On Monday, officials with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) were forced to close four train stations during the evening rush hour as free speech advocates attempted to disrupt the evening commute. The protest was called by the activist hacker group Anonymous in retaliation for BART’s decision to shut down cell phone and mobile-internet service at four stations last week in an effort to disrupt a protest over the shooting of a homeless man. As part of its self-described “OpBART” campaign, Anonymous hacked into the BART website, myBart.org, and leaked the names, phone numbers and passwords of train passengers. We’re joined by a disguised Anonymous member who took part in “OpBART,” speaking under the pseudonym “X.” “We gave them a little taste of their own medicine,” X says. “We’re information activists just trying to make our world a bit freer and a little better,” says X. On the question about the FBI investigation over the hack, X says, “I don’t want to get caught… I am literally running from coffeehouse to coffeehouse, from city to city, from state to state, to try to avoid this massive, multimillion-dollar manhunt that they’ve put out for Anonymous. And for what? What have we done, Amy? Point to one thing where we’ve hurt a single human being… BART…kills its innocent people… How dare they do this in the United States of America?” [includes rush transcript]
Amy Goodman: As we talk about what happened at the BART stations in San Francisco and then take this global, we are turning to a closer look at a shadowy hacker activist group known as Anonymous. The group made headlines again this weekend when it hacked into the BART website mybart.org and leaked the names, phone numbers and passwords of passengers in retaliation for BART’s decision to shut down cell phone service at the four stations last week. Anonymous dubbed the campaign OpBART. This is a part of the message posted on YouTube about the operation.
Anonymous Opbart Message: Today, we’ve seen America come alive. In the Bay Area, we’ve seen people gagged. And once more, Anonymous will attempt to show those engaging in censorship what it feels like to be silenced. Operation BART is an operation geared toward balance, toward learning. You do not censor people because they wish to speak out against the wrongful occurrences around them. The Bay Area Rapid Transit has made the conscious decision of ordering various cell phone companies to terminate services for the downtown area, inhibiting those in the area from using cell phones, even in the case of an emergency. To BART, we will not tolerate censorship. We will do everything in our power to parallel the actions of censorship that you have chosen to engage in. We are a legion. We will be free to speak out against you when you try to cover up crimes.
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Amy Goodman: A video message posted online by hacktivist group Anonymous.
In recent years, online hackers who identified as being part of Anonymous and other groups have carried out dozens of high-profile online operations. When MasterCard and Visa suspended payments to WikiLeaks last December, hackers with Anonymous briefly took down the websites of both credit card giants. Other targets have included Sony, PayPal, Amazon, Bank of America, the Church of Scientology, and the countries of Egypt, Tunisia and Syria.
In recent months, law enforcement agencies across the world have begun cracking down on the hackers. In July, 16 suspected members of Anonymous were arrested across the United States. Police in the Netherlands, Britain, Australia, Spain and Turkey have also made arrests over the past year.
We are going to first go to an anonymous member of Anonymous, who joins us now. He’s calling himself X. He was at the BART protest last night, has been up for two days working on the collective’s response to BART’s action shutting down the internet and phone system at four stations.
Welcome to Democracy Now! I understand that it’s not going to be easy to understand you, because your voice is kind of encrypted, disguised for security reasons, but tell us what it is that you did in response to BART’s action.
X: Well, I think the video summed it up. We gave them a little taste of their own medicine. We began with a campaign that we call a black fax and an email bomb, and that’s basically—we took every inbox at the BART—I don’t know—organization, whatever, several hundred inboxes, both email and fax, and we filled them with thousands and thousands of copies of our message of indignation at their act.
And then we took it a step further, and we removed—for six hours, we removed the main BART website from the internet, www.bart.gov. We took that offline for about six hours. I’d like to point out that we were cognizant enough to do it on a Sunday, when we felt like it would present the least inconvenience to the commuter, who might need the website for information. So we did try to think that through, and we did the main site hacks on Sunday.
And then we took it one step further. We found a huge security hole in mybart.com, which is a sort of a side website to the BART site, place where people can sign up for an account and get daily updates on BART and whatnot to your email box and that sort of thing. So you put a lot of personal information into that website. Found it to be terribly insecure, and all that information, all that user information, over 2,000 BART users, was just sitting there unencrypted, where any 12-year-old script kiddie could have gone in and basically grabbed this stuff. So we went ahead and did just that. We took it and—in order to show the world how [inaudible]—
Amy Goodman: In so doing, X, did you release people’s personal information, BART riders, passengers?
X: Yes, we did. Yes.
Amy Goodman: And your thoughts on that, on going after the actual passengers themselves, people who might not want that personal information out?
X: Well, if we had told them, do you think they would have believed us, Amy? I mean, if we would have simply sent them a kind email message, “Hi, this is Anonymous. And guess what? We found all your information, unsecure, where anybody in the world could have gotten it.” Any—it didn’t take a hacker to do this. Trust me. This information was very easy to get.” And if we just wrote them a kind email, do you think that they would have believed us? How else do you get the world to respond and secure your information? How else do you get these companies and these big governments to keep your information, the information you give them voluntarily, safe? I think we got our message across, and I’ll bet you one thing: I’ll bet you they fix that.
Amy Goodman: Let me play another comment from BART spokesperson Linton Johnson, who appeared on the public radio station KQED in San Francisco on Monday.
We’re going to—we’re going to try to bring that to you in a second, but let me introduce some of our other guests right now, who are here. Peter Fein is an agent with Telecomix. He’s also an activist with Anonymous. He was one of several moderators on the Internet Relay Chat for OpBART. And we’re also joined here in New York by Gabriella Coleman, assistant professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. Her first book, Coding Freedom: The Aesthetics and the Ethics of Hacking, is forthcoming with Princeton University Press, and she’s currently working on a new book on Anonymous and digital activism.
Talk about what Anonymous did here in the case of BART and taking down the BART website and releasing information, Gabriella.
Gabriella Coleman: What’s so interesting about Anonymous is that they tend to not have one tactic, but many tactics and many operations and many networks and nodes at once. And I think the OpBART campaign reflects this. On the one hand, they did everything from black faxing to the stations to organizing a protest, to the more controversial hacking operations, as well, that we just heard about.
Amy Goodman: And Peter Fein, explain your role—I said that you’re an agent with Telecomix; most people will not know what Telecomix is—and what it means to be a part of the team that was involved with the whole BART action. Peter is joining us from Seattle.
Peter Fein: Sure. So, like you said, I’m an internet activist. I work with a couple of different groups, one of which is called Telecomix. We have been trying to keep the internet online throughout the Middle East, most notably in Egypt over the last several months. I see that work as sort of the flip side of the coin to what Anonymous does, that if Anonymous takes sites down, Telecomix keeps them up.
My role in Anonymous has been—obviously I’m not little-A “anonymous,” you can see my face and hear my voice—to help facilitate discussions. I write some propaganda. In OpBART, I was one of several moderators on our internet relay chat room. It’s an old-school form of multi-user chat. We had about 200 or so people in that room last night. And I just kind of help keep discussion moving, help keep things flowing, deal with people who are being abusive. But yeah, like that.
Amy Goodman: What does it mean to keep the flow going, the chat going, as these protests are taking place?
Peter Fein: Just sort of setting a topic for the room, kind of asking questions, pointing people to links. You know, as my role in moderator, I’m really not very active, and I’m certainly not limiting what people can say, but just sort of—when you have that many people all talking at once, sometimes you get folks who are a little less mature and, you know, sort of will abuse the system, flood the channel with messages. And so, we just kind of manage that. But, you know, in the last five days, I probably, you know, actively spoke directly in the channel less than, you know, 50 or 100 lines.
Amy Goodman: Let me play another comment by BART spokesperson Linton Johnson, the one we tried to play just a minute ago, on the NPR station KQED in San Francisco.
Linton Johnson: There is this whole push right now to try to find out why BART violated some constitutional rights, when in fact I don’t believe we did. What I do know that happened was this group Anonymous violated a fundamental constitutional right of our customers, and that is their right to privacy. They took the personal information and exposed it on the web for all to see—the home phone numbers, email addresses. Despite BART’s best attempt to protect that information, they were able to get a hold of it and violate the constitutional right to privacy for thousands of customers. And we find that shocking. And they do that under the cloak of protecting a different constitutional right, and that is the right to free speech. I am just stunned. And I think our customers are upset, as well. I know they’re upset, as well, that their rights to privacy were violated. We have the FBI looking into it, investigating, in fact, and other law enforcement agencies, to find out who this group Anonymous is and why they thought it was appropriate to violate our customers’ constitutional right to privacy.
Amy Goodman: That was BART spokesperson Linton Johnson. X is still on the line with us, of the group Anonymous. Your response to the BART spokesperson?
X: My response is an equal dose of indignation. Why was that information stored—again, I would ask you, your listeners and this BART fellow, why this information was stored on a server with a security that could have been broken by any 12-year-old script kiddie on the internet. It was for anybody to take. At least somebody took it who cares. At least somebody took it who used it to send a message not only to the world that censorship is wrong and intolerable, but that their information is being held in trust by a government they cannot trust, because they don’t know what they’re doing. [inaudible] don’t know whether BART didn’t care to secure that information or whether they didn’t know how to secure that information, but in [inaudible] case, they’re a government, and they should have been—they should have known better, they should have done better. If they want somebody to blame, blame the people who they gave that information to with trust. We took it in good faith, and we gave it not only to the world, we gave it back to the people who gave it to BART, to let them know that they need to fix that, everybody needs to fix that. We did that for the safety of the passengers.
And where’s the safety of the passenger who needs help, who needs to call 911 on his cell phone because he’s getting mugged at the end of a—dark end of some platform somewhere, but he can’t do it, he can’t call 911, because BART has cut off the cell phone service over less than a hundred protesters? And if this was a great tactic, why didn’t they use it against us last night? I was there. I was down there at the platform. We were using our smart phones. We were tweeting. We were surfing on the internet. There [inaudible] cutting of the service. They closed the stations, but how come they didn’t cut the cell phone service last night? I’ll tell you why. Because they know they’re wrong. They know we got them. And they know if they do it again, we will hurt them even worse than we’ve hurt them already.
Amy Goodman: Well, let me ask you, X, you heard the BART spokesperson saying the FBI is involved right now. Are you concerned about this? There have been a number of arrests of Anonymous members throughout the country in the last month. What are you doing about this?
X: I’m concerned to the extent, Amy, that I don’t want to get caught. And that’s why I’ve disguised my voice. I would much rather be [inaudible] for 20 years. I’d love to tell you who I am. I’d love to speak with a normal voice and have a normal conversation with you, with America, with anybody. I don’t want to hide like an animal. I don’t want to be hunted. I am literally running from coffeehouse to coffeehouse, from city to city, from state to state, to try to avoid this massive, multimillion-dollar manhunt that they’ve put out for Anonymous.
And for what? What have we done, Amy? Anybody [inaudible] point to one thing where we’ve hurt a single human being, where we’ve hurt a soul. You know, free Topiary [inaudible], because, you know, that’s a young man who anybody would want to have as their son. And he’s not a criminal; he’s a kid, a kid with a conscience who wanted to change his world and make it better. That’s all we all are. We’re all just activists. We’re information activists just trying to make our world a bit freer and a little better. But we’re filled with indignation, when a little organization like BART, a little transit cop police, like, kills its innocent people, two or three of them in the last few years, and then has the nerve to also cut off the cell phone service and act exactly like a dictator in the Mideast. How dare they do this in the United States of America? Amy, how dare they?
Amy Goodman: X is speaking to us. His voice is disguised. He’s with Anonymous. He was at the BART protest last night. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to continue the conversation and look at the history of Anonymous and other hacktivist groups, and also look broadly about how these groups have been involved in uprisings around the world. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.