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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Anonymous and Cyber-terrorism: The Good and the Bad

I've been meaning to blog about this very subject for quite a while. The links have been sitting in my "Discuss" folder and I think it's about time it was brought up. I think this will work in two stages. The first stage is to talk about the group Anonymous and their war against Scientology (as it currently stands) and the second stage is to talk about cyber-terrorism in general, since it is an issue we are facing in the real world and will face to a greater extent in the future.
For those of you a little out of the loop, Anonymous is a, well, anonymous group of people all around that world that have essentially declared war against the Church of Scientology. They (the people behind it, some of which do have names since there's really no way to keep yourself hidden entirely) believe that the Church of Scientology not only is limiting free speech in acts of legal battering, among other acts, but is a dangerous, violent cult that is quite similar to a totalitarian regime in religious format. Given the length of controversy over the Church of Scientology there has to be a certain amount of skepticism in their position. Are we to assume that the entire Church is evil? Well, Anonymous would argue yes, and to some extent I would have to agree. Whether or not Scientology is a "religion" that can help people is put out of view in comparison to how the Church has acted in the past and in the present towards its members and towards dissenters and critics. The Church has silenced many people, threatened legal action against protesters, passed out defamatory leaflets and sought to ruin the lives of people that have spoke out against the Church. And there is no small amount of criticism on Scientology's history (you might not know this, but L. Ron Hubbard was actually banned from the country of England--banned, not just deported, but banned from touching English soil).
I think if you look at all the links I'm going to give you'll get an idea of what Anonymous stands for. There are the two videos released by Anonymous here, here, and here that talk about their mission (not to mention their criticisms of the Church and the media). You can find a transcript of the first of those videos here. If you really want to get into who they are you can go to their main page and read all about where they come from, who they are, what they are doing, etc.
Anonymous is not just playing around either. In fact, they are pretty damn serious about this. There are, according to their reports, 7,500 people protesting right now in cities all over the world (find that info here) as of TODAY. There were reports by news agencies a while back about the first protests, but what's interesting is that they are still protesting and in rather large numbers when you think about it.
Now, this sounds all well and good, but you might be asking what this has to do with cyber-terrorism. Not long ago there were reports about cyber-attacks by people claiming to be from Anonymous on Church of Scientology websites. Now, whether or not these folks were actually members of Anonymous and were told "yeah, do that" is entirely up to speculation, which of course the lovely Church will do into order to continue it's long spew of legal silliness. Anonymous has never called themselves hackers, as you'll see, in fact they simply call themselves "Anonymous" or "Legion" and make it very clear that they are doctors, teachers, construction workers, etc. They are just people, not a bunch of Internet hackers with nothing to do. The protests have very clearly shown this. (By the way, you should probably do a good look around Youtube to see just what all the hubbub is about the Church--there are some really interesting videos about what Church personal do about people who are just standing across the street with a camera, or even what Church people say to those who actually are quite peaceful.)
Whoever hacked into the Church websites clearly has done something that is wrong. That can't be avoided, but I don't see Anonymous taking credit for it. One thing I find most fascinating about all this is that the Church is not taking efforts to deny that things happened (i.e. that there are some people that have died, which you can find a lot about here). In fact, they seem to almost ignore it. The cyber-war has, it seems, been remarkably successful in presenting the information and it is a wonder why the Church doesn't play the nice card and try to solve the problems. Surely the death of Church members is bad right?
Cyber-terrorism is not isolated to such silly things as bringing down Church of Scientology websites (which I find to be bad, but at the same time I don't think it's religious persecution, since the Church is not necessarily a religion, though it calls itself that. This is a point Anonymous is trying to make). Cyber-attacks are not at all isolated to website hacking, which has been around for probably more than a decade now. In fact, we're seeing the dawn of a whole new era of cyber-attacks. The CIA reported a while back that:
We have information, from multiple regions outside the United States, of cyber intrusions into utilities, followed by extortion demands. We suspect, but cannot confirm, that some of these attackers had the benefit of inside knowledge. We have information that cyberattacks have been used to disrupt power equipment in several regions outside the United States. In at least one case, the disruption caused a power outage affecting multiple cities. We do not know who executed these attacks or why, but all involved intrusions through the Internet.
The scary part of this is that while it has not affected the U.S. to public knowledge as it has affected regions outside of its lands, it is something we are going to have to be concerned with, whether we like it or not. Any body with a lot of free time and a mind bend on causing mischief can get a computer, Internet access, and learn to hack into other computers. In fact, hacking happens quite regularly and while the CIA or the FBI works hard to prevent it, it is something that will persist no matter how hard we crack down on it.
The frightening side of this is that events we saw in the latest Die Hard film are perhaps not as outlandish as some of us might have though. A hacker taking down Wallstreet and shutting the entire U.S. down? Preposterous? Is it really? If hackers are already pulling down power facilities and turning off entire grids it's not that far of a leap to think that hackers can shut down ALL power facilities in a single country, or shut down and entire network of computers, turn off all the satellites, etc. That's the scary thing. Yes, the government has little failsafes and loads of computer wizards of their own, but when it comes down to it a few dozen hackers working together could possible yank the world right out from under us.
The future will likely show this to us. In fact, as we become more and more wireless, more and more dependent on our technology, and more and more dependent on other nations building it for us, we can expect to see cyber-terrorism rise by leaps and bounds (if not in the sense that more hackers will emerge then in the sense that more attacks are going to take place). The reason it is so difficult to control illegal downloading is because no matter how hard you try, people can get around you. This is the same thing for hackers. No matter what you build to keep people out, people are going to figure out how to get in. This is a problem with the dependency on wireless technology. Soon everything is going to be linked by satellite, as we can see happening already with laptop wireless cards that can plug right into a satellite Internet feed without any effort, giving you Internet access just about anywhere.
This is not a criticism of our need for technology. I actually applaud that we are still trying to move forward, even if our jumps are relatively small in comparison to 50 or 100 years ago. But we have to be aware that if we don't tread carefully we might find ourselves in a bit of a pickle. Cyber-terrorism is like real terrorism in that it will never go away. You can try, oh yes, you can TRY, but you'll fail unless you can somehow destroy every computer, cell phone, or wireless device in existence, which translates to impossible once again.
So my question is: what do we do? How do we protect ourselves when it might become a reality that cyber-terrorists could tear down the walls of society right beneath our noses? How do we proceed in assuring the protection of computer-based systems?
You find the answers to those questions and perhaps we have a chance of never seeing a global catastrophe brought on by technological dependency thrust into the world blindly and without a forethought (we're human after all).

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