As I write this, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are closing in on your position. Maybe you are already behind bars, imprisoned for crimes against Yahoo. They say you had something to do with the rash of attacks that crippled some of the most powerful commercial sites on the Net this month. They overheard you bragging about your exploits in an online chatroom: "U just pin em so hard they can't even redirect," you wrote, calling yourself "mafiaboy." They're still not sure who you are exactly, but they have a few hunches: You are based in my hometown (Toronto), you are 15 years old and you have a preoccupation with Satanism.
Nice cover. I know better, of course. Like so many who have secretly cheered your exploits (if indeed they are your exploits), I can see through the nihilistic pranksterism to another kind of Mafiaboy. My mythic Mafiaboy isn't a vandal but an anticorporate freedom fighter for the e-commerce age.
But I'm afraid not everyone sees the precision with which you aim your electronic salvos, Mafiaboy. According to Steve Bellovin, an AT&T security guy, "sometimes kids walk down the street snapping car antennas and tires, and sometimes they take out Yahoo and CNN." Yeah, right. And sometimes cream pies are thrown at Joe Blow, and sometimes they hit Bill Gates, Milton Friedman and the CEO of Monsanto. Sometimes bricks fly nowhere in particular, and sometimes they sail through the plate glass windows of Seattle's Niketown and Starbucks during WTO meetings.
They dare to call your methods artless, Mafiaboy. Kevin Mitnick, the infamous hacker just released from four years in federal prison, says you are a "vandal," not a true hacker. And Newsweek says your feats "required the skill of a spitballer." At the risk of sounding like a "hacktivism" groupie, let me just say that some of us were able to decipher your encrypted cri de coeur. We understand that your art is of a more conceptual sort. The hacks harnessed hundreds of outside computers to send millions of messages to specific targets. In an instant, sites like Amazon and Yahoo were flooded with exactly what they all so desperately want: traffic. "Yes, I heard you!" and "I'm here!" the wave of messages screamed. What poetry! What simple elegance! Unlike the philistines at AT&T, I am familiar with the art of jujitsu. I know that, thanks to the web's recent billion-dollar orgy of advertising, we can't watch television, open a magazine, turn on the radio, surf the web or walk down the street without hearing precisely the same message from the dot-coms. "I'm here!" they wail, attempting, with existential angst, to make their artificially inflated brand names into something tangible.
Well, Mafiaboy, you sure told them, the ones who are signing up at Silicon Valley's Money, Meaning & Choices Institute to treat their newly diagnosed "Sudden Wealth Syndrome." "I'm here too," you said. "Listen to me!"
Now they're calling for a million-dollar bounty on your head. In Wired News, a security expert says it is "as if a group of moral-less teenagers...were going around killing small animals with tremendous firepower." Time magazine hints ominously at "some future electronic Pearl Harbor." Wired has declared the arrival of "World War Internet."
I, for one, believe you hack in peace, Mafiaboy. The flood of messages just formed a virtual blockade. Like Critical Mass bike rides, in which hundreds of people on bicycles peddle down the middle of a busy street bringing cars to a standstill, the hacks restricted access to the e-commerce sites simply by taking up space. Besides, the real war on the Internet has already been fought and, for the most part, lost. World War Internet was a virtual coup d'état. The blood started flowing when the dot-coms figured out how to stage the hottest IPOs, and suddenly freedom and interactivity were about our right to have carefully monitored AOL chats about Time Warner movies.
In the New York Times, John Markoff called the hacks "antisocial," but where was this concern for social etiquette when the online retail giant eToys launched the fury of its legal department against the art group site "etoy" — even though etoy had been online since 1995, before eToys even existed? Talk about "killing small animals with tremendous firepower": The Internet is paved with the road kill of groups too poor to fight trademark and libel suits, including Roadkills-R-Us, targeted by you-know-who.
In our culture of instant millionaires, computer hacking has evolved into an extreme job application process: Find a weak point in a system, hack it, then offer up your high-priced security services to fix it. But when somebody comes along who isn't looking to cash in, it messes up the whole scam. Which is why the old-school hackers, their straggly ponytails freshly blow-dried, have been meeting with Bill Clinton and Janet Reno to help them nail you. These hackers claim they are motivated by love. They love technology — they just want it to work properly. But Mafiaboy, I believe you were committing an act of love too: not for the integrity of a particular line of code, but for the Internet in general, as it could have been.
It occurs to me, Mafiaboy, that I may have gotten a bit carried away. Maybe it wasn't you at all who hacked those sites. Maybe it was and you are a fifteen-year-old vandal with a Satanism preoccupation and dreams of your own IPO. But maybe it doesn't even matter, because whether you intended it or not, for a couple of weeks hacking took its place in a wider wave of anticorporate protest. Offline, anti-sweatshop activists are rappelling off the side of Niketown while eco-warriors are pulling up Monsanto's genetically modified crops. And as profit moves online, the hand-to-brand attacks are close behind.
This article first appeared in the Nation.