[ISN] Hactivism and How It Got Here

From: InfoSec News (isn@private)
Date: Thu Jul 15 2004 - 01:40:57 PDT


By Michelle Delio
July 14, 2004

NEW YORK -- Hacktivism isn't found in the graffiti on defaced Web
pages, in e-mail viruses bearing political screeds or in smug
take-downs of government or organizational networks.

These sorts of activities are nothing more than reverse censorship and
"the same old cheap hacks elevated to political protest," according to
Cult of the Dead Cow member Oxblood Ruffin.

Hacktivism, as defined by the Cult of the Dead Cow, the group of
hackers and artists who coined the phrase, was intended to refer to
the development and use of technology to foster human rights and the
open exchange of information.

Speaking this past weekend at the Hackers on Planet Earth gathering,
Ruffin pointed to the growing partnership against censorship between
hackers, human rights activists and the academic community as proof
that real hacktivism -- grass-roots resistance enabled by technology
-- is a viable way to battle repression.

The general idea of hacktivism was first articulated by John Perry
Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in his 1996
"Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace."

But no one called technology-enabled political activism "hacktivism"  
until 1998, when cDc members Omega, Reid Fleming and Ruffin were
chatting online and were, Ruffin said, "bouncing some wacky ideas
around about hacking and political liberation, mostly in the context
of working with Chinese hackers post-Tiananmen Square."

"The next morning Omega sent an e-mail to the cDc listserv and
included for the first time the word hacktivism in the post," Ruffin
said. "Like most cDc inventions, it was used seriously and ironically
at the same time -- and when I saw it my head almost exploded."

Professor Ronald Deibert from the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab,
which sponsors and develops technology used by activists, said he
can't recall when he first heard the term hacktivism, but said he
immediately began using it to describe his work at the Citizen Lab,
which he describes as a "hacker grow-op."

"The combination of hacking in the traditional sense of the term --
not accepting technologies at face value, opening them up,
understanding how they work beneath the surface, and exploring the
limits and constraints they impose on human communications -- and
social and political activism is a potent combination and precisely
the recipe I advocate to students and use to guide my own research
activities," said Deibert.

Deibert said real hacktivism is fast becoming understood and accepted
by more mainstream human rights activists and is now being supported
by large foundations like the Soros Foundation, Markle Foundation and
Ford Foundation, which fund groups such as Privaterra, eRiders and
Indymedia, which use technology to defend civil rights.

But that's not to say that hacktivism has to be somber, serious and
all grown-up to be effective.

"The cDc has developed a reputation for its unique combination of
irreverence, ingenuity and ethics," Deibert said. "Sure, there are
many hackers out there who have stuck it to the authorities with their
killer toolz, but cDc does so while armed with Article 19 of the U.N.  
Declaration of Human Rights. That's unique."

Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:  
"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this
right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to
seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and
regardless of frontiers."

Hacktivismo, an autonomous cDc group formed to support hacktivism and
develop tools that can be used by hacktivists, uses Article 19 as the
centerpiece of its statement of purpose.

The group has developed tools that enable people to access and share
information that their government doesn't approve of.

Patrick Ball, director of human rights programs at Benetech, a
non-profit organization that uses technology to address pressing
social problems, said he first heard about hacktivism on mailing lists
in spring 2001.

"I thought it was a very interesting idea -- especially the part about
finding technical workarounds to bad government policies. (It) was not
a new idea, but these guys (cDc) were going to build actual software
instead of blowing blue-sky smoke."

Ball spoke about hacktivism at hacker conference Defcon in the summer
of 2001, and during his talk made a disparaging comment about Slobodan
Milosevic, former president of Serbia and of the Federal Republic of

Ball later testified against Milosevic at Milosevic's war crimes trial
in the Hague. When Milosevic cross-examined Ball, one of the first
questions he asked him was "Who is this Dead Cow Cult?"

"My under-oath spin to Slobo was that hacktivism is an opportunity for
engaged young programmers to do cool and socially beneficial stuff
with their technical skill and curiosity -- instead of getting in
trouble," said Ball. "And I actually believe that."

The cDc, which celebrated its 20th anniversary at HOPE, was founded in
July 1984 in Lubbock, Texas, by Grandmaster Ratte and Franken Gibe,
"who used to hang out in an abandoned abattoir and talk computers and
art and world domination," Ruffin said.

"G-Ratte ran a bunch of (bulletin boards) that attracted pretty much
the cream of the hacking community from the mid-'80s. That situation
has maintained itself to date. We've always been the most popular
girls at the prom."

Lately the cDc has been quietly building relationships with
grass-roots and traditional human rights groups, Ruffin said. And in
addition to their hacktivism activities, cDc also publishes an online

"Almost no one knows that the longest running e-zine on the Net is the
cDc text-file collection. The files are nuts and go everywhere from
'Sex with Satan' to really serious stuff," said Ruffin, who recently
contributed a text file on hacktivism to the collection.

"But the overall message is 'Go out there and do it and be yourself.'
Be daring. That's what the t-files and hacktivism are all about."

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