The Rise of Cybervigilantism

Things took an interesting turn in the aftermath of Cablegate, which saw 250,000 documents, many of them sensitive, put on the open Web by WikiLeaks.

Julian Assange, the founder of the site, has been charged by Swedish police with a sex crime; the U.S. government is seeking to try Assange, who’s currently out on bail; hundreds of mirrored WikiLeaks sites have sprung up around the world; WikiLeaks supporters have launched DDoS attacks on the websites of anyone taking action against the whistleblower site; and free speech advocates have criticized actions against WikiLeaks.

Wre the WikiLeaks supporters who attacked the Web sites of various organizations perceived as acting against the whistleblower site really cyber-vigilantes, or are their actions really an online version of public protest?

Further, is cyber-vigilantism wrong? What about cyber-vigilantes like the hacker th3j35t3r, (The Jester), who take down Jihadi websites on their own?

A Litany of Online Ills

In the weeks following Wikileaks’ release of Cablegate, MasterCard, Visa and Paypal, who refused to process contributions to WikiLeaks, all saw their sites hindered to some degree by online attackers.

The websites of PostFinance and even Senator Joe Lieberman, who spoke out against WikiLeaks over Cablegate, were also attacked. The attackers were the groups Anonymous and Operation Payback, and you can see a partial list of the attacks on Panda Labs’ security blog.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people worldwide have joined in the DDoS attacks on organizations that cracked down on WikiLeaks, and a Dutch teenager has been arrested for participation in the attacks.

The attackers used the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC), an open source DDoS tool. This lets users start up or join a voluntary botnet to launch their attacks in concert.

LOIC lets users insert the address of a command and control server. The application will then automatically connect the users’ computers to the C and C server, creating an ad hoc botnet, and launch synchronized attacks against a predetermined target. Some botnet operators were reportedly recruited by WikiLeaks supporters.

Anonymous and Operation Payback disclaimed any connections with each other, and if they’re to be believed, they’re just independent Web users who have a common cause — targeting big business and government organizations perceived as trying to shut down free speech.

Senator Joe Lieberman’s office did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

We Are What We Do

When a group of people get together to attack the website of a group they disagree with philosophically or politically, or to avenge the crushing of an ordinary person by a large organization, is that cybervigilantism or an attempt to protect free speech?

There is no standard definition for the terms “cyber-vigilantism” or “cyber-attacks” in state and federal laws addressing wrongful conduct on the Internet, Julie Machal-Fulks, a partner in law firm Scott and Scott Partners, told TechNewsWorld.

“How we may classify different kinds of cyber-vigilantes is less important than the specific actions taken by those groups or individuals,” Machal-Fulks pointed out. For DDoS attacks and other similar activities, “there is no legally meaningful distinction between violation of a law applicable to online activity and violation of a law applicable to offline activity,” she stated.

The claim that DDoS attacks are a form of political protest may not hold water.

There’s a difference between legal and illegal political protest, whether the protests are conducted in the street or in cyberspace, George Pike, an assistant professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Law, told TechNewsWorld.

“A protest event that results in deliberate property damage or injury does not become legal simply because the intent was political,” Pike explained.

Civil Disobedience or Incivility?

Could the spontaneous emergence of people worldwide who launched these DDoS attacks be considered civil disobedience instead?

“I am aware that civil disobedience is often claimed as a justification for some illegal activities, but the role or purpose of civil disobedience is generally oriented to changing public opinion about the law,” Pike said. An act of civil disobedience, he contended, is “public and acknowledged by the actor, and not hidden and anonymous.”

At the height of the attacks, the Electronic Frontier Foundation tweeted its condemnation of cyber-vigilantism.

“DDoS attacks are just that — attacks,” Chris Palmer, technology director at the EFF, told TechNewsWorld. “Like all attacks, they may have collateral damage, and may thus be counter-productive.”

As the Internet becomes ever more densely connected and as people depend on it more and more, collateral damage “will become increasingly counter-productive and unsustainable,” Palmer warned

Ours Are Good Guys, Theirs Are Bastards

The pro-WikiLeaks attackers didn’t necessarily go scot-free — Operation Payback’s own website came under DDOS attack in what seemed to be retaliation for the group’s actions over WikiLeaks.

The attackers were described in the Panda Labs blog as “a group of patriots attempting to protect the greater interests of the United States of America.”

Indeed, some self-proclaimed cyber-vigilantes in America have launched cyberattacks against websites of people perceived as the enemy.

Perhaps one of the best known is a hacker calling himself “th3j35t3r,” (“The Jester”). He specializes in taking down Muslim extremists’ websites. Others include Bill Warner, a private investigator who shut down three extremist websites hosted by an ISP in Tampa, Fla., in 2008.

Where do we draw the line? Is it wrong for cybervigilantes to attack the websites of governments, government officials and large corporations? What about those of extremist religious groups?

“These are questions without easy answers,” the EFF’s Rebecca Jeschke told TechNewsWorld.

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