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Hacktivism 101

Digital dirty work from the Sony attackers to News of the World Add to ...

A slew of recent hacking incidents - including attacks on Sony, Fox News, Barack Obama's re-election website and many others, as well as the News of the World scandal - has once again cast the spotlight on the growing power of digital warfare.

But perhaps as significant as the attacks themselves is the ease with which almost anyone - regardless of technical experience - can now engage in legally questionable online activity. Be they pro-democracy activists in the Middle East or teenage hacktivists in North America, most Web users are now only a few clicks away from a range of free tools that let them do everything from identity concealment to low-level cyberwarfare. Such tools fall under a number of categories. Here is a field guide.

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Anonymity software

One of the most important tools for activists during the Arab Spring was anonymity software that essentially concealed their tracks online. Software such as Tor, a free service, reroutes a user's traffic through a maze of servers around the world, such that anyone trying to track it has a very difficult time figuring out where the traffic originated.

Recently, however, Tor has become a favourite tool for users downloading pirated music and movies. Indeed, use of Tor for such purposes has become so prevalent that some of the engineers who helped to develop the software recently issued an appeal to downloaders to stay away.

Geospoofing

Geospoofing involves convincing a website or server that you're in a different part of the world. Most Canadian users are well aware that many of the most popular services on the Web, such as Hulu and Pandora Radio, will not offer content to users who aren't physically located in the U.S. - an often frustrating experience for Web users.

However, there are a number of free and paid proxy services that essentially make it appear as though any user is actually located in the U.S., opening up a world of otherwise off-limits content. Big media producers frown on such tools, but users have increasingly adopted them as a means of getting around what they see as arbitrary and unfair restrictions.

Denial Of Service

Unlike some of the other tools here, Denial Of Service software has few legitimate uses. DOS is a form of Web-based attack that involves sending large quantities of meaningless data to a server in the hopes of crippling it - a sort of digital equivalent to calling up a business's customer support line repeatedly in order to tie it up.

Basic versions of such software have been available for more than 15 years, beginning with "mail-bombing" tools that let users send thousands of junk messages to an e-mail account.

However, DOS is also the most primitive form of cyberattack, and requires massive quantities of data to be effective. That's why, in recent years, large groups of users have started using software that combines the processing powers of their individual computers to launch widely distributed and effective DOS attacks.

Hacking scripts

The most recent wave of hacking incidents popularized the term "script kiddie" to refer to someone who uses automated software to hack into servers and websites, despite having little or no technical ability. Many sites are based on the same technical platforms, which are known by security experts to have certain vulnerabilities.

Amateur hackers can download automated software, or scripts, that are built to exploit those vulnerabilities. The only thing the hacker must do is select a target. Like DOS software, scripts have few legitimate uses (although some computer experts use the software to test the security of their servers). And more than just about any other tool, scripts have opened up the world of basic malicious hacking to just about anyone with an Internet connection.

Omar El Akkad is a technology reporter for Report on Business.

Follow on Twitter: @omarelakkad

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