Bob Paquin on Mon, 25 Jan 1999 19:04:21 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Re: Citizenship in the Information Age


Thought you might be interested in the following piece, which was
published in the Ottawa Citizen last October, and in the Singapore Straits
Times in December.  Mostly about developments in
hacktivism/politically-driven infowar, and focuses on the EDT.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), I`ve been gainfully employed since I wrote
this, and so haven`t been able to follow it up with the very interesting
debate which has flowed since on nettime.  While my editor hyped it up a
bit, I think it fairly captures much of the issue. 


Bob Paquin

One by one, the world's most prominent Web sites are falling to the cyber
bullets of Internet hackers. Unlike in the past, the new breed of
electronic intruder has a political agenda.  On Oct. 12 the Website of
Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo was attacked.  The date of the event was
significant. Oct.12 happens to be Columbus Day in America -- an almost
irresistible call to action for the members of the NewYork-based
Electronic Disturbance Theatre. 

The Zedillo hack was not the work of bored teens. It was a political act,
an occasion for Internet activists -- or "hacktivists" – to "demonstrate
continued resistance to centuries of colonization, genocide, and racism in
the western hemisphere and throughout the world," according to the
Theatre.  Nor was the Oct. 12 attack an isolated incident. In August, the
Mexican group X-Ploit hacked the country's finance ministry Website,
replacing it with the face of revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, in
sympathy with the Zapatista rebellion in the Chiapas region in southern
Mexico.  And if Mexico is a popular target of hacktivism, it is by no
means the only target. 

In June, the group MilwOrm, whose logo features the slogan "Putting the
power back in the hands of the people," hacked India's Bhabba Atomic
Research Centre to protest India's recent nuclear tests. 

Later, in July, MilwOrm and the group Ashtray Lumberjacks, acting
together, orchestrated a unprecedented mass hack of more than 300 sites
around the world, replacing Web pages with an anti-nuclear statement --
complete with angry red mushroom cloud -- directed towards all of the
nuclear powers. 

On Aug. 1st, the Portuguese group Kaotik Team hacked 45 Indonesian
government Websites, altering Web pages to include messages calling for
full autonomy for East Timor. 

Mailbombs were delivered and several other Indonesian government sites
were hacked on Aug. 12th by hackers from China and Taiwan, to protest the
fact that Chinese-Indonesians were targeted for torture, rape and looting
during the anti-Suharto riots in May. 

On September 13th, the New York Times had its Website replaced with a long
screed calling for the release of jailed hacker Kevin Mitnick, and aiming
a few barbs at Times reporter John Markoff, whose coverage of the Mitnick
case raised a fair amount of controversy both in the hacker and media

On Oct. 13th, political activists took over an Indian government Website
and posted messages and photos calling attention to alleged
government-sponsored repression and human rights violations in the
contested northern Indian state of Kashmir. 

Indeed, as the year 2000 approaches, incidents of cyber-activism are
becoming commonplace. And no wonder. Never in the long and storied history
of political and social activism have dissidents had at their disposal a
tool as far-reaching and potentially effective as the Internet. 

"The technology is changing the equations of power, challenging the
conventional channels of communication, distributing and disseminating
influence in the broadest possible fashion, to the point of democratizing
the channels and getting rid of the gatekeeper," said Canadian foreign
affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy at an NGO conference last month in
Montreal.  "The technology has a mind-boggling potential to break through
barriers and overcome political obstacles to educate, inform and be an
agent of political change," he added. "The mouse is mightier than the

And while Mr. Axworthy noted that the Internet provides opportunities for
the communication of dissent and opposition under repressive regimes, he
stated categorically that the medium should not be a law-free zone.  And
yet, as far as hackivists are concerned, the Internet is not only
law-free, but a vast, high-profile canvas for political graffiti. 

According to a recent report from the California based think-tank the Rand
Corporation, entitled "In Athena's Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the
Information Age," authors John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt define infowar,
or cyberwar, as "conducting military operations according to
information-related principles.  It means disrupting or destroying
information and communications systems. It means trying to know everything
about an adversary while keeping the adversary from knowing much about
oneself. It means turning the 'balance of information and knowledge' in
one's favour, especially if the balance of forces is not. It means using
knowledge so that less capital and labour may have to be expended." 

Research in Canada into this aspect of the intersection between
communications, political action, and the internet is thickly peopled by
representatives from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the
Communications Security Establishment, the RCMP, the Department of
National Defence, various private sector security-related companies, and
select academics. 

When asked to comment on the hacktivism phenomenon, a spokesperson from
the Department of National Defence said that, while national security
infrastructure was evidently not under attack, there was just cause for
concern. "This is our business, and we need to protect ourselves." 

The world of information warfare is "a world where logic bombs, computer
viruses, Trojan-horses, precision-guided munitions, stealth designs,
radio-electronic combat systems, new electronics for intelligence
gathering and deception, microwave weapons, space-based weapons, and
robotic warfare are being discussed, developed and deployed," wrote
University of Ottawa human rights professor Gregory Walters in the Ottawa
Citizen earlier this year.  "I have been predicting and warning about this
kind of activity for years," said computer-security expert Winn Schwartau,
whose own "Infowar" Web site, is a repository of information on hacking
and infowar. 

"Cyber-terrorism. Cyber civil disobedience. Each seems to begin 24 months
or so after we publish how it's done," said Mr. Schwartau, who is also the
author of the book Information Warfare: Chaos on the electronic

Not only are political hackers discovering how to infiltrate and disrupt
"secure" networks, most feel ethically justified in doing so. 

Toronto-based hacker cell The Hong Kong Blondes, led by a Chinese
dissident known as "Blondie" Wong, claims to have affected the usefulness
of a Chinese satellite as part of their campaign to cripple Chinese
military and security networks, as well as Western companies doing
business in China.  Mr. Wong recently formed another group of hackers --
The Yellow Pages -- based in Canada, the US, and Europe, to protest
Chinese government conduct over human rights, and Western investment in
the country.  Mr. Wong justified his controversial approach to political
reform in a July interview: "It is better to light a candle than to curse
the darkness." 

He added, "There has been a shift in consciousness, I believe. Younger
people have a great deal of talent, although they can be very awkward. But
the point is, I think they are different from the generation of hackers
before them. They want the recognition and attention, but they also want
to do something to contribute to change things in a positive way." 

The earliest generations of hackers revelled in the challenge of
electronically exploring the digital geography of the new landscape that
was brought into being through the computer revolution.  This, of course,
included the odd malicious hacker, intent on using the tools of the trade
for personal and often pernicious ends.  However, a second generation has
come to the fore. So-called hacktivists engage in cyber-activism, or what
some have titled ethical hacking. 

"Hacktivists are savvy, subversive and are seasoned veterans of the Cola
War," said Jamie Reid, a Toronto-based network-security consultant and
member of the activist Tao Collective.  "Advertisers and other opinion
makers are now in a position where they are up against a generation of
activists that were watching television before they could walk. This
generation wants their brains back and mass media is their home turf." 

And Mr. Reid sees the battle between Internet activists and the political
elite heating up: "Corporations and governments are at a huge disadvantage
in this respect, as they have to relearn what we were born knowing. 
Hacktivism has become such an effective means of activism. It was founded
by a generation whose language was taught to them by advertisers, whose
habitat is almost entirely electronic." 

Borrowing from the language and theory of Henry David Thoreau, some
hacktivists see themselves as engaged in non-violent direct action and
civil disobedience.  “While all hackers are clearly not averse to
transgressing the boundary between the legal and the illegal, not all
hackers are political. But today, the politicized hacker is clearly a
growing subset of the larger hacker world," said Stephan Wray, one of the
founders of the New York-based Electronic Disturbance Theatre. Writing in
the Earth First! Journal, Mr. Wray observes, "Today we are witness to a
convergence of the computerized activist and the politicized hacker." 

He describes hacktivists as proponents of Electronic Civil Disobedience
(ECD), borrowing the tactics of trespass and blockade from these earlier
social movements and applying them to the Internet.  Mr. Wray sees these
activities as pushing the envelope and advocating the notion that the
Internet should be an avenue for direct action, since "there are times
when it becomes imperative to break a law, or set of laws, that appear
unjust in comparison to what some would call a higher law." 

The Electronic Disturbance Theatre is a small group of cyber activists and
artists developing the theory and practice of ECD. The group has focused
its electronic actions against the Mexican and U.S. governments to draw
attention to the war being waged against the Zapatistas in Mexico. 

On Jan. 1, through the Electronic Disturbance Theatre,
Sub-cyber-commandante Z, of the Intercontinental Cyberspace Liberation
Army, issued a press release which stated that "bands of netwarriors
around the world, members of the Intercontinental Cyberspace Liberation
Army, are converging in cyberspace to instigate information warfare,
netwar, against the PRI controlled Mexican government

"No longer shall we sit idly at our computer screens. No longer shall we
wait, hope, and stupidly think that justice will prevail on its own
accord. Justice will only prevail through struggle. And we, netwarriors of
the Intercontinental Cyberspace Liberation Army, are ready to launch a
co-ordinated attack."  Goals of this attack include the interference in
and obstruction of Mexico's digital networks, the de-stabilization of
Mexico's telecommunication infrastructure, and the virtual destruction of
U.S. corporate presence in Mexico. 

The Electronic Disturbance Theatre has produced a Java script program
called Floodnet, which is used to flood and block a targeted Website by
repeatedly calling for a specific or non-existent Web page on that server. 
The program is posted on a Web site, and participants have been called on
to visit that page during a designated time period.  This prompts the
Floodnet program to zero in on the targeted Web site for a "Denial of
Service" attack, which renders it inaccessible for the duration of the
attack.  The group estimated that up to 10,000 people took part in a
recent attack, sending 600,000 hits to each of the three targeted Web
sites per minute. 

Over the past year the group has targeted various Mexican government Web
sites, also sites of the White House, the U.S. Department of Defence, the
Pentagon, and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. 

The last concerted attack took place on Sept. 9, with a follow-up skirmish
taking place on Oct. 12. 

A recent press release from the Electronic Disturbance Theatre warns that
the next attack will happen on Nov. 22, and is aimed at the U.S.
Department of Defence's "School of the Americas," which has trained many
representatives from repressive Latin American military and intelligence

In June, the Mexican government retaliated with Java of their own,
deflecting the attack and prompting Floodnet participants' browsers to
crash.  As with the Mexican government's efforts, the Pentagon retaliated
during the Sept. 9 attack, with a few tricks up their digital sleeves. 
"Our support personnel were aware of this planned electronic civil
disobedience attack and were able to take appropriate counter measures,"
said U.S. Defence Department spokesperson Suzan Hansen, in a report in
Wired Magazine's Hotwired Web site. 

However, the Electronic Disturbance Theatre software designers are,
meanwhile, cooking up countermeasures. 

While some activists have questioned the groups' methods, describing them
as technologically ham-fisted and too politically correct, Mr. Wray and
his cohorts' actions have received wide-spread coverage in the media. Two
weeks ago, Mr. Wray made a presentation on the Electronic Disturbance
Theatre's activities to Harvard Law School's Berkman Centre on Internet
and Society.  Mr. Wray argued that his group is "still operating within a
window of opportunity that -- if not ahead of the law as strictly
interpreted -- is definitely still out ahead of the prosecutorial or
political range of the U.S. Department of Justice." 

This barely touches on the tremendous debate taking place within the
hacking community itself on the ethics of hactivism, however. 

To some extent the debate centres on the activities of hacker vigilantes
-- "white hat" wannabes -- who, a couple years ago, began quietly
targeting child-porn collectors. The vigilante hackers launched a campaign
to harass and expose those they were able to track down, and to disable
their computers and relevant networks.  Given that hackers define their
activity as primarily being driven by curiosity, and not by malicious
intent, most observers in the hacker community were opposed to this "go it
alone" approach, which was seen to have crossed a line of principle. 

But, in an attempt to define this line, where civil disobedience
intersects with the ethics underlining these issues, University of
Ottawa's Prof. Walters asks, "If Hitler had a Web site, would one not be
morally justified in attacking it?"  While he disputes the terminology,
and considers the terms "ethical hacker" or "hactivism" to be oxymorons,
Prof. Walters argues that the debate in our society has not kept pace with
technological evolution.  The problem," he said, "raises foundational
questions about the role of political, legal, and moral rights and
responsibilities in the information age, as well as classical problems
surrounding civil disobedience, law and morality." 

The debate continues to evolve. John Vranesevich, founder of the
Antionline Web site, which tracks hacking news and events, reported
earlier this year that "out of the thousands of e-mails that we've gotten
about Milw0rm (the Indian Web site anti-nuclear hack), about 97.3 per cent
of them think that Milw0rm are heroes of sorts, with less than three per
cent thinking of them as criminals."  One letter writer did add, "bottom
line to me is that the hackers have no moral right to break into someone
else's system. É India and Pakistan have no inherent moral right to put
humanity at risk and to further damn our environment. Conflicting
moralities do not justify vigilante action." 

Asked if his activities fall under the general rubric of Infowar,
Electronic Disturbance Theatre's Mr. Wray answered with a wary
affirmative.  "But the entire notion of information warfare needs to be
approached cautiously. Always remember who it is that is creating the
language, rhetoric, discourse, definitions, etc. of infowar. Before
entertaining the ideas, it is necessary to identify in whose interests
these ideas are being promulgated."  Mr. Wray added: "Remember, the
military always needs a scapegoat and an enemy. With the end of the Cold
War, emerges the drug war and information warfare." 

Mr. Wray would like to see his group's political hacking redefine the
Infowar doctrine espoused by governments and within the media.  He told
the Harvard presentation, "what we might call an example of 'hacktivism,'
information warfare theorists -- like those at RAND, the U.S. National
Defence University, or for that matter, within the U.S. Defence
Information Systems Agency -- might define pejoratively as a subcategory
of cyber-terrorism.  “We need to seriously question and abandon some of
the language that the state uses to demonize genuine political protest and

Most of the hacktivism examples cited above were perpetrated by
individuals or disparate groups around the world, each with differing
motivations, but with the common aim of conveying a message through direct
cyber-action.  However, people are networking, and recent media coverage
of the proliferation of these activities has led to plans for more
co-ordinated action. 

The Electronic Disturbance Theatre suggests that their high profile has
made them a magnet for information on online activists, and that they have
been contacted by groups in Australia, Asia, Latin America, and Europe
that are already involved in direct actions of their own and are eager to
contribute to greater initiatives. 

The group's actions will escalate with their latest project, "Swarm,"
which Mr. Wray describes as "an array of Floodnet-like devices, arising,
acting, and dispersing simultaneously against an array of cyberspacial
political targets.  "If the electronic pulses generated by our Floodnet
actions are represented by a small mountain stream, the electronic pulses
generated by a swarm of convergent ECD actions are a raging torrent." 

Plans are under way for hacktivism-related conferences in the next year.
These conferences include a conference next March in Amsterdam to discuss
the possibility of developing a political hacker code of ethics. 

York University professor Reg Whitaker argues that, while much of the
hacking that gets reported by the media is fairly inane, it does indicate
potentially more dangerous directions.  "My own view is that hackers are,
in their own, generally pretty harmless, if infantile and annoying.
However, if their skills can be detached from individualist anarchist aims
and harnessed by larger groups, whether states, corporations or terrorist
organizations, they may be transformed into serious menaces." 

Hacktivism is in its infancy and, given the ubiquity and democratic nature
of the Internet, we will see the movement's growing pains and increasing
maturity. As it grows in influence, more people and organizations will
become involved.  "As of this moment there are groups of highly
sophisticated hackers that are willing to help whatever cause suits them.
It's not a matter of 'if,' it's 'when,'" stated Toronto activist Jamie

How governments and society evolve to address this assault has not been
sufficiently addressed.  Says Mr.Reid: "I think it has brought an
enticingly literal definition to the term 'level playing field.' We just
have to wait and see who gets levelled." 

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