Salon: To heck with hactivism

From Craig Silverman <>
Date Thu, 20 Jul 2000 10:42:02 -0400

[: hacktivism :]

To heck with hactivism
Do politically motivated hackers really think 
they're promoting global change by defacing Web sites?
- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Brendan I. Koerner
July 20, 2000 | The keynote address at a typical hacker 
convention is delivered by the "Wizened Security Guru," usually 
an ex-CIA spook who wows the crowd with
cloak-and-dagger tales. If he's not available, then the honor may fall 
to the "Hot Young Programmer," invariably a cocky coder who 
recounts his latest "eureka!"
moment. But at last weekend's third-ever Hackers on Planet Earth 
convention, nicknamed H2K, the featured speaker was a confessed 
techno-idiot, a man who denies ever having so much as pressed 
an "ESC" key: Jello Biafra, ex-frontman for punk provocateurs the 
Dead Kennedys. 
Decked out in a "D.A.R.E. to Keep Kids Out of Church" T-shirt, 
Biafra enraptured hundreds of hackers with a 90-minute diatribe 
against, among other things, the World Trade Organization, the 
Philadelphia police, "Al Gore, Inc.," USA Today and Taco Bell's 
value meals. "Use the Internet to create a generation that sees
through corporate bullshit like never before!" he exhorted the crowd 
at New York's Hotel Pennsylvania. "Don't hate the media; become the media!" And though
most audience members were not yet in diapers when "Holiday in 
Cambodia" debuted, Biafra's address was frequently punctuated by 
high-decibel applause and
"Preach on, brother!" shouts. 
Biafra's star turn at H2K was a bombastic symbol of the computer 
underground's growing zeal for political agitation -- whether it be greeting would-be visitors to a
hijacked with "Global Justice is coming -- prepare now!" 
while redirecting them to an Australian labor rights site, or disabling 
the Chinese government's censorware. Already adroit at rallying 
around their persecuted peers, many hackers are now awakening 
to the world beyond Internet Relay Chat. Ideological kin to
the coalition of anarchists, Teamsters and Earth Firsters who 
spearhead the anti-globalization movement, these self-styled 
"hacktivists" dream of furthering social
justice while comfortably ensconced behind their Linux workstations. 
Just last weekend -- as about 100 hackers gathered for a 
"Cyber Civil Disobedience" discussion at H2K -- a group calling 
itself "Gforce Pakistan" defaced 11 pages
belonging to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. 
The usual weather-related pabulum was replaced with pleas for 
Kashmiri independence. "When the
people of Kashmir want to be independent, why not let them?" 
the protesters wrote. "US, take some steps." 
But even as the ranks of techno-pranksters on political missions 
swell, a number of veteran hackers categorize such "protests" 
as sloppy and counter-productive.
"Ninety-five percent of it is bullshit," says Andy Mueller-Maguhn, 
an associate of Germany's Chaos Computer Club. "[The message] 
will be there for about five
minutes. Then we've got a police investigation. Then we've got 
that Kevin Mitnick shit." In other words, more ammunition for 
anti-hacker hysterics to demand
get-tough measures, with little to show for the sacrifice. 
Critics of the strategy also question whether the defacers are truly 
committed to fighting the good fight, or are more interested in 
showing off their technical chops. "A
lot of these kids, they're like, 'Cool, I just hacked a Web page 
and got my little political message up,'" says "Izaac," a cohost 
of "Off the Hook," a weekly radio show
produced by 2600, the hacker quarterly. "Then you ask them 
what their message is, and they're like, 'Huh?'" The majority 
of Web page vandals, he points out,
prefer to get their messages across with bawdy "yo' momma" 
jokes rather than well-argued dissertations on Nike's labor policies. 
The truth is that while the hacktivist slogan, "The revolution 
will be digitized!" is certainly catchy, most techno-protestors 
have yet to prove themselves anything more
than pests. Disorganized and occasionally reckless, many 
are content to deface Web pages with "Break the Bank!" 
graffiti; they are not engaging in powerful acts
that might set the mandarins of globalization aquake in their 
boots. And right now, with the underground so fractured, 
and the hacktivist agenda so hazily defined, it's
hard to imagine these techno-activists having any 
appreciable impact on global politics. 
Though the word was recently coined, hacktivism can trace 
its roots to the prankster counterculture of the 1960s. The 
hacker ethos originated in the "Steal This
Book!" culture-jamming hijinks of the radical Youth International 
Party and Abbie Hoffman, who pulled proto-hacking stunts 
by crafting payphone slugs. And the
early "phreakers," who used their technical acumen to pilfer 
phone service, espoused the same anti-corporate beliefs as 
the pepper-sprayed protesters of Seattle. 
Greg Newby, a professor of information science at the 
University of North Carolina, argues that many hacktivists 
also have a bred-in-the-bone inclination toward
social justice. Filled with folks who wear the "misfit" label 
with not-so-subtle pride, the underground is a come-as-you-
are club. "Hackers have always been blind to
things like color and race and accent," he says. "There 
might be some prejudice against people who don't type fast, 
or have a slow connection, but we're blind to
what is very important to the other people in the world." 
Yet the bulk of hacker activism has been narrowly focused 
on pet causes. The "Free Kevin" movement, for example, 
which prevented über-hacker Kevin Mitnick
from forever vanishing into the bowels of the federal penal 
system, was the community's political high-water mark. The latest geek-chic cause is Eric Corley, aka
Emmanuel Goldstein, editor of 2600, who is being sued 
by eight movie studios for posting the source code to 
software that defeats DVD encryption. 
At H2K, attendees showed their support for Corley/Goldstein 
by slapping "Coding is not a crime" bumper stickers on 
doorknobs and distributing leaflets publicizing
a pro-2600 rally at Manhattan's federal courthouse. Sustaining 
that kind of enthusiasm for less "in your face" issues is tricky. 
It's far easier to rally support for an
incarcerated colleague than for anonymous sweatshop laborers 
in Kuala Lumpur, particularly when so many members of the 
target audience are high schoolers
who've yet to develop multitrack minds; if the rhetoric doesn't 
involve port scans, VBS scripts or Echelon, their eyes might glaze over. 
"The problem with the hacker community ... is that it takes a 
hacker-related issue to get them out on the streets, like the 
Kevin Mitnick thing," says Reid Fleming of
the Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc), the planet's most famous 
hacker collective. 
Complicating matters is the culture's anarchic nature, which 
eschews centralized authority. There is no hacker brain trust, 
no fiery leader to organize the rank-and-file
into a disciplined hacktivist cadre. Contrary to media portrayals, 
the underground is dizzyingly diverse, to the point of 
Balkanization. Old-schoolers who cut their
teeth writing BASIC programs on Commodore 64s despise 
most newcomers as scenesters living out "Matrix" fantasies, 
wannabes lacking the smarts to push
technology forward. 
Surveying the scene at H2K, veterans grimaced at the teens 
who loudly boasted of how many servers they "owned." "Out 
of all the kids here, the hundreds of kids,
there's probably two or three that will turn into real hackers," 
grumbled "Izaac." A lot of the youngsters, meanwhile, dismiss 
the old-timers as ... well, old-timers,
unhip and crotchety to the extreme. 
To foster harmony among the culture's squabbling factions, 
and hopefully pave the way for hacktivist organization, Newby 
is supervising the creation of a "Hacker's
Code." The code, in part inspired by the Hippocratic Oath 
and Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics, features such 
statements as "Hackers share and are willing to
teach their knowledge" and "Hackers often disagree with 
authority" -- hard-to-argue generalities designed to forge 
common ground between young and old,
greenhorn and expert. 
"If computers are the key to the future, then hackers control 
the key," says Newby, who has been programming for nearly 
two decades. "So we're potentially a great
force for making change. But we're not going to do well if we 
can't get a little organized." 
Goldstein is similarly intent on awakening hackers to the 
need for unity. As principal organizer of H2K, he designed 
the convention to resemble a campus political
meeting rather than a hobbyist powwow. In addition to the 
requisite workshops on open-source security and shortwave 
radio, H2Kers were encouraged to attend
such politically tinged panel discussions as "Secrets of the 
DNC/RNC," (Democratic National Convention and Republican 
National Convention) at which a
street-level activist named "ShapeShifter" offered lessons on 
how to chain oneself to a bus axle. Step 1: invest in a 
Kryptonite bicycle lock. 
This was almost certainly the first-ever hacker conference to 
feature an Ivy League researcher lecturing on the teachings 
of Henry David Thoreau -- about as low
tech a figure as American history can offer. In the "Cyber 
Civil Disobedience" discussion, Dan Orr, from the 
Annenburg School at the University of Pennsylvania,
argued that the roots of hacktivism run back through 
history, to Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi, and to 
Walden Pond, where Thoreau coined the term civil
"That's what I wanted the focus to be on, on kids applying 
themselves to realizing there's a world beyond their 
computers," says Corley. The kids seemed intrigued
by the philosophical chatter, but one vital question went 
unanswered at H2K: What, exactly, should hacktivists 
be doing? 
A vanguard of older, more professional hacktivists have 
pulled off some high-visibility stunts, which would argue 
for more high-profile Web site monkey-wrenching.
The trailblazer is the Electronic Disturbance Theater 
(EDT), a pro-Zapatista group that took to cyberspace 
in 1994 when, according to co-founder Ricardo
Dominguez, they "realized the streets were dead." 
The EDT became famous in 1998, when it organized a 
well-publicized "virtual sit-in" on the Web site of
then-President Ernesto Zedillo. Flooded with access 
requests from over 18,000 protesters, the site buckled 
and crashed. EDT's success has inspired similar efforts
by the likes of Great Britain's electrohippies, the group 
responsible for disabling the WTO's Web site last December. 
But the Cult of the Dead Cow, another hacktivism 
pioneer, decries such actions as egregious violations 
of free speech. After the electrohippies' WTO virtual sit-in,
cDc member "Oxblood Ruffin" published an 
impassioned critique of such attacks. "No rationale, 
even in the service of the highest ideals, makes them 
anything other
than what they are -- illegal, unethical, and uncivil," 
he wrote. "One does not make a better point in a public 
forum by shouting down one's opponent." 
At cDc's riotous H2K presentation -- a crowd-pleasing 
mixture of lip-synced rapping and tasteless riffs on anal 
eroticism -- Oxblood announced a fall launch date
for a project to be called "Hacktivismo." The specifics 
are still secret, but the group will reportedly write 
applications to defeat government content filters in
totalitarian countries. Two hacker superstars have already 
signed up for Hacktivismo: "Bronc Buster," notorious 
for removing content filters from Chinese ISPs, and
"Mixter," a German programmer known for coding a 
denial-of-service tool called Tribal Flood Network. 
But until the nascent hacktivists -- from the kiddie lone 
wolfs to the skilled crews -- can unite behind a coherent 
game plan, they'll have little shot at effectively
heeding Biafra's anti-globalization, anti-corporate, anti-
authoritarian refrain. Though they still have yet to walk 
the walk, hackers are, at the very least, learning the
radical shtick. At one H2K panel, when ShapeShifter 
announced, "If we got rid of things like capitalism, the 
Internet would be great!" there was a moment's silence.
Then a wave of nervous laughter. And, finally, 
thunderous applause and a peal of "right ons!" 

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