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Will Hacker Vigilantes and Wikileaks Inspire a New Generation of Cyber Warriors?

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Hearing the reports a couple of nights ago of hackers shutting down financial giants VISA and MasterCard among other targets in a sweeping retaliation against government and business entities threatening Wikileaks’ survival, I nearly dropped a bowl of pasta on my foot as I made my way to the dinner table. What shocked me, and maybe it shouldn’t have, was the sheer boldness and scope of the attack. It’s been a few years since I remember a cyber-attack massive enough to make a headline story on the six o’clock news.

Later, doing a little research on how and what happened, I learned that the tools available to anonymously deliver a “distributed denial of service attack” (DDOS) are easily acquired and ready for purportedly novice hackers to employ. It seemed like the early 90’s all over again, when hackers and hacker exploits frequently made front-page news, catching us off guard with DDOS attacks or rapidly spreading viruses. The administrators of financial institutions and government agencies all over the world are probably checking and rechecking their vulnerabilities this week.

And most of us tech dummies—or maybe more it’s more politically correct to say “less tech savvy” individuals—are again stopped in our tracks, in awe, feeling terrified and, maybe some of us, also grudgingly but mightily impressed.

The human brain seems to have a limitless capacity to imagine new tools and devices to create and destroy. But the power to shut down information systems or hijack data, thereby impacting millions of people, wreaking havoc without spilling a drop of blood, makes even modern warfare with state-of-the-art weapons systems and “smart” bombs look archaic and ridiculously crude and ineffective.

My hunch is that this new chapter in cyber-warfare is about to bring about a revitalized interest among the younger generations in cyber punk and hacker culture. Young people have always pushed forward revolutions, challenged corruption, and rebelled against the status quo.  Webs and blogs about how to participate in this latest wave of Hacktivism are frighteningly easy to find. It needs to be pointed out that campaigners for and against Wikileaks haven’t been particularly scrupulous, and the criminal element is ever-present to exploit situations like this.

The Wikileaks drama is huge on so many levels. Culturally I believe it will have a lasting impact and spawn scores more acts of “vigilantism” ultimately influencing politics and policymaking on and offline.  We can’t help but be fascinated by what’s unfolding, and maybe we’ll finally be forced to examine and solve some critical security issues.  

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About Birgit Nazarian

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Thanks, Birgit. I enjoyed this blog. However, one sentence is a stretch:

    “But the power to shut down information systems or hijack data,” you write, “thereby impacting millions of people, wreaking havoc without spilling a drop of blood, makes even modern warfare with state-of-the-art weapons systems and ‘smart’ bombs look archaic and ridiculously crude and ineffective.”

    That’s apples and oranges. Hackers and warriors have different goals. Wreaking havoc without spilling blood is one thing. Wreaking havoc by spilling blood is something else altogether. So far, I take it, pro-WikiLeaks hackers haven’t killed anyone; and experts assure us that what they’re engaged in doesn’t begin to approach cyberwar.

    Thus, to compare hackers and warriors in this instance is like saying that the latest bestselling first-person shooter video game makes loaded guns look like Tinkertoys. Technologically, you may be right. But in terms of practical effect, it’s an absurd comparison.

  • http://www.frontwave.eu Pablo Valerio

    It’s interesting to note the scale of “The WikiLeaks War”. Thousand eyes reports the effect of the attacks on Wikileaks and other sites here.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    @Alan,

    I think her comparison is spot on. Sure, physical warfare is more enduring & potentially fatal to all those involved,but, the goal is still the same – To disable the enemy by any means necessary. And, in the service they have a saying, “Work smarter NOT harder”. So, being able to disable your enemy without the risk of losing any portion of your army does, in fact, make the barbaric approach look “…archaic and ridiculously crude and ineffective.”

    My only complaint with this article is that her theory is a tad bit late. But, then again, she did say that she was “less tech savvy”.

    Nice Article, Birgit!

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Re #3: Ridiculous! An army’s goal is not to disable the enemy, it’s to annihilate him. The hackers in Birgit’s blog did not destroy VISA and MasterCard; they merely inconvenienced those giant corporations and their customers. Within a few hours, everything was back to normal, as if the attacks had never happened. It’s been nine years since our enemies destroyed the World Trade Center, and neither the site nor the people of this nation have ever been the same. Hell, our enemy bombed Pearl Harbor seven decades ago, and that place still bears scars, such as the sunken shells of the USS Arizona, Bowfin, and Utah, preserved as a National Historic Landmark. To paraphrase Lincoln, the world will little note nor long remember what WikiLeaks hackers did in December 2010; but it can never forget the destruction wrought by warriors on battlefields and in population centers across the world from time immemorial.

  • Birgit Nazarian

    In the current wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan for example, military strikes were reported to the public as “strategic strikes”. According to what we, the public are often told, the military targets are precise and disabling, meant to cause harm to just the enemy. However…in reality their is often collateral damage, meaning everyone in the way gets annihilated. In either case, there are always innocent people who feel the brunt of aggression.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    My point is not that warriors are technologically superior to hackers, but rather that the consequences of their technology are so different as to defy comparison, such as when you write that hackers make state-of-the-art weapons systems “look archaic and ridiculously crude and ineffective.”

    If hackers were killing people with greater precision than are warriors, you’d be right. But hackers aren’t killing people at all, just as warriors are not temporarily disabling VISA and MasterCard web services. So comparing their technologies is shallow and meaningless.

  • http://thingsalongtheway.blogspot.com/ Cindy

    Nice article Birgit. The DDOS attack was also used during the Iranian uprising in 2009. The problem there was not that they were ineffective, but that they were, in a sense, too effective. They were shutting down internet availability for the protesters as well as the gov’t.

    In came a different technique. Which was effective against the gov’t sites without reducing what internet connection people could access. People began using ReloadEvery in concert to bring the gov’t sites down.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    @Alan,

    If it was our military’s main objective to annihilate an enemy then why take prisoners when they surrender? Because it is usually not the main objective of a NATO country to annihilate. Only recently, has it seemed this way because we currently aren’t in a war with another country. We are in a war with a portion of a country’s population that doesn’t follow UN regulations or the Geneva Convention.

    “So comparing their technologies is shallow and meaningless.”

    Did you know that our Defense & Power (electric),among other important utilities, are controlled by “networked” computers. That, if, those systems were corrupted by an organized cyber-attack (hacked) then that could lead to a fatal situation for this country?! Hackers don’t need to physically harm anyone. They can just cut off your supplies & defense. So, NO, comparing the two allows us to learn about a grave possibility and is far from meaningless!

    You may look at DDOS attacks as harmless,but, the gist of the article was that these attacks were done by your average joe. Imagine what could be done by a funded “techie” terrorist group!

  • Birgit Nazarian

    Brian, yes, that’s what’s scary. A good deal of information and intelligence seems to be stored over networks of computers linked to the internet. In addition many processes for business and government are functioning online now. We all know tools for causing all sort of breeches and/or mayhem are available. Just casually browsing, I found a few sites with direct links for downloading apps to participate in DDOS attacks for example.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Discussing an issue without first defining its central terms is an exercise in futility. That’s what we’ve got here. In her blog, Birgit calls the recent WikiLeaks DoS attacks a “new chapter in cyber-warfare.” But her terminology is ill-defined. This is not the 1990s. Nowadays we must distinguish between cyberwar and cyberterrorism. In his 2010 book Cyber War, longtime government security expert Richard A. Clarke defines cyberwarfare as “actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption.” Clearly, the WikiLeaks DoS attacks are not cyberwar. They are cyberterrorism. Or maybe just cybercrime. In either case, comparing the WikiLeaks DoS attacks with actual warfare is silly. As I said in comment #1: applets and orangutans.

  • http://frontwave.eu Pablo Valerio

    @Alan
    I think today the definition of “war” or “warfare” is a lot wider. Consider the “war on terrorism”, NATO and other countries are not going after a “nation-state”, they are going after terrorist organizations. But it’s called “WAR”.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Straw man, Mr. Valerio. I did not compare actual war and actual terrorism. I drew a distinction between cyberwar and cyberterrorism. Once again, applets and orangutans.

  • http://frontwave.eu Pablo Valerio

    Mr. Kurz,
    Are we discussing semantics here? sorry for my poor understanding of the English language.
    I see your point, but a coordinated attack by “people” on an organization or website can create a lot of trouble.
    Just imagine if 50% of the customers of a big financial institution, say BoA, make a “run on the bank”, the institution will be dead in hours, and nothing illegal happened.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    You insist on shifting the ground, offering up arguments that have nothing to do with my comments. Please feel free to post those irrelevant arguments as you see fit, but also please stop addressing them to me, as if you are somehow “refuting” what I wrote.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Also, Mr. Valerio, what is your relationship with the author of this blog, Birgit Nazarian? I see you share a web site with her, which suggests you are not altogether objective in your commentary here.

  • Birgit Nazarian

    Ah…I thought we weren’t supposed to have any personal attacks. :-)

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Birgit Nazarian (#16), if you believe that you and/or your partner Pablo Valerio have been personally attacked in this thread, you should email BC’s comments editor Christopher Rose:
    christopher.rose@blogcritics.org

  • Birgit Nazarian

    I don’t believe there is any need for that as long as everyone keeps things civil. :-)

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    In other words, you don’t believe that you and/or your partner Pablo Valerio have been personally attacked in this thread. So why did you make that lame insinuation in the first place?