Terence Lee
Terence Lee
6:45 pm on Nov 8, 2013


As November 5 came and went, the online community was awash with a mixture of relief, ridicule, and even disappointment at how uneventful the day was despite the promise of action by Messiah of Anonymous.

Then Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong set the Twittersphere aflame once again by promising that the government is taking the cyberattacks “very seriously” and will hunt down the hackers by all means necessary.

When STOMP, a trashy ‘citizen journalism’ website, wrote about how a Straits Times blog was hacked (both are under the same parent company), almost 50 percent of readers rated the article ‘shiok’ — a local vernacular expressing glee.

While we hesitate to express it, this whole saga has become a blood sport. It’s an escape from the drudgery of daily life on this tiny island — a damn good movie. But unlike many hackneyed Hollywood films, this movie is far more complicated and interesting.

I’ll explain why in a moment, but let’s make something clear: Hacking (or to be more precise, cracking) is illegal, and I hesitate to condone the behavior. It’s a superpower-like skillset that can be abused for villainous purposes, even though hacktivists profess to use it for good.

Messiah’s conduct has also left much to be desired. It’s hard to see how his actions have helped him achieve the aim of fighting for “justice” for the oppressed. I don’t see how the government will do an about-face from implementing the internet licensing framework as a result of his actions. His bluster of threatening war has so far been empty talk.

If his goal was to rally Singaporeans to his side, he has failed.

Yet to condemn Messiah entirely as a irredeemable terrorist with no good intentions is taking it too far. Ditto for the act of cracking. Singaporeans have an unusual habit of conflating what is legal with what’s right, and vice versa.

“The rule of law must be upheld,” Singaporeans holler hypocritically as they litter, jaywalk, and pirate music and movies. At the same time, they’ve failed to realize that laws are defined so broadly that any critique of the government can be construed as seditious according to the whims of the day.

It’s not black and white

Truth of the matter is, Messiah and Anonymous have done Singaporeans a favor. Messiah’s threat caused the government to go into panic mode, resulting in an “urgent” maintenance spree that caused engineers from IDA to burn a weekend closing potential backdoors.

That is despite the fact that Anonymous Singapore’s actions are not even close to the legendary LulzSec in skill or ambition. While they made headlines by supposedly hacking into the website of the Prime Minister’s Office, what they actually did is simply inject HTML code into a web address to cause a web page to display some taunts.

To use an analogy, it’s like a burglar who, being unable to break into a house, decides to paint graffiti on the walls instead. Embarrassing but harmless.

Yet such defacements serve the useful purpose of vaccinating Singapore’s IT infrastructure and its data from attacks by foreign hackers with zero concern for Singaporeans.

They are in effect a weaker vaccine virus used to prepare the country’s immune system for stronger foes — never mind the mystery about just how strong the government’s IT security measures are.

While the government may shout about its efforts to bring the hackers to justice, we musn’t forget that the handiwork of its engineers enabled the exploits to occur in the first place. The government is partially responsible for its own humiliation.

There’s a lot of misinformation about cracking among Singaporeans. And it’s not their fault. Heck, I wasn’t even clear about what terms like DNS poisoning, HTML injections, and cross-site scripting meant, and I’m supposed to be a tech writer.

Perhaps this episode has caused some of us to better understand this strange new world we live in and cast away old paradigms.

Not your grandmother’s organization

Let’s face it: Anonymous is unlike any organization we’ve seen before. It is an entity that is only possible due to the internet: a constantly evolving hive mind which has evolved from its early days as a nihilistic entity that hacked for the lulz to what it is today: a fiercely passionate group fighting for whatever political cause that strikes their fancy — even if its methods aren’t accepted by all.

Observers have called Anonymous a “do-ocracy”, that is, an entity that is ruled by sheer doing. Tech writer Quinn Norton, known for her coverage of hacker culture, explained:

Individuals propose actions, others join in (or not), and then the Anonymous flag is flown over the result. There’s no one to grant permission, no promise of praise or credit, so every action must be its own reward.

As the video of the war threat went viral, some Singaporeans doubted that Messiah was really a part of Anonymous. That innocuous question betrayed our utter unfamiliarity with do-ocratic movements and its nature: Anonymous is defined by the actions of its members. Once its actions change, the movement changes.

Yet I would suggest that even Messiah and Anonymous Singapore have failed to truly grasp the unique nature of the movement.

The primary reason why the Million Mask March, which is what Anonymous has termed November 5, failed to take off in Singapore was because the group has failed to adopt the Anonymous spirit for local sensibilities.

Think of other self-organizing and spontaneous online protests like the Pro-hijab movement, the anti-Ashley Madison movement, and, to go back further in time, the National Cook Curry Day movement. Why is it that these advocacy campaigns have gotten traction among a large swath of Singaporeans, while Anonymous is branded as a terrorist group?

Must the Anonymous movement necessarily involve hacking into websites, launching DDoS attacks, and demanding that a journalist resigns for a biased article?

The answer is no.

Because Anonymous can evolve like any organism. In the Philippines, Indonesia, and United States, the Anonymous status quo stays because the government is perceived as villainous due to corruption and privacy violations courtesy of the NSA

See also: Anonymous-sparked protest begins in Philippines, held back in Indonesia

In Singapore, people still trust the government, although some might wonder why it needs the heavy hand of the law to maintain its pristine image.

So, the Messiah and Anonymous Singapore have themselves to blame for the distaste spawned against them from the very citizens they sought to protect. They failed to adapt.

They can make amends, of course, but that’s assuming they can evade capture by the authorities.

(Editing by Paul Bischoff and Willis Wee)

Read More