Hacktivism United: NGOs, Hackers Team Up To Take Down Common Enemies

In need of a fresh coat of paint?
In need of a fresh coat of paint?
Boris Manenti

PARIS - “The melting Arctic is under threat...Let's take action!” Last July, Greenpeace launched a vast media campaign to “stop Shell from drilling in the Arctic”, as the oil giant was getting ready to open its second Arctic well off Alaska.

Greenpeace’s campaign garnered huge support from the general public, but it also reached the international hacker collective known as Anonymous. Quickly, an army of net-activists took on the cause – and began hacking websites from five oil companies (Shell, BP, Exxon, Gazprom and Rosneft), accused of destroying the Arctic.

“Hacktivists and NGOs coming together is a new trend,” says Nicolas Danet, co-author of Anonymous, Internet Hackers or Digital Alter-globalists?. “The hacktivist movement is evolving, and some of them are now joining forces with NGOs. This is the case of net activist group Telecomix, who launched #JHack with the Reporters Without Borders NGO.”

Anti-globalists are particularly interested in hacktivism. Major mobilizations like the Occupy movement have shown NGOs that the Internet was a great place to rally people to their cause. French NGO network Crid is so convinced that this is the way to go that they have put it on the agenda of the 2013 World Social Forum, which will be held in March, in Tunisia, a country known for a revolution driven on social media.

“NGOs have to find a way to absorb the large social movements that are created online,” says Nicolas Danet. “Hacktivism is evolving and could lead to a hybrid collaboration between organizations and hackers. This is only the beginning.”

Hacktivist Nicolas Diaz agrees. He is head of IT systems for the information systems for the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH): “Hacktivism is coming out of anonymity to act as a bridge between hackers and NGOs. After all, hacktivism is just an expression to describe activists that use digital tools.”

How does Anonymous, who gave hacktivism its name, fit into his new configuration? “Anonymous has become a symbol,” says Nicolas Danet. “It is present in the protests and demonstrations, in the European Parliament… Anonymous will not stop anytime soon, even if some of its members will come out of anonymity to join the ranks of NGOs.”

Staying legal

According to Nicolas Diaz, “Anonymous is a great anonymous communications agency, but it can also be very juvenile, with many excesses. There is no degree of responsibility in Anonymous.” For him, “Hacktivists must respect an ethics code.” He regrets for example, the time Anonymous released incriminating personal data – that couldn’t be used as proof. “We cannot spend all our time denouncing things that aren’t legal, like drones, and then do the same thing. It’s counter-productive. We must respect the legal system,” he says.

Nicolas Diaz says that hacktivism is not piracy. “The hacktivism that I practice is defensive – I teach people about using secure networks and data encryption.” He adds, “we are accused of using the same weapons as cybercriminals, but that is not true. Hacking is prohibited and punishable by the law. We must respect the rule of law.”

DDoS though, is a sticky point. DDoS stands for Denial-of-service attack, overloading a website or network to the point of rendering it inaccessible to its users. Many consider it as the “the demonstration of the future” ‑ a digital version of strike or highway toll. But others say it is a violation of freedom of expression. “It is a real dilemma,” confesses Nicolas Diaz. “I’m not sure if putting a company in the spotlight by using DDoS is the best way of denouncing its actions, it’s difficult to say, really.”

The White House might be able to settle the issue. There is a petition on the White House website to legalize DDos attacks, which are still punishable by law.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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