comments_image Comments

Vision: How Hacker Activists Are Risking Jail for Everyone's Right to Internet Freedom

Since WikiLeaks, authorities have been more aggressive about arresting citizen cyber activists. Yet new actions by the biggest "hacktivists" show they're willing to risk it.

Last week, British authorities arrested an alleged member of the self-proclaimed “hacktivist” collective LulzSec, accusing the 19-year-old of breaking into websites belonging to the US Senate and the CIA. Ryan Cleary, allegedly outed by “snitches,” was arrested in Essex in a joint raid with the FBI, on the same day LulzSec claimed in a blog post it had obtained the database of the entire British census. “It’s a very significant arrest,” Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson told the Independent. “The challenges around cyber crime are extraordinarily significant and deeply worrying.”

For many in mainstream culture, the concept of hacking may still invoke quaint ‘90s images of Neil Stephenson books, bad Billy Idol phases and career-best Angelina Jolie movies. But since WikiLeaks’ pro-information dominance, a spate of high-profile arrests has propelled the hacker concept back into mass consciousness, proving that not only are web “hacktivists” a hugely influential, powerful bunch, but that the powers that be are taking them ever more seriously. Last month, the US government proved how grave an offense they perceive cyber sabotage to be; in May, the Pentagon ruled that any country caught trying to hack into state systems would be considered an act of war. Matthew Broderick Pong tricks, this ain’t.

Though their methods have changed since their emergence and cultural dominance -- fanzines have been replaced with 4chan, targets range from Tumblr to State websites -- clearly hacktivists remain some of the most important and powerful subversives in the global information society. It’s ironic, too, that a hacker is at the center of one of the biggest news stories in the world: Adrian Lamo, who was cuffed in 2004 for hacking into the websites of Yahoo and Microsoft, is now best known as the man who identified -- or, as many put it, snitched on -- alleged Wikileaker Bradley Manning.

But with their power comes righteousness. While some hackers' actions are just bent on mischief -- Josh Holly, for instance, the 19-year-old who breached teen queen Miley Cyrus' email and leaked her suggestive photos -- the two largest groups, LulzSec and Anonymous, are increasingly dedicated to First Amendment ideals -- freedom of information and the right of the people to know what their government is doing in their name.  As a whole, their tactics might be a little more radical than your average protester engaging in street actions. But they're also extremely effective. This week, the two banded their amorphous groups together to declare "war" on governments and banks everywhere, stating in a manifesto, “Whether you're sailing with us or against us, whether you hold past grudges or a burning desire to sink our lone ship, we invite you to join the rebellion. Together we can defend ourselves so that our privacy is not overrun by profiteering gluttons. Your hat can be white, gray or black, your skin and race are not important. If you're aware of the corruption, expose it now, in the name of Anti-Security.” (There is, thank goodness, already an awesome, LulzSec-approved, Anti-Sec theme song, by the hacker/rapper YTCracker.) 

And the actions have already started. Yesterday, LulzSec unleashed a Wikileaks-style data-dump protesting Arizona for being what they called a "racial-profiling, anti-immigrant police state." Calling the action "Chinga La Migra" ("Fuck the Border Police"), they released "private intelligence bulletins, training manuals, personal email correspondence, names, phone numbers, addresses and passwords belonging to Arizona law enforcement." Gizmodo, the leading technology website, offered this analysis: "This is the first time LulzSec's purported to release personal information of government agents, rather than just disrupting their websites (see: CIA, US Senate). This is a powerful move. Home addresses are home addresses—about as personal as personal data gets."