If youre watching TV for the opening salvos in the coming war on terrorism, youre watching the wrong screen. The opening shots have already been fired on the Internet, and you can watch the conflict unfolding from your computer.
Like most conflicts in the past few years, the current war on terrorism has its online counterpart in a war between computer hackers. In the coming months, you can expect to see official web sites graffitied with hostile political slogans, viruses deployed against businesses in North America and in the Middle East, security information stolen from private sites and posted online, and denial-of-service attacks that overload web sites and crash large sections of the Net. Some of these are already underway, as in the case of the The Dispatchers, a hacker group that has defaced an Iranian government web site.
Hackers have long favoured governments as targets for their demonstrations of technical prowess. Replacing the Pentagon web site with an obscene photograph and your hacker signature is a great way to prove your knowledge of network protocols. But the past three years have seen an explosion in hacktivism -- the marriage of hacking know-how and political activism.
The first big example of hacktivism was in 1998, when a group sympathetic to the Zapatista rebels crashed Mexican government web sites by flooding them with Internet traffic. Since then, hacktivists have launched attacks on an ever-expanding range of targets. Political party sites from Australia to the UK have been hacked and defaced during election campaigns. Hacktivists have even created Hacktivismo software to keep authoritarian governments from censoring access to the Net.
Most hacktivism focuses on political or social issues, not military conflict. But you know the line: If we build it, they will come. Hacktivists built the tools for online protest, and online agitators have come in droves to fight their wars online. Palestinian hackers have defaced Israeli sites, and Israelis have defaced Palestinian sites. Chinese hackers have shut down American sites, and Americans have hacked the Net in China to provide access to banned web sites. Hacking is part of the contemporary repertoire of warfare, and the current war on terrorism is not immune.
Within hours of the attacks on the U.S., American hackers started discussing their plans for online retaliation. One early post to a hacker newsgroup read I call to ARMS all BROTHERS OF THE CODE to direct all of your resources, contacts, and allies to focusing on defining the BASTARDS RESPONSIBLE for the attacks.
The appeal of an online call-to-arms is obvious. We all share the anxiety of feeling like helpless targets in the face of an as-yet hazy enemy. That kind of helplessness is particularly galling to hackers, who cherish a self-help culture in which any individual can fight his own code war against the target of his choice. The hacker ethic prizes individual self-determination, solo action, and the power of code over the power of force. Why wait for NATO action when you can mount your own campaign against all possible enemies?
For some hackers, the temptation to fight this war themselves is irresistible. Thankfully, the hacker community is not monolithic. Many hacker groups have called for online restraint in the face of offline provocation. The Chaos Computer Club, a German hacker group, has already issued a statement condemning would-be cyber-warriors.
These hackers recognize that the power and promise of the Internet lies is its ability to transcend the barriers of geography, race, and hate. Shutting down web sites flies in the face of values that hackers, like so many of us, dearly cherish. Values like freedom of speech, the power of information, and global community.
These are the hackers we can learn from hackers who hold fast to their commitment to communication in a climate of growing hostility. The online vigilantes that they condemn are no different than the individuals who claim to be fighting terrorism by attacking Muslims. They are people who fear inaction more than wrongdoing. And in their rush to retaliation, there is little time for separating friends from foes.
That doesnt mean that we or our computers can remain innocent bystanders. Each of us can install anti-virus programs and network firewalls that prevent hackers from using our computers or networks to attack larger targets. Each of us can use the Net, the phone, and snail-mail to press our views on the governments that will prosecute the anti-terror campaign.
This is the real cyber-war: a war that will determine whether the Internet will be a force for communication and understanding, or a new military front. We can look at the Net through the eyes of hacker vigilantes, as a way of hurting our enemies. Or we can look at the Net with fresh hope hope for personal freedom in the face of fear, and hope for global communication in the face of international conflict.