THE NEWS: Hacker group Anonymous tapped into the computer network of Bay Area Rapid Transit to protest the system's act of cutting power to wireless network cell towers along its route. The group then released the names, phone numbers and passwords of about 2,400 BART users.
THE PROVOCATION: I get why Anonymous is pissed off. BART basically pulled the plug on cell phone users riding its trains because it feared they were using their wireless systems to organize a rally. The purpose, in this case, was to protest the fatal shooting of a man deemed "wobbly" and a potential danger to others by BART police. Protesters considered the shooting an overreaction.
So what does BART do? It overreacts again in shutting down cell phone towers. The action has been widely condemned as an act of censorship, but BART has refused to apologize, saying that it cut power to the wireless towers in an effort to ensure rider safety. "This was not censorship, this had everything to do with public safety," one BART official was quoted as saying.
A lot of people weren't buying that, including the group Anonymous.
On Sunday, Anonymous struck back with its hack attack. One problem: The real victim of the hack was not BART, but rather the people whose information was released. If their only crime was using a rapid transit system in a metropolis where parking places are as hard to find as a golden ticket in a Willy Wonka candy bar, Anonymous' action is hard to defend. Still, Anonymous supporters sought to do just that. "There always is [collateral damage]," Justin Minnich told pcmag.com, "but that's like any battle you take, if you stand up against anything, if you believe in something, if you fight a fight, there's going to be collateral damage."
Collateral damage. The same excuse military leaders use in justifying civilian deaths during wartime. In this case, however, it's a misnomer. Collateral damage takes place when civilians die during an assault on a military target. In this case, the bystanders were the only ones hit. BART itself didn't suffer particularly. People aren't going to stop using the system as a result - there's simply no alternative for many commuters.
In a message on its website, Anonymous wrote: "We are Anonymous, we are your citizens, we are the people, we do not tolerate oppression from any government agency. BART has proved multiple times that they have no problem exploiting and abusing the people."
But isn't the act of releasing people's personal information exploitation? Isn't it abuse? Isn't Anonymous doing the very thing it's trying to protest? It would be one thing if the group had targeted BART itself - if, for instance, it had released the personal info of officials responsible for shutting down the towers. Or maybe it could have hacked the system in such a way that BART itself was unable to access it. But it didn't do either of those things. Instead, it targeted people who had nothing to do with the problem the group was protesting. I'm sorry, but that just doesn't make sense. Not only does it hurt innocent people, it won't do anything to get BART to change its ways.
The following day, Anonymous organized a protest that made more sense. More than 100 supporters, some wearing Guy Fawkes masks, organized a peaceful protest that resulted in the closure of multiple BART stations.
Meanwhile, others were joining Anonymous in criticizing BART's action. Gene Pilicinski of Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center was quoted on the Censorship in America website as saying that "historically we have kept our hands off free expression. … The government has a very high ladder to climb."
Even a member of BART's board of directors, Lynette Sweet, was quoted as saying that the wireless shutdown went too far: "We really don't have the right to be this type of censor. In my opinion, we've let the actions of a few people affect everybody. And that's not fair."
One could say the same thing about Anonymous' hacking counterpunch. Was it fair to release personal information on BART's riders? Does collateral damage on one side justify more of the same on the other?
When asked about BART's action, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer named Michael Risher told the Associated Press, "It's wrong. There were better alternatives to ensure the public's safety."
One could say the same thing about Anonymous' hack job: There are better alternatives to ensuring the public's liberty. BART did the wrong thing for the right reasons. So did Anonymous. Nobody wins in this one.