Sunday night, the website of Planned Parenthood got hacked. Is this a new era of the culture wars in which the political right and left trade not only verbal barbs, but attempt to expose, embarrass, and maybe endanger each other using various cyber warfare tactics? Or were a couple people just bored?
There's usually some measure of controversy surrounding the reproductive health organization, but in recent days it's been more of a target than usual after two secretly recorded videos showed that the group sometimes donates aborted fetuses to medical researchers. Planned Parenthood and its employees have been the target of harassment and, on occasion, violence. But a hack against a socially liberal group is unusual and is perhaps a sign of things to come.
"Many of the hacktivism hits have been more toward one political direction than another," Peter W. Singer, a cybersecurity expert at the New America Foundation, told me. "It's not a general rule, but they tend to be against authoritarian or corporate targets. We haven't seen many that align differently."
"We're not going to act like we're doing this to help people or that it's for a good cause"
At first glance, the hack, for which a group calling themselves 3301 has taken credit, seems entirely politically motivated, perhaps by that news. In a message posted by the group, it claims that the "actions" of Planned Parenthood are "not seen as right in the eyes of the public."
"Here we are, the social justice warriors, seeking to reclaim some sort of lulz for the years and thousands of dollars that Planned Parenthood have wasted and made harvesting your babies," the group wrote. The hack was originally reported by the Daily Dot.
However, in an encrypted chat, one of the alleged hackers told me that, more than anything, they were simply bored.
"One of our members is 100 percent against abortion, hence the attack…I can't speak on behalf of [the others] because I don't personally know their stance," a person who goes by the name of 'J' and was running the 3301 Twitter account told me. "We're not going to act like we're doing this to help people or that it's for a good cause. The truth is we love to hack, and we will continue to hack until we are caught, or bored."
Given that Planned Parenthood has been in the news lately, it's maybe not so surprising that a hack came now.
"An organization is in the news for any reason and already in the spotlight, a bored hacker decides to test the organization's web site," Brian Martin, a security expert who runs Attrition, a legendary hacking and security website, told me. "The reference to the 'lulz' could be misleading, but this is generally the sign of a bored hacker, or someone trying to appear that way."
The group published the databases that support Planned Parenthood's website, an employee list, as well as their email addresses and encrypted passwords. Beyond the encrypted passwords, it appears as though nothing that was published is particularly sensitive data.
"The hacktivist community is usually going after those who have been in some position of power or abusing the freedom of speech online"
"We've seen the claims around attempts to access our systems. We take security very seriously and are investigating," Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told me in an emailed statement. "It's unsurprising that those opposed to safe and legal abortion are participating in this campaign of harassment against us and our patients, and claiming to stoop to this new low."
J said that 3301 has four members located in four different countries. He said the group is "associated with" Lizard Squad, a group that has become famous for running a series of distributed denial of service attacks against services such as the Playstation Network, Xbox Live, and League of Legends servers. Two members of that group have been arrested.
The alleged hacker told me that the group has other targets and that it is "thinking of pwning the CEO of Planned Parenthood."
Regardless of whether or not the hackers have any real strong convictions, it's clear they're at least trying to appeal to those who do: The use of "social justice warrior," which became popular during the GamerGate movement of last summer, suggests that the hackers are trying to appeal to a group that has pushed back against progressives.
While hackers have been politically motivated since time immemorial, it's notable that a liberal nongovernment organization such as Planned Parenthood was the target of a hack.
"If you're thinking about the hacktivist community, they're usually going after those who have been in some position of power or abusing the freedom of speech online," Singer said. "The hacktivist community is really an online extension of the activist community, and you usually see those to be from one side of the political spectrum."
Put another way, you often see people marching on the streets for liberal causes. But in the last few years, activist groups from across the conservative spectrum, from the Tea Party to white supremacists in the South, have started their own protests and, more recently, have taken those movements online.
"This is kind of like, the people that protested against the Confederate flag versus the people who protested for the Confederate flag," Singer said. "Hacking is a more common tactic now and the toolkit for it is more commonly available. This is an atypically aligned hack, but the reality of it is this is going to become a lot more common."