On Thursday we saw one of the first examples, that I am aware of, of the anti-cuts movement using ‘hacking’ as a method of activism. UKUncut engaged their old foes Vodafone in a bit of online combat when they used passwords provided by ‘winners’ from the companies World of Difference website to post information on the companies tax avoidance activities.
But what makes this so different compared to the groups occupations of the company’s offline real estate? Essentially, not very much. The motives are the same: to reappropriate the space of companies that avoid paying tax in order to bring light to both their avoidance and the government’s reluctance to fix the issue. Whether the space is physical or digital is irrelevant and both forms are just as important as each other in today’s society.
The law is slightly different however. As Tim Hardy points out the consequences for hacking can be steep and whilst trespassing on a companies space offline is a civil offence (though aggravated trespassing is a criminal offence and can be used as a charge by police against activists), hacking is a criminal offence with sometimes international consequences attatched to it. This, combined with the knowledge required to carry out online actions, is perhaps a barrier to people engaging in such ‘hacktivism’.
Yet, it is becoming more and more essential for such activity to take place and it doesn’t even have to be illegal.
Why are we not squatting potential or misspelt URLs of tax avoiding companies. Purchasing, relatively cheap, domain names such as vodaphone.com and establishing an anti-cuts education site there isn’t illegal (I think) and could cause these companies difficulty if done smartly and strategically. Take twitter.co.uk for example, the site linked is what the domain use to point to, but it seems Twitter gave up and bought the domain. We wouldn’t want companies to purchase domains from us, but it shows how annoying it can get when someone has a domain similar to that of a big organisation’s.
And what’s another way to simulate the Saturday fun of seeing Topshop or Boots shut when we show up? DDoS. Distributed Denial of Service attacks are not new in the realm of online activism and the technique was famously used by Anonymous, supporters of Wikileaks, against MasterCard, Visa and Amazon amongst others by (illegaly) overloading the servers of a website so that it can no longer operate or it is so slow it is unusable.
I wouldn’t know the first thing about carrying out such an attack, and wouldn’t encourage people to do so, but there are people who do understand the mechanics and I predict that it is a technique that will gain popularity within the anti-cuts movement as a way to temporarily seize up the online operations of companies or organisations. Though the disadvantages that you could be targeted by an attack yourself and that the nature of the DDoS attack to ‘passers by’ isn’t entirely obvious without media explination obviously do exist.
Then there is the risks involved in carrying out criminal activity. But when doesn’t this risk exist for an activist? To be a criminal you simply have to annoy the law enforcers – no more. Whether you are totally innocent or a criminal mastermind, your fate is dependant on how much you piss of the person in charge. If you aren’t willing to bow to their control, whether the medium is digital or physical, you could be in trouble. We must take that risk.
The power to strike, occupy and resist is just as real online. All you have to consider is how you coordinate both online and offline efforts to win the battle.
Update: Comments on the use of DDoS edited to clarify that I wouldn’t personally encourage anyone to use this (illegal) technique.