Kashmir-minded Pakistani 'hacktivists' blitz Web sites
October 8, 1999
By D. Ian Hopper
Since October 1, the two students who make up the Pakistan Hackerz Club have defaced over 40 Web sites, according to a hacking mirror site.
From the Mildew Removal Specialists site to several government sites within China, the PHC hasn't shown one overarching pattern in their choice of targets. Not so for the results; almost every site's main page has been replaced with the PHC logo and a treatise in defense of the disputed region of Kashmir as well as graphic photographs depicting charred bodies and wounded Kashmiri children.
The two members of the club, known only as Doctor Nuker and Mr_Sweet, refuse to identify themselves beyond their profession and nationality. While popular hacking site Attrition.org logs PHC as hacking 61 sites in all since July 4 of this year, their recent proliferation came as Indians went to the polls to elect a new government.
In 1989, an insurrection erupted in the Kashmir Valley, a Muslim-majority area that Islamic militants want to break away from India, which is predominantly Hindu.
The guerrilla war has killed thousands of civilians, militants, police, army and paramilitary officers. Security forces have special powers to detain anyone without giving reasons.
Hundreds of civilians have disappeared, some of them killed by guerrillas who suspected them of being police informers. Allegations of torture and human rights abuses are numerous against both sides.
Separatist violence involving Kashmiri guerrillas has been on the rise since Indian troops dislodged armed infiltrators from northern Kashmir in July after a two-month operation.
Nearly a dozen groups are fighting against Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan, which also claims Kashmir, has fought two wars with India over the region.
According to PHC member Doctor Nuker, Kashmir is at the top of PHC's concerns, but their goals are more far-reaching than just that disputed region.
"Our goal is to bring attention to violence in Kashmir, but that's just not going to be our only goal. PHC will hack for all the injustice going in this world, especially the killings and injustice with Muslims. [The] United Nations and [the] United States never forget to act urgent on other small issues but they never give a damn about the Kashmir issue. We not only say, but we really care for Kashmiris and take them as our brothers and sisters," Doctor Nuker said.
Their targets are simple and telling. Not the Indian government itself, nor U.S. government sites, but any site that is "good and regularly-visited."
Their immediate goal may be simply to bring attention to Kashmir - Doctor Nuker says his mailbox is filled with messages from people interested in the Kashmir issue as a result of the hacks - but their ultimate purpose may be lost in their means.
Hacktivism, as the combination of hacking and public activism has become called, is sharply on the rise. Their prevalence has been increasing with the increased public focus on the Web. It is a regular occurrence against China, which has taken a hard-handed approach to the Internet, though it can be found in almost every incident of modern political strife from the Chiapas separatists to NATO's action in Kosovo.
However, the marriage activism and computer hacking has a fundamental flaw, according to Alex Fowler, Strategic Initiatives Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"A lot of groups are claiming that they're hacking into sites for a higher moral purpose, but they're hiding beyond anonymity or pseudonymity. Taking responsibility is not something we see happening. One of the critical things in environmental causes and the civil rights movement was that groups who used strong tactics and intentionally broke the law eventually came forward and took responsibility for their actions. It was owning up that really helped these movements forward."
Hackers have always been known for their love of pseudonyms, and their conflicting fear of the limelight but compulsion to sign their work may make current hacktivists unfit for the profession.
Tweety Fish, a member of the Canadian hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow, defends hacktivists as merely being purveyors of information. Defacing an Indonesian site with reports of Indonesian atrocities or foiling the "Great Firewall of China" that blocks out sites offensive to the Chinese government make anonymity irrelevant, Tweety Fish said.
Hacktivists will soon find a resource, and even a target list, of sorts, to assist them. Tweety Fish maintains the "Hacktivism" site, which will offer a "forum" for hacktivists and link to news reports about governmental Internet policies.
On tons of Web sites, coders with a cause can learn how to break in to Web servers, not that it's that difficult. Hackers are finding most Web sites to be a cinch to deface, which is part of the reason why it's a more attractive alternative to off-line activism.
"Office buildings and government buildings have surveillance set up. Online, it's pretty easy pickings. A lot of servers aren't secure, and it's not like you have to be super-sophisticated to learn how to hack into the site. You get a lot of bang for the buck," Fowler said.
There's little doubt that hackers won't stop with words and pictures. Fowler believes it's only a matter of time before hacktivists move from simple online graffiti to more destructive attacks on e-commerce sites and information databases.
"We will see very serious attacks. Information stealing could have very long-term consequences for consumers. We shouldn't get accustomed to these kinds of incidents, thinking, 'It's just a billboard, who cares?' We should consider, 'How secure is the Internet? Should we be posting personal information to a medium that is so easily cracked?' We should see these types of incidents as a harbinger for more privacy and security breaches."
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