`Hacktivists' of All Persuasions Take Their Struggle to the Web

James Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sat Oct 31 05:47:31 PST 1998

October 31, 1998

`Hacktivists' of All Persuasions Take Their Struggle to the Web


U ntil they declared "Netwar" against the Mexican government,

Ricardo Dominguez and Stefan Wray earned their activist credentials

the old-fashioned way, attending rallies in support of the

Zapatista rebels, handing out pamphlets, shouting political


Christine M. Thompson


Now, the two New Yorkers organize "virtual sit-ins" and recruit

computer programmers to attack the World Wide Web sites of any

person or company they deem responsible for oppression. Their new

rallying cry: "The revolution will be digitized."

Wray, 37, and Dominguez, 39, are co-founders of the Electronic

Disturbance Theater. It is one of several groups around the world

that are beginning to experiment with computer hacking, so far

largely nuisance attacks and the equivalent of electronic graffiti,

as a means to a political end.

"We see this as a form of electronic civil disobedience," Wray told

a group of about 75 people who had gathered in New York's East

Village for an "anti-Columbus Day" event in October. "We are

transferring the social-movement tactics of trespass and blockade

to the Internet."

The notion is a departure for both radical activists and hackers,

whose distinct, subversive subcultures have rarely intersected

until recently. In some ways, the two psychologies are polar


Hackers, while reliably anti-authoritarian, tend to limit their

critique of the military-industrial complex to its imperfect

computer security apparatus. Enamored of their image as the cowboys

of the electronic frontier, most at least pay lip service to the

hacker mantra, "information wants to be free."

But whatever capacity they might have to disrupt the social order

has so far been largely restricted to pointless vandalism and

pinching the occasional credit card number.

Political activists, on the other hand, preoccupied as they are

with the power structure, have typically paid little heed to the

information infrastructure on which it rests. Motivated by the

desire for social change, they generally see building communities

of support and cooperation as essential.

But the rapid growth of the Internet has transformed what was once

a hacker playground into, among other things, a far-reaching

political platform. What's more, the tricks invented by hackers

have become easier for activists to learn and adopt because they

are now widely published on how-to Web sites.

As a result, radical groups are discovering what hackers have

always known: Traditional social institutions are more vulnerable

in cyberspace than they are in the physical world. Likewise, some

members of the famously sophomoric hacker underground are finding

motivation in causes other than ego gratification.

In recent months, groups as diverse as the Animal Liberation Front,

a militant animal-rights group; Radio4All, which supports pirate

broadcasting, and international teams of teen-agers with cyber

pseudonyms like Milworm and causes like anti-imperialism have

increasingly begun pumping political protest through the Internet's

security holes.

On Oct., 27, a day after China's human rights agency announced its

new Web site, the official view of that nation's human rights

record was replaced with an electronic trespasser's manifesto:

"China's people have no rights at all, never mind human rights. How

can the United States trade millions and millions of dollars with

them and give them most-favored trade status when they know what is


Earlier in October, computer intruders scrawled "Save Kashmir" over

the opening screen of a Web site that the Indian government set up

last summer to provide information about the region, whose

ownership is disputed by Pakistan and several separatist groups.

The hacked site included photographs of Kashmiris allegedly killed

by Indian forces, overlaid with the words "massacre" and

"extra-judicial execution."

In June, after the Indian government conducted nuclear tests,

college students in Britain and the Netherlands claimed credit for

placing the image of a mushroom cloud on the Web site of India's

major nuclear weapons research center.

In September, Portuguese hackers modified the sites of 40

Indonesian servers to display the slogan "Free East Timor" in large

black letters, and they added hypertext links to Web sites

describing Indonesian human rights abuses in the former Portuguese


No slouches in packaging and self-promotion, the burgeoning

computer underground has adopted a catchy term for the trend: they

call it "hacktivism."

"Hacktivism is a way to be heard by millions," a group of three

Mexican hackers known as X-Ploit wrote in an e-mail message to a

reporter. "We want to speak out about what we and many, many people

disagree with in this treasonous and corrupt government. If we

protest both on line and off line, we'll have better chances to see

a change."

The tactic is not limited to one end of the political spectrum. A

group of Serbian computer hackers this month claimed responsibility

for crashing a Web site promoting the ethnic Albanian cause in the

Serbian province of Kosovo. The Serbian newspaper Blic quoted one

of the hackers as saying, "We shall continue to remove ethnic

Albanian lies from the Internet."

Wednesday, the group, called Black Hand, after a clandestine

Serbian military organization at the turn of the century, attacked

the site of the Croatian state-owned newspaper Vjesnik. Croatian

hackers counterattacked the next day, inserting messages like "Read

Vjesnick and not Serbian books" on the Web site of the Serbian

National Library, Vjesnik reported Friday.

Guerrilla attacks on Web sites may seem more of a headline-grabbing

ploy than true information warfare. But security experts said the

recent spate of digital vandalism underscores the risk to companies

and governments that increasingly rely on the Internet for commerce

and communication.

"What this demonstrates is the capacity of groups with political

causes to hack into systems," said Michael Vatis, chief of the

National Information Protection Center, a new federal agency formed

to protect the nation's crucial infrastructure. "I wouldn't

characterize vandalizing Web sites as cyber-terrorism, but the only

responsible assumption we can make is there's more going on that we

don't know about."

Established by Attorney General Janet Reno this year, the center is

in part a response to the perception that "political forces which

could not take on the United States in conventional military terms

stand a better chance on an electronic battlefield," said Vatis.

The potency of the sling-shot approach is not lost on would-be

hacktivists, either. "If you have 10 people at a protest, they

don't do much of anything," said a Toronto-based computer jockey

who calls himself Oxblood Ruffian. "If you have 10 people on line,

they could cripple a network."

Oxblood is a member of Cult of the Dead Cow, a hacker group that

recently reserved the Web address www.hacktivism.org as an Internet

distribution hub for tools to assist others in subversive digital

activism. He said the group was planning to attack the Internet

operations of U.S. companies doing business with China.

But the effectiveness of such actions is unclear, prompting a

debate over how best to implement the hacktivist brand of political


Under U.S. law, terrorism is defined as an act of violence for the

purpose of intimidating or coercing a government or a civilian

population. And breaking into a computer system and altering data

are felonies.

For that reason, the members of the Electronic Disturbance Theater

emphasize that the software they use to attack Web sites disrupts

Internet traffic but does not destroy data. In the tradition of

civil disobedience protests, they encourage mass participation and

use their real names.

The group was forged in an online discussion among several American

supporters of the Zapatistas, the first armed revolutionaries known

to have solicited public sympathy for their struggle by publishing

their communiques over the Internet.

On Nov. 22, the group says, it plans to attack the Web site of the

School for the Americas, a U.S. Army training center for foreign

military personnel, some of whom have been accused of human rights


Recent targets have included the sites of Mexican President Ernesto

Zedillo and of the U.S. Defense Department.

When online activists heed the call to "commence flooding!" they

visit the group's Web site and click on an icon that launches a

program called FloodNet. The software points their Web browser to

the target of the attack, where it requests the same page over and

over again at a rate of about 10 times per minute.

This tactic is a variation of what is known in Internet

security-speak as a "denial of service attack." An unusually large

volume of requests will overwhelm the computer that is serving up

the target's Web pages. This can cause legitimate visitors to see

error messages instead of the pages they are seeking, and it can

even crash the server computer.

"This isn't cyber-terrorism," insisted Carmin Karasic, a Quincy,

Mass., software engineer who designed the FloodNet program. "It's

more like conceptual art."

The U.S. Defense Department does not agree. Alerted to a planned

FloodNet attack on its public site on Mexican Independence Day, the

agency responded by diverting the requests to a nonexistent

Internet address, a spokesman said.

"If it wasn't illegal it was certainly immoral -- there are other

constructive methods of electronic protest," the spokesman said.

The victims of such attacks are not the only ones to criticize the

digital desperados. In their quest for support from a public

already suspicious of hackers and anxious about online safety, some

political activists deride such methods as counterproductive.


Barbara Alper for The New York Times

Increasingly, activists have adopted computer hacking as a tool.

Stefan Wray, Carmin Karasic and Ricardo Dominguez of the Electronic

Disturbance Theater spoke at a panel discussion in New York this



And hackers faithful to the ethic of electronic exploration for its

own sake deride Web site intrusions as the work of "script

kiddies," an epithet for people who break into systems by using

schemes developed by others rather than by searching out new

security holes of their own. Script kiddies have been responsible

for a recent surge in attacks throughout the Internet -- of which

politically motivated hacks are a small fraction.

But in e-mail and telephone interviews, several hackers promoting a

political agenda -- all of whom refused to give their real names --

insisted that their motives were pure.

"We have hundreds of servers we could hack, and we don't," said

Secretos, a Portuguese hacker in his early 20's whose group, the

Kaotik Team, has taken up the cause of East Timor independence. "By

contrary, we even help them to fix their bugs. The main objective

of our hacking pages is to transmit the message. It is not, 'We are

groovy, we have power."'

John Vranesevitch, editor of Antionline, an Internet publication

that tracks hacker activities, said the apparent political

awakening among hackers reflects a generation's coming of age.

"We're starting to see right now the first generation of people who

have grown up on the Internet," said Vranesevitch, who at 19 counts

himself among that group. "These hackers are entering the ages

where people are most politically active. This is their outlet."

And some are trying to make that outlet more accessible. A

26-year-old University of Toronto dropout calling himself Perl

Bailey, after a computer language popular among Web developers,

said he had earned a living as a software developer and had dabbled

in not entirely legal computer exploration for several years. Now,

he is writing a tool to arm computer novices with basic hacktivist


"After you reach a certain point, it feels like you are dressed up

with nowhere to go," he said. "I want to make people doing

questionable business dealings with countries that have no respect

for human rights worry that someone who doesn't have a grade school

education can sit down and go click-click and create havoc. To me

that to me is very powerful."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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