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Special report: From hackers to terrorists

They may hack, but can we tell them apart?

There are growing concerns from civil liberty groups that computer hackers will be defined as terrorists if Britain follows in the footsteps of legislation currently under consideration in the US Congress.

If US proposals go ahead the new Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) will widen the definition of what constitutes a terrorist act and the Bush administration’s authority to track communications will be expanded. Low-level computer crimes such as intrusion into company networks by outside parties would fall under the jurisdiction of the ATA.

Civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said that computer intrusion is already a crime under other state laws but the ATA will elevate the status of illegality to a "federal terrorism offence". This means the activities of hackers could be punishable by life imprisonment. "This is not an appropriate response," EFF executive director Shari Steele said in a statement.

At the Labour party conference in Brighton this week the Home Secretary David Blunkett said further laws will be drafted to counter terrorism. In Britain there are already a number of laws, such as the Electronic Communications Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, that potentially contradict the Human Rights Act [see background].

Dr Paul Taylor, author of Hackers: Crime and the digital sublime, told PC Advisor: "The mystique that still surrounds the online environment for both politicians and the general public means that restrictive rhetoric and subsequent legislation is likely to continue relatively unopposed." He thinks the government is likely to continue making laws about an online world that isn't fully understood.

But the waters become muddier when hackers use illegal means to pursue what the public might consider to be legitimate ends. A group of hackers in Britain has formed under the title of Young Intelligent Hackers Against Terror (Yihat) and claims to have obtained information on bank accounts held by members of the Al'Queada terrorist organisation — headed by Osama Bin Laden.

The group's spokesperson, ex-hacker and entrepreneur Kim Schmitz, denies being personally involved but said the hackers didn’t want to talk directly to the press until "we find a government that legalises our activities". Under the ATA these people would be labelled as the very thing they're trying to expose.

Home Secretary David Blunkett has put proposals forward that make it an offence for financial institutions not to report transactions that they know or suspect to be linked to terrorist activity. And so, though it would become a legal requirement for financial institutions to pass this information over, it becomes a terrorist act if hackers do.

Condemned.Org, an organisation that seeks to eradicate online child pornography by hacking sites, may find itself in a similar position, as will campaigners who diverted visitors seeking the Ku Klux Klan site to hatewatch.org.

Hacking covers a variety of activities from benevolent acts to malicious intrusion. Either way, the technological advancements created by or demanded because of hackers can be beneficial for the business community. Dr Taylor backs this view.

"The hacker mentality has been an essential part in the development of computing. Labelling hackers as terrorists threatens to kill the goose that laid the technological egg."


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