Lulzsec – Cyber terrorists, hacktivists or artists?

On: September 14, 2011
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About Christopher Mead
Techno-determinist, social media follower and gaming enthusiast. B.A in Anthropology, International Relations and a minor in 20th century History at the University College Utrecht. Worked for Dutch educational broadcasting company Teleac and Dutch navigation company TomTom. A keen football fan and devotee to understanding New Media.

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Phone hacking dominated British headlines during the summer months this year and the revelations were so detrimental to Murdoch’s empire that he thought it was best to shut down The News of the World – believing it had let down its readers. Whether this was in fact an elaborate ‘brush it under the carpet’ operation we might never know- not at least until an identical paper (News of the Earth anyone?) is announced in the not so distant future.

What intrigued me however, was the fact Lulzsec, a notorious group of hackers commonly associated with Anonymous, whipped up their own recipe for karma by hacking The Sun – one of Murdoch’s other UK newspapers. For a good several hours, on July 18th, The Sun’s website came under brutal digital siege, eventually falling into the hands of Lulzsec’s masterminds. One thing’s for sure – they made it look easy.  Anyone visiting The Sun’s homepage that evening would have been greeted by a redirect to Lulzsec’s twitter page, where they were voluptuously tweeting on the ongoing battle between themselves and what must have been an ensemble of embarrassed, flustered, helpless IT technicians fighting a losing battle.

Probably the most mind-boggling aspect of it all was how I tried, on a personal level, to dissect Lulzsec’s motives and ideology behind their actions at the time. While Anonymous is commonly perceived as a group comprised of political activists , Lulzsec have sold themselves as entertainers – hacking for the fun of it- or for the ‘Lulz.’  So while many newspapers, reporters, bloggers, like to put Lulzsec and Anonymous in the same boat (Operation Antisec), I doubt Lulzsec would settle for ‘e-fame’ and recognition alone. Why? Well, borrowing from Coleman and Grub’s work on Hacker practice, Moral genres and the cultural articulation of liberalism, in which they quote Acid Phreak (1990):

‘There is no one hacker ethic. Everyone has his own. To say that we all think that same way is preposterous.’

So what is Lulzsec? Are they cyber terrorists as dubbed by many security companies and corporations? Or are they part of the ‘hacktivism’ movement, promoting a not so easily distinguishable ideology that has yet to be dissected? What about entertainment? It is, after all, the supposed agenda underpinning Lulzsec’s actions, at least that’s what they claim. But are they artists?

Visiting the Art of Hacking exhibition’s opening in Amsterdam shed new light on my perception of hacking – particularly as a new media art form.  The first performance of the evening called ‘Error_in_Time(v.t_3)_ by ko66, Netwurker_Mez and sister0 (who I learned later is well known through the art hacking scene) lasted an entire 45 minutes. I sat there, exasperated, as I tried to grasp the programming language and poetry put before me.

Needless to say I didn’t quite comprehend the message sister0 was trying to get across. But I didn’t have to. While it was clearly intended for a specific audience, I could still appreciate the performance.

Error_in_Time(v.t_3) - Programming Poetry

Lulzsec’s performances, or acts, have attracted many fans due to the amusing nature of its exploits. At the same time, they undoubtedly appeal to more niche followers who appreciate either the methodology in their art or the consummate ease in which they follow through any challenge set before them.

While I am unable to understand all of the technical aspects of their hacking performance, I can say that hackers who focus on the artistic element consider themselves ‘real hackers’, in the sense that they are constructive and critical in their motives, rather than destructive and malicious (which is, they claim, the common widely held view, these people are supposedly ‘crackers’- not hackers).

Nevertheless, Lulzsec have undoubtedly, to an extent, been disruptive in their hacking. Validating their release of private data as giving their victims a chance to change their passwords is treading on a dangerous moral and ethical path. Arguing that they are doing companies and corporations a ‘favour’ by exposing security loopholes is one thing, leaking passwords and subjecting innocent people to embarrassment, stress, and potential life changing misery is not the pacifistic ideal you’d attribute to hacktivism (this does seem to depend on the form of hacktivism however).

So are Lulzsec vanquishers of evil, heroes or villains? Coleman and Grub talk about the moral binary evident in the majority of literature on hackers, in which they are either  ‘lauded’ or ‘denounced.’ It is well known that art and activism go hand in hand in digital movements and online networks therefore it would be foolish to assume Lulzsec are one or the other.

Chances are you’ll find hacking related news reports on a daily basis. We’ve seen a fair few in recent days, with the Turkish group Turkguvenligi breaching a number of high profile companies like Vodafone and UPS. Though despite the increase in hacking reports, there is still a general misconception of hackers in understanding their motives and philosophies. If there’s one thing for certain, its that this antiquated perception needs to change.

The Art of Hacking exhibition can be found at the Nederland’s Instituut voor Media Kunst (NIMk),  Keizersgracht 264, Amsterdam, The Netherlands and runs until November 10th 2011

Sources

Coleman, Gabriella and Golub, Alex, Hacker practice : Moral genres and the cultural articulation of liberalism, , Anthropological Theory 2008 8: 255

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