Hactivism: ‘Hacking With a Conscience’

In the “old days” of the early ’90s, the only message a hacker was likely to leave on a Web page was “I was here” or “Hackers rule.” But now, more and more hackers are using their tricks to spread socially conscious messages, security experts say. The trend — dubbed “hacktivism” — has shown up in a number of recent incidents:

In the “old days” of the early ’90s, the only message a hacker was likely to leave on a Web page was “I was here” or “Hackers rule.” But now, more and more hackers are using their tricks to spread socially conscious messages, security experts say. The trend — dubbed “hacktivism” — has shown up in a number of recent incidents:

— On Election Day, a Democrat hacked the Republican National Committee Web page and replaced its text with an endorsement of Vice President Al Gore.

— Hackers affiliated with Palestinian and Israeli groups have been attacking one another’s Web sites for weeks. In a particularly severe incident, a pro-Muslim hacker in Pakistan stole the credit card numbers of members of a U.S. pro-Israel lobbying group and posted them on the group’s Web page for all to see.

— During the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization last year, the “Electrohippies,” a group based in Britain, temporarily shut down the WTO’s Web site.

Some even speculate that the recent break-in to Microsoft’s source code — a serious breach of security — was not industrial espionage but hacktivism. The statement? Many programmers say that all source code should be freely available. Microsoft’s hacker may have wanted to “liberate the source code for the world,” said Richard Power, author of “Tangled Web: Tales of Digital Crime. ”

“A lot of hackers have grown up and are no longer hacking frivolously, but hacking for purpose,” said Hilmon Sorey, director of strategy for Gilian Technologies, a security firm in Redwood Shores.

About 1 in 5 hacker attacks he sees are related to “hacktivism,” a combination of hacking and activism, Sorey said.

But hackers aren’t just attacking. Some are also creating software that makes hacktivism easier for the traditional activist. For example, in China and other restrictive countries, the Web pages of organizations such as CNN and Amnesty International are often blocked. But one group is creating a program, called Hacktivismo, that would help people get around those blockades and access human rights information and news reports online.

"Oxblood Ruffin," the Canadian hacker leading the project, wants the final product to be easy to use. Like most hackers, Oxblood Ruffin masks his identity with a pseudonym. He is part of a hacker club called the Cult of the Dead Cow, one of the groups behind Back Orifice, a tool widely used for breaking into Windows networks.

“It’s going to be point-and-click, as intuitive as possible,” said Oxblood Ruffin. His team includes “Mixter,” the young German who wrote the program used in February’s “denial-of-service” attacks against Yahoo and other commercial Web sites. Hacktivismo is expected to be in beta testing by spring, although other programmers warn that it will not be easy to write.

The combination of hackers getting into activism and activists getting into hacking will be dangerous for online businesses that may be targets of both groups, said Ben Venzke, director of intelligence production for IDefense, a security firm in Fairfax, Va. Hacktivism can be much more damaging than physical protests, Venzke said.

“Say I want to block the entrance to a fast-food restaurant,” Venzke said. “With a group of activists, I might be able to block two or three restaurants in my city. How is that really going to affect the revenues of the national company? But blocking one Web site is the equivalent of blocking the entrance of every single restaurant in that chain in the entire world. You’re talking about the ability of a group of activists anywhere in the world to deny a major corporation from generating revenue.”

For years, a few small groups of socially conscious hackers have used their skills to advance social causes. The practice can be traced to 1998, when a group called the Electric Disturbance Theater conducted “virtual sit-ins” on the Web sites of the Pentagon and the Mexican government to bring the world’s attention to the plight of Indian rights in the Mexican state of Chiapas. They succeeded in blacking out these Web sites for some time using a denial-of- service attack, similar to the attacks that blocked access to Yahoo and other e-commerce sites earlier this year.

A denial-of-service attack cripples a Web site using an automated program that sends the site thousands of requests for information. The desired result is that the Web site’s servers are so swamped that they can’t carry on their regular business.

After a year of virtual sit-ins, the EDT made the software it was using available on the Internet so anyone could download and use it. Borrowing a bit of programmer’s parlance, they called it the “Disturbance Developer’s Kit.”

Within 20 minutes after the program, called Flood Net, became available, a group called Queer Nation used it to attack an anti-gay Web site, said Ricardo Dominguez, one of EDT’s leaders.

Now, new improvements on Flood Net are making the program more efficient to use, Venzke said. Flood Net was used against EToys last year in a campaign to make the Web retailer drop its lawsuit against a European artist who held the domain name etoy.com. The program is also one of many tools being used in the cyberattacks related to the Mideast conflict.

“The next step is adding a chat capability, so that while you’re taking part in an attack, you can chat with all the other cyber-activists who are taking part,” Venzke predicted. “This goes a long way in trying to get people to actively participate and stay in the attack for longer periods of time.”

Flood Net is old hat to EDT’s Dominguez. He’s looking forward to more advanced tools.

“In 2001, you will see more tools, more networks,” Dominguez said in an e- mail interview. Not all of those initiatives will be about attacking Web sites.

According to Dominguez, one program that shows hacktivism’s potential is Freenet, an independent Internet-like network that can’t be censored or controlled by the government because it has no central authority. Like music trading system Gnutella, Freenet is hosted by volunteers all over the world.

To be sure, with the tools now available, hacktivists could be causing much more damage than they already have. The program used against Yahoo and other e- commerce sites in February, Tribal Flood Network, is much more powerful than Flood Net, and it, too, is freely available.

But most hacktivist groups don’t use Tribal Flood Network. Paul Mobbs, leader of the Electrohippies, explained that because TFN allows a single person to launch a crippling attack against a Web site, it’s not democratic.

The Electrohippies prefer Flood Net, which they used to attack Monsanto and other food companies in its protests against genetic engineering.

“Our mode of action specifically means that you simultaneously need tens of thousands of people thinking the same to achieve any notable success,” Mobbs wrote on the group’s Web site, www.gn.apc.org/pmhp/ehippies.

But other groups, such as the Cult of the Dead Cow, say that no matter how many people are involved, blocking someone’s Web site — or replacing a Web site with one’s own text — violates free speech.

“That’s lame and it’s an infringement of the First Amendment,” said Oxblood Ruffin. “You don’t make a better argument by shouting them down in public.”

Oxblood Ruffin hopes that mainstream activist groups like Amnesty International will help host servers and distribute the Hacktivismo software when it is completed. While Venzke says he has seen offline activist groups recruiting hackers at conferences like DefCon, groups like Amnesty International say for the record that they won’t touch hacktivism.

“That’s something I’m sure that Amnesty activists would not be involved in. Especially not if it entails something illegal,” said Susan Forste, Amnesty International’s Web coordinator.

But Amnesty’s offline tactics tend to steer clear of civil disobedience too, Forste noted.

More radical groups like Berkeley’s Ruckus Society, which trains activists for on-the-ground protests, are more open to the idea of hacktivism.

“It would really depend on the goal and the intent,” said Ruckus Society program director Han Shan. “We are planning a camp in the next year or so where we will hopefully explore the frontiers of activism. I’m sure we will be touching on hacktivism.”

Carrie Kirby is a San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer.

e-mail Carrie Kirby at ckirby@sfchronicle.com

Author: Carrie Kirby

News Service: SF Gate

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2000/11/20/BU121645.DTL

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