Hacktivism: The 21st Century Solution to Communications Disruption

My father went to Vietnam. As an ROTC member in college, he had no choice—serve or go to prison. Not being a fan of prison, he went. My father was also an electrical engineer and lifelong ham radio hobbyist. As a result, when he arrived in the hot, sweaty jungles of Vietnam he wasn’t sent to the front line, instead he was assigned to building the communications towers that would keep the US army and its allies connected throughout the war.

Every morning my father would get into a Jeep with several other soldiers and cross the field from their base to their towers. Every morning the Vietnamese soldiers would fire at him, non-stop. He would then spend the rest of the morning building the tower, fixing it and bringing it online, all under enemy fire. Once it was all up and running, he’d return in the Jeep, under fire, while other men protected the tower.

And each night, the Vietnamese would destroy the communications tower—which meant my father had to do it all over again the next day, and most days, of his time there.

The Army needed him, and at the end of his tour of duty, offered him enough money to buy a house at that time in CASH, if he’d stay another tour. He recently told me he laughed at them and said, “No way in hell. Get me out of here.”

His laughter wasn’t because he thought the situation was humorous. He knew statistically that the fact he’d survived being shot at every day while building those towers was an anomaly, and the chances were slim he’d continue to survive another year of duty.

Forty years later, we’re still fighting wars with countries all around the world. We may not be calling them the Syrian War, or Iraq War or Afghanistan War anymore. Instead it’s the “War Against Terror”, a never ending war reaching around the globe. Terrorist attacks can happen anywhere and while our institutions of war still desire to put boots on the ground like we did in Vietnam, the reality is that there are new ways to bring conflict to an end.

Today, in the 21st century, an act of war can be committed anywhere, not just on enemy soil. And similarly, armies of terror can communicate, not through large radio towers that need to be guarded, but anywhere in the world, via the internet. Recruitment and planning of many terrorist acts are done online. Thus to take out their communications no longer requires men shooting at technicians as they work. Instead, it involves men and women, sitting behind a computer, hacking into cyberspace and disrupting communications, all while drinking coffee in their pajamas.

I think my Dad would agree that this is a huge improvement to what he, and many others, have suffered.

And who are the soldiers disrupting the communication in today’s War on Terror? I imagine the Armed Forces has a band of cyber-soldiers. The Feds do as well. But it turns out the hacktivist group, Anonymous, is the one waging the most interesting and perhaps effective, counter-terrorism attack of its kind. And it appears they’re having a lot more fun than my father did.

Seven days ago, they rickrolled the Islamic State. According to SF Gate, “The "hacktivist" group has been flooding all pro-Isis hashtags with countless videos of the red-headed bass-baritone, according to a recent tweet from the #OpParis account.

Anyone familiar with 1980s music videos knows how unsettling watching Astley sing and dance can be. In fact, as Dazed notes, tricking people to watch his "Never Gonna Give You Up" has been a staple of viruses, protests and other online pranks since 2007.”

Just in time for Thanksgiving the hacktivist group followed Islamic State recruitment to the dark web and gave them some good sexual advice. The Jerusalem Post reports: “…programmers from the hacking team GhostSec employed the weapon of mockery and overran a website linked to ISIS supporters with ads for the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra and the anti-depressant Prozac.”

Humor goes a long way. We don’t need more boots on the ground, we need more hackers to dedicate hours of their lives taking down the main methods of recruitment and information sharing. From Twitter to the dark web, coders are the new face of communications disruption.

As I already mentioned, I’m sure that the Pentagon and the Fed are already employing people in this arena. Yet many coders I talk to would rather do this work as vigilantes and renegades, than sign up to work for the government. In the case of the military, many don’t want the duty part. They aren’t soldiers in the old fashioned sense and pledging one’s life to the Armed Forces doesn’t look too attractive to most computer geniuses. If you’re the type of person who likes to work from home in your pajamas downing Red Bulls and playing video games in between hacks, a role in the Pentagon isn’t quite for you.

Computer oriented folks could take normal employment with the FBI. The recent cracking of the Silk Road by FederalAgent Chris Tarbell is a great inspirational story that should make any hacktivist consider a job with the government. I shared Tarbell’s story with my eldest son, in an attempt to lure him to consider a job in computer forensics. We opened up the Book of Majors by the Collegeboard and checked out the career description. Overall, the coursework was amazing. Not only do you study all things code and computers, but also criminal law, justice, investigation and forensic accounting and science. Unfortunately, according to this source, while job prospects are good—more than fifty percent of FBI cases will require a computer forensic expert—be aware that if you pursue this career, child pornography cases can be as much as SEVENTY percent of the work load for state level offices.

Seventy percent? No wonder our greatest minds aren’t interested in going the traditional route and working for the FBI or the police. Most of their cyber experts’ minds and souls are being destroyed chasing down the worst perverts in our society. While I applaud these folks and I’m so sorry that humans are so sick and twisted, it’s not surprising that many talented programmers would turn to hacking or hacktivism, rather than be cyber warriors in the employed sense.

Still, hacktivists give me hope. In the realm of anti-terror, they’re bringing their expertise and their humor to the situation. And several groups have also began fighting the cyberwar against child pornography and the slave trade. The internet may be amazing, but it also enables horrible people to do horrible things.

The good news is that while our technology makes planning terrorist attacks and the selling of human sex easier for the darker elements of humanity, the same technology makes it possible for many of our brightest minds to join together and fight, without ever having to leave the kitchen.

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