerably more malicious over time. In 1998, The New York Times website was hacked by members of a group called “Hacking for Girlies.” The two men who hacked the Times website, known by their nicknames “Slut Puppy” and “Master Pimp,” granted an exclusive interview to Forbes that year, explaining that they hacked the site “because they were bored and couldn’t agree on a video to watch.” Here’s what they actually did:

Members of the brotherhood took over the New York Times’ Web site for three hours on that day, replacing the welcome screen with one tinged with nudity and obscenity. In a diatribe, Slut Puppy roasted Times technology reporter John Markoff for his coverage of imprisoned hacker- martyr Kevin Mitnick.

Yesterday’s “Military Meltdown Monday” is undeniably a dangerous breach of military security, and websites that are meant to protect important government information should be more protected against hackers. So hackers have upped the ante, acting less like court jesters and more like virtual Robin Hoods. But for the most part, the culture remains the same. In his best-selling book Hacker Culture, Douglas Thomas wrote about the two primary motivations of hackers, and what they have in common.

To some, it is about exploration, learning and fascination with the inner workings of the technology that surrounds us; to others, it is more about playing childish pranks, such as rearranging someone’s Web page or displaying pornographic images on a public server. It is, in all cases, undoubtedly about the movement of what can be defined as “boy culture” into the age of technology.

But when you look at the targets of Anonymous and LulzSec and contrast them with their mission statements (“For the lulz.), these differences are getting more difficult to distinguish between. Psychologist Marc Rogers helped law enforcement officials identify hackers through psychoanalysis, splitting them into multiple categories:

  • Newbies
  • Cyberpunks
  • Insiders
  • Coders
  • Professionals
  • Cyber terrorists

This is why important distinctions have to be made, no matter how hard it is to do so, otherwise we get caught up in blatant and misleading accusations.

Hacking has now become a movement. A movement of unaffiliated groups with the same mischievous goals: chaos. If our universe operates by the principles of chaos theory, so does everything else, especially the internet. The question is: can hackers be stopped.

The short answer? No. The long answer: well, you’ll have to read my upcoming posts to figure that out.