Tag: hacktivism

Pirates, Hackers, and Terrorists

A hypothesis: Pirates, hackers, and terrorists are perennial actors in international relations. They will never be permanently defeated; the frontier will never be permanently settled.

The underlying material reason that these actors exist is actually quite simple. Each of these (Weberian) ideal type actors emerges as a consequence of the (proto-capitalist or industrial-capitalist) overproduction and networking of standardized technologies. [I am considering them as separate types even though they may overlap in practice.] Overproduction and networking creates vulnerabilities as access is dispersed and familiarity increases. Technologies may be reverse engineered, hijacked, or even commandeered if there is sufficient familiarity with the operational system. As technologies that connect people and places experience a paradigmatic shift, waves of piracy, hacking, and terrorism will recede until the new technology once again becomes overproduced, common, and accessible.

Although each type of actor has occasionally been licensed and/or supported and sheltered by state actors, state support for terrorism, hacking, and pirating is not critical. State support may enhance the lethality and frequency of activities but the activities are not dependent on state support. It is worth considering that the withdrawal of state sponsorship may actually create greater instability as happened in the Caribbean for example from the 16th to the 18th century when unemployed privateers would turn to piracy in peacetime. While some of these activities can be materially lucrative (e.g. ship piracy and ransom), they may be motivated by other psychological factors such as an anti-social disposition or a politico-religious ideology for example. State counter-actions may work to displace the physical and virtual sites from which pirates, hackers, and terrorists operate, but new sites will always emerge even if particular actors or organizations are dismantled. The reason is that the panoptic powers of states are never uniform and cooperation between states is often ephemeral in global politics.

Computer or cell phone hacking seems to be a relatively new and distinct activity, but before hacking there was phreaking of the 2600 Hz variety and hacking is basically a new label for burglary, espionage, and sabotage.  As computer programs are merely solvable mathematical equations, any computer system can be hacked — just as any lock can be picked — if there is the possibility of access. And access is always a possibility.

Okay, so what does all of this mean? I am not sure, which is why this is just being posted as a hypothesis, but here are some tentative thoughts…

First, it means that those who believe that drones and biometrics will pacify the “non-integrated gap” fail to understand the political economy of technology. While technology and biopolitics may temporarily calm a restive area, that technology will eventually be overcome. Drones and biometric devices will be hacked and pirated. These technologies which are currently giving states an advantage, if they continue to proliferate, will most likely be used against state actors in the future.

Second, while ideology or religion may matter in recruiting/retaining individuals in these types of activities, it is important to think through the material forces that enable these activities. The argument is not to replace one form of mono-causal thinking (i.e. ideational) with another (i.e. materialist), but to think through the ways in which material resources facilitate certain types of ideologically motivated political action in a dynamic manner.

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Anonymous attacks Tunisian Government Websites

The Christian Science Monitor is reporting that the hackitivist collective [?] “Anonymous,” famous for DDOS attacks on Mastercard and Paypal after the Wikileaks Cablegate fiasco, is attacking the government of Tunisia’s website in support of the growing and increasingly violent protests there:

“But the unrest has since spread to a wide cross-section of Tunisian society, reflecting broader discontent with inequality and autocratic leaders perceived as corrupt figures who live high on the hog while blocking free expression by average Tunisians (see map showing protest locations). The pro-Wikileaks hacker group “Anonymous” has even joined the fray, launching cyber attacks on the Tunisian government.”

It is difficult to judge the impact of Anonymous so far, but it is at least an interesting show of solidarity. Although the proximate cause of the rioting is the self-immolation of a university graduate who was arrested for selling fruits and vegetables without a license, the Wikileaks documents are apparently fueling the protests (again from the Christian Science Monitor article):

“US State Department cables published by Wikileaks last month may have thrown fuel on the fire, by showing that US diplomats privately hold similar opinions of Tunisia’s leadership as many Tunisians.” 

The government crackdown includes attempts to censor social media websites which are being used to organize the protests as well as arrests of three members of the Tunisian branch of the Pirate Party:

 “A Le Monde interview with a member of the “Tunisian Pirate Party” referred to as “Sofiene” revealed a cat-and-mouse game between government censors and Internet freedom fighters and their foreign allies. Protesters are using Facebook mirror sites, proxy servers, and other means to outwit censors and get out their message, reported the French daily, an excerpt of which the Monitor translated for our non-francophone readers:

State censorship will increase, but counter-censorship is now strong. Tunisians are more and more informed, and demand information. Censorship only works if people self-censor and are afraid, or aren’t interested in the news.”

While the underlying cause of these protests remains economic (high unemployment, high food prices, and increasing integration with the sluggish European economy), the organizational form seems to be increasingly reliant on new social network technology (although at this point the protests could easily spread through other means if Internet based social networking sites were all blocked). Of course, this does not mean that the government will be toppled by the twitterati or that techno-democratization will occur in Tunisia. Having taught in a university in the Middle East when only one fax machine was allowed for the entire campus, I know that authoritarian states have a way of bringing threatening communications technologies under control and even using those technologies to facilitate surveillance and repression.

But what we are seeing is that outside actors are increasingly willing to try to help counterstrike when authoritarian states crackdown on Internet based networking technologies. In addition, Twitter, Facebook, Google, and the US government are not the only players in the game. Non-corporate/non-state networks like “Anonymous” may also become relevant actors willing to “backstop” social networking technologies (through mirror sites) and challenge the ability of repressive states to use the Internet in future dramas of global politics.

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