X Close



UCL events news and reviews


Is a taxi a taxi?

By Paula Morgenstern, on 14 June 2012

When I enter the room for this debate about digital security and the future of hacktivism, I almost expect to see someone with an Anonymous mask sitting in the audience.

There is no-one, but Misha Glenny, one of the three high-profile speakers of this event echos my thought: he tool suspects that someone from Anonymous might be in the audience. But unlike me, Misha knows that he or she would not show. Of course.

Anonymous protesters

Anonymous protesters

It seems, I have understood little about Anonymous and the world of hacktivism. Thankfully for me (and many of the other guests, who – a majority white haired – don’t look any more knowledgeable than I am), Tim Jordan, Senior Lecturer on Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London, explains to us the basics of hacktivism in a short and precise overview.

He stresses that in contrast to cybercrime, cyberwar or cyberterrorism, with whatever doubtful motives, hacktivism is a politicised form of action trying to evoke a mass protest.

In the past, hacktivism sought to promote two main ideas: fighting globalisation and defending the human right for unrestricted internet access and safety of personal data on the web.

Anonymous draws on both of these roots and, in a rather novel twist, uses software to multiply the impact of their protest.

James Lyne, strategist at the security software firm Sophos then tells us more about the methods hacktivists use for their purposes.

In fact, he doesn’t tell us –in an energetic performance, he shows us how easy it can sometimes be to elicit user logins and passwords from poorly designed websites.

He points out that the sophisticated security mechanisms on the web are often built to protect sensible data such as credit card details from being stolen. But as hacktivists are after a different kind of information – for example seeking to embarrass – they are often confronted with far lower security instalments.

It’s funny: I buy into every word James says. He is exactly the type of guy who seems to know all the tricks of making a computer work for him.

During the discussion following on from the presentations, he reveals details of an early – and ambivalent – start in the business: “I was 14. If the bad guys had come and tapped me on the shoulder back then I would not be here today.”

Finally, Misha Glenny, a journalist who specialises in covering global organised crime, gives us some insight on the personality profiles of hacktivists and cybercriminals.

In contrast to criminals operating in the physical world, people operating in the cyberspace are often far better educated and according to Mischa, “quite smart and creative really, which makes them interesting to have a conversation with”.

He seems to have had a lot of good conversations and his sympathy for the aims of Anonymous to keep the internet free from censorship and fight criminal organisations such as the Mexican drug cartel or Boko Haram are evident.

But he also points out that anonymity, a central concept of Anonymous as the name suggest, the key problem about the group is for him. And true, anyone could be Anonymous and anyone could be using the brand for his own purpose.

However, Mischa acknowledges that the activists are young, idealistic people trying to understand and express their concerns, and he even hopes that they will eventually grow up to protect the web from malicious or selfish attacks by organisations, firms or states.

Afterwards, as the three speakers engage in a lively discussion with the audience touching on topics such as the Piraten party in Germany, cyberattacks on physical equipment as happened with Stuxnet in Iran and how the Mexican drug cartel fights back, I look around.

I feel that the world of computers and internet activists is full of clichés like few others. Why must the guy with the longest beard in the room always be a UNIX administrator? And is maybe the fragile, elderly lady next to me Anonymous?

Then one man in the audience takes the microphone and says: “Mischa, your taxi is there.” Is a taxi a taxi and why is it here already if Mischa is supposed to be signing his new book afterwards in the bookshop tent? I have learned a lot from this talk and really enjoyed it. But it seems, I have still understood little.

Leave a Reply