Appleton: Are hackers criminals or anti-heroes?

The Fresno BeeJanuary 10, 2014 

It has been a rough couple of weeks for gamers everywhere. There has been a series of outages for just about every major gaming website. The list of victims includes both of the network providers for the Xbox One/360 and the Playstation 3/4, as well as a host of game-specific websites such as www.ea.com or www.leagueoflegends.com. These disruptions varied in length from just a few minutes to over a day.

In the case of the Xbox Live and PlayStation Network outages, players were unable to use any online features on their consoles.

In the case of the game-specific website disruptions, players were unable to access any of the online content associated with the game. This is significant because many games require a constant connection to the game's servers, even if playing offline.

I, like many others, assumed that these were just typical connection problems on the part of the company in question. A lot of companies have had difficulty adjusting to the stress of the recent console releases and have had periodic crashes.

But when I noticed that so many websites were having the same issue within hours of one another, I did a little digging.

What I found was a Twitter account belonging to a group known as DERP. The account listed every outage by name immediately before and immediately after each crash. The group takes requests for future attacks, and I learned that they had also disrupted North Korea's state-run news agency and every Westboro Baptist Church website.

These attacks aren't actual hacks per say. The servers are simply overloaded by different programs that simulate massive Web traffic.

One of the first of these attacks actually was recorded during a live broadcast of the popular strategy game "League of Legends." James "PhantomL0rd" Varga had about 140,000 live viewers on his late-night broadcast when DERP told Varga, via his channel's chatroom, that if he performed poorly in the game, DERP would shut down the game's servers. Most popular gamers receive this type of threat daily, so Varga egged the group on.

Almost immediately, Varga and several million other players were dropped from "League of Legends." These service outages continued for over a day.

Riot Games, the developer of "League of Legends," confirmed that a series of attacks had taken place via its official Twitter account.

The planned theatrics were clearly to drum up some publicity, and it worked. DERP's Twitter account ballooned up to nearly 60,000 followers.

Gamers everywhere, myself included, glued their eyes to DERP's Twitter feed in order to see what would happen next.

So is that it then? Were they just after the attention? Maybe. It is also possible that the members of DERP fancy themselves as criminal masterminds.

They could certainly be called criminals. Disrupting multimillion-dollar company websites is certainly bad. Attacking a North Korean institution from a United States Web address is worse.

A few actual hackers have taken offense to the publicity DERP is receiving and have leaked the personal information of its Twitter account, which included a name, phone number and picture of the person who created the account. Case closed, right? It should have been easy to find those responsible and shut them down.

Except the attacks didn't stop. They intensified. On Monday, DERP promised to take down all Westboro websites for a full month sometime in the near future. They have even taken to posting sarcastic quips about the NSA and FBI knocking on their door.

And that's when it hit me. Hackers are the outlaws of the 21st century.

Think about the bank robbers and gunslingers of the Old West or the mobsters of the 20th century. They were all criminals, but there was something deeply romantic about them. We elevate these individuals to mythic status despite their criminal histories.

Is it such a stretch to think of these online vigilante groups in similar terms? There is something cavalier about a group of people promising to commit crimes, committing them and then making jokes about their impending capture on a popular social media site.

Like mobsters and outlaws, hackers frequently have been celebrated on TV and in films. Every TV law enforcement crew has that archetypal introvert back at the lab who is going to turn a broken cellphone and a gum wrapper into a high-definition recording of the crime. Perhaps you have forgotten that Jeff Goldblum saved us all by uploading a virus onto the alien mothership? Shame on you. Modern remakes of old crime classics like "The Italian Job" or "Ocean's 11" and its sequels also have added a lovable computer nerd to the mix. Hollywood is definitely aware of the technology expert's growing role in pop culture.

Regardless of what moral designation is given to groups like DERP, there is a bit of a silver lining to the whole incident. Website security should get a much-needed upgrade.

I understand that this is a bit of a double-edged keyboard: Websites wouldn't need to improve security if people would just stop attacking them. However, DERP's attacks were pretty minor on the computer hacking scale. I am certainly not going to lose any sleep over the prospect of the Westboro Baptist Church's websites being overloaded.

Security measures taken as a result of these minor attacks may also help to guard against future attempts to actually steal or damage something, so it isn't all bad.

The experience of monitoring the Twitter account of a minor hacking group has left me a little confused. What DERP is doing is wrong, and myself and millions of others were unable to play our precious video games as a direct result of these antics.

On the other hand, it really was entertaining to be one of the suckers that kept waiting for news of their capture, only to be greeted by tweets like "told the feds we were in the shower and they gave us a few minutes. We escaped through the window."

I guess I don't really know what to think of hackers, and I kind of like it that way.

 

Rory E. H. Appleton is the associate editor for corruptedcartridge.com and a journalism student at Fresno State. Each week, he plans to use this column to gush about the quirky world of video games and technology. You can reach him at rory@corrupted cartridge.com.

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