Friday, January 11, 2013

The Japanese cat that holds the clues to an internet prankster

When a real life feline becomes part of the cat-and-mouse game between hackers and authorities, a global audience is assured.

There is a hacker terrorising Japan with a computer virus, bomb threats and riddles. Meanwhile, a stray cat wandering a small island near Tokyo holds important clues on its collar. This is no movie. This happened this week. An unnamed hacker in Japan really did leave a memory card on a stray cat's collar, and journalists and authorities really did have to crack a few riddles to locate said ownerless feline.

If befuddled agents of the NPA (National Police Agency) didn't already get the point, they should now: they are being toyed with, and the lack of headway they've made after months of taunting is more than a little embarrassing. This is after the NPA "extracted" what appears to be false confessions from four suspects, who have been recently released. The hacker is clearly trying to paint authorities as inept, and succeeding.

So far, according to Wired, Japanese authorities have only been able to identify two things about the hacker: one, he or she programs in the popular programming language C#, and two, he or she knows how to use proxies so they can post on the largest text-based forum on the internet, 2channel. While western audiences might not be familiar with 2channel, its US equivalent 4chan should ring a bell .

All the authorities have on the hacker is information that could describe any internet prankster in the digital era – be it Anonymous activists or YouTube trolls. Even the decision to leave an important clue on a cat leaves the tell-tale scent of internet culture on the case. The hacker's taunting tactics are nothing out of the ordinary for internet pranksters, either. Any time Anonymous defaces a website, they make sure to rub the site owners face in it with codified language, in the form of seemingly random slogans and weird music videos featuring Rick Astley or Oprah Winfrey. They would say they are in it for the lulz, or the act of confusing and enraging their foe.

There has always been a cat-and-mouse game between authorities and hackers, with one trying to wrestle control and assert superiority over the other. This dance is not just about evading your hunter, but also humiliating them. One of the most well-known hackers, Kevin Mitnick, was famous for how well he played this game. Mitnick went as far as tapping into cellphone networks to monitor when FBI agents were closing in on him, only to clean his apartment of evidence – except for a box of donuts in his fridge labelled"FBI donuts".

Gabriella Coleman, author of Coding Freedom: the Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, describes it bluntly: "If you are being pursued, to humiliate your hunter is pretty sweet, no? I mean, escaping your hunter is great but evading him/her is truly the cherry on top. The hunt becomes a very public game." The publicness of the Japan hacker's game is worth repeating: he or she sent both the media and the authorities riddles (much like the Batman villain the Riddler), effectively ensuring that his or her pranks get their fair share of press coverage.

No motive for this hacker has surfaced yet, but the possibility that this is a big protest against the country's new anti-piracy law – a measure that went into effect in October 2012 that means offenders can be imprisoned for up to two years – can't be ruled out. Of course, this could just be a teen flexing his or her cyber muscles and trying to make a name for themselves, an always important cause to a young internet citizen.

Given the international press the stunt with the cat has received, future pranks will likely become larger and more complicated, whatever the motive. Either way, this hacker currently has the world as a stage. Pranksters, like most performers, need an audience to survive.