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Once Again, Online Activity Has Real-Life Consequences

If you’ve been paying any attention to the news lately, you’ve probably heard

about a group of hackers calling themselves “Anonymous” have been terrorizing and annoying (mostly annoying) the U.S. government, and large companies such as PayPal and Despite the name of the group, it appears that some of their members aren’t so anonymous after all (also reported here). I’ve written several times before about online conduct having real-life consequences. I don’t know when people will eventually learn this simple fact. It might happen someday, but I’m not holding my breath for it to happen anytime soon.

The FBI has arrested over a dozen people across the country, most of them in their 20s, and at least one of them being only 16, for various computer-related crimes. I think it’s interesting that these things always seem to happen during the summer. School’s out, kids. Turn off the computer and go play outside! Hey, you might even get to kiss a girl!

Perhaps the government could minimize computer crime by starting a program that teaches adolescent computer nerds basic social skills, and enrolls them in dating services. But I digress.

This is, of course, a serious issue. For some background, these hacking attacks started when a website known as Wikileaks, which is dedicated to making secret government and corporate information available to the public, released hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables sent and received by American diplomats around the world. While most of the information contained in these cables did not endanger national security by being released, it was clearly not intended for public consumption, and contained some pretty embarrassing statements made by some American diplomats about foreign leaders. Of course, for diplomacy to be effective, some communications need to be confidential, so people can speak candidly. I personally believe that these leaks did little to promote government transparency, and did a great deal of damage to American diplomatic efforts.

Anyway, a few websites, like PayPal and Amazon, stopped doing any type of business with Wikileaks after this fiasco. Apparently, the kids in “Anonymous” decided that they supported Wikileaks, and launched attacks known as “directed denial of service” (DDOS) attacks. Basically, they use an army of computers affected with malware that lets a third party surreptitiously control them (known as a “botnet”) to send massive amounts of data to the servers hosting a website. Because the data comes from thousands of different IP addresses, there’s no simple way to filter this traffic. This overload of data on the servers causes a website to run very slowly, or go down altogether.

Attacks on PayPal and Amazon brought the sites down for several hours. Offshoots of this group have begun launching similar attacks on the websites of government agencies and other large corporations. And a few attacks have also led to the theft of sensitive information (such as the hacking that brought down the PlayStation network for several weeks, and stole the credit card information of hundreds of thousands of users, for which Anonymous also took credit).

The problem is that these attacks are actually quite easy to orchestrate, and while some knowledge of computers is required to execute them, it doesn’t take much. This is because they can often be accomplished with software tools developed by far more tech-savvy hackers, and made available for free on the Internet.

So, there is a whole generation of young people who know just enough about computers to get themselves into trouble, but not enough to understand the damage they can do, or to avoid getting caught.

I’ve blogged before about how laws against unlawful access to computer systems can be abused (leading to criminal charges against employees who do some online shopping at work, for example), but this is obviously a case in which these laws are being applied as intended.

But, more to the point of this post, I hope that these arrests drive home the fact that the law applies on the Internet. This is not a new concept. If it’s illegal to do something in the physical world, it’s probably illegal to do it online, too. And now that many businesses operate almost exclusively on the Internet, online misbehavior can do real and serious economic damage, actually harming the lives of real people.

Hopefully, the next generation of Internet users – those who never knew a world without it – will have a better understanding that the Internet affects real life, simply because it will be such an integral part of their lives.


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