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Category Archives: Hacktivism

Hacking? Wise up – this is just democracy in action

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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The Madness of Crowds: Twitter, 4Chan & Chaos Theory

We all know what chaos theory is, right? That whole schtick about a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan followed by an Indonesian volcano erupting a few days later and so forth, yeah?

Well, that’s a bit simplistic and a bit misleading, as examples go. Chaos theory is all about how a tiny event can have seemingly unrelated consequences somewhere down the line – but those events are connected. Trying to imagine the series of events that causes a butterfly flapping to set off a volcanic eruption is a bit much. But if you imagine said butterfly flap causing a small bit of air to move, and in turn that movement triggers more movement and so on, until you get to a point where a tornado may or may not form… we’re getting closer.

Why is this relevant? Because Twitter, that’s why. (And Anonymous / 4Chan but we’ll get to that in a bit). This week the marvellous Graham Linehan, writer of Father Ted (one of the greatest British comedies ever) and the nearly as brilliant IT Crowd, decided to have a bit of a laugh. As a comedy writer, this seems quite natural. So he tweeted the following:

Silly, really, but worth a chuckle. Reminded me of Chris Morris saying (live on Radio 1) that he “would let listeners know if there was any news of the death of Michael Heseltine” – but without specifically saying he was dead. Cue the predictable fawning followed by uproar. Marvelous fun.

But then it goes a bit mad. People often see what they want instead of reading something carefully. And then you get tweets like:

“So, apparently OBL was a fan of The IT Crowd? @dalehernando + I were in an episode of The IT Crowd. OBL saw my face. Mixed emotions” tomadolph May 7, 2011 at 18:58

And

“If you’ve never seen The IT Crowd, please don’t let the fact that a mass-murdering terrorist leader watched it put you off. It’s still great ” Lennon_Scented May 7, 2011 at 19:26

And these little shifts in the story get carried by the wind. And the butterfly’s wing wafts them every further afield, until suddenly it’s a story that appears in the mainstream press and everyone goes a little bit meshugah. This kind of thing isn’t new – we used to call it “Chinese whispers” – but Twitter as a medium really enables this kind of spread. Once upon a time, this kind of thing spread from group of friends to group of friends via any number of method. A hundred years ago, it might have been people talking over the garden wall; more recently it would have been “down the pub,” and now it can be over Facebook or Twitter. I can remember when every year at Glastonbury there would be some huge rumour that would start in the camp sites in the morning – you’d wake up and hear people shouting “Thatcher’s dead!” and so forth, and the rumour would persist for the weekend ‘til you got home. That was until smartphones became ubiquitous and people could check the veracity of such claims in seconds. The only difference is the time it takes to spread – what once took weeks now takes seconds.

It’s like seeing Chaos Theory, which should take reams of data spread over vast stretches of time to identify, but happening all speeded-up like a Benny Hill sketch. Follow the path of any story and it takes on tiny embellishments, changes of meaning and people’s own interpretation of the original story; then people comment on someone else’s analysis of the original story until you’re so far from the original facts that you have no chance of really grasping them.

Take a football phone-in on the radio. You listen to an opinion that’s based on a commentary they’ve heard on the radio (which is, in turn, just the commentator’s opinion of what he / she is seeing). The host adds in their take, you react, spin your own interpretation of the point of view and then repeat it to your friends down the pub / on Twitter who then repeat it to someone else… but with all the authority of having been there in person and watched the game from the bench. See also: Match of The Day. If you have watched 8 minute long highlights of a 90 minute game, your opinion that “Lucas was shit and kept giving the ball away” may not actually be as close to the truth as you think.

And so the strange movements and minute changes that, over time and space, become enormously significant once again look like our theoretically chaotic friend. Only unlike the sodding butterfly, this is an effect you can actually see.

And then there’s Anonymous. If you don’t know what Anonymous is, I don’t feel that keen to be explaining it as (a) it’s hard, (b) describing something that is the sum of millions of moving parts, all changing, breathing, reacting and crashing into each other is always going to be inaccurate and (c) I am scared of them. But I shall try. Anonymous was born out of the 4Chan message board. 4Chan is the ultimate in free speech – there are no rules and you don’t have to post under a name (most posts are from “Anonymous” although some people do choose a moniker). Posts range from discussions to Photoshopped images and range from the inane to the pant-wettingly  funny to plain creepy or shocking. Such is freedom – people can be total arseholes and they often are.

Anonymous as an “entity” (term loosely used) is when the hive mind decides to come together to pursue a common cause; it’s as if there is a tipping point (fuck off Gladwell fans, I don’t want to hear it) is reached where a point of view reaches critical mass and action is demanded. Whilst some have tried to portray Anonymous as a politically-minded entity, it is really nothing of the sort. That title indicates an agenda that is cast in stone, and as far as Anonymous is concerned the only underlying ethic that ever tied it all together was that they were “doing it for the lulz” (lulz = LOLs / laughs btw). In other words, they’re having a bit of a giggle. I first remember seeing Anonymous about 5 years ago when they started on the great Habbo Raids. This involved mass invasions of Habbo (an online kids’ virtual world kind of thing) and, shall we say, behaving somewhat inappropriately. Childish, but it made me laugh. Later came more serious matters: a white supremacist website Tom Cruise seen "shitting pants" with ragebelonging to Hal Turner got hit with a distributed denial of service attack (DDOS), costing him thousands in bandwidth charges; YouTube got hit with hundreds of porn uploads; any number of frankly silly, yet rather amusing, activities.

And then there was Project Chanology which was when the hive mind took on Scientology. When a video of Tom Cruise talking Scientology bullshit was uploaded to YouTube, the Church Of Scientology claimed copyright infringement to get it taken down. And this is the kind of attack on free speech that really gets 4Channers / Anonymous types going. And there was a war. Likewise, when Blizzard (makers of World Of Warcraft) announced that posting on their forums would require people to post under their own names rather than behind a pseudonym, Anonymous types proceeded to demonstrate the value of anonymity on the internet by hacking & posting private details of Blizzard employees and their family members. Blizzard backed down.

The fact is, when a consensus arises within Anonymous, they act. But how they get to that point is fascinating (although difficult for the casual observer) to observe. In 1991, Loren Carpenter, a leading computer engineer set up an experiment to show what a hive mind can achieve. The results were fascinating. (Stop @ 11:28 if it doesn’t stop itself)

The fact that everyone doesn’t just indicate “up” or “down” is an amazing demonstration of the hive mind. And it doesn’t just work in “yes” or “no” decisions (although that is how the individual works) but there is a point where consensus is seen as representing the group desire and accepted by the whole. And that is kind of what happens with Anonymous.

Whilst some things they do seem predictable, others fly in the face of reason. Take the delightful Westboro Baptist Church, the “Christians” that like demonstrating at soldiers’ funerals and reminding people that their God hates fags. Anonymous had already taken aim when Pastor Fred Phelps sent a message to Anonymous that laid down a challenge, goading them that they wouldn’t be able to take WBC down. And a few attacks on the WBC, over and above what was already happening, did seem to take place. And then this happened.

When some anonymous (small ‘a’) hacker goes on a news programme and purports to represent the collective, there seems to be a debate that rages on the various forums, followed by an acceptance / rejection of the “spokesman” in question. More have been disavowed than accepted, for sure. And that person’s legitimacy and platform then falls away. Think about how this would have happened had it been a club or society or organisation. There would be meetings, agreed messages, votes, appeals, whatever – a lengthy process. But these Anonymous decisions seem to happen in almost real time.

But what gets me most is how unpredictable it is. I thought when I saw the WBC goading Anonymous “Woah, get the popcorn, this is going to be fun.” And then there was this outbreak of outstanding rationality which delivered a far more humiliating blow to Phelps and his mob than any DDOS attack. But it could have gone either way – and that’s the chaos stuff. I watch marketers dropping links / videos that are clearly (to me) marketing dressed up as community postings and think “pah.” But sometimes stuff gets through. The likes of Digg, Reddit & Stumble represent potential marketing gold because of the huge potential audience but gaming the system is almost impossible as you just can’t predict what exactly the community reaction will be. Can technique improve the chances your submission will get upvoted? Yes. Can it guarantee it? Nope.

All communities over a certain size are subject to this unpredictability because once you reach a certain size there can be no single defining characteristic that overrides all other personal concerns to keep people unified. That’s why you can see enough of a political party during an election campaign to vote for them, but a couple of years later when you’ve seen all their policies in action you realise you don’t agree with X% of their activity.

Chaos theory lives large in our lives in all kinds of ways; Twitter and other social media just lets us see it writ large. But the lesson is that you can’t always manipulate things to be the way you want them to be. Some things are just… unpredictable.

 

 

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