October 31, 1998
`Hacktivists' of All Persuasions Take Their Struggle to the Web
By AMY HARMON
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
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
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
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
"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
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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