MEMBERS ONLY: The Death of the Progressive “Hacktivist”

by Justin Rosario

I get it, the younger you are, the cooler hacking seems. My first exposure to it was WarGames in 1983 and that fictional hacking almost ended the world. That, however, didn’t stop me from using the modem for my Commodore 64 to get into a handful of systems I wasn’t allowed to access (this was before most companies had even basic security (like passwords) so this was not difficult at all). Fortunately, I lost interest fairly quickly and did not cause an international incident that I’m aware of.

Fast forward a decade and the movie Hackers made breaking into corporate systems cooler than ever. A group of teen rebels with super cool handles like “Crash Override” and “Acid Burn” totally take on The Man and save the day. Hell, you even got to see 19-year-old Angelina Jolie’s tits! How totally awesome is hacking, right? 

But lost in the rebel chic of it all was the fact that the bad guy was also a hacker using his skills to hurt people. Oh, and the heroes had previously done the same but we were supposed to chalk it up to youthful indiscretions. They’re the good guys, right? They hate “the establishment” and they only use their powers to make things better. Or steal naked pictures of celebrities. Or steal your credit card information. Or hold your data ransom. Or steal an election for white nationalists. But other than that, hacking is good, clean wholesome fun!  

The allure of groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks (who does not do the hacking but provides a platform to share stolen information) is powerful if a great deal of your identity is wrapped up in being anti-Establishment. This is how you end up with someone like Glenn Greenwald fawning over hackers, calling them “young online activists” with a straight face. This is how you end up with Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, also with a straight face, complaining that malicious hackers are giving the good ones a bad name. They’ve chosen to overlook the very obvious fact that Wikileaks is essentially a Russian front, timing the emails stolen by Russian hackers to achieve the goal of electing Russia’s puppet Donald Trump. Hell, Wikileaks was blatantly obvious about it back in 2013 when they made sure Edward Snowden got to Russia so he could ask for asylum. But in the minds of anti-establishment rebels Greenwald and Cenk, letting hackers like neo-Nazi “Weev” invade the privacy of whoever they want, whenever they want is OK as long as they mostly don’t do anything bad with that information. 

Yet, these same champions of online freedom rail against the NSA for…you guessed it, invading the privacy of people. You see, we can’t trust the government not abuse that power. We can, however, trust Crash Override and Acid Burn because something something Angelina Jolie’s tits.

Fun fact! The NSA is part of the federal government and that means they have to obey the law! Critics of the NSA will say they don’t and point to activities like vacuuming up data like a Hoover without a warrant. They neglect to mention that they need a warrant to actually look at that data. They also neglect to mention that the court can and will deny warrants. In fact, they denied one during the election that might have saved us from the horrors of a Trump presidency:

The Guardian has learned that the FBI applied for a warrant from the foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court over the summer in order to monitor four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials. The Fisa court turned down the application asking FBI counter-intelligence investigators to narrow its focus. According to one report, the FBI was finally granted a warrant in October, but that has not been confirmed, and it is not clear whether any warrant led to a full investigation.

Critics will also say that the FISA court is a rubber stamp that approves 99% of requests but they leave out the part of the process where the requests are submitted to the court to make sure they meet of the rigorous standards before they’re “officially” submitted. Those pre-submittals (for lack of a better term) get sent back all the time with instructions on how to narrow the warrant request so it can pass legal muster and they’re not counted in that 99% statistics. If this strikes you as “cheating” perhaps you’re confusing real life with television. On TV, the Feds get to ignore the law and just wing it. In real life, that sort of thing gets you fired. 

There’s an obnoxiously detailed process in place for a reason and that’s specifically so the NSA can’t go nuts and abuse its power with no oversight. That’s not to say the system is perfect or that the government has not overstepped its bounds on numerous occasions. People are people and they do stupid things, sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes not. But we can reign in the NSA when they go too far (and we have). Can anyone say the same about Anonymous? And what are you going to do when your systems are attacked by Russia or China’s version of the NSA? Will Greenwald’s “young online activists” ride to your rescue?

Hacking, in and of itself, is just a tool and like any tool it can be used to build a house or tear down a nation. You don’t have to like it, but the world is online now and that means not having groups like the NSA to defend our digital borders and interests abroad is suicide. I’ve been told, in all seriousness, that we shouldn’t spy on other countries as if spying has not existed since the first tribe of humans got curious about what the second tribe was doing. Apparently, this anger at spying is multiplied a thousandfold when it comes to the digital frontier. But unlike conventional warfare and spycraft, anyone with a computer and the right skill set can steal the most sensitive secrets or launch massive attacks anywhere at any time for any reason. Over the last two weeks, millions of computers have been infected with ransomware based on stolen NSA information that demands $300 or your computer is wiped clean. NSA critics have been dancing about, crowing that this is what they were warning us all about all along, as if the government having weapons were the problem instead of those weapons being stolen by the “young online activists” Greenwald and Cenk are so enamored of.

Curiously, at the same time Greenwald is supportive of the “cool” kind of hacking, he’s entirely dismissive of the Russian hacking we know influenced the 2016 election. The Intercept has gone to great lengths to poo-poo the story, attacking Rachel Maddow’s reporting on the topic with an almost frantic hysteria. Part of this is almost certainly due to the hard left’s guilt over having helped elect Trump by buying into Russian propaganda. But a larger part may be that acknowledging that hostile foreign powers can, and have, wage war purely online with grave consequences for every single cause Greenwald and his followers support essentially renders their opposition to the NSA moot. When Russia uses the very tools you champion to put a rabid monster in the White House, it becomes very difficult to argue that we shouldn’t be doing a better job policing the internet.

Hacking can be harmless but so can going full auto at a gun range. The problems start when someone does it at a shopping mall. The fact that hackers exist and that other nations have successfully weaponized it on a global scale means we, as a country, have to continuously develop our own ability to fight on the same playing field. This is not to say that we should give the NSA and other agencies carte blanche that “young online activists” currently enjoy while posting nude pictures of Jennifer Lawrence, but we can’t hamstring them, either. There’s a balance to all things and we must find the point between protecting our liberties and protecting our nation. 

It’s easy to envision the government using its power to crush all dissent under a autocratic lunatic but I’d remind you that Trump is already trying to do that and, so far, the system is holding firm against his abuse. That system didn’t arise spontaneously from the ether, we designed it specifically so no one person or agency would be able to pervert it for their own desires. The checks and balances we created is not a static system and needs constant adjustments but it’s by far a better system than leaving our fate in the hands of Crash Override, Acid Burn, and Angelina Jolie’s tits, hoping that the “good guys” save us. Life isn’t a movie and the bad guys can easily win if we pretend they’re not real.

And in case any hackers decide to teach me a lesson, thanks for proving my point. You’re a real hero of freedom.