Hacktivists have officially moved from nerdish extremists to become the political protest visionaries of the digital age, a meeting at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London will be told on Thursday.
Paul Mobbs, an experienced Internet activist and anti-capitalist protestor, will tell attendees that the techniques used by politically minded computer hackers -- from jamming corporate networks and sending email viruses to defacing Web sites -- has moved into the realm of political campaigning.
Mobbs says that the term "Hacktivism" has been adopted by so many different groups, from peaceful Net campaigners to Internet hate groups, that it is essentially meaningless, but claims that Internet protest is here to stay. "It has a place, whether people like it or not," says Mobbs.
His own Web project, the Electrohippies Collective, has sought to incite Internet attacks on multinational corporations to coincide with anti-capitalist protesting offline. Mobbs says that his actions are legitimate because targets are always informed of any action and he doesn't attempt to break into their servers.
New UK legislation, designed to crack down on violent political extremists, the Anti-Terrorism Act 2000, has been criticised for introducing the concept of computer terrorism.
The Act states that any action that "seriously interferes with, or seriously disrupts an electronic system," and is "designed to influence the government, or to intimidate the public," can be considered terrorism.
Some activists, including Mobbs, suggest that this definition is too broad and gives law enforcers the power to crush legitimate Internet protests.
Peter Sommer, a long standing expert on computer crime and senior researcher at the London School of Economics, (LSE) says that hacktivism is not always clear cut. "It depends how far things go," he says. "It's like poeple protesting in the street. It's fine as long as they don't bring Molotov cocktails along."
Sommer, however, admits to being, "concerned about the lack of clarity in the definition of terrorism in the Act." Sommer also says that some purely malevolent computer hackers hide behind the banner of political protest.
Security analyst at Information Risk Management, Richard Stagg, says that politically motivated hackers most typically use existing Web scripts to deface pages or black out sites. However, he adds: "If you get someone more advanced, they can get into a network and cause serious damage."
Political hacking has gone from relative obscurity to headline news in recent years. What was once part of a technologically specialist fringe has become accepted by traditional political groups. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Middle East -- where attacks on Muslim and Israeli Web sites are mentioned in the same news reports as bombings and street fighting.
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