Uncertain Future – Part V – Hactivism


Having said that, there is more power to the open internet than you think. Your private information, while important to you for reasons shown in the previous section, is very little compared to what organized groups with an agenda are really after – complete system change. These groups have proven the means to bring down massive sites and even fight terrorism. Of course, they have also cost thousands of innocent people their personal information, destroyed companies, and ruin marriages, along with more than a few lives.

To begin, one needs to look into the (perfectly named) Ashley Madison Affair [13]. Ashley Madison was and is the internet’s largest website for cheating. Literally, that’s all they do is help people who are married cheat on one another. After a savvy campaign including talk shows and clever advertising, one which brought tons of open scorn, but just enough silent attention to keep the profits rolling in, a group calling themselves, “The Impact Group” decided they weren’t amused with the salacious shenanigans. The Impact Group researched Ashley Madison and found it to be under the ownership Avid Life Media, which also owns other hookup sites like Cougar Life and Established Men, which they claimed supported prostitution and human trafficking. When Ashley Madison reported that they offered a service to completely delete the accounts of users no longer interested in their services, the Impact Group moved out to show that this service wasn’t all it was cracked out to be. 37 million disclosed users later and the site which sold itself on discretion, was in the midst of its worst nightmare.

The impact group is only one such online Robin Hood alliance which exists. Others out there have proven themselves time and time again to be able to affect change, either through direct action, or the threat of it via hacking individuals, corporations, and even governments. One such group calls itself, aptly enough, Anonymous.

Wikipedia describes Anonymous as a loosely associated international network of activist and hacktivist entities. A website nominally associated with the group describes it as “an Internet gathering” with “a very loose and decentralized command structure that operates on ideas rather than directives”.

To understand them further, a group of users of various internet forums Reddit and 4Chan, all functioning under anonymous user names began coordinating efforts towards various political and social agendas. Conversation in the all anonymous sites would form, ranging on the spectrum of enlightened social commentary and debate, to outright bigoted hate groups. Within these conversations, like minded leaders would collectively pool resources, and take the conversation into a more private level.

To use a metaphor, the internet is a single massive room where everyone is screaming to be heard. The chaos and confusion that follows allows a small group to gather by a wall, completely visible to anyone who were to look, and speak openly to where anyone could listen, but their voices still lost because of the constant noise of internet traffic, entertainment, and news. In these “private open sessions” the leader groups came to a consensus of some action which should be taken. Among them were many who were legitimately talented crackers, the term for internet hackers with malicious intents. Their skills, along with a few who just executed their wishes, were able to achieve some crazy results. From here, the cell would plan an operation, in their parlance, and if successful disintegrate back into the crowed. From there, they may join a new operation, or never be heard from again. For this, they describe their movement as “leaderless.”

In the beginning operations or “attacks” ranged on the low end with benign acts of internet weirdness, such as the when hundreds of Anons gathered in an online Finnish Hotel with identical black avatars, forming swastikas and closing down the pool due to “fail and AIDS”. A bit higher up were a few high profile “operations” including attacks on the Church of Scientology,  Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, various international copywriting offices, Paypal, and eventually Sony’s Playstation Network.

The group’s preferred method of attack were a series of well-publicized publicity stunts and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS). A DDoS attack is one in which an asset is bombarded with fake traffic, slowing down the service or bringing them down all together. Consider a telethon for kids with cancer or adopting puppies. A version of a DDoS attack (by seriously mean people) would be hundreds of people who all collectively call in with prank calls, tying up all the operators, thus making it impossible to actually take real donations. On the internet, this is done through special programs written to cause a single normal device, such as the phone or computer you are reading this article on, to send false traffic to a website with its spare processing power in the background. Your devices are actually quite powerful and the spare processing power can generate a lot of worthless traffic for the receiver. This is often compounded through the use of botnets, programs which control many devices, sometime thousands, with or without their owner’s consent, all generating traffic to bring down the target websites or online assets. Technically, this attack is harmless, unlike uploading a malicious computer virus, as all effects end the moment the attack stops. The servers go back to operating as normal, no harm done… except for the millions lost through down time and breaches in their security.

Of course, this is all extremely illegal. Many anonymous members found that their movements weren’t as secretive as they believed. Various Anons were jailed or suffered massive fines for their infractions. Sadly, many of the people who suffered the most were not leaders in the movements, or operations, but people who didn’t understand the risks and were just acting under instructions from other Anons more versed in what could go wrong. One example of this is Dmitriy Guzner [14], a 19 year old American given a one year prison sentence for attacking a protected computer. It was around this time that Anonymous truly began evolving in an attempt to be more than just internet pranksters. Seeing many hauled off to long prison stays saw the movement break into various camps; namely those motivated for ideological reasons and those seeking to provoke for entertainment, ie. trolls for the lulz.

Following this period of internal rebranding, and backed by energy gained through the Occupy Wall Street Movement [15], there was some realistic clout to those who participated in the online actions. Brought together by the idealistic sides of Anonymous, operations became more complex, as legitimately talented media experts, artists, videographers, and yes, more hackers, were able to add their capabilities to spread their message and their actions. In the next few years their major operations were more focused and even altruistic. Charitable actions included events like #OpOkand Operation Safe Winter, as well as attempts to intervene in what they viewed as unlawful police brutality, attacking the KKK, and taking down child pornagraphers[16]. Most recently, in an attempt to fight back against the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism and Middle East born terrorism, operations like #OpSaudi and#OpISIS, sought to disrupt funding for the Islamic State and their vast online propaganda presence. According to some reports, as many as 20,000 accounts on Twitter of ISIS affiliates and recruiters have been brought down [17], as well as the hundreds of websites, and the releasing of ISIS recruiter’s personal information including their home address.  [18]

While many question Anonymous as nothing but a bunch of unaccountable internet pranksters with various and chaotic agendas, others are impressed by their power and the complexity their operations are taking, if for no other reason, than the attention they are able to garnish for their causes and themselves. Others, however, aren’t happy with what they are considering a virtual lynch mob. Some are leaving the group for its rather chaotic history of attacking innocent people, which have included people in the random databases Anons have gained access to, as well as anyone who speaks badly about Anonymous. [19]

“When I started with Anon I thought I was helping people but over the past few months things inside anon have changed,” the hacker said in a statement posted to the Web. “I am mostly talking about AntiSec and LulzSec. They both go against what I stand for (and what anonymous says they stand for). Antisec has released gig after gig of innocent peoples information. For what? What did they do? Does anon have the right to remove the anonymity of innocent people?

At least one commentator went so far as to consider them the living embodiment of George Orwell’s thought police from his classic science fiction 1984.  [20]There thinking anything against the Party was deemed a criminal act – a “thoughtcrime”, which brought about arrest and rehabilitation (read that as torture) under the Thought Police.

1984 is considered a definitive cautionary tale, but what makes Orwell’s masterpiece particularly terrifying is how close 2015 mimics Orwell’s dystopian fiction. You see it in hacktivist groups like Anonymous, commentary shows like The Hannity Show, and online across social networks, the Thought Police has become a reality. If you are outside of their thinking, you become Public Enemy #1 and must be destroyed.

What this means for businesses and organizations is yet another threat to security which has to be accounted for. No one knows when something they do, or some policy they have, will catch the attention of Anonymous, or any other major group of like minded internet anarchists to bring about action in numbers that the government can’t actually do much about. You never know what kind of vulnerability you have until 10,000 angry hackers start inspecting the cracks in your walls.

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