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hacktivism: the new protest movement?
by hugh j martin

After the hacking of yahoo!, Amazon.com, CNN and other websites in mid-February, there was a general outcry about security and the possibility that this represented the beginning of an information war. (Information warfare, by the way, is a sinister sounding term that doesn't adequately describe the disruptive actions of hacktivists. It does, however, help to mobilise public opinion in favour of the corporate and government institutions against which most hacking has been directed.)

It's easy to convince people that their electricity, gas and water supply can be threatened by a mysterious group of cyber-terrorists bent on destroying civilisation as we know it. It's equally easy to dismiss the matter as electronic graffiti, the work of one disgruntled teenager. But it takes a lot more effort to explain why particular groups seem to be more frequently targeted than others.

The recent round of hacking focussed on commercial sites. Previous targets have included the Mexican government, the Chinese government, the Indonesian government, the FBI and the US Defence Department. Some of the motives for these attacks, which rarely rise above petty vandalism, can be explained politically. For example, the Zapatistas in Mexico have been running a high profile campaign since the early nineties; the Belgrade hackers of 1999 were protesting NATO's bombing of Serbia.

One of the most recent politically motivated hacks targeted the Armenian National Institute (ANI) whose representatives met with FBI officials from the National Computer Crime Squad following a mid-January attack on the Institute's web site that redirected visitors to an Azeri propaganda site. The computer hackers called themselves the "Green Revenge Group" or "HiJak TeaM 187."

The same group of hackers appears to be pursuing a campaign to disrupt the free flow of information to and from web sites on Armenian issues in the United States. An Azeri newspaper, Zerkalo, in an article dated January 25, stated that the group has "declared war" on a large number of Armenian-related web sites.

Corporations on the other hand have been slow to accept that ideological opposition is hardening as a major element of mainstream protest. Clearly any action that prevents a company from conducting its legal business cannot be encouraged, but just as clearly there is a great deal of frustration amongst ordinary educated people about environmental degradation, poor working conditions and the effects of consumer culture. The WTO protests in Seattle last year demonstrated this growing frustration and a deep level of cynicism towards big business and government, as well as a willingness on the part of apparently disparate groups to express their frustration through both electronic and physical protest. Electronic protesting these days is a simple matter of downloading easy-to-use software from the Web, or of visiting a protest site where you can set your browser to bombard a target site with requests for information. Anyone can be a hacktivist.

But hacktivism covers a much wider range of activities than simply leaving rude messages on a company's Web site or even locking a site with denial of service. It also includes the general organisation of protests over the Internet--by email and Web posting. The global G8 protests of 1998 and 1999 and the WTO protests of last year were successfully organised by email and mobile phone--creative (but not illegal) use of information technology by protest groups has confounded law enforcement worldwide. Consumer activist organisation Adbusters promoted Buy Nothing Day and WTO protests on their campaign pages: "If you're gearing up for the Seattle WTO Conference (Nov. 30 - Dec. 3)," they advised, "or planning to observe Buy Nothing Day on November 26, visit www.adbusters.org to add the following mindbombs to your culture jammer's toolbox: * Download 30 sec. and 60 sec. professionally-produced radio spots to broadcast on college, community and commercial stations.
* Download B/W or color graphics to produce your own campaign materials.
* Scan the list of Buy Nothing Day organizers for local co-conspirators and links to other culture jamming websites."

Culture jamming, the practice of subverting advertising and corporate branding, is a gathering force and a close relation of hacktivism. Another link in this chain is the proliferation of email viruses. Surely it's not purely a coincidence that the majority of those pesky viruses, like Melissa and Chernobyl, infect only Microsoft products?

Regular updates of hacked sites can be viewed at http://www.attrition.org/mirror/

Adbusters campaign pages http://www.adbusters.org/campaigns/bndwto.html

Copyright © 2000 Hugh Martin All Rights Reserved

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