The new age of hacktivism dawns

Online vandals deface prominent Web sites to vent their opinions. Are they saying anything interesting?

Politicians may not pander to them and experts may discount their opinions, but online vandals are getting the message out about what they think is important: Increasingly, that's politics.

On the eve of the US elections, vandals defaced the home pages of the Republican National Committee, placing a spirited pro-Gore diatribe in its place. The Democratic National Committee said its site was subjected to repeated attacks. The defacements followed a spate of similar online graffiti posted by pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists over the past month.

The trend will continue, said Karen Worstell, vice president of venture and security consulting firm Atomic Tangerine's Trust Group. "It's becoming a very effective medium, so it's going to be used more," she said. "It's accomplishing its purpose -- it's getting a lot of media attention."

That publicity, and the idea of hacking for a higher purpose, is attracting new recruits to online activism, or hacktivism.

"We have been in the world of hacking for more than two years," said two Pakistani defacers, who call themselves "m0r0n" and "nightman", in a recent email interview. "But we have been defacing for only about two months, and it feels great that we hack for a reason."

Citing concerns for their Muslim cousins, the duo has defaced Israeli-affiliated sites such as Banyan Systems, Automated Transaction Systems, Yizrael Valley College, and Shenkar College. Another Pakistani "hacktivist", known as Doctor Nuker, struck at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last week.

In over six weeks of violence, more than 180 people -- most of them Palestinian -- have lost their lives in the Middle East. The groups supporting either side online have mainly limited their activities to defacements and denial-of-service attacks against Web sites affiliated with the Palestinian movement or Israeli nationalists. Their styles vary from the online verbal bludgeoning and graphic images of the six-member group GForce Pakistan to the polite -- almost apologetic -- statements of m0r0n and nightman.

"Sorry Mr. Administrator, but your site has been hacked by m0r0n and nightman!" stated the two in a recent defacement of the Banyan Systems site. "Everyone seeing this -- either Muslim or non-Muslim -- please note that we (are) not evil or unethical. Our motto is simple and clear and that is to create global awareness... so that everyone would come to know of the atrocities done to Muslims all around the world."

Hacktivism became popular during the Zapatista guerrilla uprising for greater democracy and Indian rights in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in 1994. Others defaced Web sites to get information out about violence in the Balkans. In the past few months, another Web vandal known as "Pimpshiz" has defaced several hundred Web sites in support of the music-swapping service Napster.

"We are going to start seeing this sort of thing for a whole range of issues," including animal rights and other fringe causes, said Kent Anderson, a data security expert with international business-risk consulting firm Control Risks Group. Increasingly, the targets are companies, he said.

Yet, others believe that the medium -- defaced sites -- is hurting the message.

"I can understand that someone with limited means and limited power who feels strongly about a particular issue might resort to hacktivism, but ultimately, it is a sign of weakness," said Ken Bricker, spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which was defaced almost a week ago.

"The organisation that controls the site is placed in the role of the victim, which defeats the attacker's purpose -- that works against the hacktivist, who becomes a villain in the mind of the general public," Bricker said.

In addition, most of the new breed of hacktivists are still kids and, seemingly, have little to add to the discussion, said Brian Martin, a staff member with security information site Attrition.org.

"Even the people who are making the news now have little to say and are mostly incoherent," he said.

"Do these kids think that by defacing some Web sites, it's going to make the country change? I understand what they are doing, but they are deluding themselves if they think it is going to help," Martin said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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