was hardly an isolated case. Among other recent incidences:
Hackers in Jinan—home to the Chinese military intelligence agency—found a way into Google’s Gmail servers to target the e-mail addresses of senior U.S. government officials, anti-Chinese activists, and journalists. The hackers changed settings on the accounts to tap regularly into other users’ messaging.
Hackers cracked into a network of U.S. military contractor Lockheed Martin that contained sensitive war technology under development. At risk was state-of-the- art technology, possibly even the stealth helicopter technology used in the 2011 raid that killed terrorist Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
A new type of hacking is called hacktivism—hacking for the purposes of advocacy, social justice, and human rights. Quite likely one of the most well-known hacktivism
collectives is WikiLeaks, the multi-national media organization founded in 2006 by Julian Assange, a Swedish hacker and computer programmer currently seeking asylum in Ecuador. WikiLeaks is known for obtaining highly sensitive government documents from hackers around the world and then making those documents publicly available on its online library.
Other hacktivism collectives, such as Ghost Security and Anonymous, have been increasingly in the news in 2015 and 2016 for their hacking of Islamic terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State (otherwise known as ISIS), Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabaab, all known for their sophisticated use of social media, such as YouTube and Twitter, for recruiting, mobilizing, and disseminating propaganda. Ghost Security monitors domains and Twitter accounts of various terrorist cells, including members of ISIS, publishes their identifying information online, and forwards suspicious domains, Twitter accounts, and planned terrorist attacks to the U.S. government through a proxy. Anonymous has touted numerous occasions where its members have successfully hacked into and shut down the social media accounts of ISIS members, disrupting their ability to recruit and mobilize members.
Most people agree that hacking ISIS accounts is acceptable, even admirable, but other recent examples of hacktivism tend to be more controversial. Take for instance former National Security Agency employee, Edward Snowden’s hack and subsequent release of sensitive data showing the U.S. government’s alleged overreaching in collecting private information from U.S. citizens. Some people believe Snowden is a hero for protecting American’s privacy and liberty, while others consider him a traitor for releasing highly sensitive information about the U.S. government that could potentially be used against us by another country. Another recent controversial example of hacktivism involved a group called The Impact Team, which in July of 2015 hacked the computer systems of Ashley Madison, a dating website that helps married people have extramarital affairs. The information hacked included customer data, financial information, and internal information, such as documents and employee e-mails. The hackers threatened to release customers’ names, credit card information, and other private profile information, such as sexual desires and fantasies, if the dating site didn’t immediately cease operations. Their motivation? They had hacked into the systems at Ashley Madison and its parent company Avid Life Media a few years back and believed the company was unethical—not only in the services they provided (helping primarily men have extramarital affairs), but they also learned that the parent company engaged in several other unethical business practices, such as promising privacy without using technology with appropriate security measures. When asked directly about their motivation, The Impact Team leaders responded that they had watched Ashley Madison subscriptions grow and
human trafficking increase, and they wanted to stop Avid Life Media’s exploitation of vulnerable people. The Impact Team compared Avid Life Media to drug dealers who abuse addicts.
When The Impact Team’s demands were not met, the hackers kept their promise, and on August 18 and 20, 2015, the group released 30 gigabytes of customer data in two data dumps on what is called the Dark Web. The information eventually made its way to the regular Internet in the form of searchable databases that allowed members of the general public to search by name, e-mail address, and other identifying information. The fallout was relatively significant as data were mined by everyone from journalists to spouses to nosy neighbors. Couples split, some high-profile personalities were found on the site, and two to three suicides were even attributed to the hacking incident. Other fall-out included extortionist attempts by what many called “Internet vigilantes” bent on shaming those who were registered on the site. Although The Impact Team claimed to be hacktivists, others disagreed, citing in particular how the potential damaging consequences to customers whose data were leaked far outweighed their alleged infractions. For instance, there were approximately 1,200 customer e-mails from Saudi Arabia contained in the data dump, which may have put those individuals in grave risk of their lives since adultery is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. In addition, a detailed data analysis of user information found there were virtually no real women on the site; rather, almost all female customers were computer-generated BOTs apparently intended to dupe unsuspecting men into continuing their subscription, which begs the question: If there were no women on the site, who were the men having affairs with?
Hacktivism creates an ethical dilemma for both consumers and law enforcement because many groups claim their causes are for good. In fact, some of the top Hacktivist causes are domestic violence, climate change, and criminal justice. Many critics point out that everyone has a cause he or she would like to champion, but social media has created an environment where public shaming and humiliation for a range of perceived infractions, some quite minor, are now considered the norm, and far too often, the punishment, ranging from destroyed lives to death threats, far outweighs the nature of the alleged infraction.
The Internet was created in the 1960s when the Pentagon recognized that all-out nuclear war would disrupt their command-and-control networks. Indeed, a first-strike attack could have wiped it all out. Their answer: Build a web of interlinked but independent channels to transport packets of data without central communication hubs that could be targeted. The network went operational in 1969. The network, never tested by all-out nuclear war, grew into today’s Internet—the backbone for e-mail, the web, including social media and all forms of mass communication.
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