Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Is Bitcoin a Form of Hacktivist Protest Software?

Just brainstorming a few ideas for a conference paper and thinking of last week's demonizing of the Bitcoin virtual currency in Time magazine's cover story, linking it to the Deep Web...

Hacktivism is a phenomenon that has been around for some years now, but what's increasingly attention-worthy is that the idea of computer hacking for political purposes is gradually evolving away from hackers writing code and, instead, is now centered on the advent of social protest software. Whereas, in the past, a hacker or group of hackers would, for example, utilize their knowledge of code to launch a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack against a website, what is becoming more common is for hackers to develop user-friendly software that anyone in the mainstream public can then download and use to launch their own DDOS attacks by simply stepping through a wizard, clicking a button, and not having to understand any code at all.

Some quick examples of such social protest software include Tor, PHProxy, Cain and Abel, NetTools, WireShark, AngryIP, and dozens of others found on sites like SourceForge:DDOS or AstaLaVista.

Of course, most of these software applications have very legitimate uses and are in no way illegal or, for that matter, should necessarily even be deemed suspicious. But what is a handy network monitoring tool for one person may be, well, a network monitoring tool serving a very different purpose for another.

First question - To what extent can this debate be framed in terms of the "Code As Speech" literature? In other words, does the very existence of such software constitute a form of political speech or protest, or is such software merely a delivery vehicle, or forum, for political speech or protest? To put it yet another way, is the software a tool or is it an end in and of itself.

Second question - In terms of cybersecurity, what policy responses to the rise of hacktivist software can we uncover? At quick glance, it seems the only notable responses have involved high-profile arrests or enhanced sentencing. But, again, most of the software is legal and has very legitimate uses, so perhaps that shouldn't be surprising.

Third question - How can we draw a categorical distinction among the various software applications between those that are tools for hackers versus those that are hacker tools for ordinary people?

Fourth question - Why have such hacktivist software tools thus far largely failed to go mainstream viral? Are the tools not good enough? Are people simply unaware of their existence? Or is it that people just aren't that interested in enagaging in hacktivist activities?

In order to shed light onto some of these questions, it would be interesting to perform a detailed case study on Bitcoins. As a virtual P2P currency - decentralized, "mined" through computational processes, and traded on cyber exchanges - one could argue that the Bitcoin system's very existence constitutes a direct challenge, or protest action, against established institutional currency regimes. As such, the Bitcoin system is, by design and by definition, a form of hacktivist software. Perhaps we can even label it a "protest currency".

Or not :-)



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