HACKTIVISM: UA RESEARCHER EXPLORES POLITICAL PROTEST ON-LINE

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — On Dec. 2, 2001, http://www.youropinioncounts.net/ was your run-of-the-mill Internet business. It advertised an on-line customer survey system that allows retailers to gauge consumer response to their websites. But on Dec. 3, the same site advertised something entirely different. It showed images of bloodied women and children and boasted a message that read: "Stop killing innocents. Save Kashmir, Palestine & Afghanistan. Stop killing their innocent children. Stop raping their women. Can’t you just stop being mean?"

It was the work of Internet defacers, a new breed of political activists who have emerged over the past decade, says one University of Arkansas researcher. These "hacktivists" are young. They’re politically charged. They’re technologically savvy. And they’re tacking their protests to the biggest billboard on earth — the World Wide Web.

"Usually website defacement amounts to little more than on-line graffiti. It’s just kids having fun, communicating through their hacks. But when something truly significant happens — like the September 11 attacks or the al-Aqsa intifada — you see this explosion of politically driven defacements. All of a sudden, you get a glimpse of how politics plays out on a very small level — the level of specific teenagers and young adults," said William Taggart, a graduate researcher associated with the UA department of anthropology and the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies.

For more than a year, Taggart has been tracking Internet activism — examining defaced websites, communicating with hackers throughout the world, trying to unravel the tangled ties that link their virtual communities and alliances and identities with the lives they actually live. Not only does Taggart document the on-line culture of hackers, but he also investigates the way that real-world traits, such as nationality and religion, manifest through their Internet activities.

In particular, Taggart’s research focuses on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the al-Aqsa intifada. Beginning on Sept. 29, 2000, this second Palestinian uprising triggered a frenzy of political defacements. But Taggart says that other world events have had similar effects.

For example, following September 11, hackers from around the world commandeered websites to post pro-American or pro-al Qaeda messages. Within the hacker community, alliances formed to deface Arab sites and attack their Internet service providers, Taggart said. But with virtually no electronic infrastructure in Afghanistan and few "official" terrorist websites, the hackers had little to target.

In contrast, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of politically-charged hacks from young people on both sides of the issue. Pro-Israeli defacers may target Muslim websites, while pro-Palestinians hack into Israeli political or American corporate sites.

This consistent activity is partly due to the demographics of the hacker community, Taggart said. The threat of severe penalties has curtailed much American hacking, so the majority of defacers represent young people from affluent families outside of the United States. The greatest volume of activity comes from Pakistan and Brazil, with a smattering of Israeli, Russian and European hackers also weighing in.

"In a lot of these countries, there aren’t penalties for these types of action, especially in Israel, Pakistan and Brazil. This is such a new crime that they don’t have legislation against it, and even if they do have laws against hacking, those are not enforced," Taggart explained. "National interest plays into it too. If you’re hacking into websites maintained by a nation that your own government opposes, you’re not likely to face any penalties. These hackers are like privateers."

Hackers from across the world access and deface between 30 and 50 different websites each day, targeting everything from obscure personal pages to the official site of Saudi Arabia’s ministry of health. Taggart reviews these defacements through two on-line archives: http://www.alldas.de/, which updates its list of altered websites hourly, and http://www.attrition.org/, which contains a five-year record of defacements dating from 1995-2000.

According to Taggart, most defacements are non-political — simply replacing the original website content with new text and graphics that announce the hacker’s on-line identity. Occasionally, a hacker will even address the site administrator, pointing out vulnerabilities in the security of the network.

Political defacements tend either to be explicit — such as the images posted on http://www.youropinioncounts.net/ — or subversive — such as an attack on Ariel Sharon’s official site, which altered the text on the page, completely changing the message. Political hackers often post the photos or names of recent victims, and they almost invariably use English, Taggart said.

"You wouldn’t necessarily expect someone who’s posting Pakistani nationalist statements and anti-American propaganda to use English, but they want to reach the biggest possible audience," he explained. "You do find a lot of contradictions in these defacements, but you have to keep in mind that these are kids who are just forming their political consciousness."

Taggart has formed on-line relationships with many of these "kids," and gathers much of his information directly from the hacker community. But in addition to ethnographic interviews and on-line research, he has also traveled throughout the Middle East, hoping to gain a perspective from the young people directly involved in this conflict. His encounters have taught him that — while political hacking may be significant to those outside of Palestine and Israel — it’s more of a sideshow to the real events.

Rather than making an impact on the conflict itself, political hacking makes a statement about the individual identity of the hacker, Taggart said. It’s a means of expressing solidarity with a cause, of identifying on the larger level of nationality or religion.

"Palestinians in the West Bank, people in the middle of the conflict don’t really participate in on-line activism," he said. "When you have tanks sitting in your back yard and guns lining every wall, it makes a conflict in cyber-space somewhat irrelevant."

Contacts

 William Taggart, graduate student of anthropology and Middle East studies, (479) 575-2508, annapaxis@hotmail.com

Allison Hogge, science and research communications officer, (479) 575-5555, alhogge@uark.edu

 

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