Each January, Americans and many others around the world pay homage to the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who dedicated his life to advancing the civil rights movement. Foremost in Dr. King’s teachings was the importance of combating racial inequality through peaceful means, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize. While King knew that the fight for racial equality was a long and laborious road, and that there was a strong probability that he would not live to see the fruits of his labor, he still asserted that “the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available” in the struggle for justice in America. This concept of peaceful demonstration reined during Vietnam, with hippy protestors and others preaching “love, not war.” However, protesting in the U.S. against government actions has often been demonstrated in radical displays of violence, even in the fight for civil rights and an end to the Vietnam conflict.
These days, there is a new type of protestor – the internet activist. While there is a tendency to think of cyber attacks in terms of a new generation of war to be employed by foreign terrorists against the United States, government and the intelligence community would do well to consider the capabilities of this new form of opposition to government action. Earlier today, news reports surfaced that the website of a federal judicial agency had been hacked by a group of activists, known as Anonymous, demanding reform to the American justice system in order to establish the free flow of information. The group took over the agency’s homepage and threatened to release a large amount of embarrassing Justice Department documents to the media. Their actions were in response to the suicide of Aaaron Swartz, an internet activist dedicated to making any and all information, including government documents, freely available to the public for the good of society.
Swartz initially followed in Dr. King’s footsteps of “peaceful protest” by founding a nonprofit group named DemandProgress, which led a successful campaign to block a bill created to stop online piracy. His group protested the bill because they felt it would give the government the ability to censor and cease legitimate internet communication. Yet instead of sticking to his peaceful demonstration, Swartz moved to a more “violent” means, by allegedly stealing millions of academic articles and journals from MIT. Online tributes following his death suggest that he is considered a martyr for his cause, which could prompt others to carry the torch.
Given the Defense Department’s increasing reliance on technology and network-centric capabilities, policymakers and the intelligence community must remember their vulnerability to all those who would use cyber attacks as a weapon for their cause, not just terrorists. For instance, as the debate escalates on the use of drones, the public will likely become more aware of their use. It is plausible to consider that pacifists and those who consider drone use to be immoral will take up protesting against drone use. Considering the technology employed by the armed services for drone operations, a cyber attack by one of these new types of protestors would be extremely tempting. Violent protesting by cyber attackers can be very damaging and widespread, much more so than the localized violent protests of 40 years ago.