Hackers flexing political muscles

Will the Republican National Convention be the next hacktivism target? Inspired by the Seattle protests, hackers and activists make plans at H2K

It was a sign of the times. Former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra, the punk icon who made an unsuccessful run for the Green Party's 2000 presidential nomination, was the keynote speaker at the Hacking on Planet Earth 2000 (H2K) conference Saturday.

Despite the fact that he was an hour late, is undecided on Napster, has "never used a computer in my life", and tubthumped for Green candidate Ralph Nader, Biafra was a runaway hit with an attentive alternative-tech crowd -- packing out the Hotel Pennsylvania's two conference rooms. Afterwards, he even returned to centre stage for a cameo appearance with the high-profile hacking group Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc).

"This isn't even capitalism any more, it's feudalism. Any time we buy Shell or Microsoft... we are their serfs," said Biafra, who was wearing a T-shirt that read D.A.R.E. TO KEEP KIDS OUT OF CHURCH.

"Fighting this isn't just a lot of fun. It's your patriotic duty."

Biafra's call to arms, while hardly new to supporters of the Bay Area-based activist, represents a departure for a hacking conference of H2K's magnitude. When last held by hacker 'zine 2600 on 8-10 August, 1997, the conference was -- save for cDc's pledge to support hacker activism or "hacktivism" -- a technical affair dominated by the campaign to free imprisoned hacker Kevin Mitnick.

Three years later, much has changed. Mitnick is out on parole. Hacktivism, whether it's denial-of-service attacks, Web site defacements or the wired grapevine, is a major avenue of protest. And, perhaps most significantly, last December's World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle, coupled with the looming Democrat and Republican National Conventions, appears to have inspired a political awakening of sorts.

Hacktivism has become an avidly discussed topic at H2K.

Speaking during the Hacktivism -- Terrorism or New Hope? panel, ShapeShifter, a "street" activist who participated in the WTO protests, said the Net was a major ally in Seattle, helping activists to organise and communicate. "Hacktivism is now within the spectrum of what direct action is," he said. "It can be a pretty effective tool."

And that effective tool may play a part in the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. According to ShapeShifter, protest plans are well underway for the Republicans' official crowning of governor George W Bush as its presidential candidate.

"We are organizing protests against them," ShapeShifter said. Ironically, the convention kicks off on 30 July, the last day of Def Con 8.0, the annual hacker fest in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, cDc member "Oxblood Ruffin" announced that he, in conjunction with an international group of hackers and as yet unnamed social justice groups, was developing a Web application that should enable users to get around censorship and filtering.

Still, consensus is yet to be reached on the ethics of hacktivism. Speaking during the Hacktivism panel, cDc member Reid Fleming said he was against hacktivism that damaged the Net's infrastructure. "For the members of the cDc, we don't think that we should be denying access to a particular Web site," Fleming said.

Instead, Fleming contended, hacktivism should support free speech and privacy. "If you are for these things then you are a hacktivist. Or at least a sympathiser," he said.

Oxblood said cDc was trying to influence hackers to use their skills to help other people. "It seems a lot of talent is wasted on either frivolous or dangerous action. It's sort of like high-brow vandalism," he said. "It's become quite convenient to say that one is doing this for hacktivism reasons."

Biafra -- during a keynote punctuated with barbs aimed at the "straight media", US vice president Al Gore, the term "electronic terrorism", the litigious ex-members of the Dead Kennedys, and whoever registered the domains jellobiafra.org and jellobiafra.com -- also sounded a note of caution. The Net was being "colonised by e-commerce" and "Al Gore", he told the audience, making it imperative that they "use it wisely".

"Be careful of the information gossip you get on the Internet, too," he continued. "For example, late in 1997 I discovered out on the Internet that I was dead."

According to the virtual rumour mill, Biafra had been shot. "I went to the shower and couldn't find the bullet holes, but it was on the Internet so it must be true," he said.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether direct action will stem from this weekend's talk of hacktivism. Oxblood's hacktivism app development group has only been communicating via listserv since February. And the Republican and Democratic conventions may well pass without real world or virtual interference.

Biafra, though, has high hopes. "It will be interesting to see what happens in Philadelpia and LA during the Republican and Democratic national conventions," he said, before making a final plea for direct action.

"Wouldn't you rather help make history than watch it on TV or, rather, gossip on the Net?"

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