On April 27th, 1986, HBO’s scheduled programming was interrupted unexpectedly. A message appeared saying, “Good Evening HBO, from Captain Midnight. $12.95/month? No Way [Showtime/Movie Channel Beware]”. It is now referred to as the Captain Midnight Incident, when John R. MacDougall decided to protest increased television fees for satellite viewers. He hijacked HBO’s signal and projected his message into millions of American homes. The heavy-set Florida native is considered to be a pioneer ‘hacktivist’. John blended activism with his technical abilities.
Iran’s election aftermath in June 2009 is actually related to the Captain Midnight Incident. Using new technology as a tool of creative dissent connects these two events: one, being a mischievous prank, and the other, a revolutionary movement.
It has been nearly a year since images of Iran’s Green Movement flooded Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube. Social media sites and the internet were seen as the best avenues for information exchange and nothing more. However, youth–both in Iran and around the world–spent days hacking and jamming Iranian government websites, state-controlled news outlets and communications networks. The objective was to impede the operation of Iran’s security forces. Outrage and urgency dominated forum discussions, where these ‘hacktivist’ cyber warriors discussed online targets and cyber weaponry. One could easily sense the belief that cyber attacks could save Iranian lives. This belief became reinforced after the death of Neda Agha-Soltan and countless other Green Movement demonstrators.
Neda’s death is now considered a pivotal moment for Iran’s Green Movement and an iconic moment in Iran’s history. When videos of her [unjustified] murder surfaced on YouTube, they went viral in minutes. The “sweet angel of Iran” represented their cause. At the same time, the intentions of a [frenzied] regime were realized. The Iranian government was willing to sacrifice the lives of innocent people, like Neda, to maintain their power. Many Iranians knew this long ago.
Cyber warriors committed their attacks on the Iranian government for the same reasons millions of young Iranians took to the streets: democracy and freedom of speech, fighting back against oppression, brutality–[in the midst of which…many] innocent people died. Targets included Iran’s Defense Ministry, and RAJA and Fars News Agencies. Distributed denial of service attacks overloaded these websites leaving them “unavailable”. While demonstrators were defending themselves against Iran’s security forces, cyber warriors were trying to disrupt the information flow of the Iranian government.
It is difficult to say which side began the cyber battle: Iranian agents or supporters of Iran’s Green Movement. Iranian agents did, in fact, post pictures of Green Movement demonstrators on websites like Gerdab.ir and Bultannews.com. As a result, cyber warriors used their skills to disable these websites; thus, preventing the identification of Green Movement demonstrators. They felt it was necessary to protect innocent people from being arrested, imprisoned and tortured. As the Iranian government increased its violent crackdown on demonstrators, cyber warriors increased their attacks on the Iranian government.
Even five years ago, it would have seemed implausible that cyber warfare could actually save lives. Not so anymore. But to date, very little attention has been paid to these ‘hacktivist’ cyber warriors. Their role in Iran’s election aftermath is largely unnoticed. This isn’t a big surprise. They operate in the shadows of mainstream internet sites, congregating in secret places where most internet users cannot find or wouldn’t care to look for.
In April 1986, a middle-aged Peter Jennings referred to the Captain Midnight Incident as “no laughing matter.” Today, there are millions of John R. MacDougalls all over the world who are willing to use their technical savvy to protest injustice. They find their voices by disrupting the voices that seek to oppress. This certainly is no laughing matter and their influence is growing in Iran and across the globe. Cyber warriors are a potent force that will continue to shape the political geography of the future. The question is: how much influence will they have in shaping that political geography?