Tuesday March 12, 2013
Masked and Anonymous
By NIKI CHEONG
As the territorial claims in Sabah escalated, a group of hackers took to cyberspace to make its point.
A COUPLE of weeks ago, before the standoff between the authorities and terrorists staking claim of Sabah was coming to a boil, hackers from both Malaysia and the Philippines declared cyberwar.
Reports have suggested that the initial cyberattack came from Malaysia and soon after hackers from the Philippines retaliated. By that weekend, many websites from both countries were defaced.
It is believed that the attackers represented factions of hacktivist collective Anonymous in its respective countries. The collective, known for its guerilla-style online attacks as forms of protest, released a public statement asking hackers from both sides of the ocean to stop the cyberwar.
“It has come to our attention that over the dispute of territorial claims between the Malaysian Government and Sultan (Jamalul) Kiram of the Philippines, that our brothers from both countries are feuding over this matter (sic),” the group posted.
“... We are urging both parties to please, communicate with the whole collective for the resolution of this issue. We are all equal and all have rights to defend what belongs to us. But we seek a peaceful resolution, as we repeatedly emphasize (sic) on this letter.”
Due to the group’s structure (or lack of it) — hackers who participate in the collective’s actions are known as Anons — few people know exactly how Anonymous operates or its motivations.
In her paper The Anonymous Collective: Action, Anarchy and Activism, digital producer Maya Desai looks at some of the collective’s past actions, including its thriving trolling culture which “acts as a powerful draw towards collective action,” which links to the feeling of belonging.
Then there is also something to say about Anonymous’ wish to maintain its public image as a united collective. This is obvious in its statement, “People may see us as perpetrators of chaos instead of peace.”
Perhaps, as Desai suggested in her research, while Anonymous perpetuates an impression of decentralisation, there is evidence of several centralised networks within its structure. For example, the public statement released by the collective hacker group seem to suggest that.
Although it’s hard to understand the original intentions behind the first attacks in the Sabah conflict, what is obvious is that the collective believes in the ability of such action to have a major impact on the issue.
This is evident in its public statement, “Our collective experience on this type of political matters raises concern that our petty fighting would rise up to the level of both nation’s governments and provoke an all-out war.”
This statement may not be totally unfounded. In fact, the reason why Anonymous, and other movements of the same nature, thrives is because the nature of the Internet makes it an ideal platform for collective action, as the Internet itself is decentralised.
We cannot assume what is meant by the phrase “provoke an all-out war” in the statement by Anonymous – whether it is a reference to cyberwar or an actual one.
Desai found that “the Internet is largely a space for the immaterial and that an attack on a government website, for example, is merely a symbolic value of the act, as it causes no physical harm.”
What then of the cyberwarfare in the Sabah conflict? While a ceasefire may be in place following the statement by Anonymous, it is also worth asking if the few days of cyberattacks contributed in any way to a resolution.
In the larger context of the conflict, the events in Sabah since the cyberattacks show it had little impact on the outcome, as the standoff continues. The collective also called for more research, as there were no dialogues or clear cause (hackers just made bold claims for Sabah in their attacks) which might indicate that the Anons in both countries were operating in isolation and in smaller numbers.
This is not to say that there is no space for online collective action in today’s world. In fact, it is quite the opposite. After all, in its history, the major protests involving Anonymous are usually of a bigger scale with a clear cause — such as with several of its operations including Project Chanology (directed at the Church of Scientology), OpPayback (later Operation Avenge Assange) and OpTunisia.
Another indication is the social movements activated over the past couple of years — whether the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, or through the Occupy Movements in other parts of the world — have roots in online collective action.
Niki Cheong is a writer, consultant and speaker on media and digital culture. Connect with him online at blog.nikicheong.com or on Twitter via @nikicheong.
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