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January 29, 2013

[berkman] “LOIC [low-orbit ion cannon] will tear us apart”: The impact of tool desiogn and media portrayals in the success of activist DDOS attacks

Molly Sauter [twitter:oddletters] (from Berkman and the Center for Civic Media at MIT) is giving a lunchtime Berkman talk. She’s going to focus on Operation Payback, the Dec. 2010 action by Anonymous against those financial services that cut off Wikileaks after Wikileaks made available a massive leak of State Dept. cables. Operation Avenge Assange tried to bring down the sites of those services. Molly sees this as an evolution in media activism, expanding on the use of DDOS tactics by groups in the 1990s; [DDOS = distributed denial of service: flooding a site beyond its capacity to respond, and doing so from multiple sites.]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Molly begins with a simple explanation of DDOS. The flooding can come from a single computer (unlikely), via a volunteer botnet, or botnets that infect other computers; the botnets communicate with a central computer, pounding on the target until it can’t handle the traffic.

Old school activists think of DDOS as a form of censorship, and thus it is not acceptable. For many digitally-enabled activists (e.g., Electronic Disturbance Theater) DDOS is a form of disobedience. For EDT, DDOS is an auxiliary form of activism: “DDOS is something you do when you’re out on the streets so your computer can be at home protesting.” DDOS is sometimes seen as a type of sit-in, although Molly thinks this is inapt. For some, DDOS is a direct form of protest, and in others, it’s an indirect and symbolic action. Anonymous melds these approaches: influence via technology + influence via media + direct action disruption.

Electronic Disturbance Theater [EDT] used Flood Net, a tool that “hurls bits” but that also lets you send a message to show up in the target computer’s error log. Cleverly, if your issue is human rights, the log might read “Human rights is not found on this server.” But, Molly says, these logs are only read by the admin, so it’s really a way for the activist to yell something for the sake of yelling. The EDT restricted targets of Flood Net and set scheduled times. EDT open sourced it in 1999. The language on the Floor Net site is comprehensible only to people who already know about the issues, e.g., Mexican Neo-Liberalism. It is intimidating for those outside of the circle. It is also very tied to a view of activism that ties actions to individuals â?? anonymous individuals, but using Flood Net requires the action of a person.

LOIC — low orbit ion cannon— was developed maybe around 2006, and forked in 2008. By Dec. 2010, versions could run on just about anything — Windows, Mac, on mobiles, within a browser… Molly goes through the differences in the different versions of it. They let you type in a URL, set some options that are set to defaults, and then you press a button. Done! (LOIC is the boss weapon from the game Command & Conquer). The button you press in the abatishchev version is labeled “IMMA CHARGIN MAH LAZER,” a popular meme. It has the same messaging functionality as Flood Net. The default message derives from a 4chan bestiality rape meme that Molly urges us not to google. This version “is focused on the 4chan Anonymous culture set.”

She then compares this to the NewEraCracker version. Very similar. Same “Imma chargin mah lazer” meme, but the rape meme is gone. Instead, it says “u done goofed,” the popular Jessi Slaughter meme. Jessie pissed off Anonymous, so Anonymous sent lots of pizza to her house. Her father posted a defensive video that wasn’t very smart about the Net, which got widely distributed, and which contained the line “you done goofed.” This message is more confrontational than the other version which the recipient would be unlikely to understand at all. This version of LOIC also has a “fucking hive mind mode” that lets you automate the process entirely by plugging it into an IRC server to use volunteer computers [I think].

These tools, especially the second, created a community of activists, especially in hive mind mode. There are many LOIC tutorial videos on YouTube. This reaches out to new people to join, unlike EDT’s use of language that appeals only to those already in the know. Because anyone can use it, it helps Anonymous become a community of trust.

Anonymous has also pushed DDOS as a media manipulation tactic, and used media for recruitment. Molly doesn’t know if it was a conscious decision, but DDOS ended up as a recruitment tactic.

During the four days of Operation Payback, the media coverage was very confused. For example the media weren’t sure that DDOS is illegal. (It is.) Even Gizmodo got wrong how risky DDOS is for the attacker; it wrongly claimed that the target’s log files don’t record the incoming connections during DDOS. Experienced users know to anonymize their packets, but those who came in new and used this easy-to-use tool often did not protect themselves. The Paypal 16 now under indictment were caught because PayPal stored the top 1000 IP addresses. Much of the coverage just quoted Anonymous at length. “Anonymous is a very horizontal org and there’s no press person to talk to,” but, Molly says, there was a “press IRC channel” but the media didn’t know how to use it. Some mainstream articles linked to download sites for LOIC, which may have encouraged people to download it without understanding the legality of using it.

Conclusions: “Operation Payback’s success was due to a confluence of tech, community, and news media factors. Anonymous’ use of DDOS represent an innovation in participant population and tool design. And Anonymous pushes the reframing of DDOS as a tool of media manipulation and biographical impact [how the participants think about themselves], not direct action.”

Q&A

Q: Is the paypal list public?

A: Nope.

Q: Can you bring your research up to date?

A: I’m writing my thesis now. So, no.

Q: How does being identified play into the historical mindset?

A: I got into this topic because I wanted to do my thesis on activism and anonymity. Anonymous challenges the assumption that if you’re anonymous, you’re not serious about your activism. The cultural preference for identified activism comes from the 1960s civil disobedience movement, which in turns comes from Thoreau: you break the law and accept punishment for it. But that privileges those who won’t lose their house and their family if arrested. This puts activism on the shoulders of a particular class. Anonymous disagrees. It says you can engage in civil disobedience without personal consequence.

Q: The Federalist Papers were anonymous because it implicitly was saying that the ideas are important enough not to need names attached. Anonymous not only escapes punishment, it makes it effortless â?? the amount of effort you put in is indistinguishable from that of someone whose computer was infected by a bot.

A: This is the slacktivism argument. Slacktivism challenges the expectations about what activism does. One version says you’re supposed to change something or have a solution. But slacktivism (or clicktivism) is valuable for the biographical impact.

A: Studies have looked into whether eating organic food affects your self image so that you do more, or that you merely congratulate yourself.

A: The ladder of engagement says that the big step is getting on the first rung. My view of slacktivism is that it’s widened that run. Pressing the LOIC button gets people started, and I’m in favor of people starting somewhere, when it is in a considered and useful way.

Q: How about The Jester?

A: He’s an Army veteran who explicitly aligns his morals with pro-US, anti-jihadist, anti-Anonymous DDOS. He claims to be working by himself. I don’t think his actions are ethical because they’re about silencing content. [Molly tells us that she has a presentation on DDOS ethics.]

Q: Why is “fuckng hive mind mode” a community? People are donating bandwidth. But the manual mode, where people actively decide to participate in something, is much more like people being in a community. The participants in FHHM don’t necessarily view themselves as joining in a community, although the federal govt is claiming that they are.

A: I agree. My point with FHHM was that it opens up ways of accessing that community in ways that were not possible before.

Q: LOIC is hosted at github and sourceforge, and tutorials at YouTube. Any attempts to remove?

A: LOIC and tools like it are listed as “stress-testing” tools. And it can be used that way if you aim it at your own server. It’s like a head shop selling a pipe for tobacco. During the four days of the operation, Twitter did try to shut down the Anonymous twitter account.

Q: You seem to be saying that Anonymous is becoming more respectful, shifting out of the “otherized” world of 4chan. Is there quantitative data supporting this?

A: Biella Coleman has done the most research on this. That’s where I’ve gotten my data.

Q: How many people participated?

A: It’s been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

Q: When an org provides a press contact, a journalist can always orient around that, bounce off of it. But Anonymous doesn’t work that way. How does Anonymous’ play affect coverage?

A: The media doesn’t know how to deal with orgs like Anon and Occupy. They just speak with random people, none of who speak for the org (because no one does). The opening of the press IRC channel was great, for those who found it. It let the press engage at length. But Anon is usefully weird, and thus hard for the media.

Q: [me] So, will LOIC tear us apart? Civil disobedients accept consequences in part to raise the bar so that people don’t too easily break the law. LOIC lowers that bar. If Anon were attacking services that you like, would you be as sanguine?

LOIC isn’t much used now because it’s dangerous, and there are new tools. It’s hard to take down a site.

Q: As the tools get better?

A: Permanent arms race.

Q: Arrest of Sabu?

A: It won’t kill Anonymous.

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