Over the last couple of weeks we have seen renewed scrutiny on elements within the cyber-underworld; most outspoken being the group of hackers under the banner of LulzSec who have gone on a very public crusade of service disruption and network infiltration for various reasons based in both ideology and frivolity.
We’ve also seen the saga take some more intriguing turns – such as the possibly unrelated but still relevant and deeply intriguing hack of Bitcoin, and the ideological rally call of “Operation AntiSec” and its initial results. The fight has even become personal for some lone-wolf hackers and security experts who are seeking to bring justice down on LulzSec themselves with some seemingly pertinent recent results.
But with no clear investigative breakthroughs, all of the ire of the authorities has focused momentarily on one 19 year old individual, Ryan Cleary, who seemingly has only a tangential relationship to current events but nonetheless has become the media’s pariah to be hung out for responsible citizens to tutt, scoff and shake their heads at the misspent youth of today whilst collectively reinforcing their own social prejudices.
If you go with the media on this one, then we are being besieged by rampaging and highly organised groups of hackers who are determined to undermine everything good and just about society in order to bring about their particular vision of anarchy and irreverence. Amongst this very public game of cat and mouse (that, for the moment at least, the hackers seem to be winning), the focus has become firmly planted on how global authorities are going to protect corporate and social interests from this new brand of internet vigilante.
What is missing from this equation, though, is recognition of the glaring betrayal of trust by corporate and government bodies that are allowing our personal data to be compromised so easily and continuously. Where is the call for more accountability from organisations that harbour or profit from our personal identities and online movements? The digital landscape continues to grow exponentially and our identities are more and more completely represented across its terrain; yet we still do not demand that the information be treated with the respect and security that should be considered mandatory to our handing over of such personal details.
Does nobody question that the attacked are also somewhat culpable in this modern saga, and that not all of the retribution should be focused solely on those individuals who openly and vocally highlight very real and glaring flaws in the current status quo? As much as we might wish to demonise groups such as LulzSec, we have to at least recognise that they are committing their crimes in a very public forum – tweeting it from the rooftops in fact – so that at least some of us might pay more attention to the fundamental requirements for both transparency and security (each according to their own context and place) that the new digital society must be founded upon.
To be clear here: those who commit crimes according to the law should be held accountable, but there is also something inspirational about the fact that, no matter what, there will always be people willing to stand up and say no to the possibility of wide-scale social injustice. This is an aspect of human social activism that shouldn’t merely be denigrated, but rather we should at least try and empathise with the reasons behind their activities and see whether or not there is a valid message to be heard that comments on the direction that modern society is (for the most part) trundling blindly towards. Believe it or not, you can penalise the perpetrators whilst at the same time considering and learning from their stated purpose.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a hacker story without bringing up the media darling Anonymous into the equation – and it is here where a few aspects of this story need to be cleared up and re-examined in a different light. If you go with the current spin then you would say that LulzSec evolved out of a schism within Anonymous; referred to here as an organisation which can actually break apart in such a way.
But Anonymous is no longer possible to pin down, it is not merely – nor ever truly was – a hacker collective in the same way that LulzSec is, it is not even any longer locatable within the minds and desires of various tech-savvy denizens of 4chan or other associated IRC channels or modes of communication. Anonymous is not an organisation, it is a medium of expression.
The original loose-collective of individuals (who will forever now be lost to the annals of history, remaining eternally anonymous) has spawned something greater than themselves; something which actually emerged organically rather than strategically, that the cosmos developed through the ideological processes inherent in our physical constitution. Anonymous can never be destroyed because it now exists as part of the collective consciousness of the new digital society; it can never be targeted as a group because there is no physical structure to focus upon; it can never be owned because as soon as something is grasped it becomes a localised manifestation with its own boundaries that remove it from the original medium of expression.
Saying this does not condone illegal behaviour, does not promote the infiltration of corporate or government networks, and actively rallies against the idea that Anonymous is only the bastion of those individuals who choose to live in the normally unseen corners of the digital landscape. Even if those who wish to identify themselves with it disagree, as a medium of expression it has no leaders; nobody to ultimately control how it can be used; no ultimate structure to rally against; no single source or location of activity. This means it can be used for both positive and negative outcomes, for both legal and illegal activity, for both (to put it bluntly) good and evil purposes.
Which is why we should not uncritically accept the notion that this modern take on the anti-authoritarian movement is something to be vehemently feared and persecuted, a scourge on modern society that must be eradicated at all costs. For to take up that crusade is ultimately to support a cultural movement against personal autonomy and freedom of expression in exchange for a very small sense of justice for relatively benign criminal activity (most of it on par with aggravated trespassing).
Will there be actions committed that are undesirable, illegal or thoroughly immature? Of course there will be, and have been, for it is the true nature of liberation to allow a space where the freedom to commit such unacceptable acts can co-exist with actions that are inspirational, righteous or socially uplifting. It is not the medium of expression that should be spoken out against, but individual manifestations which can be argued upon, debated on their true impact or – in cases where the law has been broken – dealt with by the justice system in a fair and reasonable fashion that accurately and honestly reflects the severity of their crimes rather than the hyperbolic projection of them.
What must remain throughout is the ability for all of society to partake in this discussion; not merely to accept the agendas and viewpoints of vested interests be they corporate, government, or media. We can disagree with the actions of many who fly the banner of Anonymous, or who belong to more traditional hacking collectives such as LulzSec, whilst still recognising that the issues they are highlighting are very real and important ones to be dealt with in a public forum.
The fact is, hacking like this has always and will always go on as long as there are networks in existence. The difference is that you are now being told about it, and from the mouths of the hackers themselves. Normally what happens is that organised crime syndicates access this information and you are never informed until the moment you see fraudulent charges on your credit cards; or governments at an international level fight off each others’ intrusions constantly in what amounts to the first cyber world war whilst keeping us in the dark about the true scope of these engagements. The activities you are seeing paraded out in the press over recent weeks must be cause for you to pause and consider the true implications of what is occurring – for this is not something that can be swept away by locking a few teenagers and other radicals in prison cells whilst trumpeting victory over the scourge of evil hacking that they represented.
We cannot solve these problems merely through attacking the symptoms of this modern disease. A far greater sense of accountability must be called upon in order to treat the cause of the intrusions, and whilst the hackers are being persecuted for their crimes we must also ensure that those who have been hacked admit their own shortcomings and are held accountable for breaches of personal data that they took on responsibility for in the name of capitalist profit or social governance.
There’s also a factor of personal accountability where we each must seek to better understand where, how and why we hand over personal information to be stored on digital databases on unknown servers around the globe. The fact that many of the government employees who were recently hacked in Arizona had trivial-to-crack passwords such as ‘12345’ or ‘rosebud’ highlights this element of personal accountability that must be pushed in the quest for greater digital responsibility.
Ultimately, a greater level of transparency should be considered vital to a truly representative democracy. Although it is problematic and potentially dangerous to approach this issue without any concern for legal process, this should not mean that we stand idly by and allow those who wish to fight for such causes to be demonised beyond any realistic assessment of their actions. When the powers that be come knocking and seek to take away more of our civil liberties in the name of protecting us from this perceived scourge (whilst at the same time using these tactics against us themselves) we must stand firm and announce that although we might disagree with their methods, we will not allow the destruction of the universal medium of expression that enables us to stand together; united under the banner of true accountability which shall result in long-lasting freedom and liberty for all members of society.
[Update: As of today – 26th June – it seems that LulzSec has taken it upon itself to disband, which is probably a very wise move when numerous global governments are baying for retribution. The AntiSec movement has seen a renewed focus because of their efforts, and the issues raised are ones we must continue to discuss openly and thoroughly.]