Hackers Have Rights, Too
I did my best to be happy when I learned about the British government's denial-of-service attacks on Anonymous and other hacktivist groups. I wanted to cheer from the touchline. Instead, I find myself worried about the implications for our technological future.
First, the story: According to National Security Agency documents leaked to NBC News by Edward Snowden, in the fall of 2011 a previously unknown British unit known as the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group in effect hacked the hackers, using a variety of methods "to scare away 80 percent of the users of Anonymous internet chat rooms."
The operation, dubbed "Rolling Thunder," attacked the servers hosting the chat rooms used by the group. Rolling Thunder has resulted in at least one conviction, but its main purpose has been disruption. The leaked NSA documents include a transcript of presumed Anonymous members complaining about the attack. One writes, "i wasnt able to connect the past 30 hours." Another responds, "i didn't know whether to quit last night, because of the ddos."
Anonymous does a lot of damage. Along with such groups as LulzSec, TeslaTeam and the Syrian Electronic Army, Anonymous forms what are often known as hacktivist collectives, online activists who attack websites. Often their motivations are political. (They particularly object to censorship and some forms of intellectual-property protection.) Some act in their financial self-interest. Occasionally, they simply pull pranks.
Anons, as they call themselves, have launched attacks over the years on PayPal Inc., Sony Corp. and any number of government agencies -- including Britain's Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. In recent years, dozens of Anonymous members have been arrested for various crimes, and many have been convicted.
For many, then, the first reaction to the news of the British turnabout-is-fair-play attacks might indeed be to cheer. Much of the tech community, however, is uneasy. The anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, who is writing a book about Anonymous, offers a quite sensible worry:
"While those involved in Anonymous can and have faced their day in court for those tactics, the British government has not. When Anonymous engages in law-breaking, they are always taking a huge risk in doing so. But with unlimited resources and no oversight, organizations like the GCHQ (and theoretically the NSA) can do as they please. And it's this power differential that makes all the difference."
Precisely. Call it our Madisonian mistrust: the fear that whatever authority is placed in the hands of the government can easily be misused. This is what David Hume had in mind when he wrote that, in the design of a constitutional system, "every man must be supposed to be a knave."
Hume's point isn't that every man is a knave, but that we have to restrict the authority of government because some men will be. Every blade will someday pass into less scrupulous hands. That's why it matters what weapons the state uses to achieve its ends.
Rolling Thunder has troubling practical implications, too. Chat rooms are virtual. They don't exist anywhere. An attack on a chat room is basically an attack on the server hosting it. So it isn't just the hacktivists who feel the sting: It's anybody who uses any websites hosted on the same server.
And consider this: Even though many Anonymous members have been convicted of crimes, the Anons number in the thousands, perhaps the tens of thousands. Most have never been accused of anything. Many are teenagers. The chances are that only a minority of those targeted are actually criminals.
On the other hand, perhaps maybe stopping crime isn't the point. As far as we can tell, similar tactics aren't being used against other objectionable and even criminal enterprises, an omission that led journalist Joshua Kopstein to suggest that the real point of Rolling Thunder is to intimidate.
Over the top? Maybe. But consider a further point made by Coleman: "The British government is apparently throwing out due process and essentially proceeding straight to the punishment -- using a method that is considered illegal and punishable by years in prison." In short, it is the tool, not the goal, that raises ethical questions.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not defending the Anons who have committed crimes. Still, I will confess to a sneaking admiration for aspects of what Anonymous does. (One of my novels includes a sympathetic portrait of a member of a similar group.) That the hacktivists sometimes choose the wrong targets doesn't mean they never choose the right ones. Anons have gone after purveyors of child pornography. They were strong supporters of the Arab Spring, where technology was used to evade government control.
That's where the future tug-of-war lies. Contemporary technology promises a vista of freedom unlike anything in the human past -- freedom, in particular, to communicate ideas. The Internet, in its organic way, has stubbornly resisted efforts to control and restrict it. Nobody can be happy with everything that happens online, and much of what's out there is destructive. The dilemma we face -- the discussion we should be having -- is whether we want those acting in our name to use the tools they condemn to halt the conversations they don't like.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama" and the novel "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln." Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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