Talking LulzSec and hacktivism on Triple J’s “Hack”

Triple J logoOn Tuesday, Triple J’s current affairs program Hack decided to take a look at hacktivism more generally in the wake of Matthew Flannery’s arrest — and boy was it a shemozzle!

I was interviewed for half an hour or more. Also interviewed were independent journalist and “chaos magnet” Asher Wolf, and Nigel Phair from the Centre for Internet Safety. Snippets of all that were used in the package that introduced the live studio debate. Fairly standard stuff. But…

When I listened to the program go to air, I was frustrated. Very frustrated. The discussion didn’t really go beyond “Is hacktivism good or what? Yep it is!” “No it’s not.” “Oh it is!” And with the benefit of hindsight, I think that’s because the discusion was framed the wrong way.

“Do you think that some targets are legitimate? Are groups like Anonymous a force for good? Or do you reckon that it’s a slippery slope to say that one kind of hacking is acceptable, but others are cyberterrorism?” asked presenter Sophie McNeill as she introduced the segment. Those positioning questions were repeated several times, and they kinda miss the point.

This framing pre-supposes that there’s a single, clearly-identifiable activity that we can point to and call “hacktivism”. It positions hacktivism as a neutral tool, and whether it’s legitimate to use this tool or not depends on the legitimacy of the target as an object to attack.

I guess that in this framing, hacktivism is like a baseball bat. It’s OK to hit baseballs with it, but not the fragile skulls of newborn infants. But it’s not.

Hacktivism is just the application of hacker techniques to political activism and, as the Wikipedia article points out, it covers a lot of territory.

There’s using “neat hacks” like encryption and tools to preserve anonymity to help protect the organisers of the activism. There’s the provision of alternative internet access when the government cuts off the official methods, as happened in Egypt. There’s the mirroring of otherwise censored websites to protect free speech, or setting up parody sites to mock the opponents, or spreading disinformation.

Then there’s denial of service (DoS) attacks to disrupt the opponents’ communications. And, yes, there’s the break-and-enter kind of hacking, the results of which can range from relatively harmless website defacements to the theft and “liberation” of large slabs of information — which can of course make collateral-damage victims of any individuals caught up in that process.

There’s a spectrum of behaviour there, from straightforward and long-established ways of supporting freedom of speech to edgier activities that in any other context would simply be labelled vandalism, criminal damage or worse.

If you lump all that together as a single activity, “hacktivism”, and then ask whether it’s legitimate to direct that activity in support of a particular political objective, well, the answer will depend on whether you agree with that objective or not.

“Stilgherrian says there’s a few examples where hacktivism has been really legit, like during the Arab Spring,” said journalist Julia Holman. Sure — apart from the phrase “really legit” — but not because having a disagreeable government justifies vandalism.

The hackerish acts I meant were those directed to keeping the communications channels open and organising a fairly traditional street uprising. The rest of the planet has agreed that freedom of speech is pretty fundamental stuff. They also seemed to agree that this conflict had turned hot. People were being killed, and when that starts happening it’s gloves-off all round.

I’ve included the audio of the entire discussion here, so you can listen for yourself. I’d be interested to know what you think, and whether this discussion frustrates you as much as it frustrated me.

A shout-out to Paris

First, though, I must give a special shout-out to Paris, whose hilariously out of touch comment was read on air: “This is the only form of activism our generation has… Our petitions are ignored. Anonymous is able to do justice to people who have lost a voice.”

No, Paris, all the traditional methods of political lobbying and activism still work just fine — well, in their creaky, democratic way.

It was good ol’ political lobbying of the government, and associated PR efforts in the media, that brought the controversial mandatory data retention proposals to a halt in this election year, not the vandalism of completely unrelated Queensland government websites. It was Senator Scott Ludlam asking intelligent questions of the Attorney-General’s Department in parliamentary committees, not stupidly confusing the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) with the Queensland Department of State Development (DSD).

The trick, Paris, is to put down the hacker DoS hammer every now and then, because not everything is a nail. Choose one of the other, more appropriate, tools of democracy from the shelf when circumstances require.

Play

Note: Dr Suelette Dreyfus from the University of Melbourne, a long-time observer of hacktivism, provided a significantly narrower definition of hacktivism in the program: “Hacking, in the terminology that is used in everyday reporting, which is not necessarily what the original term was, is about unauthorised access to computers and computer systems. Hacktivism is really about engaging in that, but with a political or social message.”

The audio is of course ©2013 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I’ve extracted the hacktivism segment to present here, but you can go to the ABC website for the full 30-minute episode (MP3).

Talking LulzSec and more on ABC Download This Show

ABC logoMy third radio spot for this busy radio week was Marc Fennell’s Download This Show, which we recorded on Wednesday morning.

Can you imagine being able to control a crematorium, a powerstation or traffic lights somewhere out the world from your laptop? Welcome to the mysterious search engine Shodan. If Google is the search engine for web pages than Shodan is the Google of “things”. Also in this episode we examine the state of Lulzsec in Australia and experiment with the new crowdsourcing app SeeSaw.

My fellow panellist was Claire Porter, technology editor for News.com.au. And here’s the full audio.

Play

The audio is ©2013 Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and it’s served here directly from the ABC website.

Weekly Wrap 151: Anzac, alcohol and little yellow birds

Eastern Yellow Robin, again; click to embiggenMy week Monday 22 to Sunday 28 April 2013 was interesting, to say the least. And psychologically exhausting.

That’s part of the reason I’m only getting around to posting this today. Another part is that I simply couldn’t be arsed. But here it is.

I didn’t write anything about Anzac Day, because I’ve written it all before in Anzac Day Rememberings and Anzac Day 2009: Sacrifice. Instead, I had a relaxing holiday — that turned out to be a tad too indulgent, but then I do have a working liver. For now.

The next day, Friday, I received some unexpected good news that has the potential to Change Everything. Well, maybe not everything, but it certainly changes one of the fundamental assumptions that had framed my thinking about my life for the next year. All the thoughts this stirred caused the psychological exhaustion — and there’s still plenty more to think through. No, I can’t tell you what it is.

Articles

Media Appearances

Corporate Largesse

None.

The Week Ahead

Well, Monday and Tuesday have already happened. Ho hum. Tomorrow, Wednesday, I’m taking an early train to Sydney to record Marc Fennell’s Download This Show at 1000, and then there’s a lunchtime briefing. On Thursday there’s the Optus Vision 2013 event. Whether I stay in Sydney overnight between the two remains to be seen. Friday onwards is unplanned.

[Photo: Eastern Yellow Robin, again, one of the fast-moving Eopsaltria australis photographed at Bunjaree Cottages near Wentworth Falls, 100km west of Sydney.]

Talking Twitter and LulzSec on ABC Local Radio

ABC logoOn Wednesday night I ended up having a long, rambling chat on the radio about Twitter’s new advertising deal and the arrest of an alleged hacker who apparently claimed to be the leader of LulzSec.

This conversation was broadcast on ABC Local Radio around NSW, the presenter was the redoubtable Dom Knight. We begin with Twitter, and then move on to the alleged-hacker’s arrest at around 12 minutes 50 seconds in.

Play

The audio is of course ©2013 Australian Broadcasting Corporation, archived here because it isn’t being archived anywhere else.

Weekly Wrap 102: Infosec and interference

My week from Monday 14 to Sunday 20 May 2012 was mostly about the AusCERT information security conference and a blur of returning pain thanks to my dodgy shoulder.

As I finish compiling this post, I’ve still got lots of AusCERT material to produce and Monday looks like being intense. So let’s just list everything and see what happens.

Podcasts

  • Patch Monday episode 138, “Anonymous ‘crippled’: where to for hacktivism?”. Following last week’s conversation with Israeli information security researcher Tal Be’ery about hacktivists’ tactics, I spoke with former journalist and commentator Barrett Brown, who has worked with Anonymous for about a year and a half. He discusses Anonymous’ position in the wake of revelations that Sabu, a core member and informal leader of the offshoot hacking group LulzSec, had become an FBI informant.

Articles

These are just the first two articles from my AusCERT coverage. More will follow.

Videos

Media Appearances

Corporate Largesse

  • AusCERT 2012 conference organisers and sponsors paid for various meals and drinks, but I didn’t keep track of that. While that means I can’t disclose who paid, it also means I can’t be influenced because I can’t remember who’s meant to be doing the influencing. Complete market failure, that.

The Week Ahead

There’s a couple of days of intense writing and production ahead. At the very least there’s two or three articles about AusCERT 2012 and the Patch Monday podcast. Then there’s a piece to do for CSO Online, and one for Technology Spectator.

I should be returning to Wentworth Falls this evening, but I plan to be back on Wednesday night to go to a paintball session with Eugene Kaspersky and other journalists. That could be weird. And I’ll probably be in Sydney again at the end of the week, but that hasn’t been planned out yet.

Elsewhere

Most of my day-to-day observations are on my high-volume Twitter stream, and random photos and other observations turn up on my Posterous stream (or they used to before my phone camera got a bit too scratched up) and via Instagram. The photos also appear on Flickr, where I eventually add geolocation data and tags. Yes, I should probably update this stock paragraph to match the current reality.

[Photo: Airbus A320-232 VH-VGY at Gold Coast airport, the aircraft I traveled in on Saturday. Check out the complete history of VH-VGY at FlightAware.]

[Update 26 May 2012: Links added to last weekend’s audio recordings, added earlier today as separate blog posts. Update 3 June 2012: Link added to Tom Davey’s radio report.]

Weekly Wrap 101: Codeine and counter-surveillance

My week from Monday 7 to Sunday 13 May 2012 was less productive than it might have been thanks to my shoulder being “out” for a few days, resulting in severe pain. No, I don’t mean I have a gay shoulder. I mean that a rib wasn’t seated properly.

The shoulder was repaired on Wednesday and is now slowly getting better, thank you. But despite the pain and the codeine haze, I did get a little work done.

Podcasts

  • Patch Monday episode 137, “Removing the anonymity from Anonymous”. A conversation about the tactics of Anonymous, LulzSec and other hacktivists with Israeli information security researcher Tal Be’ery, web security research team leader at Imperva’s Application Defense Center (ADC), where he leads efforts to capture and analyse hacking data.

Articles

Media Appearances

Corporate Largesse

None.

The Week Ahead

The current plan? A day of writing at Wentworth Falls on Monday. A day of travelling on Tuesday, taking the train to Sydney and then flying to the Gold Coast. Once there I’ll be covering the AusCERT 2012 information security conference for ZDNet Australia, flying back to Sydney on Saturday afternoon.

On Sunday afternoon I’m speaking about the total surveillance society at the Sydney Writers Festival.

Elsewhere

Most of my day-to-day observations are on my high-volume Twitter stream, and random photos and other observations turn up on my Posterous stream (or they used to before my phone camera got a bit too scratched up). The photos also appear on Flickr, where I eventually add geolocation data and tags. Yes, I should probably update this stock paragraph to match the current reality.

[Photo: Fuckin' art, innit, taken at the Hotel InterContinental, Sydney, on Saturday 12 May 2012.]