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Tenured 'Hacktivists' from Wall Street Journal


Tenured 'Hacktivists'

from Wall Street Journal

Back in 1998, the New York Times carried a story on "hacktivism," which it defined as "computer hacking . . . as a means to a political end." Online vandals had broken into government computer systems in China, India, Indonesia, Serbia and Croatia, and inserted their own messages.

Another tactic was the denial-of-service attack, in which "an unusually large volume of requests will overwhelm the computer that is serving up the target's Web pages. This can cause legitimate visitors to see error messages instead of the pages they are seeking, and it can even crash the server computer." An outfit called Electronic Disturbance Theater had used denial-of-service attacks against America's defenses:

On Nov. 22 [1998], the group says, it plans to attack the Web site of the School of the Americas, a United States Army training center for foreign military personnel, some of whom have been accused of human rights abuses.

Recent targets have included the sites of Mexico's President, Ernesto Zedillo, and of the United States Defense Department.

This worried U.S. officials, even during the Clinton administration:

Security experts said the recent spate of digital vandalism underscores the risk to companies and governments that increasingly rely on the Internet for commerce and communication.

''What this demonstrates is the capacity of groups with political causes to hack into systems,'' said Michael A. Vatis, chief of the National Information Protection Center, a new Federal agency. ''I wouldn't characterize vandalizing Web sites as cyberterrorism, but the only responsible assumption we can make is there's more going on that we don't know about.''

Established by Attorney General Janet Reno this year, the center is in part a response to the perception that ''political forces which could not take on the United States in conventional military terms stand a better chance on an electronic battlefield,'' said Mr. Vatis, deputy assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A Forbes article at about the same time profiled Electronic Disturbance Theater's Ricardo Dominguez and Brett Stalbaum, and described EDT's "biggest event," a "simultaneous attack on Zedillo's web site (again), the Pentagon and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange":

But this time, the protestors were attacked in their own right. Stalbaum suspects that Pentagon programmers detoured FloodNet traffic into a hostile applet of its own, which caused browsers to crash. "They even called their applet 'hostile applet,' " says Stalbaum, who dissected it.

Dominguez loves the intrigue. "As a person of the theater, I couldn't have created a better script--the drama, the conflict."

Forbes called this an "art project" and quoted Dominguez describing his actions as "electronic civil disobedience."

You still hear about "hacktivism"--this summer, for instance, there was an attack on Estonian servers, presumably originating in Russia. But in the wake of Sept. 11, and amid concerns that al Qaeda may employ "cyber-terrorism" as well as the offline kind, this all seems a lot less cute than it did in the innocent days of 1998.

Yet Dominguez not only is unrepentant but actually complained, in a 2004 interview with the Gothamist, that when he attacked the Pentagon, he was the victim:

Take for example the Department of Defense. They attacked EDT during the September 9th, 1998 VR Sit-In we did during the Ars Electronica Festival, in Linz, Austria--the DOD used a counter-hostile Java applet against FloodNet, which is the first offensive use of information war by a government against a civilian server that we know of.

We believe we should be protected from such actions, that the government cannot attack civilians using any kind of software or hardware. What has become apparent is the kind of violence that these information war systems are now implementing against civilians to control whatever public space there is.

Dominguez is trying to have it both ways: When he attacks the government's computers, it is an act of nonviolent "civil disobedience"; when the government responds in kind, it is "violence . . . against civilians."

Real civil disobedience--think Gandhi or Dr. King or Rosa Parks--is in effect a dare: You defy an unjust law and, in doing so, defy the government to punish you for it, thereby underscoring its injustice. But there's nothing unjust about laws protecting government computer systems from electronic vandalism.

And how have Dominguez and Stalbaum been punished for their actions? With tenure. Dominguez is an assistant professor and Stalbaum a "lecturer with security of employment" on the visual arts faculty of the University of California, San Diego, a state institution. Real civil disobedience is a dangerous act of idealism; Dominguez and Stalbaum's "hacktivism" was a risk-free act of self-promotion.


Cyber Terror

During the late nineties media reports profiled an organization called Electronic Disturbance Theater that staged cyber attacks on the Pentagon, the Frankfurt Stock Exchange and other targets. It was called "hacktivism" — and two of the group's leaders were Ricardo Dominguez and Brett Stalbaum.

Now The Wall Street Journal reports the men not only were not punished — they have obtained tenured positions at the University of California at San Diego. Dominguez is an assistant professor teaching new media art, performance art, hacktivism, artivism and nanoculture. Stalbaum is what's called "a lecturer with security of employment" — teaching new media environmental performance art.