"Is cyberhacktivist even a word?" an American Banker editor asked me doubtfully. "Yes," I snapped back. "It just is." Sometimes if you're emphatic enough, and it's late enough in the day that people just want to go home, you don't have to explain yourself.
But some explanation is warranted. Cyberhacktivists do many of the same things in-person activists do - they hang out, block traffic, cause a distraction, try to shock people or companies into listening to a message. But of course, they do it all online rather than in person. Always, there's the unspoken fear among those targeted that it could get worse - that in the physical world, the protestors could go from sitting around to standing and shouting, to throwing things, setting fires and doing serious damage. We saw that in Libya in September. In the cyber world, the fear is that the protest could go from statement making - look what we can do, we can bring the bastions of American commerce to their knees - to more damaging financial fraud or data theft.
What do the cyberhacktivists who targeted banks through late September and October want? They say they want America to take down the video "Innocence of Muslims," a YouTube video that mocks the prophet Mohammed.
If this is true, the group that claims to be behind the attacks, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters Group, labors under several strange, false ideas: that there's any connection whatsoever between U.S. banks and one misguided person who came up with an extremely ill-conceived idea for a video. (Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the writer and producer of the film, is in jail and his family is in hiding.) That our entire country, its government and its banking industry is behind a YouTube video that in reality, few Americans knew existed until the uprisings began in Libya and elsewhere. Another misconception: that when the group conducts a distributed denial of service attack, it's taking down an entire company, when it's really slowing down the performance of one web server. In a post on Pastebin in late October, the group wrote, "Every day we are giving a compulsive break to all employees of one of the banks & its customers." Of course, the group is doing no such thing.
The closest logical company for the group to target would be Google, which has refused to remove the video from its YouTube site, except in Libya and Egypt. In a statement, YouTube stated, "We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what's OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video - which is widely available on the Web - is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube." But there is no appropriate target. Google is using its first amendment rights.
When people haven't experienced the concept of freedom of speech and lack of government control, how do you help them understand?
There may be little the banking industry can do to sway the Islamic world's opinions of our country and businesses. But banks can defend themselves, in ways we outline on page 10, prepare for hactivists' next moves, which we predict on page 9, and hope.