Internet Thugs Misappropriate the Hacker Moniker
I’d like to pick up on Olivier Sylvain’s post on the cyber mob Anonymous and take it in a slightly different direction. Let’s step back to get a sense of the group dubbed Anonymous. The group originated on 4Chan’s /b/ forums and now has a serious presence on the wiki Encyclopedia Dramatica, YouTube, and Internet Relay Chat forums. The group may now compromise several groups with different aims (see here for a discussion of splinter group more interested in so-called “pranks”, or in my view bigoted attacks, than strident “political activism” like DDos on PayPal, Visa, and the like).
It’s difficult to see how the group and its various permutations warrant the breathless admiration of journalists who dub them “hacktivists.” A little step back to the original hackers of the early 1960s. As Howard Rheingold explains (and Patricia Wallace concurs in her work), the term was coined to describe people who “create computer systems.” The first people to call themselves hackers ascribed to an informal social contract called the “hacker ethic.” This ethic included these principles:
“Access to computers should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative. All information should be free. Mistrust authority–promote decentralization.”
The original hackers were motivated by altruistic concerns. Indeed, we owe a debt of gratitude to their broader community for helping design the Internet. Our guest blogger and celebrity computer scientist Steve Bellovin was a key player in that community: in 1979, Bellovin, then at UNC for graduate school, and Jim Ellis and Tom Truscott, Duke grad students, created the first link between Duke and UNC, which later became Usenet, the oldest global virtual community.
Let’s compare the original hackers to the group(s) Anonymous, which exemplifies the destructive side of cyber anonymity. From its beginnings, the group took its name because it believes its collective identity serves as a mask, letting them do and say things that would otherwise be out of bounds. According to a YouTube posting from a group member, “We are Anonymous, a “people devoid of any type of soul or conscience” who form “a nameless, faceless, unforgiving mafia”—“we ruin the lives of other people simply because we can.” Anonymous members describe themselves as “unencumbered by pointless ethics, foolish moralities, or arbitrary laws or restrictions.” When Anonymous members engage in offline “raids,” they hide behind the Guy Fawkes mask design made famous by the film of Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta.
The attacks allegedly devoted to political activism — such as the DDos attacks on PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard — seems like just more lulz activities. Consider its recent “cyber protest” after the BART shut down cell service to ward off protesters from gathering in response to a police shooting. The group released personal information from BART customers:
Thus below we are releasing the User Info Database of MyBart.gov, to show that BART doesn’t give a shit about it’s customers and riders and to show that the people will not allow you to kill us and censor us. This is but the one of many actions to come. We apologize to any citizen that has his information published, but you should go to BART and ask them why your information wasn’t secure with them. Also do not worry, probably the only information that will be abused from this database is that of BART employees.
Let me get this straight: releasing the sensitive personal information of BART customers to punish BART? That sounds like a privacy-invasive joy ride by a bunch of trolls. Hacktivists? I think not.