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There's Hacking and Then There's Hacking -- LulzSec vs NewsCorp

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It seems that hacking is the word of 2011. Our media has been transfixed with hackers, and it would seem, liberally supplied by them too. We have looked on shocked whether it's at the downing of the CIA or SOCA sites, the security breaches of NHS passwords or the deletion of a dead girl's voicemails. As it happens this word covers a variety of different techniques. We have seen the Distributed Denial of Service ("DDOS") attacks, essentially a glorified phone prank, a website goes down as too many people are trying to reach it at the same time. We have seen the gaining of access to private messages with something as banal as using the standard voicemail PIN codes supplied with the mobile phone. 

Many in the technology community have decried this use of the term -- it is essentially about encouraging devices to perform different tasks to the ones they were designed for. But there is no getting away from the fact that the word "hacking" is now irreversibly connected with something malign in the minds of the public at large.

It was at the end of 2010 the mainstream media started to be full of hacking stories in earnest. The taking down of Mastercard's website in retaliation for the financial giant cutting off WikiLeaks produced breathless commentary about cyber-warfare. This was despite the fact it was a temporary interruption and in no way compromised Mastercard's payment infrastructure. Since then the doings of the likes of Anonymous, LulzSec and The Jester have gone from chatrooms to being front page news.

The tabloid reaction has been typically outspoken. Reporting on the arrest of Ryan Cleary -- who was alleged to be connected to LulzSec -- the Sun raised the spectre of the "nerdy teenager" an "oddball" who they deemed a "global cyber-villain".This was summed up by the headline on June 22nd, 'Hack the Lad'.

Even a few days later it is inconceivable that they could run such a headline now. Not least as readers could be forgiven for mistaking it for an editorial order, rather than a trademark pun.

As has become all too apparent recently, hacking has in fact been right at the heart of our journalistic establishment for a decade. There is no need for me to go over all the numerous examples -- it is as if all our national traumas have been raked over in quick succession. This is not just a question for some rogue reporters, or even a rogue newspaper. There are serious questions for the Met police to answer as to why its investigations were not re-opened despite the bin bags full of evidence. 

The difference in the reactions to hacktivists on one side and the hacks on the other has been striking. The activities of Anonymous and the rest have been characterised as "cyber attacks", threats to national security. NATO representatives have called for such groups to be infiltrated and persecuted. The response to the News International scandal has instead been one chiefly of hand wringing, a call for an enquiry -- but not yet -- by Cameron, and dithering by Jeremy Hunt over the BSkyB takeover. Andy Coulson got to be arrested seemingly by appointment -- not a courtesy extended to Ryan Cleary.

Frankly, it is very difficult to see how government reaction to hacktivists can have any real moral authority currently. As our damaged PM put it: "The truth is, we have all been in this together--the press, politicians and leaders of all parties--and yes, that  includes me."

The real question now is what has been driving this. I maintain that hacktivism is motivated by politics -- a sense of disenfranchisement, a desire to hit back against corporate greed and complacency, a will to punish governments' ever increasing attempts to impose censorship on the net. The final statements of LulzSec indeed confirmed this was so.

All the News of the World left us with was 'Thank you and Goodbye'. I saw a lot of folk on social media observe that the word 'Sorry' was missing. But for me, what was lacking was the explanation. What was the point of it all? The story continues to spread, implicating other titles. I can't believe that, for instance, splashing details about Gordon Brown's son helped us understand the deficit. Until I hear otherwise I think its reasonable to conclude that the point was grotesque entertainment -- you could call it LULZ. And, well, money. 

Looking back over the recent few months there is maybe one particular irony. News International may well have damaged the British state in a way that AntiSec -- the latest incarnation of the amorphous hacker collective -- could only dream of. Confidence has drained from our press, the police are mired in scandal, the two large parties seem compliant. The News of the World may not just have hacked individuals, but our public life itself.