Conservatives are in the crosshairs of political ‘hacktivists’

The future of dirty politics?

By Ed Hassell

Ever since it passed, the national health care law commonly known as ObamaCare has been entangled in legal battles and heated national debate. As polls have consistently shown, a majority of the public remains opposed to the law and many are worried because they never found out what was even in it.

While the law has spurred countless news stories, a recent one you may have missed involved the attorney David Rivkin, who successfully led the multi-state challenge to ObamaCare filed in Florida. A prominent conservative voice, Rivkin has been a staunch defender of the Constitution in a variety of cases, but he admitted the health care law challenge was the most important of his life.

Through his early op-ed articles in The Wall Street Journal, Rivkin was the first person to begin the legal argument against the national health care reform on the grounds of its core individual mandate being unconstitutional. Since then, he has publicly called this law “the most unconstitutional in history” because of how it fundamentally redefines the government’s role in our lives and theoretically makes it possible for  the government to mandate that Americans buy virtually anything.

While Democrats and liberal professors mocked this argument early on, Rivkin stayed the course, and his reasoning has so far persuaded two federal judges in Virginia and Florida to agree. No longer does anyone take this sound legal argument lightly.

About a week after the Florida judge’s ruling that the individual mandate was indeed unconstitutional and that the entire law must be thrown out, some anonymous person out there who disagreed with Rivkin’s position (and that of the majority of  Americans) decided to commit a cybercrime and punish the attorney for his role in the legal fight to stop ObamaCare.

Administrators running the site, David Rivkin.com, said they first became aware of significant problems on February 8. Around midnight on Thursday, Feb. 10, a million comments appeared within a five-minute time frame, destroying countless articles and interviews posted on Rivkin’s site. It was a common ploy used by political activist hackers (“hacktivists”) and other anarchic pranksters who wish to wreak havoc, known as a Denial Of Service (DDoS) attack.

Even though it was a slow news week, at least in America, mainstream media outlets ignored the story. After all, if they wanted to provide context they would be forced to admit that cyberattacks are a fast growing problem, and political hacktivism in particular is largely directed against conservatives. The attack carried out against Mr. Rivkin was only the latest in a long line of troubling episodes.

A former Tennessee college student who was also the son of a Democratic lawmaker, was convicted of hacking Sarah Palin’s e-mail account just weeks before the 2008 election. Then cybercriminals hacked the website of commentator Bill O’Reilly and posted personal details of subscribers, solely in retaliation for remarks O’Reilly made on Fox News condemning the attack on Palin’s Yahoo email account.

In 2004, the Electronic Disturbance Theater staged a week of disruption during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, flooding Republican web sites and communication systems identified with conservative causes.

And of course, the biggest example in recent memory has been the international story of Wikileaks and its founder, hacker Julian Assange, who is responsible for releasing hundreds of thousands of top secret U.S. diplomatic cables. When Assange was arrested and his accounts frozen, his supporters began to retaliate with DDoS attacks against major corporations and banks (Amazon, Paypal, Visa, Mastercard) as well as the Swedish prosecutor’s office.

The hackers point: We are now a political force to be reckoned with.

Things have certainly come a long way since the origin of hacking, which started among academics and has always been characterized by the ironic desire for openness and a bottomline distrust of authority. Hacking may have started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology back in the ‘60s, but its roots lie even deeper in creative strains of liberalism (the Yippies were an early influence on many hackers) and individualism, such as the phone phreakers of the ‘50s who explored the nation’s phone system.

For a working definition of “hacker” we can look to an academic expert on the subject, Professor Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist in media, culture, and communication at New York University.

“A ‘hacker’ is a technologist with a love for computing and a ‘hack’ is a clever technical solution arrived through a non-obvious means,” Coleman wrote in her article, “The Anthropology of Hacking” published in The Atlantic. “Hackers tend to value a set of liberal principles: freedom, privacy, and access; they tend to adore computers; some gain unauthorized access to technologies, though the degree of illegality greatly varies.”

But what kind of freedom is it when anonymous liberal hackers, accountable to no one, can simply shut down the online voices of those who disagree with them?

John Perry Barlow, a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is one of the earliest supporters of the Internet and he has come out against DDoS attacks.

“I support freedom of expression, no matter whose, so I oppose DDoS attacks regardless of their target,” he said. “They’re the poison gas of cyberspace.”

Cybercrime is obviously a larger problem than just hackers trying to make a political point. As the entire world moves their sensitive information into the digital realm, there is real concern about terrorism and international schemes to defraud and steal online. That is why cybersecurity is a near constant theme in Washington.

As recent events in the Middle East have shown, we are even seeing revolutions get their start online. The power of the Internet and its ability to connect people, to organize and disseminate information, is growing at such a rapid clip that it far outstrips our ability to understand and control it.

Security experts at McAfee have predicted that political hacking would define 2011; they warn about the potential risks facing “businesses and organizations who strive for data protection, because attacks will not only come from organized crime groups, but also private citizens who want to leverage the internet to further their political cause.”

The central problem remains that these crimes are difficult to prosecute. Finding fingerprints or DNA samples in the digital world can be near impossible. There are ten conservative security principles for cybersecurity outlined in a paper for The Heritage Foundation here that allows you to view some of the complexity of the situation.

But ignoring the problem in the media has got to stop. This is a global issue and one that affects both major American political parties, although the conservatives have certainly been the party more affected. When we ignore a small crime like the one directed against lawyer David Rivkin, we do so at our own collective peril.

Some of the hackers have respect for freedom of speech, but others do not when it comes to their political beliefs. Then they are those who simply revel in chaos—and who knows what damage they may one day cause.

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