Hacktivists: Friends or Foes? 

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With all the recent commentary about hackers being the scourge of society, I thought I would take the opportunity of hosting the Cybernaut column this week to highlight the work of cyber-activists, or hacktivists. While "hackers" have been made infamous for everything from cracking your Hotmail account (to send out all that annoying spam to your contacts) to penetrating online databases such as the Playstation Network in search of credit card data, hacktivists strive for more of a digital Robin Hood perception.

It's important to note that the term "hacktivist" has been used in the past for independent hackers using their creative genius to new technology (such as console modder Ben Heck), but there is now a new global force of hacktivists that concentrate on more controversial issues.

A great example of new-school hacktivism is Anonymous, a loose collection of Internet denizens with no controlling party or leadership that pools the resources of its "members" towards a common goal. In October 2011, Anonymous hacktivists claimed that they took down over 40 child pornography sites on a hidden network and posted a list of more than 1,500 of the sites' usernames online. The method Anonymous employed is known as a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, which overwhelms a website's traffic by programming large numbers of computers to simultaneously attempt to access it.

The DDoS attack, codenamed "Operation Darknet," managed to disable a server called Freedom Hosting for 30 hours. Anonymous released a statement through an online text storage site that said: "We will continue to not only crash Freedom Hosting's server, but any other server we find to contain, promote, or support child pornography." While some online security experts wagged their fingers about Internet vigilantism interfering with the work of the authorities and potentially compromising prosecutions, the hack was applauded by Internet users on YouTube, Twitter and online forums.

Perhaps some of the busiest work Anonymous has had in the last couple of years has been opposing proposed Internet freedom laws such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). While Internet businesses that rely on free-flowing information across cyberspace (like Google) were busy supporting voluntary blackouts and getting people to sign online petitions, the US Justice Department shut down Megaupload.com, accusing it of a conspiracy to traffic pirated movies, music, television programs, ebooks and software for the last five years on a global scale and causing damages exceeding $500 million to copyright holders. Anonymous responded by taking down the US Justice Department's website as well that of the Recording Industry Association of America.

Political hacking is the subject of a project called Hackitat (hackitat.com), a proposed film currently seeking funding on crowd source site Indiegogo. If the film reaches its funding objective (at the time of publishing they were at $18,647 of their $80,000 goal) hopefully the Hackitat filmmakers will produce a balanced documentary on hacker culture, including all those annoying spammers and the thieves that steal sensitive data from corporations then attempt to extort money for it.

Samsung Feels the Wrath of Apple

Just in case you didn't think Apple had enough money to swim in, the nine-member jury in a California US District Court awarded Apple $1.05 billion in damages over patent infringments in 28 of Samsung's smartphone and tablet products last Friday.

Given the complexity of the case, the non-technically inclined yet patent-savvy jury delivered its verdict in just three days, to the surprise of the courtroom and the entire tech world. The jury's verdict, however, has been marred with inconsistencies given they were able to breeze through over 100 pages of jury instructions in such a short time.

This case sends a clear message to the rest of the tech world that Apple's seemingly invincible product patents are not to be trifled with. This decision (if it stands) could spell a price increase for Android devices and a slew of renewed litigation against Android manufacturers. Samsung has strong grounds for an appeal, thanks to the swift decisions made by the jury and the ludicrous damage figures awarded.

A Rule 50(b) motion will be Samsung's next logical move,which asks the judge for various relief on the basis that no reasonable jury could find what it did on the evidence presented. Samsung, which has been making mobile phones for two decades, says it has phone design documents for a slab-like touchscreen phone that predates the iPhone. Not that it matters anymore.

Courtroom battles between Samsung and Apple continue to rage across the world, a true sign that patent law has lost its bearings and has no place being decided by lopsided, emotionally charged juries.


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