The Associated Press
GENEVA - The technicians at the World Trade Organization got a bit suspicious when "journalists" in an online press conference went by screen names like "NO-TO-WTO."
Still, WTO Director-General Mike Moore gamely answered all questions thrown at him - until he was knocked off-line by anti-globalization protesters with excellent computer skills.
This week, similarly motivated "hacktivists" grabbed headlines, announcing they'd collected credit card and other personal data on some 1,400 business and political leaders by breaking into the database of last month's World Economic Forum.
Increasingly, social activists have turned to hacking to make their point, breaking into computer systems and wreaking havoc on organizations they oppose. The Internet has turned out to be a remarkable tool for nonviolent protest on a scale activists could only dream of before.
The term "hacktivist" was first applied to supporters of the Zapatista rebels in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas, who have sabotaged Mexican government Web sites since 1998 and held "virtual sit-ins" designed to overload servers.
More recently, the tactic has been used in Serbia, Pakistan and India - and by both Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East. In one case, Palestinian sympathizers broke into a Web site operated by a pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States, stealing credit card information and e-mail addresses.
The theft of private data is a relatively new tactic, however, that goes beyond defacing Web sites and electronic bombardment of servers.
Anti-globalist protesters contend the WTO's trade treaties benefit big corporations and rich countries at the expense of the environment and workers. They consider the World Economic Forum, which holds its high-profile annual meetings in the Swiss resort of Davos, to epitomize the elitist dealmaking they oppose.
Protesters who showed up in person were largely stymied by a heavy police presence at last month's Davos meeting. Online, however, they effectively surmounted physical barriers.
The Net "is another frontier for people to engage in these types of activities," said Joel Scambray, a security analyst at Foundstone Inc.
The attacks against forum organizers showed just how far hacktivists could reach: They obtained the travel itineraries - including flight numbers - of politicians from around the world, and published them on the Web.
"This poses operational security problems, (and) goes beyond what we've seen before," said Kent Anderson, vice president of computer security with the London-based Control Risks Group.
Almost every major corporation and organization has been hit at one time or another by hacking, with McDonald's, Starbucks and the WTO as favorite targets of hacktivists.
During the WTO's last major meeting, in Seattle in December 1999, the organization faced attempts to shut down its system.
"There were millions of bits of spam thrown at us, but we had a good defense which bounced these right back," said WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell, using the term for junk e-mail.
People are still being misled by a copycat Web site that uses the WTO's old name - GATT - and looks nearly identical to the real WTO site.
"It is really quite clever and quite funny. But it is less funny when people believe it - as has been the case - and go to a lot of trouble and then are deceived," said Rockwell.
The newly malicious nature of some of the hacktivism troubles some, however.
The editor of the Toronto-based online magazine The Hacktivist, who goes by the pseudonym metac0m, said the "theft of personal info, credit cards and the like bothers me, for it discredits the legitimacy of hacktivism as a form of protest and civil disobedience."
"I would rather that those who engage in the cracking of databases access the documents being crafted completely out of public view and scrutiny," he said in an e-mail interview.
Metac0m credits more effective hacktivists with the downfall of the WTO's Multilateral Agreement on Investment in 1998.
"When activists ... posted it on the Internet, it was a huge victory because the public saw what was in that agreement, realized it was not in their interest, that they had no input into it, and hence they rejected it."