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Is hacktivism a valid form of political dissent?

Posted by on November 16, 2014.

redhackRedHack, a Turkish left-leaning hacker collective, has posted a video on Vimeo demonstrating what it claims to be the deletion of Türkiye Elektrik İletim A.Ş. (electricity supply) customer accounts to the tune of TRY 1.5 trillion (or more than £400 billion!).

This is not an example of Robin Hood. No money has been stolen from the rich company and no benefit will accrue to the poor customer. The company will simply recover the data from, at worst, back-up; and carry on as before.

But it is a political statement — big business and vested interest is rooking the people. That same political statement could probably be made in any country in the world. It could certainly be made in my country (the UK) over the same business: power supply. The question is, would it be morally valid to hack the power supply companies in the UK to make a statement of dissent?

One way to look at this would be to look at traditional methods of protest:

  • write to the company concerned (a pointless waste of time)
  • write to your MP (a pointless waste of time)
  • write to the ombudsman (a pointless waste of time)
  • collect a petition (a pointless waste of time)

In all of these instances, the authorities pretend to listen, sometimes pretend to sympathize, but always ultimately ignore protests. The only time the public voice is able to influence politics (forget democratic elections because they are also a pointless waste of time — whenever has a change of party led to a change of policies?) is when that public voice translates to direct physical protest in the streets (think Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax).

But while physical protest is the only traditional method of protest that has any likelihood of an effect, the authorities are rapidly closing it down. The means is the War on Terror (an entirely manufactured and cynically maintained ‘war’), and the wide-ranging anti-terrorism laws it has allowed the government to enact.

All that is necessary is for the authorities to be able to classify a person or an act as falling within the remit of these laws for that person to lose all inherent human rights without being found guilty of any actual crime. Consider this:

According to the law, terrorism exists where the use or threat of action “is designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public or a section of the public,” and “is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause”; plus any one of the following:

(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person’s life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

The Miranda judgment is a sad day for Britain

Any protest is designed to influence the government — that’s the whole purpose of protesting.

Any protest “is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” — that’s the whole purpose of protesting.

Have you noticed how police policy at street protests seems to be designed to provoke small and containable acts of violence?

There you have the three requirements necessary to define a street protest as an act of terrorism. One brick through a window; one stone thrown at a policeman and the protesters are terrorists in the eyes of the law; and can be dealt with by the authorities as if they are terrorists.

This is driving protest off the streets and on to the internet. But even here government policy is to stifle dissent. GCHQ has a project called ‘mastering the internet’.

Mastering the Internet (MTI)[1][2] is a mass surveillance project led by the British communications intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), with a budget of over £1 billion.

This and other GCHQ surveillance revelations have led to an engineering backlash. Major companies like Google and Apple are making it easier for their customers to use strong encryption; start-ups are developing new privacy-centric tools; F-Secure has developed a secure and inexpensive VPN system.

Robert Hannigan, director, GCHQ

Robert Hannigan, director, GCHQ

GCHQ for its part has refused to accept any culpability for this backlash. Instead it has attacked industry for trying to protect the user. The new director of GCHQ (Robert Hannigan) used his very first major public utterance to suggest that it is industry in denial over terrorist use of the internet rather than GCHQ in denial over their own human rights abuses. He wants industry to help GCHQ spy on users; he claims privacy has never been an absolute right (see The right to privacy Vs the right to spy).

We have already seen that the Terrorism Act can be used to classify any form of political dissent as terrorism. That applies as much on-line as it does off-line; but beware of GCHQ. The effect has been to make any form of political dissent a dangerous pastime.

Politically, David Cameron has chosen the path of least resistance. He failed to get his Communications Data Bill past Nick Clegg, so changed from legislation to commercial bullying. He’s got the ISPs on board. Where he cannot legally ban what he doesn’t like, he now simply gets the ISPs to block access. It started with his porn filter, but has already expanded to include other subjects he doesn’t like. Now we learn of his success in expanding this principle further:

The United Kingdom’s largest four broadband ISPs, including BT, Virgin Media, Sky Broadband and TalkTalk, have reached an agreement with the Government to block their customers from accessing terrorist and extremist material on the Internet. The ISPs will also offer a reporting button so that the public can notify providers when new sites crop up…
Big ISPs to Add ‘Report a Terrorist’ Button and Block Related Websites

The potential for abuse of this process is amazing. We’ve already seen that almost anything can be defined as ‘terrorist’ within the meaning of the law. That means that the government will be able to demand that anything it doesn’t like be blocked, and the ISPs will automatically roll over and oblige. Technically, open dissent on the internet can be blocked.

So what’s left? There is only one thing: covert online hacktivism — or online political dissent where the dissenter cannot easily be recognised. That has become not just the people’s only medium for protest, but almost a political necessity. Cut off from any other means to protest the undemocratic, authoritarian destruction of our natural way of life, we still have the moral duty to object. And the only way left to us is covert online action. This is hacktivism.

Hacktivism — where it has a political rather than criminal intent, where it is designed to make a point rather than cause damage or harm — is a valid form of political dissent. It is possibly the only one still available to the people.

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Submitted in: Kevin Townsend's opinions, News, News_hacks, News_politics, News_privacy | Tags: , , ,