In various posts across this site I’ve covered the subject of hacktivists, computer users who employ their technical skill to fight for causes. I find their world a fascinating one for several reasons: they are willing to stand up and defy those that they see as wrong, the way computers and the internet in particular are shaping the future of protest, and (most honestly) that they embody a spirit of rebellion that I wish I had still burning in my slowly increasing belly. Of course I don’t always agree with the fights they pick, or even the methods that they employ, but I’m thankful that there are still those who believe that individuals can make a difference on a global scale.
So rather than blather on about their exploits I thought I’d introduce you to this splendid documentary that I came across earlier this year – We Are Legion: The Story of Hacktivists by Brian Knappenberger.
Over the course of an hour and a half it covers the rise of groups like Anonymous and Lulzsec, with plenty of interviews from members and those that study and write about them. It really is an excellent account of a movement that is a significant force in the ever increasing online world in which we live. Enjoy.
While many of the world’s currencies are struggling to emerge from the devastating economic crash of recent years there is one that continues to rise and increase in value. The strange thing is that it isn’t issued by any bank, controlled by any government, or even freely available in physical form. Yet in February 2013 the total worth of the fledgling global currency was valued at over £180 million, and it just keeps growing.
Bitcoin is an online, decentralised, crypto-currency, that is monitored and administered by the massive peer-to-peer network that uses it. The currency has online exchanges that trade in the commodity, one of which – Bitcoin Central – recently partnered with a French bank to become a registered Payment Services Provider (PSP) under EU law, meaning it can now offer debit cards, account insurance, and many other normal banking facilities to Bitcoin customers. The currency has also seen mainstream adoption through companies such as WordPress and Reddit who accept payment in Bitcoins for their various memberships and services.
‘The one thing that proponents of this idea are really pushing,’ explains Jan Piotrowski from the Economist magazine, ‘is that Bitcoins are a wonderful way to transfer money across borders at very, very little cost. Normally when you transfer money between banks, the banks charge through the roof. Now with exchanges such as this one [Bitcoin Central], where the accounts will be guaranteed by the French equivalent of America’s Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation – so guaranteed by the state – you can convert your Euros to Bitcoins at a very cheap rate. You can then transfer your Bitcoins, or pay for a service in Bitcoins, in any country you wish because the system is globally distributed and there are no borders within the virtual peer-to-peer network that governs it.’
The currency is the technically brilliant brainchild of a shadowy figure who goes by the pseudonym of Satoshi Nakamoto. No one knows Satoshi’s true identity but this is of less importance than you might think as Bitcoin is essentially a mathematical protocol and set of principles that Nakamoto released in open source form back in 2009. Bitcoins (BTC) are created by a process called mining, which involves computers solving incredibly complex mathematical problems. These processes require intense amounts of computational power, not to mention the accompanying electricity bills, which deliberately restricts the rate at which Bitcoins can be created. This ensures scarcity, which in turn controls inflation and helps protect the value of the currency. In many ways it mimics the old nature of Gold as a currency, where it would be found reasonably easily at first, then become increasingly difficult as sources depleted, requiring more advanced machinery to excavate the deeper lying supplies.
‘What Bitcoin can do in theory,’ argues Katherine Mangu Ward, editor of Reason magazine, ‘is protect people from their own governments. Right now the Federal Reserve can make money less valuable – the money you have, that you’ve earned – just by devaluing the currency. In theory what Bitcoin does is take that power away from the Government and gives it to individuals’.
Bitcoins are a limited commodity that has no central government or bank to issue new units – they can only be created by the completion of tasks – and if companies build supercomputers to mine more efficiently, then the algorithm notices this and adjusts the difficulty accordingly to protect the currency and maintain a steady rate of creation. It’s an incredibly complicated, admittedly confusing, system, but it needs to be if the currency is to remain stable and secure in the long run. In fact there is an actual total limit to the amount of BTC that will ever exist – 21 million – but this is not due to be reached until 2140.
This isn’t the first time that something like this has been attempted. The now ubiquitous Paypal actually set out initially with the vision to be a stateless currency.
‘This was the dream of Paypal,’ Katherine Mangu Ward confirms, ‘to be a currency outside of governments. The weak-point of Paypal was that there was a central place that could be shut down. You could go to the Paypal servers and say ‘we’re gonna clamp down on this’. Bitcoin is different. It’s stored on lots of different computers, it’s a diffuse peer-to-peer technology, so there’s no one place you can go’.
The anonymous, unregulated nature of Bitcoin has brought its fair share of controversy, with the most famous involving an Australian website that traded contraband solely through the online currency. The Silk Road was thought to be earning over £1 million per month from the sale of goods including cocaine, cannabis, heroin, and for a time even guns. This led US Senator Chuck Schumer to declare the currency an ‘online form of money laundering used to disguise the course of money, and to disguise who’s both selling and buying the drug’. Online gambling sites have also appeared, with Bitcoins as their payment of choice. One of the biggest, Ireland based SatoshiDice, recently even reported profits of nearly £400,000 in the just the first six months of trading.
One major concern for potential investors is the actual online nature of the currency itself. In the short space of time that Bitcoin has been around there have been significant hacking attacks. Mt. Gox – the world’s largest Bitcoin Exchange – had around 500,000 coins valuing $8.75 million stolen in 2009, causing a devaluation of the currency which dropped from 17.50USD per BTC to 0.01 in the space of a day. Then a year later another Exchange – Bitfloor – was also attacked, resulting in currency worth $250,000 being stolen. Skeptics have also voiced concerns of potential vulnerabilities that will appear as new, more casual, users start to enter the Bitcoin arena, with malware already known to be circulating online.
Despite these major setbacks the trading continues on Bitcoins and as of February 2013 the currency has recovered and actually increased in value to around $30 per BTC. The financial sectors are also taking note as venture capitalists begin to invest in Bitcoin related businesses, with electronic processing service Bitpay receiving over $500,000 at the start of the year. It’s still very early days for the currency, and there will undoubtedly be a few problems to overcome in the crucial next few years, but with goods and services increasingly moving online, and confidence in the banking sector seriously eroded, maybe Bitcoin has emerged at just the right time?
Over the past two years around ninety people – some as young as sixteen years old – have been arrested in the US, UK, and mainland Europe for online criminal activities relating to the hacktivist group Anonymous. The charges they face range from disabling commercial websites, stealing sensitive information such as credit card details, to attacking government security sites. In March 2012 one of the leaders of the spin-off group called Lulzsec was arrested and has subsequently become an informant for the FBI in exchange for leniency, which has led to more arrests. It marks a significant moment in the fight against these new breed of activists, but the story behind them isn’t a simple case of young, technologically skilled kids with malicious intent. Some of them have a cause.
Ever since the dawn of computers there have been hackers. In fact many of the advances in technology and the internet have come from people who wanted to take something apart to understand how it worked, or use technology in ways that its creators never intended. Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook all were birthed in environments such as these, with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak famous for selling little blue boxes that hacked the US telephone system and allowed their customers to make long distance calls for free.
There are also those who use these skills to make people’s life a misery, steal information, or generally wreak havoc. These are the reason we have firewalls, virus scanners and emails from Nigerian princes who want to give you a million pounds if you’ll just hand over your bank details. Somewhere between these extremes is another class of hacker, whose motives are considered noble by some and criminal by others. They are the Hacktivists, a modern equivalent of the political protesters, who instead of picketing embassies or wielding banners outside corporate headquarters conduct their campaigns over the internet with arguably more profound results.
The origins of the term Hacktivist comes from, depending which reports you believe, a hacker collective amusingly named The Cult of the Dead Cow. The name joined the words Hacker and Activist together in 1996 to describe people who had a political agenda for their digital infiltrations. Of course the name didn’t create the movements involved – there were recorded politically motivated hacks as early as 1989 – but it did give a distinction from those who attacked websites for personal gain. The causes that the early Hacktivists pursued included nuclear disarmament, a mass attack on the Indonesian government to highlight the conditions in East Timor, a series of hacks championing those murdered in the Acteal Massacre in Mexico by a paramilitary death squad, plus the Guy Fawkes day attack on the UK Government in 1994 protesting about the proposed Criminal Justice Bill, which disabled the official website for a full week.
The common weapon of the hacktivist is a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, which essentially bombards the target servers with thousands of page requests (similar to masses of people sitting on the site and continually pressing refresh) which overloads and crashes the site. The idea is likened to a virtual sit-in and seen as disruptive rather than destructive because the target sites aren’t damaged, no information is stolen, but the volume of requests causes them to shut down, thus preventing anyone from gaining access.
If there’s one group that has become more famous than any other then it has to be Anonymous, who first announced themselves to the world in 2008 via a Youtube video which declared war on the church of Scientology (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCbKv9yiLiQ). The motivation behind this sudden conflict related to an internal promotional video for the Church, starring Tom Cruise, which had been leaked onto the internet. The content was embarrassing for the organisation and their notoriously aggressive legal team immediately began issuing take-down orders to any site that hosted the video with threats of legal action if they didn’t comply. This struck at the very heart of issues that hackers at Anonymous held sacred – free speech and non-censorship. Their video response threatened to destroy Scientology ‘for the good of your followers, for the good of mankind’, marking the beginning of a sustained campaign of DDoS attacks, phone pranks, and eventually culminating with a call to arms for followers to take to the streets and picket Scientology offices around the world. This seemed a potentially embarrassing move for a secretive and disparate collective of hackers. So It came as a massive surprise then when the day arrived and over 10,000 people assembled in several major cities across the globe, many wearing the adopted mark of Anonymous – a Guy Fawkes mask similar to the one that appeared in the movie V for Vendetta. Hacktivism had left the murky realms of basements and bedrooms and come out onto the streets.
Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman recently stated in the excellent documentary ‘We are Legion – the Story of the Hacktivists’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWP2WwLGbWc) that ‘Prior to Anonymous, critics of the Church still had to be very, very careful because of the aggressive lawsuits that were launched against academics, journalists, and other critics. I would say that era is over, and Anonymous more than any other sort of intervention is responsible for that change’.
2010 saw the political whistleblower site Wikileaks release confidential communication records between the US state department and various representatives overseas. The move was highly controversial and caused widespread condemnation from the US government. In response pressure was put on Amazon, PayPal, Visa and Mastercard to remove services from Wikileaks – effectively hiding the site, freezing assets, and preventing supporters from financially donating to the organisation. Anonymous saw this as an attempt to censor the truth, and for federal and corporate bodies to crush those that would question them. The hackers quickly launched an offensive and armed their various activists with a program called the Low Orbit Ion Cannon, which made it incredibly easy to execute DDoS attacks without the need for technical or coding ability. In no time at all the sites of Paypal, Visa, and Mastercard were shut down, causing the companies losses which Paypal recently claimed to be in the region of £3.5 million. After continued attacks PayPal released the funds that it had held back from Wikileaks, although it did not reactivate the account.
These levels of aggression, as well as their public nature, saw the FBI, Interpol and other law enforcement agencies double their efforts to hunt down members of the group. It also marked the appearance of another Hacktivist called the Jester, a self proclaimed ex-US military operative who had previously targeted anti-American sites such as those linked to the Taliban. Angered by what he/she regarded as Wikileaks ‘attempting to endanger the lives of our troops’ The Jester launched a series of Denial of Service attacks on the Wikileaks site and also crossed swords with Anonymous.
It was surprising then that in the midst of these turbulent days the movement had what many believe was its finest hour. After Wikileaks released the communiques the site was promptly blocked by the Tunisian government. Further investigation of events in the North African country revealed alleged incidences of censorship, Facebook hacking to alter anti-government statements and also track the identities of those speaking out against the leadership. Anonymous members, working with fellow hacktivist group Telecomix, took out several official sites, and provided Tunisians with tools to avoid detection while online. The Tunisian president Ben Ali also had his servers hacked by activists and the information sent to Wikileaks for them to display on their site. Finally the dictatorship toppled under the weight of online attack, social media broadcasts of the conditions, and powerful civil protest from the Tunisian people.
One Anonymous member who calls herself ‘Homocarnula’ said of the Tunisian uprising ‘There’s a video where they are thanking us for being involved, holding up a mask saying we were the only ones that stood by their side. For me it was awesome to hear that and feel the connection.’
This first chapter in the Arab Springs uprising gave courage to those in Egypt who were also fighting to remove their ensconced dictatorship. In retaliation the government forces tried to eliminate internet access for the whole nation so that the people would be prevented from using social media to organise themselves and bring attention of their plight to the world. Again Anonymous and Telecomix worked hard to ensure that the footage of protesters clashing with aggressive government forces in the streets reached audiences outside the country. They also created various dial-up web access points, taught Egyptians how to validate SSL keys and certificates to circumvent the imposed restrictions, and launched their own DDoS attacks on government websites. Google also showed their hacker roots when they added support to the Egyptians by creating the Speak2Tweet service which enabled them to call certain numbers and leave their stories, which were subsequently posted on Twitter. When President Mubarak eventually ceded power, those that had fought with the Egyptian people in the digital realms knew that although their role wasn’t pivotal in the overthrow, it was certainly significant.
Sadly these methods may be required again, as reports coming out of Syria at the end of November 2012, show that the failing government has adopted the same tactics of restricted internet access. Google and Twitter have already reactivated the Speak2Tweet service, only time will tell whether the hacktivists rejoin the fight.
One of the most impressive things about the exploits of Anonymous is that they were, and remain today, a leaderless collection of hackers and activists who come together in response to perceived injustices, then work for a time until the operation is over. They have no meet-ups, membership programs, or stated agenda. This is how they remain Anonymous. There is a bulletin-board style site at Anonnews.org where ideas for causes are posted, but that’s about as centralised as things become. This is the organisation’s strength, but it can also be a problem, as it means hackers can do things under the banner of Anonymous that might not seem quite as justifiable as the Arab Springs and Wikileaks campaigns. In 2008 a famous incident occurred were members who thought that Anonymous had grown too serious and lost it’s sense of fun decided to hack epilepsy forums and post animated giffs that flashed black and white and could induce seizures in sufferers visiting the site. There have also been factions within the group who have decided to follow a more destructive path.
In 2011 a splinter group of Anonymous called Lulzsec appeared and went on what they termed ‘50 Days of Lulz’ where they hacked a wide range of sites just for laughs. Targets included Sony (from whom they stole thousands of customer account details), several game companies, and porn site Pron.com from whom they stole account details which they subsequently made public. They also attacked the sites of government agencies such as the CIA, US Senate, NHS, and the Serious Organised Crime Agency, seemingly in a display of their technical abilities and to highlight the shortcomings in their target’s security. When the fifty days were over the group announced to the world that they had completed their objectives and would now disband. The attacks ceased, and as quickly as they had appeared, the destructive force of Lulzsec vanished. At least until Hector Xavier Monsegur was finally caught by the FBI and revealed as the notorious hacker ‘Sabu’, a leader in the organisation. His evidence led to the arrests of five other members of the group, which was rumoured to only have seven in total.
With Lulzsec now seemingly all but gone, and Anonymous being hunted down by the authorities, you might think that this sudden escalation in coordinated attacks would begin to decline. But Anonymous isn’t such an easy enemy to dispel, and the worldwide nature of their followers and activists means that for every one the police detain there could be a hundred others to take their place. The nature of protest is changing and a growing dissatisfaction with corporate control, coupled with our continued transition to an online existence means they will be a force to be reckoned with for some time to come. As they once said of themselves ‘We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.’
A version of this post originally appeared as part of a new series of features called News Viewpoint that I write for the PC Advisor website and also appears in the March 2013 issue of the print magazine – yes, I know that’s in the future, but the way magazines work is a mysterious form of sorcery. To see the original click HERE or pop out to your local newsagent and purchase the rather splendid magazine itself.