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Hacking? Wise up – this is just democracy in action

23 Jun

Hackers – we’re all going to lose our financial information, our national security, our gaming info, our very LIVES. And it’s all their fault.

The mad bastard that started it all?

Once the reserve of honourable and lovely young men like that chap in War Games or that nice Angelina Jolie in “Hackers” the movie, now it’s the reserve of dangerous anarchic nerds and –worse – one of them is from Essex, goddamit.

You’d be forgiven for holding this view if you get your information from a media that clearly doesn’t understand what a hacker actually does, the difference between a thief and a pisstaker or the cultures that surround either. As a source of information on hacking, the media at large is distinctly underqualified.

We're in BIG trouble, people.

First of all, let’s discount the thieves. A thief is a thief – they are motivated by personal gain and their motives for said gain are not our concern here. Whether it’s a starving artist stealing to fund his art or a drug addict stealing to feed a habit or organised crime looking to amass vast piles of cash, the end result is the same – it’s just theft. When someone steals 10s of millions of bits of credit card data they are thieves. Occam’s Razor: that data is highly valuable, you most likely don’t steal it for any other reason than profit. When Sony pointed a finger at Anonymous for being a suspect in their data theft, they displayed just how little they understood about both Anonymous and data theft. Treat thieves like thieves, but be cautious about what their motive is.

The truth is, when someone steals my credit card data, this has a direct effect on me so I want justice, pitchforks and lynchings, redress and revenge. But when Gary McKinnon tries to steal UFO files I just think “Bless. He’s not really doing much harm.” In fact, the net result of McKinnon was that various government data holders wised up to the fact that a lot of their security was piss-poor. Once you subtract the thieves from the hacking, you’re left with more people like this – enquiring minds at one end of the scale, mischievous anarchists at the other. Neither make me quiver in fear in my bed.

The reason I don’t fear them is that I haven’t pissed any of them off. At least, not yet. Hacking targets are much more likely to be organisations or people that have acted badly – see Blizzard, Sony (multiple times),Scientology and The Westboro Baptist Church for details. Sony compounded their sins by attacking a teenage boy as if he was a criminal mastermind – this perceived injustice (rightly or wrongly) was never going to be allowed to stand and just poured toluene on the flames. And, just like in my chemistry lesson, it blew the fuck up. See this site for the latest.

This, then, is democracy in action. It’s just a system that we haven’t recognised up ‘til now – we usually think of voting, lobbying your MP, demonstrating, gaining media support or writing letters if we think about how to engage in government; we think of writing feedback via letters or websites or Twitter / social media, or, again, gaining a bit of media coverage if we have a problem with a brand.

Trouble is, none of it works very well.

If you’re wealthy, you can afford to lobby government. You can donate to campaign funds for a political party, or you can sponsor events or policy. These options are not open to most of us as individuals. Who listened to “the people” over companies when it came to the DMCA or control over ISPs? Who’s listening on net neutrality or education or the NHS?

So you complain your train service is rubbish. Who’s changing anything? You sign a loan agreement you can’t possibly understand because you aren’t a commercial lawyer; maybe you have the chance to challenge the hidden effects with the ombudsman, maybe you don’t. Maybe your new car starts playing up but for some reason the warranty doesn’t seem to cover it. There are any number of reasons why traditional methods for engaging with either brands or government are often insufficient – the majority of the power lies on the side of the big guy, however you look at it. That’s why Vodafone can get away with not paying a £6bn tax bill.

Yeah.

What do you do then? When you’ve exhausted the existing possibilities? Shut up and take it?

Hackers in the majority are just disaffected voters and consumers like the rest of us. Seen some government-sponsored injustice? Take action. Seen a big brand run over the little guy – stand up and defend them. Years ago, this would have just been called “direct action.” You campaigned against racism, you voted out the racists wherever you could, but you still had to go and stand on Brick Lane and defend the curry houses and the Asians from the White Power newspaper sellers and their attendant little crowds of hatred. The legal stuff had to be done, too, but you needed a physical presence the police couldn’t provide.  This was a grey area, and it still is.

Democracy requires (by definition) a free flow of information; we are meant to be informed before we make our choices. But that [Adam Curtis voice] is a fantasy. Information is carefully controlled, partly out of habit. That’s the way it’s been for years. But now we have the internet and we can exchange information quickly. Failure to be open with the official information on everything from UFOs to 9/11 has left a vacuum which is filled by – often – the ignorant rather than the informed. This helps nobody. And so Wikileaks and those like them – the hackers supreme – respond to the demand of the market and provide real information when its guardians refuse to release it. Have a look at this list of info released by Wikileaks – how many people died like governments said they would? Or are we better off for knowing? Can we be trusted to know?

Hacking and leaking are on the same spectrum. Give us the information to make the democratic choices we are told are so important. Don’t treat us badly knowing that all anyone can do is fine or reprimand you – that’s insufficient if you are walking away with enormous profits. Protect our valuable data. Don’t sell us shitty products.

Our consumer champions are no longer the likes of Esther Rantzen and ‘That’s Life’–  they were the ones I remember as a kid who picked up the consumer cause when the little guy had got nowhere. They may have struck fear into the hearts of the big brands of the 1970s, but they would be a rather blunt instrument in 2011. The lesson is this: if you don’t want to get hacked, behave better towards your public. I can’t help thinking that if, on day one of discovering their hack, Sony had said to their audience “We’ve screwed up. Please help us” a load of hackers who also love their PS3s would have joined the team. And they would have been far more effective than some of the snake-oil-selling security people that always seem to crop up in these affairs.

Hacking – the Esther Rantzen of the internet. Who’d have thunk it?

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