Cyberterrorism: “The politically motivated use of computers and information technology to cause severe disruption or widespread fear.”
As the world shifts further an further into the technological revolution, society has become increasingly vulnerable to attacks via the internet. Information can be stolen, communication can be disrupted, and fear, injury, or even death can be spread. Politically motivated, these attacks can force the hand of governments, businesses, or individuals.
But what about political motivated cyber attacks that don’t cause danger or significant monetary losses? Hactivism obstructs normal computer activity to peacefully inspire social change. Similar to a physical sit-in, Hactivism may temporarily change the information on a website, or shut it down to spread a message.
Hactivists however, are rarely treated like peaceful protestors, but instead can be prosecuted for their online activism. In 2010, PayPal, VISA, and Mastercard refused to process donations to Wikileaks, so the group Anonymous organized over 6,000 people to overload their servers using a DDoS attack. Sixteen members of Anonymous were then arrested and charged with conspiracy and “intentional damage to a protected computer.”
A DDoS attack is simply giving a website so many requests that it is overwhelmed and temporarily cannot function, so how can it be treated differently than a physical sit-in protest? Both effectively prevent the use of their target, whether it be a restaurant or a website, and while both can cause small financial consequences, neither causes permanent damages. Regardless, both are performed in public spaces, and are peaceful forms of protest that we should encourage here in the land of the free.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) was designed to prosecute hackers to the level of crime committed, and while many of the punishments seems unnecessary, sometimes Hactivists push the line of activism and crime.
In 2011, Anonymous and Lulzsec hacked the Stratford Global Intelligence Services databases and published the credit card information, addresses and passwords of their top clients. They then used the information to donate small amounts of money to different charities. However, their Robin Hood scheme landed Jeremy Hammond in prison for 10 years. While this was much lower than the life-sentence he was threatened with, it is still one of the biggest punishments a hacker has received in American history.
Hammond still believed his work was activism though, telling the Associated Press in 2014 that “From the start, I always wanted to target government websites, but also police and corporations that profit off government contracts.”
Whether the clients at Stratford deserved to be robbed or not, Hammond understood he was breaking the law, and even plead guilty for his charges. While the U.S. is dealing with internal issues like this, they also have to worry about international attacks. In 2011, the Pentagon decided that “computer sabotage coming from another country can constitute an act of war.”
While it is important that America can respond to such attacks, what if the attack was not from another country, but just an Israeli teenager in his bedroom? Back in 1999, the BBC reported that a 14 year old boy named Nir Zigdon created a virus which successfully destroyed http://www.iraq.com because “it contained lies about the United States and Israel and propaganda against Jews.”
While this shows a true activist spirit, many questions must be asked about the punishments the U.S. would enforce if a foreign teenager hacks thewhitehouse.gov because a future President posts anti-muslim propaganda? I guess we will have to wait and find out.