Dave Totten's personal voyage to the land of IT Fluency, and other Digital Governance issues.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Hacktivism review Pt.1

Hacktivism and the Future of Democratic Discourse: A Review and Comment

David Totten

Alexandra Samuel’s analysis of the political wing of the hacker subculture shows some possible chinks in the armor of deliberative democracy. Her essay examines three types of political hacking activity: political cracking, performative hacktivism, and political coding. She describes the three techniques and discusses the philosophies of the people who engage in them. Next, Samuel considers the issues of anonymity and free speech raised by hacktivism, and how they relate to the theories of deliberative democracy espoused by Jurgen Habermas, Michael Froomkin and others. Samuel seems suspicious that the hacktivist tactics might not be in alignment with a deliberative democratic system, but she also sees the possibility that hacktivism could level the playing field for access to a “public sphere.” I feel that some of these activities—especially the performative hactivism and the political cracking—are very close to political violence, undertaken by non-government actors—also known as terrorism. The threat of online terrorism poses a fatal threat to an online public sphere, much than to offline democracy.

The political crackers are the outgrowth of the earlier forms of hacking, but directed towards a political agenda. They launch attacks that range from information theft, to disrupting web sites to sabotage. Samuel says the crackers usually adhere to a “hacker ethic” which not only governs their actions like a moral code, but also defines the political aims of their activities. They believe in hands-on access to computers, both hardware and software and in a right to take anything apart to learn how it works. They often use the slogan “information is free” for their tenet that copyrights are invalid and all data of any kind should be freely available to everyone. They mistrust authority and promote decentralization, and they judge each other by their hacking skill, not by age or race or social status. Their attacks are often directed towards those parts of society they see as being contrary to their code (Samuel 127).

Performative hackers are more theatrical. Their goals are to influence public opinion and government policy through high-profile stunts or pranks. The idea comes directly from pre-Internet forms of political protest such as demonstrations. They even refer to one of their activities as a “sit-in,” although instead of blocking access to a building, they aim to shut down access to a web site. These groups claim that their actions create a “level playing field” that moralizes even destructive actions (134).

Samuel focuses on those groups whose targets impede their access to free information under the “hacker ethic,” or the left-wing groups associated with the performative hacktivism methods. While she does recognize that state-sponsored hackers from China may have been responsible for an attack on American websites during the Kosovo conflict of 1998, in response to the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Serbia (124), she does not mention the frightening growth of far-right and Islamist groups that are using the Internet to organize and even attack their enemies. According to a report by the Canadian human rights group Friends of Simon Wiesenthal (www.wiesenthal.com), issued just this week (10/07/05), hate-speech sites on the Internet have increased 25% over 2004. The report says Al Qaeda has been using cybersquatting tactics to keep their websites running and is using hacker tactics to distribute files to operatives.

The other side of this is the cybervigilantes, groups of hackers who have taken it upon themselves to fight the War on Terror over the Internet. As reported online by Newsweek, July 13, 2005, a group called Internet Haganah has made a hobby out of disbanding Islamist websites. They started after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, and claim to have knocked 718 Islamic extremist sites off the Web, usually by notifying the hosting services or else by posting the offending URL’s on their website (haganah.org.il) and waiting for hacktivist community to launch an attack.

The US Government has not been pleased by their efforts. Some in the intelligence community have argued that by hacking the terrorist sites, these hacktivists are actually making them stronger—teaching them countermeasures.

Political coders focus on creating applications that circumvent laws and policies. One example Samuel cites is the DeCSS project that circumvents the copy protection system built into DVD movies (131).


Blogger EvaWright said...


Perhaps this isn't the best place to put it but I'd like you to know that I posted Chapter six on my blog.


4:43 PM

Anonymous Aaron Weisburd said...

I would suggest you not put much faith in what Newsweek says about anything. Try instead actually reading what Internet Haganah says about Internet Haganah.

8:28 AM


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