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When Online Hacking Poses Real-World Dangers

In January, the hacker group Anonymous staged a demonstration at a BART station in San Francisco after officials turned off cell phone service in its stations.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
In January, the hacker group Anonymous staged a demonstration at a BART station in San Francisco after officials turned off cell phone service in its stations.

There are a couple interesting Anonymous stories out there in the ether today. First, the news.

The group claims to have hacked a number of Chinese government websites. Last month, Anonymous China launched its own Twitter account. It was endorsed by the YourAnonNews account, which is kind of the unofficial clearinghouse of Anonymous posts on Twitter. And then the folks who are behind this project got to work.

Hundreds of Chinese government sites and companies reportedly have been defaced within the space of a few days. On some of the sites the group even posted tips on how to circumvent the Great Firewall of China.

And now the analysis:

An interesting article by Yochai Benkler on the Foreign Affairs website asks the question: What is Anonymous really? In the article, " Hacks of Valor," Benkler, a Harvard Law professor and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the university, makes the case that Anonymous is widely misunderstood. He writes:

"Seeing Anonymous primarily as a cybersecurity threat is like analyzing the breadth of the antiwar movement and 1960s counterculture by focusing only on the Weathermen."

It's an interesting argument.

I like Benkler's analogy. NPR's Tom Gjelten, who recent reported on Anonymous, wrote a note suggesting an interview with cybersecurity experts who are worried about these attacks. I'd love to hear that as well.

For my part, I tend to agree with Benkler. Anonymous is a broad, largely disorganized movement, built around the idea of cyber-civil disobedience. I think the China attacks speak to that.

There are dozens, probably hundreds of different types of actions talked about in Anonymous chat rooms. Some gain support, some don't.

Some might be the digital equivalent of a sit-in — a denial-of-service attack that floods a website for a while and disrupts its ability to do business. Others might be break-ins — where data is stolen with the intent to embarrass someone. And certainly, depending on the kind of information stolen, those kinds of break-ins could be dangerous. And, of course, at least theoretically some of these actions could be real attacks on physical infrastructure that have real-world consequences.

So far at least I'm unaware of any kind of hack attack led by Anonymous or any other non-state actor that falls into the latter category — what we might call the digital Weathermen.

I think the wrinkle here — the point where the analogy breaks down — is appropriately in the anonymity of these online actions. If I went to a sit-in I faced arrest. I knew that going in. It was part of the deal. Cyber activism and its false promise of anonymity can lure people into believing their actions may not have real-world consequences. That can perhaps lure some into reckless or irresponsible behavior.

But I don't think that's why we are more vulnerable now to hacking — or the potentially disastrous effects of online attacks.

The real problem is that powerful and potentially disruptive tools have become much more widely spread. Many hacks today are relatively easy and cheap. And there are more people who can do greater damage by hacking than ever before. But that's not because of the growth of groups like Anonymous or any other political movement.

Much of it has to do with the kinds of networked cellphone technology that is being built into more kinds of devices — from factory valves to medical equipment to chips used to track cattle in fields. Yes, you can hack cows. All of it can be hacked and manipulated from afar. If you can get in, you can do damage — and new digital doorways are being built into almost everything.

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Steve Henn
Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.
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