The Pentagon, China’s human rights agency, India’s major nuclear weapons manufacturers, and Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo have all been attacked recently, not physically, but by computer hackers. “Hacktivists” around the world are launching a series of electronic attacks on web sites of oppressive institutions. Tactics range from electronic graffiti to bombarding servers and effectively halting all traffic to a site.

Recent actions include an attack by the Mexican group X-Ploit on the country’s finance ministry website, replacing it with the face of revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata in sympathy with the Chiapas rebellion. On Nov 22, the Electronic Disturbance Theater in NY attacked the site of the U.S. Dept. of Defense’s “School of the Americas,” which trains representatives from repressive Latin American military and intelligence forces. Electronic Disturbance Theater attacks flood the server with requests for the site, severely limiting “legitimate” access and potentially crashing the server. Potential of Hacktivism.

Hacktivism has a lot of immediate potential. A lot of visibility for revolutionary movements can be generated by changing websites to reflect our political views, both through the sites themselves, and through the significant mainstream media coverage the actions receive. More importantly, the internet is an increasingly serious business tool. Since it is so easily open to attack, revolutionary groups should take this opportunity to wreak havoc and Run! Hacktivism’s Flaws.

But hacktivism has definite flaws. We should be wary of depending to heavily on technology as a vehicle for activism. The internet and much of the other technology used in hacktivism originated within the US Dept. of Defense. There is a certain enjoyable irony using these tools to wound their parents. But activists must make sure the social institutions maintained by the military-industrial complex do not taint internet-based actions.

One danger is that the movement is potentially non-diverse — in two major survey articles focusing on hacktivism, no women were mentioned, and no groups operating out of Africa were described. Although some groups are putting up sites with directions making hacktivist actions accessible to novice hackers, and although the activists are generally of a younger generation of hackers, the fact remains that the actions are primarily accessible to people with an extensive computer background, which is a generally male and middle class group of people.

There is also discussion within the hacker community questioning whether hacktivism violates the community’s ethical standards. Hackers traditionally have engaged in electronic exploration for its own sake– hacking has been driven by curiosity, not by malicious intentions. “The bottom line to me is that hackers have no moral right to break into someone else’s system. India and Pakistan have no inherent moral right to put humanity at risk and to further damn our environment. Conflicting moralities do not justify vigilante action” pointed out a letter-writer to the folks who hacked the Indian nuclear bomb makers’ sites.

In many ways it is a guerrilla war– groups changing websites and institutions retaliating. Hackers may have the advantage now, but institutions are devoting more energy to deflecting the attacks. While hacktivism has potential, energy devoted to it means less energy going towards organizing in the streets, where the effects are more promising and lasting.

Hacktivist Actions

o On Oct., 27, a day after China’s human rights agency announced its new Web site, the official view of that nation’s human rights record was replaced with an electronic trespasser’s manifesto: “China’s people have no rights at all, never mind human rights. How can the United States trade millions and millions of dollars with them and give them most-favored trade status when they know what is happening?”

o Groups MilwOrm and Ashtray Lumberjacks, acting together, orchestrated a unprecedented mass hack directed towards all of the nuclear powers, replacing pages on more than 300 sites with an anti-nuclear statement, complete with angry red mushroom cloud

o On Aug. 1st, the Portuguese group Kaotik Team hacked 45 Indonesian government Websites, altering web pages to include messages calling for full autonomy for East Timor.

o Indonesian government email accounts were flooded and several websites were hacked on Aug. 12th by hackers from China and Taiwan, to protest the fact that Chinese-Indonesians were targeted for torture, rape and looting during the anti-Suharto riots in May.

o On Oct. 13th, political activists took over an Indian government web site and posted messages and photos calling attention to alleged government-sponsored repression and human rights violations in the contested northern Indian state of Kashmir.