Deadly Sin #3: Hacktivism
In 2004, a small group of pro-Democratic activists had an idea: Why not get a bunch of users together to simultaneously load up Republican web servers at a specific time, overwhelming them? Ignoring basic questions of the law (this technique, known as a denial-of-service attack, is illegal in some jurisdictions), this is a potentially harmful, and in most contexts ultimately ineffective, strategy. I'll explain why in a moment—but first, a little history.
The first recorded semi-successful "hacktivism" incident was the Worms Against Nuclear Killers (WANK) worm, launched by Australian hackers against NASA's computers on October 16th, 1989, in ostensible protest against alleged radioactive danger associated with the Galileo probe (see Figure 5.3). Worms aren't the threat to Internet security that they used to be, but the time was when they were scary beasts. As cybercrime historian Suelette Dreyfus puts it:
- A computer worm is a little like a computer virus. It invades computer systems, interfering with their normal functions. It travels along any available compatible computer network and stops to knock at the door of systems attached to that network. If there is a hole in the security of the computer system, it will crawl through and enter the system. When it does this, it might have instructions to do any number of things, from sending computer users a message to trying to take over the system. What makes a worm different from other computer programs, such as viruses, is that it is self-propagating. It propels itself forward, wiggles into a new system and propagates itself at the new site. Unlike a virus, a worm doesn't latch onto a data file or a program. It is autonomous.
Figure 5.3 This appeared on the screens of NASA employees on October 16th, 1989. Public domain image, courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
In this case, the WANK worm took over NASA computers intermittently for two weeks and printed fake text on the screen that led users to believe that their files—often sensitive research files—had been deleted. While the worm didn't disrupt the launch of the Galileo probe, it caused a serious headache for NASA's computing staff.
There have been many defensible examples of benevolent hacktivism—most notably, hacktivism directed against government programs restricting Internet access in China and Iran. But hacktivism is ultimately about three components: skilled programmers, adequate access, and adequate bandwidth. And all three components can be purchased. None of these components necessitates a movement. In the long run, the propagation of hacktivism—and its widespread use and acceptance—would allow those with the most money to make unlimited use of it, whereas grassroots movements would be left with a disadvantage. Hacktivism can literally be bought, with no community support whatsoever.
In other words, community activists who contribute to the spread of hacktivism contribute to the spread of a new online activism where community activism matters less and government or megacorporate sponsorship matters more. We don't really want hacktivism to catch on; in the long run, that would work against us.
Besides, it doesn't usually work out so well anyway. That effort by pro-Democratic activists to shut down Republican websites? It didn't have any real effect on the election. If the approximately 40,000 participants each donated 20 bucks to a specific local race instead, the extra $800,000 probably would have made more of an impact. And if they didn't want to give money, having 40,000 volunteers on a phone bank isn't anything to sneeze at, either.