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End anonymity to stop online hacking, crime

September 1, 2011

Last Christmas, I was considering getting an account on Sony’s Playstation Network.
I’ve loved video games since I was 6 years old, and a great many of modern gaming’s best features are only available through the major companies’ online stores: online multiplayer, Netflix, even games made by independent studios that could not exist without the low distribution costs online stores offer. Every other gamer I know has been playing online for half a decade.
I can’t be sure why — I’d like to say time got away from me, but I’m sure getting a PSN account only takes a matter of minutes — but I never got around to setting it up. Four months later, I considered myself lucky I didn’t.
In April 2011, the PSN was hacked, compromising the security of untold amounts of email addresses, passwords and, possibly, credit card information. It was one of a series of hacking attacks Sony faced during the spring and summer from different anonymous groups.
One of those groups was Lulz (a variation on the Web chat term LOL, or laughing out loud) Security, or LulzSec for short. LulzSec did not claim responsibility for the PSN attacks, but it did claim responsibility for stealing the personal information of 37,500 users on Sony’s main website.
Spreading word of its exploits through Twitter, LulzSec made news by hacking targets as varied as they were audacious: Nintendo, Fox.com, PBS, Brazilian government websites, FBI-affiliated websites, the CIA and the U.S. Senate home page. They publicly released the email addresses and passwords of more than 62,000 random, ordinary Web users who quickly found their pages on Facebook and other social networks defaced.
For its thousandth tweet, LulzSec released a manifesto which, initially, made them seem to be acting on some basis of morality. At least the group was letting everyone know when it had breached companies’ or individuals’ security, it said. At least the group was effectively sounding an alarm, unlike hackers who steal and scam without being discovered until it’s far too late. LulzSec’s goal, it seemed, was to shame companies into improving their online security.
Then LulzSec manifesto went somewhere far more disturbing. The manifesto is frequently profane, so I’ll take the liberty of abridging and slightly rearranging it:
“Yes, yes, there’s always the argument that releasing everything in full is just as evil, what with accounts being stolen and abused, but welcome to 2011. ... Most of you reading this love the idea of wrecking someone else’s online experience anonymously. ... You find it funny to watch havoc unfold, and we find it funny to cause it. ... We release personal data so that equally evil people can entertain us with what they do with it. ... Nobody is truly causing the Internet to slip one way or the other, it’s an inevitable outcome for us humans. ... This is the Internet, where we screw each other over for a jolt of satisfaction.”
In short, LulzSec argues the anonymity the Internet offers its most savvy users inevitably breeds dangerous people like them. It’s actually a very old argument, and LulzSec only demonstrates how well it stands the test of time.
Plato made the case in his own manifesto, “The Republic”, using the Greek legend of the Ring of Gyges as a metaphor. This ring, an inspiration behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, turns its wearer invisible.
Plato argued this ring would corrupt any person, no matter how pure, because he or she could then steal, kill and otherwise ruin lives without ever being caught, without ever being held accountable. It was actually a devil’s advocate argument suggesting morality is only a social construct, and Plato then counter-argued that a person can maintain morality even without fear of consequences for wrongdoing.
But the issue here isn’t what people can do — it’s what they have done. The Ring of Gyges is now widely available starting at about $19.95 a month. One only needs to spend a few minutes on any forum that lets users post anonymously to understand how widely the corruption has spread, even outside hacking circles.
In a January 2008 edition of New Yorker, top U.S. spy Michael McConnell argued the only sure way the U.S. can stop cyber-terrorism is to have access to U.S. citizens’ Google search histories, private emails and file transfers without warrants. The claim was widely decried, with Wired magazine, for instance, debunking McConnell’s claim computer crime costs America $100 billion a year. Many saw McConnell’s idea as invasive, un-American and evocative of George Orwell’s “1984.”
I think he might be on to something.
It gives me pause, certainly, whenever someone in the U.S. government starts talking about doing anything without a warrant, but I don’t think McConnell was wrong to suggest something should be done about the anonymity so often abused on the Internet. The real world — the physical world — would quickly degenerate into chaos if all criminals had the power to actually turn invisible. If the Internet continues to run that way, I don’t think it will ever be safe, especially for consumers with credit cards.
In the news industry, I hear a lot about how more and more people are turning to the Web for their news, and how paper after paper is folding because none of them can find a way to make profits online. For example, of three dozen papers with online pay models, only 1 percent of readers choose to pay for digital news, according to The Pew Research Center.
It’s really a problem all content creators face on the Internet for three reasons. First, Internet content is easily stolen, from copied and pasted headlines to pirated video games. Second, when consumers do engage in Internet transactions, there’s a great risk that a hacker is routing their money somewhere else. Third, in both these cases, the people responsible have enough anonymity to evade consequences.
To wrap up: Yes, this is America. Yes, we do have a right to privacy. We have rights at home, on the phone, and in other places to hold conversations and expect, reasonably, that no one is listening.
I just think the Internet might not be one of those places, not if we want it to be safe.

Steven Nalley is the city beat reporter at Starkville Daily News. Contact him at citybeat@bellsouth.net.

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