There has been a recent spate of news stories about attacks on computer systems of various businesses. Most of these attacks seem to be for criminal purposes, to gain access to people’s personal information to commit identity theft, credit card fraud, and the like.
But some hacker groups (such as LulzSec and Anonymous) have different motives. They recently announced that they are “uniting in a campaign aimed at banks, government agencies, and other high-profile targets, and they are encouraging others to steal and leak classified information.”
These two hacker groups are not out to steal money or business secrets on behalf of competitors or kill people. They perceive themselves as righting wrongs and, in the case of LulzSec, to have fun while doing so. LulzSec and Anonymous seem to have as their intention to attack and subvert those organizations that are seen as doing wrong and opposing transparency, and are fighting government and corporate secrecy that lies at the heart of the control systems and which enable them to get away with their crimes. This is why the US government and businesses have taken such a vicious approach to news organizations like WikiLeaks, and the term ‘cyberwars’ has started to be used
The idea of secretive people or groups acting on behalf of transparency or to help ordinary powerless people to right the wrongs perpetrated on them by powerful and evil people, institutions, and governments tends to strike a chord. They form the romantic legends of history (Robin Hood, William Tell) and are the stuff of comic book heroes with their secret identities. It is perhaps no accident that the group Anonymous uses the V for Vendetta mask as its icon.
The US and other governments cannot afford to let these groups grab the imagination of the public as being fighters for justice. It cannot run the risk that these groups will be seen as the good guys. And so there has been a campaign to confuse the transnational, anarchic, and political computer hackers with those groups that seek to use hacking for merely monetary gain or those serving the interests of one nation against another.
As part of this propaganda war, there are ominous reports that nations hostile to the US (such as North Korea, China, and Iran) may try to infiltrate the computer systems in the US and disrupt or even paralyze their military systems. We receive warnings that these are grave threats to the security of the US and hence of its people.
To me, all this fear mongering sounds eerily familiar to the way in which the war on terror was ramped up. Stoking people’s fears that their lives are in danger from vague threats is the standard mode of operation of governments that seek to control them. Could it be that that the government needs a new threat because people are getting a little jaded about the war on terror, especially since the main bogeyman Osama bin Laden is no longer around? The silly color-coded alert system has been laughed out of existence and there are increasing grumbles about the many annoying rules that airline passengers are subjected to, particularly in the US.
It is to be expected that with the ubiquity of computers and the widespread sophistication of computer users, we should see an increase in hacking. So the frequent news stories of this or that company having its systems attacked should come as no surprise. Some people will do it with criminal intent, others simply to prove that it can be done. There will be an escalating war between hackers and security systems, just as there is with ordinary crimes.
But we have to be vigilant is preserving the difference between political actions and criminal actions. The government seeks to criminalize everything that might erode its wall of secrecy, which is why it is pursuing WikiLeaks and whistleblowers with such vigor.
In the fight for democracy, the actions of political hacker groups that seek greater transparency and the exposure of wrongdoing may be one of the few means by which people can fight the trend towards increasingly dictatorial governments.