‘Hack The Planet’ The Ethics of Hacktivism

In this week’s lecture I was introduced to ‘The Conscience of a Hacker’ a manifesto written by hacker called +++The Mentor+++ in 1986. Reading it I couldn’t help but be reminded of the ‘The Cyberpunk Manifesto’ written by Christian Kirtchev in 1997. I took the liberty of chopping a few bits of each to highlight their similarity.

This is our world now, the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud… We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn’t run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals…You may stop this individual, but you can’t stop us all- after all, we’re all alike.

We are the ELECTRONIC MINDS, a group of free-minded rebels. We live in Cyberspace, we are everywhere, we know no boundaries. We are those, the different. Technological rats, swimming in the ocean of information… We are the student hacking computer systems, exploring the depth of his reach…Our society is sick and needs to be healed. The cure is a change in the system… We fight for freedom of information. We fight for freedom of speech and press…. We are a unit. We are Cyberpunks.

This was my first time reading ‘The Conscious Hacker’ but ‘The Cyberpunk Manifesto’ is something that I have read countless times before as I am obsessed its anarchist undertones and the idealistic sense of freedom it promises. After looking at the two comparatively it really made me notice how hacking is so closely tied to cyberpunk ideologies. In cyberpunk novels the outcast anti-hero inevitably breaks all the rules in order to take down the evil establishment and save the world from its villainous clutches. While this is an epic perception of hacking that after watching films like Hackers and shows like MR Robot I so desperately want to be true, I have to ask myself, can the act of hacking ever be as justified as it is in cyberpunk works of fiction? Can the real world be broken down into black and white simplifications of heroes vs villains? Is there really such a thing as Hacktivism?

 

So this week I set out to determine what the ethical perspectives of hacking are. There are those that see hacking as a way of standing up for injustices and liberating people from imposed censorship. This act of hacking is seen as justified by the perpetrators as they believe the censorship is unfairly enforced and therefore a law that deserves to be broken. An example of this would be the collaboration between The Cult of the Dead Cow and The Hong Kong Blondes who launched attacks against the Chinese government to protest government censorship of Internet content. They compromised a firewall system in China, allowing Internet users in that country unrestricted access to the Web for a brief period of time and they also defaced several Chinese governmental websites.

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Hacktivism is often confused with cyberterrorism but a boundary between the two can be drawn depending on one’s definition of ‘damage’. It is important to remember that not all hacking involves breaking into systems, spying or even damaging data. Hacktivisim can be as simple as a denial-of-service attack where all that occurs is a mass volume of people generate so much traffic on a website that it crashes and no legitimate users can access it. This type of hacking is seen as a mere extension civil disobedience into the internet realm. “Civil disobedience entails the peaceful breaking of unjust laws, it does not condone violent or destructive acts against its enemies, focusing instead on nonviolent means to expose wrongs, raise awareness, and prohibit the implementation of perceived unethical laws by individuals” (Manion & Goodrum). In this instance the hackers see no difference between this and picketing in the street to deny people access to a building. “Activists here are attempting to bring about social change through non-violent means; whereas activists in the past trespassed and blockaded physical positions of power, hacktivists now would seize control of the new positions of power—cyberspace—and without all those nasty guns, water cannons, dogs, billy clubs and tear gas” (Julie Thomas).

There are those however who believe denial-of-service attacks to be against the hacker code because they themselves are a form of censorship and violate the right to free speech- which in the true roots of the hacker culture is a fundamental law that must never be broken (even if it is against your enemies). One of the world’s most famous hackers who believes whole heartedly in this ideal is Julian Assange, he has no qualms about sneaking into closed systems and revealing private information but does not believe in the destruction of information in any way. Assange is practically a pure personification of the old school hacker mentality in that he is a utilitarian extremist who promotes the total transparency of information. To him, his actions are justified because as all information should be free regardless of consequence. What people chose to do with the information does not change the fact that it should not be kept hidden. Absolute truth is the only moral decisional direction.

In the end the ethics of hacking all comes down to the age old question of does ends justify the means? While different hackers have different codes of ethics and different definitions of damage, every act is circumstantial and instead of being broken down into wright and wrong should be judged in term of what was stood to be gained and at what cost?

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From Vietnam to Arab Spring: Mediums Facilitating Revolution

Last week I very briefly touched on the concept of citizen journalism being a way of getting around traditional news media’s tendency to depict war as tame and unobtrusive for the sake of maintaining public support. Today I would like to discuss this a little further and connect it back to idea that the ability to illustrate the true nature of things is facilitated by global networks, convergent technological flows and the rise of social platforms. Not only that but social media has become a way for revolutionists to come together, organise operations and share their messages on a mass scale with little barrier to entry.

Prior to the Vietnam War all the information that everyday people could obtain about war came from mainstream media channels like newspapers and radio, there simply were no other mediums and the general public was given a highly mediated, white washed version of events. By this I mean propaganda campaigns that harboured wide spread support and a sense of patriotism.

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“By the mid-1960’s, television was considered to be the most important source of news for the American public, and, possibly, the most powerful influence on public opinion itself” Erin McLaughlin For the first time the public were seeing war first hand. The horrors entered people’s living rooms and in between school, work and dinners, anyone could watch villages being destroyed, Vietnamese children burning to death and soldiers in body bags. For obvious reasons this created mass opposition to the war and widespread protests. Fast forward to the now and you will see that news corporations, who jump through hoops for the hand that feeds, take every precaution not to make that mistake again.

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The news coverage of war today paints a story reminiscent of early propaganda campaigns, with the us versus them mentality and imagery of merry marching soldiers doing little more than hanging out in barracks and pressing buttons on fancy war machines.  Gordon Mitchel explains how the introduction of smart weaponry allows for a controlled way of marketing war to the public that is alienated from the direct reality of the battlefield. “Bombardiers wielded hand-held Nintendo-like devices that help pilots guide precision weaponry and computerized navigation aids to make their way to their targets – not real locations but map coordinates displayed on a VDU”…”there was little to distinguish the coalition pilots’ experience from training runs made in simulation machines”.

Vietnam War U.S. Casualties

 Sept 18, 1966 

 

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Today 

The problem with legacy media is “you’ve got to be silent, to be spoken to- passivity is the logic of that technology” (Richard Senett). Luckily for us we live in an age where you do not just have to rely on monolithic media for your information. We have the internet where information flows freely and citizens upload imagery of war and injustice every day, the truth is out there you just need to look. The ability to do this is a direct result of technological convergence. Convergent mediums have allowed for mobilisation, coordination and dissemination to take place which has in turn has given people, who would otherwise not have voices, the freedom to broadcast messages not in sync with the official agenda. The mobile aspect of modern technology means that people can bring their devices with them capturing things as they unfold and staying connected to the web. The coordination aspect means platforms like FB and Twitter can facilitate revolution by giving activists a place to come together and plan action at great speed and across distance. The dissemination aspect means that messages from individual nodes can be broadcasted to the masses without difficulty and the extent of the spread is massive in scale.

When all these elements come together to create a hive of connectivity the capability emerges for small individuals to enact large change. However simply having the ability to do does not guarantee it will happen, you need to have the right influencers, the right cause and circumstances where action is achievable at a local level (think globally act locally). But when this does happen it gives individuals the power to change the world, Arab Spring is a perfect example of this.

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest over harassment from city officials, the local news media sprouted the message that he was merely a psychopath. None the less his death sparked attention all across the globe when the true story was shared across the net and began fueling outrage. The same again occurred when Khaled Mohamed Saeed was beaten to death and the Egyptian government claimed he died of chocking.

By this point protest had already begun to rage but a turning point in the series of events occurred when young blogger Asmaa Mahfouz made a video pleading people to stand up for their rights and take a stand. In this video, that went completely viral, she set a date which germinated the hashtag #Janury25. From there YouTube channels emerged such as Free Egypt where content from the protests could be catalogued and publicly shown. Facebook became a breeding ground for activist communities to form and legitimize and when the Egyptian government cut its people off from the internet, Google and Twitter joined forces giving Egyptian citizens, isolated from the rest of the world, the ability to share their stories globally.

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While this all occurred from the right combination of people and events, it is no doubt that technology played a part in shaping the outcomes. This is pure example of the power that connected technologies can bring and proof that networked systems always beat monolithic ones.

The Death of Legitimacy

If you have been following my weekly posts you will know that I last discussed the idea posed by Eric Raymond that networked systems always beat hierarchical ones because more is accomplished at a faster rate due to mass participation… “Given enough eyes all bugs are shallow”. Last week I was referring to this in terms of Apple vs Android and the concept of a single closed source entity vs a collective open sourced network. Well today I would like to revisit that concept from the angle of traditional legacy media channels vs illegitimate citizen journalism.

Traditional Legacy media channels are your television networks, radio stations and newspapers (so basically anything owned by Rupert Murdoch). This model operates on a one to many archetype where information in scarce and value comes from the production and distribution of content. In this media paradigm the News Corporations become the authority on what is considered news and the selection of content is as simple as deciding what information might be interesting. As New York Times proclaims they are “All the news that’s fit to print” and you don’t really get much say.

Axel Burns makes a point that correlates well here “while the audience retained the right to buy or not by the paper and to switch on and off the television this amounted to a choice between news as it was offered or a self-imposed news blackout”(that’s not the exact quote but it’s something along those lines).

These days the Legacy media model still exists but is arguably on the cusp of becoming obsolete. When millions of web users create content every day that can be freely accessed, the creation of content becomes valueless and instead attention turns to the aggregation of content- the sorting, tagging and packaging of information into personalised bundles of interest. This has given rise to new media model where news is collectively generated and shared by individual users over social platforms. Instead of seeing a story from one news giants perspective who is limited to time and space you are able to gain the full perspective from the hundreds of snippets of the same story from all over the web. Think of it in terms of footage, when a news team cover a story they have one camera man capturing from one angle and that is all you will see on the television but if you search the hashtag of the same story you may find hundreds of videos from countless angles filmed by people who were there on their smart phones. The value in this instance comes not from the individual videos uploaded by the users but in the platforms ability to group them under a unified tag.

“Yes they were built entirely out of 140 character messages but the sum total of those tweets added up to something truly substantial like a suspension bridge made of pebbles” (Steve Johnson).

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News giants would have you believe their dated model still holds value in the authority. They argue that citizen journalism is ‘illegitimate’ journalism and that the only shinning beacon amongst the dark depths of the information avalanche is highly produced content that guarantees quality and validity. While there is truth to this ideal (the internet is a disturbing place), it is not always the case and I don’t just mean because every week Channel Nine runs a story on why sugar is bad for you (Goddammit that’s not news!). I am talking about what I mentioned earlier when I said all bugs are shallow given enough eyeballs.

Participatory news platforms like Twitter and Reddit are always on and moving so fast through iterations that inaccuracies are weeded out by the enormous public faster than a singular news entity could even dream of. Meanwhile having such a small amount of staff working as hard as they can to pump content out as quickly as information arises results in errors slipping through the cracks. Remember the time that Danish news channel accidentally thought Assassin’s Creed was real and used it as backdrop to their news story. To illustrate conflict in present-day Syria, TV2 used an image from Assassin’s Creed digitally depicting Damascus 720 years ago. While that little mistake managed to make it all the way to air it was picked up and shared all over social media within minutes. What was that argument about legitimacy again?

 

 

On the other hand the concept of citizen journalism does bring froth a debate about privacy in the public sphere. The thing about legacy media is they are slow but by being legitimate they must go through all sorts of legal steps ensuring they have permission to film people before sharing it on television. Whereas citizens on the street record who ever, whenever and with very little regard for privacy. If we think back to the Vietnam War, that was the first time real footage of war was shown on public television and is a major contributing factor for opposition to the war. These days war is painted differently to prevent opposition, its ‘Nintendo warfare’, showing only soldiers behind computers pushing buttons. Citizen journalism gets around this being real people sharing real footage as it is, uncensored and raw.  This also means however that in delicate situations like war we are seeing videos surface the net of mothers crying over dead children, with their mutilated bodies open for public display. While this is necessarily for revealing the true nature of war and stopping people from turning a blind eye to it, it generates the question where do you draw the line between truth and respect?

Controlled Convenience or Chaotic Freedom?

Steve Jobs was responsible for revolutionising the computer age. When Apple released the Macintosh in 1984 it was the first time consumers were given a user-friendly means of interacting with a computer. The Macintosh introduced the first graphical user interface and was the first mass-market computer to be networkable. But while Apple brought us into the personal computer era their business model has practically reversed and seems hell bent on taking us out of it.

Apple products such as the IPhone have stopped being computing devices and have become simplistic information applications. They are incapable (by design) of operating anything outside of their designated software and they prevent users from accessing any internal elements; creating this shell of a computer that runs entirely off of face level applications. All content and the way you can interact with that content is controlled. You don’t own applications only pay to use them, you cannot change anything, install anything, transfer content and all the apps you can download have come from a centralised network that have gone through an intensive approval process.

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“It was easy to use, elegant and cool – and had lots of applications right out of the box… but the company quietly dropped a fundamental feature, one signalled by the dropping of ‘Computer’ from Apple Computer’s name” (Johnathan Zittrain).

“The fundamental difference between a PC and an Information Application is that a PC can run code from anywhere while Information Appliances remain tethered to makers desires, offering a more consistent and focused user experience at the expense of flexibility and innovation” (Jonathan Zittrain again).

While your phone not being a computer isn’t necessarily a bad thing as Steve Jobs himself proclaimed “You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t work anymore”. It is important to keep in mind though that the mobile phone has actually replaced the desktop as the primary mode of access to the internet. For millions of people, particularly those in developing nations their phone is their computer.

The Alliance of Open Handsets offer the polar opposite to Apple with their free Android operating system that can run on any device, can be completely rooted or moded and grants users access to both an official app store and unofficial ones. Plus you are allowed to upload your own aps. Originally Apple dominated the smart phone market but Android has now captured 85% of it, just going to show that a long tail of many small units will inevitably always out preform a lesser number of large ones.

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When Google first announced the alliance and the concept of Android, Steve predicted that the fragmented nature and uncontrollability of the idea would be its demise “I think it hurts them more than it helps, it is just going to divide them”.  While he was right about the division he was wrong about it being a negative. Eric Raymond believes networked systems always beat hierarchical ones because you can accomplish more and faster. He compares Cathedrals to Bazaars noting that if you release content early and often problems are resolved quickly by the sheer many. “Given enough eyes all bugs are shallow”. While Apples system of having a selected few make something perfect before release makes the task slow and monumental.

But in the end it all boils down to personal preference, Apples system ensures you are only buying something that has been carefully designed to ensure everything runs smoothly and easily whereas the Android system gives you everything good or bad; you have the power the chose and therefore the responsibility. It is just a question of if you want controlled convenience or chaotic freedom.