Ghosts in the Machine: Why DDoS Is No Longer An Effective Tactic

On June 10, 1998, the computers hosting the website for Mexico’s Interior Ministry began to fill up with the names of the dead.

Line after line of “404 Not Found” errors began to flood the logs as visitors tried to access pages named after the Zapatista farmers killed by the Mexican Army in military attacks on the autonomous village of El Bosque. Before long, the website ground to a halt, unable to cope with the demand for information on mass killings, discussion of which the state would rather suppress.

This was an early “virtual sit-in”, orchestrated by the Electronic Disturbance Theater,  a group of activists and artists who were early developers of the theory and practice of Electronic Civil Disobedience. The tool used was called Floodnet.

This was a brief golden age for digital activism where the internet itself was a forum for direct action.

Now that big business has moved in and ruined the neighbourhood, governments have passed increasingly draconian laws that make this kind of non-violent direct action extremely risky. The US has even declared that it will consider cyber-attacks to be acts of war and therefore justifying a military response.

In Germany, politically motivated denial of service attacks are legal because they are recognised as the equivalent of a sit-in. In Britain there is no such defence.

Indeed, in Britain physical sit-ins are already criminalised through the use of aggravated trespass charges, a highly contentious piece of legislation the sole purpose of which appears to be to deter non-violent protest. It is currently being used as the basis of the charges against the UK Uncut protesters arrested in Fortnum & Mason. Caroline Lucas has tabled an amendment to the  Protection of Freedoms Bill currently passing through the House of Commons that would scrap the charge of aggravated trespass but it seems unlikely that this will pass given the authoritarian nature of the coalition government.

There is likewise little hope for a change in the extreme laws against computer misuse. The Liberal Democrats in parliament have show greater loyalty to their Conservative partners than to liberal values. Their silence over repeated abuses of power by the police speaks volumes. Clegg’s pledge to repeal the Digital Economy Act is worth as little as all his other pre-election promises.

Floodnet can be seen as a more nuanced precursor of the Low Orbit Ion Canon, a tool used by groups like Anonymous for distributed denial of service attacks. There are rumours that Anonymous might use the new alternative to LOIC that they have been developing for the first time today – called RefRef – as part of #OccupyWallStreet. A number of people have already been arrested for failing to hide their IP when using LOIC. It remains to be seen whether RefRef will have been designed to hide users’ traces.

The internet is a great forum for putting pressure on companies and this can enable highly effective forms of online protest. As we continue to lose public space and as dissenters continue to be punished disproportionately it is tempting to move more and more protest online. I’m not convinced, however, of the efficacy or value of denial of service as a strategy. Acts online are extremely easy to trace. A website being down for a few hours or days lacks the symbolism of the original Electronic Disturbance Theater actions and any message is quickly lost.

Actions that only strengthen the hand of those who seek to restrict our access to the internet to my mind offer high risks and little reward. The trick is to find means of protest that resonate, that contain within them their message as an easily understood idea that can be disseminated widely. Our aim must be to inform and to change peoples’ minds through argument – not to impose our will through the threat of shutting down sites with whose values we disagree.

[Edit: there are unconfirmed reports that #RefRef is a “honeypot” designed to catch and expose unwary would-be hacktivists. Updates to follow when more news available.]