In 1942, siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl began secretly protesting the government in power of their country.

In an act of non-violent resistance, they created leaflets calling for the sabotage of the industrial complex that created munitions for the war and called for the overthrow of their government. Collectively known as White Rose, these siblings — along with a handful of students and philosophers — did what they could against the Goliath that was the Nazi war machine.

In January of 1943, they were captured and executed in February of that year. To this day, they act as a symbol of resistance and freedom against tyranny. Several new groups have taken up Hans and Sophie’s cause in their own countries to resist the regimes they reside under.

I’ve often wondered if the internet existed in its present form in 1942, would the White Rose movement have a shot at breaking the vast propaganda wing of the Nazi Party?

The exposure of damning information has hurt governments and corporations alike, not to mention hacktivists also shutting down critical systems and infrastructure, which has caused real headaches for both.

In this article, we’re going to explore some examples of how activists and hacktivists are affecting real change in their homelands through their efforts and also how dissidents are coordinating their efforts via the Dark Web.

North Korea – Sometimes Old School is New School

This situation is one of the best examples of just how innovative an underground network can be when it has virtually non-existent access to the internet and yet is still able to create and maintain a communications network within a country that prides itself on its extremely rigid information control.

Routing most of their internet through China, North Korea’s wireless “Koryolink” service as well as its wired intranet (yes, intranet) service Kwangmyong, requires special permission from the government to access it and is strictly controlled for content and connection.

Given this information stranglehold, North Korea’s growing dissident movement has found ways to circumvent the internet and disseminate information amongst its people as well as advertise just enough to attract new members to their cause.

One way is to publish websites and blogs that are outside of North Korea’s internet and out of their control. Dissident Jang Jin-Sung has a prolific website on this matter called New Focus International that keeps the world informed of the goings-on and inner workings of present-day North Korea.

In terms of moving information back and forth within North Korea, the dissident movement has come up with a rather basic, but ingenious way to show the North Korean population that life beyond their borders is a much different place than they’re taught.

Because the dissidents have members outside of North Korea, they’ve created a system where they collect USB flash drives (you can donate your old USB flash drives here) and copy media like television shows, movies, books and other media to the drives.

These flash drives are smuggled over the border of the North Korean defensive perimeter or sent by less obvious ways like being tied to balloons!

Slowly but surely their population, after decades of information suppression, are finally beginning to realize that the rest of the world isn’t such a bad place after all.

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China and the Open Secret

It should come as no surprise that China censors their internet. They openly admit it, and western sites like Google and Facebook are blocked purely for information control. Further, it should be no surprise that China has a large and thriving underground dissident movement that has become more vocal over time.

As China has emerged onto the world stage as an economic and manufacturing powerhouse, set to overtake the US economy by 2018, they have loosened their grip on information control as they’ve begun to embrace capitalism.

Anyone in China can purchase a VPN service that allows them to route their internet connection through other countries to gain access to foreign websites they normally can’t see. The Chinese government knows this and turns a blind eye to it usually; except when it doesn’t.

China, because it owns the infrastructure that all Internet Service Providers must use, will block VPN traffic at-will during large political gatherings. It’s called The Great Firewall of China and they have also been known to limit ISP access to western sites and services based on contract or economic disputes.

I have personally witnessed the loss of access to Microsoft Office 365 services on one Chinese ISP while other ISPs there had no problems (hint: all of the ISPs are using the same local and trans-Pacific fiber connections to get to Office 365). Then magically, the access will return.

Dissidents have been using the Dark Web and the Tor browser to coordinate activities via encrypted links and sites in an effort to circumvent The Great Firewall and spread their message. The Chinese government knows of this and “makes a concerted effort to block the use of the Tor anonymity network.”

Since Tor was recently cracked, thanks to Carnegie Mellon, the dissidents are still using the dark web by accessing it through different means though Tor is still very common.

Finding public news on hacktivists in China is a difficult task. The news is filled with the Chinese government’s vast hacking divisions hitting targets worldwide. In the last few years, a hacker group based in China and known as APT3 has hit several government targets including Hong Kong’s government with spear phishing and other attacks.

While this could be the work of Chinese government-backed hackers, as first reported, it is very possible that these are hackitivists looking to destabilize government for their own benefit.

Either way, Chinese hacktivists and dissidents are finding ways around their government censors and continue to spread their message among the vast Chinese population.

The Dark Web Isn’t Just for the Black Market

Many people believe that the Dark Web is simply a place where criminals go to buy and sell goods. Of course that happens, and you can purchase nearly anything there, but as we started discussing this with the example of China, the Dark Web is the best place for organizing and coordinating dissident movements.

Aside from China, dissidents from Russia, African countries, Asian countries and the Middle East all congregate in the dark web. Governments know this and have dedicated a good amount of time and resources to cracking encrypted browsers like Tor and others, as well as having dedicated state agents in the Dark Web consistently trying to eavesdrop and disrupt dissident sites and communications.

What the governments don’t seem to understand is that the more repressive they become, the more inclined people are to use anonymity networks like Tor and the Dark Web. There is a direct correlation to the rise of Dark Web use and the harshness of the repressive laws.

Looking at Uzbekistan and Venezuela, both have seen a sharp increase in Tor use as the laws became more severe. If anything, this just shows the capacity of human desire to remain free even when survival may be at risk.

Coordination of Efforts Isn’t Always for the Good Guys

So, we know that dissidents and hacktivists hang out in the Dark Web and have been known to coordinate efforts, but with the good comes the bad.

We also know that groups like ISIS have a large Dark Web presence and are actively coordinating and communicating with their agents as well as new potential recruits for their cause. They have their own encrypted chat rooms, money network and even a public propaganda page!

Encryption, in this sense, is a technology that can be used for both good and bad. The only upside is that when the creators of apps and sites that are based heavily on privacy via encryption determine that their applications are being used for nefarious purposes, they’re apt to shut those users down and thus begins the never-ending cat-and-mouse game that is verifying the identities of users who wish to remain anonymous and do everything they can to stay that way.

WikiLeaks: Love Them or Hate Them, They’re Here to Stay

Recently, I wrote an article about just how difficult it would be to fully eliminate WikiLeaks and what they do. WikiLeaks is a favorite of activists, hacktivists, dissidents, state actors and even terrorists!

They make it easy for hackers to publicly out governments and corporations of their potential malfeasance. In this sense, they’re the perfect tool for activism but also for a cyberwarfare disinformation campaign. It would be possible for state actors or terrorists to doctor information, pose as a legitimate source and then get their information published on WikiLeaks.

In a world where we know information warfare and cyberwarfare go hand in hand, this is a rather serious issue.

Recently, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was interviewed by Sean Hannity of Fox News, where he stated that he was basically 100% positive that the information they received from the DNC hack was not given to them by a Russian state actor.

Here is the issue with this statement by Julian Assange: Unless he directly met with the person who gave WikiLeaks this information AND obtained proof that this person was not contracted by or working for the Russian government he cannot definitively say it was or wasn’t Russia who did this.

Assange technically runs a website for whistleblowers. Proving people are who they say they are is virtually impossible unless they have a massive surveillance infrastructure behind them, which an organization like WikiLeaks does not.

People come to them with information, and it’s never been WikiLeaks’ job to verify the information or the source, though they do indeed try to do some of that. Usually, it’s the media outlets or the embarrassed government/corporation that confirm if the data is real.

This essentially means that the general population has to take the information contained at WikiLeaks with a grain of salt until the information can be properly verified, which actually happens quite a bit.

Thanks to contributors, WikiLeaks has exposed legitimate issues with governments and corporations all over the globe, however they cannot be given a free pass on the information they publish. Like any good news outlet, and I’m not saying they’re a news outlet, they need to be verified.

Lately, we seem to be living in a world that continuously relies on exposure of secrets from activists to move the cause of individual freedom and freedom of information forward. The more governments repress access to information, the greater the desire to obtain it.

This struggle will continue until an understanding worldwide on the rights to information access are established for all. Let’s just hope we see that day sooner than later.

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About Nick Espinosa

Nick serves at BSSi2 as the CIO & Chief Security Fanatic and is an expert in security and network infrastructure. Nick has consulted with clients ranging from a few computers to the Fortune 100 level regarding encryption systems, infrastructure and multinational environments. When he isn’t working magic with computers or playing with his daughter, Nick relaxes by playing chess, riding motorcycles and increasing his knowledge of history. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickAEsp

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