In early November, a video with a distorted voice, faux static and a now-familiar Guy Fawkes mask went viral in the Singaporean online community. Anonymous, it seemed, had turned its attention to Singapore. It was the opening salvo in what would end up being a string of hacked or defaced websites, and energetic discussion on the place of hacking in civil disobedience and activism.
The hackers claimed they were declaring war on the country’s government. Speaking out against the relatively new licensing regime for news websites, Anonymous threatened to disrupt government services in early November. Seeing that a single member of the group, known only as “The Messiah,” had already compromised websites such as that of the Ang Mo Kio Town Council, they were confident that bringing down public service websites would be a piece of cake.
Despite these grandiose threats, none of the major state websites were affected by Anonymous activity. “The Messiah” did, however, get into the The Straits Times’ blog, posting a message of his own. The social media accounts of entertainer Ridhwan Azman were also hacked as punishment for “dissing the legion.”
These were minor, petty stunts, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was not amused. “It is not just anything goes and you are anonymous, therefore there is no responsibility,” he told reporters. “You may think you are anonymous. We will make that extra effort to find out who you are.” The comment triggered the defacement of the website of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Anonymous and “The Messiah” claimed to be acting in the interests of the Singaporean people, but gratitude was not forthcoming. In a country where physical protests are frowned upon and very quickly equated with violence and strife, Anonymous’ cyber-hacking was seen as little more than cowardice and needless provocation. Instead of a hero, “The Messiah” was perceived as an immature rabble-rouser.
“[Hacking] causes very real property damage and harm in terms of time and resources, not unlike arson or vandalism,” said former web development director and content producer Alvin Pang. “I’ve had to fix hacking attempts on a perfectly innocuous educational campaign site; it’s not funny at all, and can have significant financial implications.”
The fact that the cyber-attacks singled out individuals rather than sticking to the original message of protest did little good for the credibility of “The Messiah” and his colleagues. The government has also been quick to link hacktivism to ideas of violence, vandalism and harm. “Whether through hacking, vandalism or other illegal actions, such persons only serve to disrupt the lives of other law-abiding citizens and cause unnecessary alarm. We should not allow the actions of a few to affect our sense of safety and security in Singapore,” said a spokesperson of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
No time was wasted in identifying the perpetrators. 35-year-old James Raj Arokiasamy was charged with hacking the Ang Mo Kio Town Council website under the moniker “The Messiah.” The High Court has yet to decide whether he should be allowed immediate access to his lawyer, and if found guilty he could be fined S$10,000 (approx. USD7,970) and sentenced to three years in jail. Taking into consideration his three prior drug charges, Raj could also receive a further S$20,000 (approx. USD15,940) fine and 10 years in jail for each count.
Another two men have been arrested for their involvement in hacking the website of the President’s office and will soon be charged.
Judging from the strong statements of condemnation, it is likely that the government will take a harsh stance against those believed to be involved with the hacks. Speaking before university students, Law Minister K Shanmugam likened cyber-hacking to violent crime: “Hacking in real terms is nothing short of terrorism. When somebody says, ‘you, the Government, or you, the people of Singapore, do this, and if you don’t, if you don’t agree with me, you don’t change the laws, I don’t like these laws, I’m going to hack’, it is no different from saying, ‘if you don’t change the laws in the way that I want, I’m going to bomb you or I’m going to put your house on fire or I’m going to do these things to you’.”
Yet this interpretation of hacking might be incomplete. Laurence Putra, organizer of GeekcampSG, points out popular misconceptions. “Hacking at its roots was never malicious,” he wrote in an email. “Things that the media call hacking these days are actually cracking.” While hackers come together to build things using their technical know-how, crackers are the ones who enjoy breaking into systems, much like what “The Messiah” has done.
The distance between hackers and crackers is further explained on the website of NUS Hackers, a student-run organization committed to hacker culture and open-source software: “[B]eing able to break security doesn’t make you a hacker any more than being able to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer. Unfortunately, many journalists and writers have been fooled into using the word ‘hacker’ to describe crackers; this irritates real hackers no end. The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them.”
This need for hackers to clear the air with the public demonstrates the level of misunderstanding and prejudice among the public. “’Cracking’ is really a recently invented term used to counter the pejorative sense in which mass media uses the term ‘hacking’,” explains Chong Kai Xiong, a coder who has worked on free and open-source software. “It helps to reclaim ‘hacking’ for programmers.”
The distinction between hacking and cracking is a missing nuance in the debate on cyber-hacking and activism. Equating hacking to violence and terrorism ignores the different contexts and aspects of the issue, and could potentially – and arguably already has – lead to over-reaction by the authorities. Laurence does not deny that hacking could have serious consequences, but warns against generalizing: “One has to be very careful at classifying these attacks, because it could lead to a dangerous precedent, and potentially make any security research in Singapore illegal.”
Kirsten Han is a writer, videographer and photographer. Originally from Singapore, she has worked on documentary projects around Asia and written for publications including Waging Nonviolence, Asian Correspondent and The Huffington Post.