The great PSN debacle, part the second
Last updated on May 20, 2011 at 10:35 PM

Another day, another dearth of actual news on the subject of the PlayStation Network.

Sony announced today the breakdown of what type of information was stolen (nearly 25 million users' personal data was stolen in the attack last month, with the possibility of another 77 million users), but many of the questions brought up by this issue go beyond users and the possibility of identity theft.

So far, it has been reported, none of the data that was stolen has been used to nefarious ends. This little nugget of information hasn't raised too many eyebrows, as it seems many are of the opinion that whomever perpetrated the break-in was doing so to prove a point about Sony's treatment of a certain hacker.

Whether that is the case or not, one wonders if this falls under the banner of "peaceful protest." I know it sounds crazy, but stay with me here.

Online hacker communities are not a new phenomenon, but they are one that has garnered a lot of attention recently. Even though Anonymous has officially (or, at least as officially as these things ever get) denied involvement, that doesn't mean one of the various sub-groups within it didn't perpetrate the great PSN break-in.

The concept of a peaceful protest, or non-violent activism, is undergoing a metamorphosis of sorts within the digital realm. Not all of the activities perpetrated under the banner of Anonymous could conceivably count as being peaceful, but they have been non-violent.

DDoS attacks (which have been vented upon such disparate organizations as the Church of Scientology and the All Hip Hop Websites) have, at the worst, cost these organizations money and time, which supposedly is also money, so there you go.

I'm sure when Civil Rights activists were executing their plans for diner sit-ins, the diners, at worst, lost some business. Comparing the Civil Rights movement to Anonymous might be a poor analogy, but we're standing in strange fast-rising waters, here.

What colors the PSN debacle in a different light, however, is the theft of the users' personal information. Supposedly none of this information has been used for diabolical purposes of yet, which points to the infiltration as being directed at Sony more than PSN subscribers. If that's the case, though, why steal the information in the first place?

This leads us into the territory of what sets the online hacktivist community apart from its analog forbearers: leadership, or the lack thereof.

The much-ballyhooed democratization of the Internet seems to have found a near-perfect form in "organizations" like Anonymous or 4chan. The word organization is in quotes because there isn't any to speak of.

At best, these self-titled Internet vigilantes form themselves into small cells that are ostensibly under the banner of a larger group, but in reality tend to function autonomously with little oversight or coordination unless absolutely called for. If that sounds disturbingly like the makeup of terrorist organizations (and I would highly suggest not lugging the word terrorism with you onto the 4chan message boards), you're not the first to think so.
However, even a terrorist cell makes claim to a leader. This also is a feature that activist groups share: A face, a voice, a charisma that both inspires and directs the passions of those who are making common cause.

Internet vigilantes have pursued goals in the past that could universally be called laudable. The question becomes, can an organization that purports to celebrate individuality, choice and free speech in their purest forms ever fall under the aegis of a "leader?" If that day should come, should we be scared?

Depending on your point of view, hacktivism either resembles terrorism and peaceful activism in a few key ways, or bears no resemblance whatsoever. It is, and glories in being, an enigma. To those millions of people who use the Internet without even a basic idea of what makes it and other networks tick, they are the newest, scariest boogeyman. To their followers and members, they are the newest voice of the people.

What effect they'll have, if any, on the larger world will have to be judged by history.

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