Anynomous, Hacking, Killing, and Free Speech
I’m on the road again this week, so maybe this will be a quick and dirty post. The life of a travelling toilet brush salesman isn’t as glamorous or relaxing as it sounds.
Until the recent series of protests and hacking incidents at BART, the San Francisco bay area’s public transit train/subway system, I had not really heard much about the spooky, underground hacker group, “Anonymous.”
For those of you unfamiliar with the events of the past couple of weeks, I’ll give a quick run-down.
Back in July, the BART police, once again, killed a man under questionable circumstances. He was a homeless person named Charles Hill and had been reported as a “wobbly drunk” on the BART train platform. He may have had a knife, which may have been visible as it was being thrown at a BART officer – just before he was shot and killed – almost exactly one minute after officers arrived on the scene.
During the protests of this killing, about a month later, some protesters got out of hand and engaged in some dangerous behavior, including climbing up onto the outside of the train and onto its roof. At some point (and I don’t know where on the timeline this fell), BART officials made the decision to cut off cell-phone access in the station because protesters were using their phones to communicate with each other and rally more people to the scene.
This seemed to me a useless, punitive measure that was already too late to prevent the dangerous behavior. But it was also seen as an attack on free speech by some, including Anonymous… and me.
So Anonymous lashed out against BART, by hacking not the main BART website (which is evidently pretty secure) but its auxiliary known as Mybart. Anonymous accessed and then published most or all of the users’ info, including home addresses, and published them on the internet. Then, Anonymous called for a second protest of BART, one mainly about free speech.
In defense of Anonymous, they didn’t have much time to react and plan a response to BART’s assault on free speech. They had to “strike while the iron was hot” – in other words while the protest was still in the news cycle. But I was disappointed in their methods – at least those concerning the Mybart users’ data.
When I heard about Anonymous and their plans to protest for free speech, when I heard that they were a pretty powerful and somewhat fearsome force, I was very hopeful. I am so ready for a formidable hero, standing up for the people. I wanted Anonymous to make strong series of attacks, all well coordinated and focused on those who have either oppressed free speech or have swamped it with their own, public-relations-firm-designed messages – messages designed to cut off dissention.
As I said, I’m disappointed. I think their response to this situation was weak and at least partially counterproductive. Anonymous says they are not finished with this issue, but what they’ve done so far (the hacking, anyway) will only serve to create negative publicity (they basically punished the wrong people) and to motivate better security and maybe even stricter laws in the area of “computer crimes.”
I wonder if hackers in general are losing their power as security is beefed up in the world of the internet. In general this would be a good thing. And I certainly don’t know enough about Anonymous to judge whether they are potential hero material or not. The internet is loaded with stories and tidbits about them; but what’s reliable? Many of these reports seem biased – mostly against them. In addition, it seems that anyone can claim that they are a member of Anonymous – who could prove otherwise? Any hacking-type activity anywhere can easily be blamed on them, as well.
How are we to know what are the real intentions or purpose of Anonymous? Do they even really have a set mission in the world? Or do they respond when they see a need or an opportunity? I think it’s very tempting to think of Anonymous as a well-organized, hierarchical entity – but that is probably far from the truth. These are probably fiercely independent individuals who sometimes come to a sort of consensus on what should be done.
So let me make a call, out to Anonymous: If you are just criminals, as some say you are, you will simply sink into criminal history. Maybe you’ll get a full page in the history of internet crime. But my hope is that you are much better than that. My hope is that Anonymous will use its power to fight the good fight. Free speech is worth fighting for. Oppression is worth fighting against.
I won’t forget that the members of Anonymous probably wouldn’t agree with me in many political aspects. But they might agree that both the right and the ability to freely discuss these ideas is the most critical element of Democracy. It is with this in mind that I say to Anonymous:
For that you will not be forgotten.
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.
Tom also posts on thrustblog.blogspot.com