‘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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Debating the Existence of Cyberpunk Today

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The last two weeks I have been conducting a literature review to see what I could find about the existence of cyberpunk today. My first research objectives was to get a clear definition of what cyberpunk is, so I could create some sort of criteria for examining modern texts.

I came to the consensus that cyberpunk can be defined as the intersection between science fiction and postmodernism. It is a type of science fiction that deals with real world technologies and near futures and sets them against a cyber-fantasy backdrop.

“Cyberpunk is the integration of technology and literature in a world where the gap between science fiction and reality is rapidly closing” (Guven 1995).

From my research of the themes found in the cyberpunk genre and through my understanding of cyberpunk in the films I watch, I made this checklist …

High tech – Low Life

Futuristic Dystopian world

Greed driven corporation or oppressive government system

Visual representations of data

Speculations about the future of existing technologies

A convergence between humans and machines

A brooding out cast protagonist

An anarchist rebellion against dominating oppression

A seedy underground of drugs and crime

Outlandish edgy fashion with punk roots

Noire overall feel

 

My next objective was to delve into the debate that cyberpunk as movement is over.

Bruce Sterling proclaims that cyberpunk is dead because it has become restrained, commercialized, and mimetic. According to him the respected benchmarks’ of cyberpunk no longer offer, “spontaneous back-flips and crazed dancing on the tables”. The settings come closer and closer to the present day, losing the fantasy (Sterling 1998).

“In the age of Neuromancer we could still believe for one charismatic moment that the body could deep-dish its way past screenal telemetry into galactic flows of data presence”…” Jonny Mnemonic is a bitter reminder of the decline of cyberpunk into the present state of hyper-rational technology (Kelly & Kessel 2007, p.8)

Finally using my check list I set out to find any modern day examples of cyberpunk and not just in films and novels but in clothing, music, games and real life people.

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References

Guven, S 1995, ‘The Future in Cyberpunk’, Computer Writing and Research Lab, University of Texas, Austin.

Kelly, J & Kessel, J 2007, Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, Tachyon, San Francisco.

Sterling, B 1998, Cyberpunk In The Nineties, Interzone, viewed 25 March 2016, <http://lib.ru/STERLINGB/interzone.txt&gt;.

We Are Media

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Journalism is changing. Journalist traditionally considered ‘the gatekeepers of the public sphere‘ are now forced to work within a society in which gates no longer exist. There are literally billions of internet users all over the world, who all have the ability to produce, upload and share information globally every second of everyday without any restrictions.

Citizen Journalism is rising dramatically with more and more people producing content and more and more consumers turning to amateur journalists for their primary sources of information. Thanks to citizen journalism massive caches of previously hard-to-come-by or entirely secret information can be released into the public sphere. News is now a collective of information created by a mass of individual content creators. Take the ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous for example they can be described as a community of users simultaneously existing as an anarchic, digitized global brain and together they are responsible for some of the biggest instances of information leaking ever seen on such a mass global scale.

There are some who say professional journalism and the printed media is a dying industry. Traditional media relies on the scarcity of information in order to sell it. In today’s society, however, scarcity of information is practically non-existent and consumers have the ability to pick and choose what information they want to find out about. Why would you pay for a bundle of news, when you can search the internet for niche news catered to you for free? The answer quality.

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let’s face it there is a lot of useless information floating around in cyberspace, how are we as consumers supposed to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and opinion, important information and nonsensical gibberish? This is where the future of professional journalism still stands. Everyday people still look to legitimate news producers to distinguish news from information.  As the New York Times states its “All the news that’s fit to print“, so you see professional journalism still has an important role, this role, however, has changed.

It would be crazy to think that traditional forms of journalism, such as print media and television news networks, could compete with citizen journalism today. Its faster, citizens often producing first hand content literally moments after an event has occurred, well before news reporters even have a chance to get there. It’s cheaper, at practically zero entry costs more news content can be created than newspapers or news networks could even dream of producing. It’s easier to access, citizens can upload and share information all over the world, giving citizen journalist a greater reach, when it comes to audience, than any news media could hope to extend to. And it’s free.

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The role of the journalist now is it not to produce information but rather to sort it. They have become curators not gatekeepers.  “A curator-journalist makes sense of the chaotic digital publicity for an audience that suffers from an information overload. Curators find, digest, fact-check and repackage information that thousands of others have published on blogs and social media sites”.  The future of professional journalism hasn’t died, it has merely evolved.