RSA 2012: Hacktivists giving authorities license to crack down on Internet freedom?

Proving that security isn’t all firewalls and cryptography, RSA 2012 delved into the rapidly evolving socio-political implications of cyber warfare and hacking, as a collection of experts and commentators staged an animated debate at the showpiece event in London this afternoon.

Unsurprisingly, the ubiquitous hacker group Anonymous featured prominently in the discussion, as Joshua Corman (security strategist and co-founder of Rugged Software) and Parmy Olson (journalist and author of the book, ‘We Are Anonymous’) appeared keen to extract the positive impressions the movement has made on our online world – strongly backed by the founder of digital hardcore band Atari Teenage Riot, and Anonymous supporter, Alec Empire.

But it was perhaps security expert and academic, Professor Alan Woodward, whose points resonated strongest amidst the to-and-fro of opinion. Woodward said he fully understood the motives behind Anonymous and similar movements, but argued its actions were actually causing more harm than good to the rights and freedom of everyday Internet users that the hacktivists claim to protect.

“There’s a real danger...that the sort of things that the hacktivist groups are doing could enable governments to adopt a more extreme position which will actually affect all of us,” he argued, highlighting how disrupting major organisations through cyber attacks gifts governing bodies a reason to justify the clamping down on Internet freedom across the board.

Woodward (centre right of image below) believes the hacktivist versus authorities battle is making the issue become “very polarised”, with both “the legislators and the hacktivist becoming more and more extreme, and those of us who live in the middle getting caught in the crossfire.”

Having spent a great deal of time with Anonymous while researching for her book, Olson (left centre of image) felt compelled to defend the group and its affiliates. “So many people see Anonymous as a threat; as something to be afraid of. I don’t see it that way. I see it more as a meeting ground for people to come together.” Olsen added that hacktivism is “creating this [sharing] culture and creating a voice for people.”

Corman (far left of image), meanwhile, described how well educated and informed the typical hacktivist was, suggesting they had an important role to play in keeping social and political issues on the minds of others. As an open advocate of Anonymous’ work, Empire (far right) concurred, saying the group was keen to demonstrate how most mainstream news is “manipulated” to suit the agendas of TV network owners and large corporations. “To expose these lies is one big thing about Anonymous,” he said. “So I wouldn’t say they are all just children who are about chaos. I think they see that we have almost a fake democracy.”

But Woodward countered that the manner in which the group members deliver their message is counterproductive, and “obscures the message”, even when it is a worthy one. He continued, “My issue I suppose with hacktivist groups in general is that…the Internet has given them the ability to have a disproportionate voice, and my problem is that I don’t know who’s given them a mandate to do this. I didn’t vote for them. I’m the first to admit that democracy is not perfect, but it’s the best we have.”

Woodward believes that the nature of the Internet amplifies the voice of well-known groups like Anonymous, drawing excessive attention to their actions which distracts us from the more important factors regarding Internet freedom. “The threat to me is not necessarily these guys, it’s actually the criminals and the nation states who are stealing IP and things like that. They are the ones that really deserve more of our time. But these guys are like the noisiest child so there the ones that get the attention.”