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?

The ongoing drama starring hacker group Anonymous and beleaguered security company HBGary has taken a startling twist: In the wake of HBGary CEO Aaron Barr resigning, a group of House Democrats plans to use information gleaned from stolen electronic documents to launch an investigation of HBGary Federal along with two other federal tech contractors for plotting to attack and discredit pro-union opponents of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, according to reports.

The latest development once again raises the question of the role so-called hacktivists -- members of Anonymous, supporters and contributors to WikiLeaks, white-hats who publicly disclose security vulnerabilities -- play in our world. They seem to fit best in the category of "vigilante," pushing both legal and ethical boundaries for often subjective greater good. The question remains, however, just where the line is drawn between a cyber vigilante who is more like Batman, and one who is more like the Joker.

Dirty politics 2.0
House Democrats are seeking to investigate an alleged plan by HBGary Federal, Berico Technologies, and Palantir Technologies, collectively dubbed Team Themis, to attack and discredit the Chamber's critics using unsavory and arguably illegal cyber-based techniques. These tactics are all laid out in the documents stolen and publicized by Anonymous.

The alleged tactics include planting false documents, such as fake financial information, for Chamber opponents to find. Were an opponent to make public the documents, the Chamber would prove them false, thus discrediting and embarrassing the opponent in the process.

Another tactic entails creating two fake online personas to infiltrate activist websites. One persona would achieve a trusted status by discrediting the other to gain access to insider information.

Yet another tactic, one the group allegedly engaged in already according to the stolen emails, is culling personal information about anti-Chamber activists, such as family and religious data.

Consider the source?
This aforementioned -- and again, alleged -- plot is troubling, no question. But also troubling is how quickly some members of Congress seek to use illegally acquired information to further their own political agenda.

For example, a letter [PDF] from lawmakers calling for the investigation of Team Themis describes the group's alleged plot as "deeply troubling," observing that "tactics developed for use against terrorists may have been unleashed against American citizens."

The rhetoric is loaded, and the lawmakers who are shocked and appalled by Team Themis's alleged plan seem to conveniently ignore an important fact: The plan itself was revealed via tactics that arguably could be used against terrorists – hacking into private computers – and were in this instance were "unleashed" against American citizens, namely the men and women of HBGary,  Berico, and Palanti. Yet these particular American citizens were apparently concocting naughty, naughty schemes.

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