Computer hackers could be classed as terrorists under a UK law that came into force today.
The Terrorism Act 2000 is designed to prevent dissident political groups from using the UK as a base for terrorism and recognises a new threat from cyberterrorists for the first time.
But the Act also significantly widens the definition of terrorism to include those actions that "seriously interfere with or seriously disrupt an electronic system". According to the Act this only applies to actions "designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public", but it will be up to police investigators to decide when this is the case. The Act gives police the power to detain suspects for 48-hours without a warrant.
Alex Gordon, a partner with London law firm Berwin Leyton and a specialist in information technology law, said the act gives police significant new powers over computer criminals. "The Act does catch serious computer hacking," he said.
Gordon said it is unlikely that the act could be used to target all computer hackers. However,he said the legislation is so new that guidelines still need to be drawn up.
Just as many marginal political groups fear that the new legislation could lead to the suppression of legitimate offline demonstrations, some cyberactivists are concerned that it could stifle legitimate Internet protest.
UK ISP GreenNet, which hosts a variety of Web sites belonging to political activists and campaigners, could be affected by the Act. GreenNet consultant and online activist Paul Mobbs, who has coordinated protests through his site, Electrohippies, says that the Act may result in Internet campaigns being controlled.
"As more people get on the Internet, it inevitably becomes politicised," he says. "If a group did an email campaign to the prime minister and that disrupted an email system that could be defined as terrorism."
Mobbs believes that the Act could even be used by a authoritarian government to stop legitimate political activism.
Mobbs courted controversy in March 2000 when he created a point-and-click method of attacking the World Trade Organisation's Web sites as part of global protests against capitalism.
The government has broadened the definition of terrorism to include computer-related activity because it is concerned that militant groups are increasingly turning to computer hacking techniques. Internet activism is becoming more evident, with politically-motivated computer hackers, or "hacktivists", defacing Web pages with political messages and blocking off Internet sites for political reasons.
Home secretary Jack Straw has signalled that he intends to clamp down on those exploiting computers and the Internet to perpetrate terrorist activity under the new Act.
"[Terrorists] are no respecters of borders and are continuously developing new approaches and techniques," says Straw. "With the implementation of the Terrorism Act 2000, the UK is making a very firm statement of our intent to combat terrorism, with every legitimate means at our disposal, whenever and wherever it occurs."
The growth of cyberterrorism has been made particularly evident in the activities of Palestinian and Israeli hackers, playing their part in the ongoing Middle East conflict. Their online feud, dubbed an "e-Jihad", has seen protagonists deface and block politically opposed Web sites and bombard enemies with avalanches of email.
Evidence suggests that this type of activism is growing in popularity among other regional militant groups.
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