As protesters in New York paint signs and map out marching routes for next week's Republican National Convention, on the other side of the country another kind of protester is working stealthily by the glow of a computer screen. Aided by a young radical computer hacker calling himself CrimethInc, a group of politically active "hacktivists" are plotting to disrupt the convention electronically. CrimethInc and his "Black Hat Hackers Bloc" vow they'll take down Republican Web sites, e-mail servers, phones and fax lines, alter electronic billboards and cause what he calls unspecified "financial disruption."
They don't plan to do it alone. Last week CrimethInc e-mailed a call to arms to hackers across the country, with instructions on causing electronic disruptions. But no sooner did he hit send than his e-mail account was deactivated and he disappeared into the ether. Earlier, by pay phone, CrimethInc told NEWSWEEK, "We don't believe that extremist right-wing groups... have the right to be able to put forth their propaganda." (The New York police computer-crime unit is watching for threats, says spokesman Paul Browne. "Sometimes it's a combination of boasting and planning, but we take it seriously," he says. "We'll take appropriate action if there's any malicious activity.")
A tall guy with tousled hair and wire-rimmed glasses, CrimethInc sees himself as David fighting Goliath. But it's not just Republicans who disagree with him--he's taken the most flak from fellow hacktivists. On Web forums and at recent conventions, they complain that he gives hacktivism a bad name and violates their code to defend free speech. "If you've got an issue with a political opponent, you create a better argument and publicize that, but you don't shout them down in a town-hall meeting," says hacktivist Oxblood Ruffin. "That's basically what you're doing when you shut down someone's Web site."
It's hard to tell whether CrimethInc's group is all talk. But his arrogant, anti-establishment speech at a recent hacker convention convinced some attendees that he's at least determined enough to cause damage. It wouldn't take much; even something as simple as crashing a Web site for a few hours at peak times could wreak havoc on the GOP's well-laid convention plans.
The bloc isn't the only group planning online attacks. Hacktivists from the well-established Electronic Disturbance Theater will stage a "virtual sit-in" on a Republican site during the convention, using software that floods servers with requests for Web sites. (The group used the same tactic to bring down the World Economic Forum's site in 2002.) Ricardo Dominguez, the group's director and New York University prof, gives a nod to CrimethInc for mixing code and politics. But he can't fully endorse any anonymous protester--real hacktivists, he says, log on to be counted-