Nothing is more embarrassing in this digital era than having your electronic presence hacked. In one of those unfortunate tropes on victimhood, the target of the hacking gets the blame.
Now, imagine a government might be directing the hacking at you. That’s what some politicians and journalists have seen in Venezuela with a new wave of cyberattacks. Wouldn’t that cause an epidemic of self-censorship?
Even mentioning this paints a bullseye on your own back. So we’ll see what happens after this. Usually, this blog flies under the radar, and although we don’t get many comments here, very negative comments have come this author’s way via electronic mail and elsewhere recently regarding some of the posts here. So censorship and self-censorship continue to be themes of some importance.
This is a fresh thought today after receiving a strange solicitation from a former student; obviously, their e-mail account was hacked. One of my colleagues had her Twitter account hacked after she led a controversial campaign against the death penalty in the U.S., last fall. So hackers of all philosophical stripes are on the web and just looking for an excuse.
In Venezuela, the hacking group N33 made headlines in the fall for attacking the e-mail and Twitter accounts of political opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez has a Twitter account and a slick blog. That’s the positive side of communication from the Bolivarian Revolution. The rough and tumble side is that hackers who agree with Chavez’ ideology and also share his temperament for criticism are launching cyberattacks. There’s no proof the Venezuelan government is behind the attacks, but many free speech groups in the past have noted that Chavez’ virulent anti-media rhetoric sometimes creates an atmosphere that spurs others to violence or criminal acts against the media or the opposition, like cyberattacks.
But this isn’t the first time that hackers have attacked controversial political or international targets, and conveniently were never found by the host government where their IP addresses seemed to be located. In 2007 and 2008, Chinese hackers broke the cybersecurity at the World Bank numerous times and Chinese hackers also hit computers in the White House during the administration of President George W. Bush. Last year, Russian hackers supposedly gained remote control of a pumping system in Springfield, Illinois for the community’s fresh water supply and purposely broke the pump. Of course, many credit U.S. and Israeli security services and their hackers with creating the Stuxnet computer worm that may have set back the Iranian nuclear program for several years.
But it’s a bit different when intelligence services employ hackers against their enemies internationally, nation against nation, compared to intelligence services or their allies in the hacking world who make an individual a target. What could be more Orwellian than someone rummaging among your various social media accounts, gleaning bits of information and also sometimes turning those accounts against you or mocking you with your own account? That’s what’s happening in Venezuela. Isn’t that certainly more than enough to stifle a critic or make them think long and hard before sending off a critical tweet, or mass mailing a political joke?
Such hacking certainly has a chilling effect on free speech.
Some might say that in a world filled with these computer risks the pragmatic approach is to scale back on criticizing the powerful. So much for using the internet as a democratizing force that can allow just about anyone to speak truth to power. Sometimes tyranny just creates these passionate responses in individuals where they must throw personal caution to the wind and let loose their bile. Sometimes just the attempt at making a difference or having their voice heard is worth the cost.
So internet journalists Orian Brito and Alberto Rodríguez in Venezuela are due some respect for having the guts to criticize despite the risks. But what’s to stop more of these attacks which are only likely to escalate during a year when Chavez is running for re-election? The obvious answer is that only the Venezuelan government has the power to stop N33. And their inability or unwillingness to do that may itself be a chilling message.
(The photo is from Iran’s Press TV, and is in the public domain.)