The kid in the dock could be auditioning for a starring role in the global psychodrama The Little Guy Versus the State. Pale, thin and dwarfed by two enormous security guards in London’s Westminster Magistrates’ Court, Jake Davis speaks in a whisper, and only to confirm his name. He is 18, from the remote Scottish archipelago of Shetland, and he is accused of being a key agent in an international cyberactivist collective called LulzSec, which has attacked the web operations of entities ranging from the CIA to the Murdoch media empire. Davis is being charged with five computer-related offenses, including an attack on a major British police website and three counts of conspiracy. He seems to shrink inside his checked shirt, clutching a paperback titled Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science.
Hackers come in many forms, from criminals stealing credit card details to shadowy government organizations attacking enemy nuclear facilities; but today the most prominent and controversial are cyberactivists—or “hacktivists,” as Davis is alleged to be. Loosely affiliated and rapidly expanding, these groups have thousands of members all over the world and names like AntiSec (which stands for “anti-security”) and, most famously, Anonymous. These groups represent a new front in what has been labeled the “global information war”: the growing battle over who controls information in cyberspace.
Operating anonymously, mainly via Internet relay chat (IRC) channels, hacktivist groups crash websites, hack servers and steal passwords. Their signature move is the DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack, which involves coordinating thousands of computers to send traffic to a website until it overloads, crashes and shuts down—the digital equivalent of a sit-in, except that coordinating a sit-in does not usually earn you ten years’ jail time, which is what Davis faces if found guilty.
Hackers have traditionally been chat room pranksters; one of the accusations against Davis is his alleged role in hacking the Sun’s homepage, redirecting readers to a fake news story telling the world Rupert Murdoch was dead. There are snickers from the press bench as the prosecution reads the charge, and Davis finds it impossible to stop the littlest of grins from creeping across his face. For cyberactivists, it has always been about poking fun: an anarchic collision of satire and direct action that makes a mockery of the powerful and self-satisfied. They do it “for the lulz,” in cyberspeak.
Over the past year the work of these groups has become increasingly linked with a more serious mission, one that combats censorship on the Internet, whether by companies or governments. Anonymous in particular has become a powerful collective. At the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, which Anonymous helped promote, young people wandered through the crowd in plastic Guy Fawkes masks—a symbol of collective, innominate popular resistance from the film and graphic novel V for Vendetta, which has been adopted by the group. In support of the protests, which target corporate greed and economic inequality, Anonymous posted a video online threatening to erase the New York Stock Exchange “from the Internet.” Elsewhere in Liberty Plaza, young tech activists gave lectures on digital freedom and uploaded open-source software free of charge for anyone who’d brought along a laptop. Technology plays an essential role in the new networked people’s movements that are springing up all over Europe, America and the Middle East—and those movements have brought cyberactivism into its own. The generation that was supposed to be made listless and apathetic by technology—the kids who were supposedly staring vacantly into virtual worlds in lonely bedrooms—are instead using technology to re-engage with current events in an era when the very principles of power are being rewritten on terms not wholly in the control of nation-states.