Hacktivism: Civil Disobedience or Cyber Crime?

January 21st, 2013

Published on Propublica.org, by Christie Thompson, January 18, 2013.

When Reddit co-founder and internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide (last Friday = Jan. 11), he was facing up to 13 felony counts, 50 years in prison, and millions of dollars in fines. His alleged crime? Pulling millions of academic articles from the digital archive JSTOR.  

Prosecutors allege that Swartz downloaded the articles because he intended to distribute them for free online, though Swartz was arrested before any articles were made public. He had often spoken publicly about the importance of making academic research freely available.

Other online activists have increasingly turned to computer networks and other technology as a means of political protest, deploying a range of tactics — from temporarily shutting down servers to disclosing personal and corporate information.

Most of these acts, including Swartz’s downloads, are criminalized under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), an act was designed to prosecute hackers. But as Swartz’s and other “hacktivist” cases demonstrate, you don’t necessarily have to be a hacker to be viewed as one under federal law. Are activists like Swartz committing civil disobedience, or online crimes? We break down a few strategies of “hacktivism” to see what is considered criminal under the CFAA.

Publishing Documents: … //

… Distributed Denial of Service

A Distributed Denial of Service, or DDoS attack, floods a web site’s server with traffic from a network of sometimes thousands of individual computers, making it incapable of serving legitimate traffic.

In 2010, the group Anonymous attempted to overload websites for PayPal, Visa and Mastercard after the companies refused to process donations to Wikileaks. Anonymous posted their “Low Orbit Ion Canon” software online, allowing roughly 6,000 people who downloaded the program to pummel the sites with traffic.

A DDoS attack can be charged as a crime under the CFAA, as it “causes damage” and can violate a web site’s terms of service. The owner of the site could also file a civil suit citing the CFAA, if they can prove a temporary server overload resulted in monetary losses.

Sixteen alleged members of Anonymous were arrested for their role in the PayPal DDoS, and could face more than 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. They were charged with conspiracy and “intentional damage to a protected computer” under the CFAA and the case is ongoing.

Some web activists have pressed for DDoS to be legalized as a form of protest, claiming that disrupting web traffic by occupying a server is the same as clogging streets when staging a sit-in. A petitionstarted on the White House’s “We the People” site a few days before Swartz’s death has garnered more than 5,000 signatures.

“Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) is not any form of hacking in any way,” the petition reads. “It is the equivalent of repeatedly hitting the refresh button on a webpage. It is, in that way, no different than any ‘occupy’ protest.”

Doxing:

Doxing involves finding and publishing a target’s personal or corporate information.

In 2011, Anonymous and hacker group Lulzsec breached the Stratfor Global Intelligence Service database and published the passwords, addresses and credit card information of the firm’s high-profile clients. The group claimed they planned to use the credit cards to donate $1 million to charity.

Anonymous also recently doxed members of the Westboro Baptist Church after several tweeted their plans to picket funerals for Sandy Hook victims. Hackers were able to access Church members’ twitter accounts and publish their personal information, including phone numbers, emails and hotel reservation details.

Jeremy Hammond could face life in prison for allegedly leading the Stratfor hack and a separate attack on the Arizona Department of Safety website. Former Anonymous spokesman Barrett Brown was also indicted for computer fraud in the Stratfor dox, not for hacking into the system, but for linking to the hacked information in a chat room.

The charges for doxing depend on how the information was accessed, and the nature of published information. Simply publishing publicly available information, such as phone numbers found in a Google search, would probably not be charged under the CFAA. But hacking into private computers, or even spreading the information from a hack, could lead to charges under the CFAA.

  • (Note: A section on “Website Defacement” has been removed pending further reporting.
  • Clarification: This post originally suggested Swartz participated in hacking such as DDoS or Doxing, when we meant to describe general tactics. We have updated this post accordingly).

(full text with many hyperlinks).

Links:

Aaron Swartz keynote: how we stopped SOPA, 22.52 min, … at F2C:Freedom to Connect 2012, Washington DC on May 21 2012, uploaded by F2C2012, May 22, 2012;

Aaron Swartz on en.wikipedia and all its External Links;

Remember Aaron Swartz.com;

The Internet Freedom Day/Projects;

Pledge To Shift The Power, on 350.org;

Data Protection: All You Need to Know about the EU Privacy Debate, on Spiegel Online International, by Konrad Lischka and Christian Stöcker, January 18, 2013;

Aaron Swartz at Risk;

Aaron was killed by the government.

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