Should we cheer or fear cyber vigilantes like Anonymous?

Hacktivists continue to demonstrate their ability to bend or break rules for the subjective greater good, but should they be embraced?

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Therein lies the ethical dilemma: Do the ends here justify the means? If there is an investigation and one or more people are indeed found guilty of plotting illegal activities, do we cheer for Anonymous?

Out of sight, out of mind?
Also, do cyber vigilantes have more leeway than criminals who engage in nontechnological techniques, the way some people might not view downloading pirated music in the same light as stealing a physical CD from the store?

For example, would supporters of Anonymous view this situation differently if a group of masked men and women broke into HBGary, Berico, and Palanti in the dead of night, stole computers or drives containing the various damning files, and shipped them to a contact in the House of Representatives?

The same questions can be asked of the group's successful hacking of Westboro Baptist Church's website over the weekend. The church arguably goaded Anonymous -- possibly as part of a publicity stunt -- to the point that Anonymous attacked. People who oppose the WBC -- notorious for adopting an offensive Web address -- will likely shed no tears; they may even cheer for Anonymous. But does that make Anonymous's actions, the defacement of a legitimate religious group's website, acceptable? Would supporters of the act view it differently if a group of men and women physically defaced the WBC's headquarters with spray paint?

These questions doesn't apply to Anonymous only, either. What about the group Goatse Security, that last June revealed thousands of email addresses of iPad users it had mined via a hole in AT&T's website in order to punish to company for not notifying customers their information had been stolen? Or Google security engineer Tavis Ormandy, who made public a vulnerability in Windows XP in an effort to get the company to fix the problem more quickly? What about the creators and defenders of WikiLeaks, some of whom readily engage in illegal activities in the name of freedom of speech?

Again, it's a complicated question, and there's no cut-and-dry answer. It's evident, however, that cyber vigilantes are out there, and they are proving themselves ready and willing to take drastic actions to further their causes. Whether or not you support their tactics, you almost certainly don't want to make enemies of them, a fact that has no doubt become entirely clear to now-former HBGary CEO Aaron Barr.

This story, "Should we cheer or fear cyber vigilantes like Anonymous?," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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