Rise of the armchair army – The Electronic Disturbance Theater

The Internet has long provided a refuge for society’s most sedentary individuals – with shopping, dating and even socialising all now possible online. In a new development, one enterprising group of malcontents is using the power of the Internet to get people off the street.

The Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) has become a leading proponent of what it terms electronic civil disobedience. Others see such activity as just another form of launching distributed denial-of-service attacks.

The group’s website explains that it aims to work at the “intersections of radical politics, recombinant and performance art, and computer software design”.

It has built a URL-based software tool, Flood Net, for aggrieved web users to flood and block target websites.

This tool, and others like it, says Prolexic CTO Paul Sop,  who tracks such groups on a regular basis, has become the key mechanism of choice for many seemingly respectable, middle-class individuals – too inert, busy or preoccupied to appear in person – to protest against all manner of political issues. “The Internet is full of lazy people with opinions,” says Sop. “They aren’t likely to fly to the Million Man March in Washington, but they might well like to do something in that moment, across the Internet.”

In May 2007, for example, the EDT organised a 24-hour virtual sit-in against Michigan state legislature’s proposed Medicaid cuts. This kind of armchair activism, argues Sop, is potentially more sophisticated and damaging than the blanket-botnet attacks deployed by criminals against companies, because it can be customised to undermine specific business models. “When you are dealing with co-ordinated people, you have the ability to do something that Zombie software can’t do, such as filling out request forms en masse for free literature.”

Elsewhere, the availability of such tools seems to be encouraging the rise of cyber vigilantes. One, Spam Sip, has been used to target the perpetrators of mass spam attacks, notes Sop. Even online child predators, says Sop, are now feeling the wrath of vigilante cyber groups, who will entrap, track and hack, and then report individuals they believe to be on the wrong side of the law. And the trend is growing: “There are now whole teams of individuals policing the Internet,” says Sop.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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