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Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: How Hacker Activists Are Risking Jail for Everyone’s Right to Internet Freedom

June 27, 2011

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Since WikiLeaks, authorities have been more aggressive about arresting citizen cyber activists. Yet new actions by the biggest “hacktivists” show they’re willing to risk it.

By **Julianne Escobedo Shepherd**

By arrangement with Alternet.Org.

Last week, British authorities arrested an alleged member of the self-proclaimed “hacktivist” collective LulzSec, accusing the 19-year-old of breaking into websites belonging to the U.S. Senate and the CIA. Ryan Cleary, allegedly outed by “snitches,” was arrested in Essex in a joint raid with the FBI, on the same day LulzSec claimed in a blog post it had obtained the database of the entire British census. “It’s a very significant arrest,” Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson told the Independent. “The challenges around cyber crime are extraordinarily significant and deeply worrying.”

For many in mainstream culture, the concept of hacking may still invoke quaint ‘90s images of Neil Stephenson books, bad Billy Idol phases and career-best Angelina Jolie movies. But since WikiLeaks’ pro-information dominance, a spate of high-profile arrests has propelled the hacker concept back into mass consciousness, proving that not only are web “hacktivists” a hugely influential, powerful bunch, but that the powers that be are taking them ever more seriously. Last month, the U.S. government proved how grave an offense they perceive cyber sabotage to be; in May, the Pentagon ruled that any country caught trying to hack into state systems would be considered an act of war. Matthew Broderick Pong tricks, this ain’t.

Though their methods have changed since their emergence and cultural dominance—fanzines have been replaced with 4chan, targets range from Tumblr to State websites—clearly hacktivists remain some of the most important and powerful subversives in the global information society. It’s ironic, too, that a hacker is at the center of one of the biggest news stories in the world: Adrian Lamo, who was cuffed in 2004 for hacking into the websites of Yahoo and Microsoft, is now best known as the man who identified—or, as many put it, snitched on—alleged Wikileaker Bradley Manning.

But with their power comes righteousness. While some hackers’ actions are just bent on mischief—Josh Holly, for instance, the 19-year-old who breached teen queen Miley Cyrus’ email and leaked her suggestive photos—the two largest groups, LulzSec and Anonymous, are increasingly dedicated to First Amendment ideals—freedom of information and the right of the people to know what their government is doing in their name. As a whole, their tactics might be a little more radical than your average protester engaging in street actions. But they’re also extremely effective. This week, the two banded their amorphous groups together to declare “war” on governments and banks everywhere, stating in a manifesto, “Whether you’re sailing with us or against us, whether you hold past grudges or a burning desire to sink our lone ship, we invite you to join the rebellion. Together we can defend ourselves so that our privacy is not overrun by profiteering gluttons. Your hat can be white, gray or black, your skin and race are not important. If you’re aware of the corruption, expose it now, in the name of Anti-Security.” (There is, thank goodness, already an awesome, LulzSec-approved, Anti-Sec theme song, by the hacker/rapper YTCracker.)

“Many in the online community frankly feel under siege. It is time for engagement from mainstream politicians, or otherwise radicalization can only increase.”

And the actions have already started. Yesterday, LulzSec unleashed a WikiLeaks-style data-dump protesting Arizona for being what they called a “racial-profiling, anti-immigrant police state.” Calling the action “Chinga La Migra” (“Fuck the Border Police”), they released “private intelligence bulletins, training manuals, personal email correspondence, names, phone numbers, addresses and passwords belonging to Arizona law enforcement.” Gizmodo, the leading technology website, offered this analysis: “This is the first time LulzSec’s purported to release personal information of government agents, rather than just disrupting their websites (see: CIA, U.S. Senate). This is a powerful move. Home addresses are home addresses—about as personal as personal data gets.”

While LulzSec’s actions raise some legal issues as to how the information was attained, the more compelling—and inspiring—issue is the moral one: addresses are one thing, but what if the dump reveals information that shows the AZ police force was being overtly racist (on government computers!) or engaging in illegal behavior? Isn’t this the kind of thing the public has a right to know about? (And, in fact, they did discover that the AZ police force was being overtly racist, illegal and unethical—including hiring contracted Marines to go “migrant hunting”—in case that is somehow surprising to you.) In a way, LulzSec is transforming itself into a self-standing whistleblower, with an explicitly political manifesto: “Every week we plan on releasing more classified documents and embarassing [sic] personal details of military and law enforcement in an effort not just to reveal their racist and corrupt nature but to purposefully sabotage their efforts to terrorize communities fighting an unjust ‘war on drugs.’” Think what you want about their tactics—the fact is, LulzSec is on our side.

And in certain ways, these groups were been inspired and/or liberated by the global prominence (and power) of WikiLeaks. Think back to December, when Anonymous launched “Operation Payback,” in which they crippled credit card companies and banks like Visa and Mastercard to punish them for blocking payments to the information site. The latter two sites were shuttered for the better part of a day, and a spokesperson for the group told Agence France Presse they were targeting those with an “anti-WikiLeaks agenda.” Not long after, Dutch authorities fingered two Dutch teenagers for the hack—19-year-old Martijn Gonlag, and another 16-year-old, who allegedly confessed. In an interview with TechEye, Gonlag was calm but resolute, though he publicly renounced his hacker tactics (as many do… publicly). “While I want to keep working for the things I believe in, I will of course do it now, as always, in legal ways,” he said.

In January, a month after the Dutch teens were arrested for the WikiLeaks money hacks, five people—ranging in age from 15 to 26—were detained in the UK for allegedly having a hand in it as well. Then, on January 27, the FBI announced they were conducting raids stateside, producing over 40 search warrants across the country. In response, Loz Kaye, leader of Pirate Party UK, condemned the arrests, and pointed out the hacks were a form of citizen’s resistance. “These arrests, and comments by ACPO threatening ‘more extreme tactics’ to deal with hacktivists represent a worrying ratcheting up of confrontation. Many in the online community frankly feel under siege. It is time for engagement from mainstream politicians, or otherwise radicalization can only increase.”

The Pirate Party is another groundbreaking group that non-web-entrenched progressives should familiarize themselves with; they run on a specific platform of “represent[ing] the changes demanded by technology that governments and industries are resisting with all their might.” And for them, perhaps said radicalization comes in the form of hacking masterclasses for senior citizens, held last month in order to teach the elderly how to obtain euthanasia assistance blocked by government filters. Earlier this month, they released a statement and action against the UK’s Digital Economy Act, which would block specific websites and “threat[en] freedom of expression, would harm innocent and vulnerable people, and are wholly disproportionate measures.”

This month has been a particularly banner one for the crackdown on hackers, yet most news outlets are focusing on their arrests rather than the reasons for their actions. For instance, on June 10, three alleged members of Anonymous were arrested in different Spanish cities for attacking government websites in Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Iran, Chile, Colombia and New Zealand. The Spanish government called the hackers a “threat to national security.” Yet if you look at a list of the countries attacked, you note that each has enforced forms of internet censorship, keeping its citizens from information that could be vital to their liberation. It’s hard to reconcile the hypocrisy that our own president thinks he can wage physical war in Libya without Congressional approval, yet a few hackers—likely very young—can’t get away with cyber crackdowns that aren’t killing anyone. The whole world praised Facebook for its role in disseminating information about the Egyptian uprising… yet those protesting the government censorship of such sites are being arrested?

It seems quite backwards—and Anonymous seems to think so, too. In retaliation, the group kicked down the website of the Spanish police, taking credit for pulling it offline via Blogspot. The BBC:

In its statement, Anonymous said the DDoS attack was a “direct response to the Friday arrests of three individuals alleged to be associated with acts of cyber civil disobedience attributed to Anonymous.”

The group said DDoS attacks were a legitimate form of peaceful protest. Some of its members are thought to have carried out similar attacks on Turkish government websites to protest against net censorship.

Turkey will soon impose a new filter on the internet that some say will be used to illegally monitor the web activities of citizens. In protest, members of Anonymous took down various government websites in the country (on June 13, some 32 people were arrested for their alleged involvement).

While some hackers may simply be intent on causing mischief or flexing their programming chops, it’s plain to see that these actions are not for nothing…

Earlier this month, over 50,000 people in Istanbul took to the streets to peacefully protest the Turkish government’s web censorship. Anonymous’ retort was, simply, an act of cyber solidarity, waged in the very space that would be affected by the government’s actions. In ideology, there is little difference between the two forms of protest… it’s just that one is deemed legal (in some places), and one is not.

Last week, the BBC interviewed Peter Sommer, the man who helped forge hacking when he wrote The Hacker’s Handbook in the 1980s. “There has always been a streak within hackerdom of ideology mixed with technology,” he said:

The hacker, explains Mr Sommer, is distinct from the cyber-criminal, whose motivations are generally larceny and whose relationship with technology is akin to the housebreaker’s relationship to the jemmy—it is a tool of the trade. Hackers are interested in the mechanism of attack as much as they are in the target.

“One strong element in hacking is seeing how things work. Here is a technology, can I make it do something else?” says Mr Sommer.

That love of technological innovation, and the internet in particular, gives rise to a philosophy.

And the philosophy is increasingly in action. Just this week, Anonymous reacted to Malaysia’s censorship of WikiLeaks and The Pirate Bay by taking down government sites. On June 20, various websites belonging to the city of Orlando, Florida, were pulled down to protest the arrests of members of Food Not Bombs, who were distributing food to the homeless in a city park (which, apparently, violated city ordinances).

While some hackers may simply be intent on causing mischief or flexing their programming chops, it’s plain to see that these actions are not for nothing… they’re forms of protest that we can recognize as parallel to our rallies, petitions and actions. Meanwhile, the media usually mis-assesses the situation when it paints hacktivists as simply online troublemakers—a concept rooted in the group’s more anarchic roots in the early ‘00s, as characterized by a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. “This really is a techno arms race,” Pure Hacker security chief Robert McAdam told the Australia Herald-Sun. “Except this time instead of graduating from throwing rocks to bullets and bombs, technology is the weapon and it’s growing exponentially.” He was sort of right—while there’s a radical resistance at work, comparing web sabotage to the nuclear arms race is a little extreme.

But in December, Anonymous’ Coldblood agreed. In an interview with the BBC, he said, “I see this as becoming a war. Not a conventional war. This is a war of data. We are trying to keep the internet open and free for everyone, just as the internet has been and always was. But in recent months and years we have seen governments, the European Union trying to creep in and limit the freedom we have on the internet.”

As First Base Technologies’ Peter Wood put it to the BBC on June 22, “I can’t condone anyone breaking the law… but I do understand where they are coming from.” Another way to look at it: “hacktivism” is the future of peaceful protest; these brave, super-smart cyber activists are defending all of our right to expression, defending our freedom on the battleground of now and the future. As more and more governments want to clamp down on the way we can use the internet, the best of the hacktivists are working on keeping it free.

Copyright 2011 Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

________________________________________________________________________

By arrangement with Alternet.Org.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.

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