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Friendly neighborhood hackers

BY SHAY O'REILLY | JUNE 30, 2011 7:20 AM

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In an event right out of an ’80s cyberpunk novel, Waterloo resident Laurelai Bailey found the FBI at her door last week, with a warrant to search her home for information on the high-profile hacking group LulzSec.

LulzSec, which took down government websites and leaked personal data from Fox News, PBS, the FBI-affiliated Infragard, and Arizona law enforcement, officially ended its activities on June 25. The official reason? Boredom, though some say the FBI closing in has a lot to do with it.

It’s only the latest in a string of high-profile hacktivist motions to emerge from nebulous Internet collective Anonymous, which previously drew attention in 2008 for a string of Internet attacks leading into a set of real-life protests of the Church of Scientology. But LulzSec isn’t the last, either:

Between the cyberanarchist celebrity of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and the post-Arab Spring acceptance of online organizing’s potential for real-world consequences, 2011 might finally usher in our hacktivist future.

It’s been a long, strange journey. Anonymous’ origins are contested at best, but it all has something to do with the darker, seedier parts of the Internet — the Mos Eisley of cyberspace. Initially, Anonymous was satisfied with harassing easy targets and finding animal abusers.

But then the reflexive rejection of authority and prevailing anomie of the web shifted, for some, into a political motion.

The first signs of this came, oddly enough, with the virtual assault on the Church of Scientology. It was the perfect target for amoral thrill-seekers: Silly, sue-happy, and ethically dubious, the Hollywood-linked new religion provided enough of a challenge (and enough laughs, or “lulz”) to offer months of entertainment.

Slowly these petered out, and the collective remained dormant for a time. Less a group than a collective name for hobbyists, with no organized hierarchy in the same way that there is no hierarchy of buskers or scrapbookers, Anonymous retreated into relative Internet obscurity — up until WikiLeaks, and its Bond-villain-esque founder Julian Assange, burst onto the Internet.

One of the enduring slogans of the crypto-anarchist crowd is “Information wants to be free.” WikiLeaks was the immediate personification of that statement, taken far beyond a mere objection to copyright laws; if knowledge is power, WikiLeaks offered a greater diffusion of power with the Internet as a medium.

As the U.S. government pressured WikiLeaks to stop releasing cables and a warrant was issued for Assange’s arrest, Anonymous launched a declaration of support — and an attack on companies that opposed WikiLeaks, temporarily crashing the websites of Visa and MasterCard when they refused to process donations to the organization.

When anti-WikiLeaks security firm HBGary Federal’s CEO Aaron Barr figured he had a handle on Anonymous and prepared to release a list of names, the response was brutal and, well, embarrassing: complete invasion and demolition of the servers, and leaking of all content.

But it was more than just a simple retaliatory measure. The HBGary incident revealed a Bank of America-funded plan to disrupt journalist Glenn Greenwald, a steadfast WikiLeaks supporter, an alleged Chamber of Commerce connection, and a goal to discredit liberal groups.

With more and more of our lives, both personal and professional, located on the Internet, Internet-only activism is becoming more legitimate. There aren’t the same procedures in place to mitigate the effects of an Internet action; it’s easier to cross a picket line than revive servers overloaded by Distributed Denial of Service attacks. It’s easier to lock protesters into “free speech zones” than to purge leaked information from the Internet. In this regard, Anonymous and LulzSec are the true inheritors of nonviolent resistance: Without hurting a soul, they’re assaulting the hierarchical distribution of information and unveiling state and corporate secrets.

LulzSec may be gone, with the FBI eager to find and prosecute its former members, but the mission lives on under the Twitter hashtag #AntiSec.

Call it our cyberpunk future — hopefully without the dystopia.


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