Pro-gun hackers take over Web site

And a prominent group of gun critics is still trying to get it back.

By Alicia Montgomery

Published June 21, 2000 7:17PM (EDT)

For a while at least, the 10 or so employees of the Violence Policy Center tried to remain blasi after their Web site was hijacked Monday by anti-gun control hackers, their usual home page replaced by a clunky gray box with a bomb and a skull and crossbones.

Josh Sugarmann, VPC's executive director, figured the site could be restored in a matter of hours, and refrained from trying to fix the site in order to "leave the crime scene untouched" for the FBI. Tuesday, however, he learned that the cyberterrorists didn't just hack on to their site, linking to pro-gun groups, erasing mountains of data (which VPC luckily had saved) and gloating onscreen about getting rid of VPC's "propagandist bullshit." They also stole the group's Web identity.

Apparently, the hackers figured out a way to actually take over access to the site, which is licensed to VPC by Network Solutions. So until Sugarmann finds out how to wrest control away from them, the hackers are masters of the group's domain. That includes incoming e-mail to VPC from its Web address, which makes Sugarmann concerned for the safety of the senders.

Then, in more bad news, the FBI told Sugarmann that the hacking doesn't become a blip on the FBI's radar screen until the group can prove it has incurred $5,000 in damages -- a serious hurdle for a nonprofit organization, because its losses are largely confined to the labor required to fix the hacking mess. Its product is information, which it gives away for free, so assessing damages becomes a guessing game. "These are standards that are put in place for for-profit entities," he said.

VPC is a fairly frequent target of gun advocates -- and vice versa. The group is a rising star among gun control groups, most recently scrapping with the NRA over its feathered and kid-friendly mascot, Eddie Eagle, and its plans for a Times Square theme restaurant. In turn, the NRA has taken personal swipes at Sugarmann, and the pro-gun press repeatedly lambastes him and his group.

In a way, the attack may have been inevitable. Sugarmann says gun advocates have always been pioneers in communication technology. "They were the first to use computer bulletin boards, they were the first to use the Web, they were the first to use blast fax," he said. "They are way ahead of organizations on our side of the issue."

Gun advocates have cloned gun control sites in the past., a pro-gun site, mirrors the anti-gun, just as Center for the Prevention of Handgun Violence has its own doppelganger. VPC seemed immune to these attacks, since the likely addresses -- and -- are owned by groups unrelated to the gun issue.

Gun rights activists may not settle for cloning anymore. According to Sugarmann, those groups could now start aggressive hack attacks against other anti-gun organizations, having been emboldened by their temporary triumph over VPC. "In pro-gun cyberspace," he says, "this is a big victory."

Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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