Maureen O’Sullivan a lecturer in law (Above the Bar) at NUI Galway, a Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and Chairperson of the Vegetarian Society of Ireland. She is also a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh where she is doing a PhD in reform of the European patent system.
Anonymous Hactivism: Can we be blasé about security threats to digitised information of public bodies?
Recently Ireland was put on alert over threats to the Dáil by Anonymous, the decentralised international hactivist group that, when they parade in public, don Guy Fawkes masks to hide their identities. When Ireland moved to amend and tighten its copyright laws three years ago, government websites were attacked and there have been more recent threats.
The most recent was to crash the government website and release sensitive information in a response to the imposition of water charges, taxation and the austerity regime to which Ireland has been subjected for the past number of years. In the several videos posted online, some express fears that this regime will be imposed country-by-country across the world. Others allude to the death of governments and the rise of governance of a global nature that is unelected and unaccountable. Occasionally, members of Anonymous are caught and their identities are exposed and they may be arrested. In reality, however, many online activists are always going to be at least one step ahead of endeavours to track them down and so this activity is not likely to be halted. In any case, in an era of shrinking democracy and a consolidation of wealth and power by a handful of corporations – who keep much of their information online “securely” – as citizens see their representation erode, responses of various natures will inevitably ensue. Hactivism has increased simultaneously with globalisation and some of its ills, perhaps, reflect some of the ills of those who come under attack.
In terms of the history of hactivism, many of the pioneers of free and open source software lament the use of hacking to describe illegal intrusions into protected systems – in their lingo, this activity would be described as “cracking”. Some crackers are simply daredevils who gain cracker or hacker kudos within online communities for daring forays, but others represent malign security threats for a variety of motivations. Nonetheless, hacking and, more recently, the term “hactivism”, coined by the Cult of the Dead Cow, has come to mean unauthorised incursions into the realms of the insufficiently protected zones for political reasons. The Hacktivismo Declaration urges online civil disobedience against states that do not respect Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of speech from state censorship. The Declaration also supports access to information and riles against governments that do not adhere to this responsibility. A promise to circumvent any repression of online freedoms is made.
Some so-called hactivism may itself be state-sponsored; former Soviet Union members such as Estonia have suffered attacks from Russian-based sites, although state collusion has not been confirmed in this case. During the so-called Arab Spring, hactivist attacks erupted as governments sought to control access to certain information and communication on the Internet. Hactivist activities thrive as state security agencies from different countries cooperate amid the forces of globalisation. It is difficult to judge these actions from an ethical perspective: it has often been said that technology is neutral and only attains a value, be that negative or positive, depending on the use to which it is put. However, many state agencies are unduly relaxed about their digitisation programmes and the information that they make available on the Web. A good example of this trust in permeable software systems can be seen in England and Wales’ new land registration legislation in 2002. The main reform was the abolition of the paper office and the requirement of completion of online transactions in order to secure transfer of ownership. Unfortunately, bureaucrats are not often attuned to what might go wrong and the proposed system has been beset with problems, not least of all was that fact that it was easily hacked. In any case, not all the country is connected to high-speed broadband, so transactions may not always be as easy to effectuate in rural areas.
With so much riding on a simple click, the abolition of a paper trail – whilst on the surface appearing environmentally-friendly – was also viewed with scepticism and a lack of trust from local land registries. Moreover, in an unstable world with democracy in an increasingly fragile state, citizens may not be exactly enthralled with the idea of gaining title through compliance with state bureaucracy. Hactivism can be a warning shot to politicians not to forget the origin and legitimacy of their power.
Rather than introducing taxes that have garnered so much hostility both online and offline, Ireland should follow the lead of cities such as Paris which, in 2014, introduced a participatory budget in which all citizens have the right to vote on how a portion of the municipal budget is spent. This practice is routine in new and emerging democracies in Latin America such as Brazil, Colombia and Peru, having been founded in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989. Many European cities, especially in southern Europe, are following suit and when governments are more transparent, citizens are more engaged. This scheme has also been used state-wide in Brazil, so arguments about logistics were unfounded. One gets the feeling that this may not be on the agenda of many current regimes but public anger is a challenge to politicians to remember that we live in a representative democracy and that when the representation weakens, often the populace will seek more direct involvement by many different means. We must ask ourselves whether worrying about software security – which is extremely difficult to achieve – is the crux of the issue or whether the real problem is that many computer programmers are angry enough with governments to threaten their activities in one of the few ways they can.
Would Anonymous have attacked and threatened to attack if the Irish were happy with water charges? Is the problem then, about secure software or unpopular taxes? Rule with consent and perhaps we can then judge whether we have a problem with software security or not.