"Cyber security has become relentlessly hyped as a justification for ever-increasing government expenditure and extensions of powers," says outspoken Crikey commentator Bernard Keane.
"Across the world, authorities are wildly overreacting to the threat posed by online activism."
Citing well-known examples of hackers breaking into private companies and stealing sensitive data, thieving huge quantities of research owned by universities and indiscriminately pilfering national secrets, Keane argues these individuals are "activists, whistle-blowers and business opportunists using the flattened information hierarchies and... rapid distribution systems of the internet to undermine government and corporate elites who have long relied on information control."
NOT ABOVE THE LAW
CommsDay's Lynch warns that while most IT professionals are intolerant of hactivism, there are "many IT 'literates' who seem to think that they should be above the law".
Christine Ecob, a technology lawyer with Johnson Winter & Slattery, says that "although the argument that the internet should be an unregulated space may have superficial appeal to some, it ignores many legitimate legal interests and practical commercial realities."
Malcolm Turnbull puts it more bluntly: "The truth is hacking into someone else's server and stealing data is as much a crime as burgling a house."
He argues that the rule of law is at the core of any successful economy "and should be observed and enforced online".
But Crikey's Keane alleges that "online activists" are being singled out by powerful oligarchies for "aggressive over-prosecution" and "exemplary punishment".
"[This] is a technique used by elites when they become aware that their power is being undermined by forces or technologies beyond their capacity to handle," he says.
CYBER CRIME UNDERSTATED
There is unanimity among lawyers that it is tough to identify and take action against cyber crime. The cases that do go to court are exceptions rather than the rule.
"It is very hard to detect these events," Lynch says. "The nature of dispersed networks means that it is difficult for law enforcement agencies to police cyber activity without directly affecting network performance and the rights of users."
But Keane argues the government is "wildly overstating" the significance of cyber crime to allow it to "justify the new focus on cyber security".
As a case in point, Keane balks at claims made by global security firm Symantec, which estimated the annual costs of Australian online crime at $US1.65 billion (0.1 per cent of our GDP).
Yet a survey of 255 companies by the University of Canberra in January found that 20 per cent had experienced an online attack that harmed the confidentiality, integrity or availability of their network in the last 12 months. One-fifth of these experienced more than 10 incidents during that time.
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