'IT WILL SOON emerge as a new scene for constant, never-ending protests, which even the Government's assembly law [Public Order Ordinance] cannot control,' says Leung Kwok-hung, Hong Kong's most well-known protester.
Dubbed 'Long Hair', the April Fifth Action Group activist is looking to cyberspace as a new venue in which to expand the boundaries of his battles with the Government. He says virtual protests such as computer hacking, which is illegal in Hong Kong, could help circumvent what he sees as increasing government curbs on street demonstrations.
'We should learn more about computers and make more use of them to fight police suppression of peaceful protests in Hong Kong. Hacking might sound an ugly act, but as a form of cyber protest, it can be seen as a kind of civil disobedience in the cyber world. I would not rule out that we would pursue this form of protest.'
The April Fifth Action Group already has its own Web site, although, Mr Leung concedes, it is not well managed. 'We have some contacts with overseas activist groups through the Net to exchange views and protest strategies, including cyber protests.' He says he is pursuing the idea of 'affordable and unstoppable' protests but gives no details of precisely how these might be carried out.
Back in the non-virtual world, Mr Leung takes part in almost all of Hong Kong's demonstrations, from peaceful anti-poverty marches to angry attempts to storm the offices of Beijing's representatives. His interest in exploring the largely uncontrolled world of cyber protests comes amid claims he is facing increasing restrictions from police on street protests. During the Fortune Global Forum in May, Mr Leung was forced to abort a march in Wan Chai when a paper coffin his group had made was snatched by police, who claimed it could be a danger to the public by being set alight. 'Staging a real-life protest costs time and money,' he says. 'Nothing is cheaper than protesting in virtual reality.'
Mr Leung's grassroots background might not seem typical of a cyber protester. But experts say you don't need to be a computer whizz to make a cyber point. Computer-security experts believed many recent cyber protests were waged by hackers using ready-made programmes - called script kiddies - and that their efforts were more for fun than for protest.
Ding Cunsheng, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's department of computer science, says there have been cases of schoolchildren systematically hacking into government and military computer systems. 'There are hacking devices and software for sale,' Dr Ding says. 'There are books telling people how to hack computer systems. It is easy to become a hacker.'
Computer-security experts noticed an increase in mainland hacking of United States government and military computer systems following the US-led Nato bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. The hackers further lashed out in political cyber protest following the collision between an American spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter off Hainan Island on April 1 this year, in which the Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, was killed.
Ian Gilchrist, operations director of multi-national risk-management firm Hill and Associates, calls it 'hacktivism': 'It has been gathering more momentum since [the] 1999 [Belgrade bombing]. We are seeing an escalation in the numbers involved and the degree of militancy of these activities.'
He says the Internet is probably the biggest tool utilised by anti-globalisation activists. 'It is a safe, secure, quick, cheap means of communications, allowing [protesters] to organise themselves, whether for a physical or cyber protest.'
Some overseas activist groups have built their own Web sites, detailing their 'scheduled activities' and urging people to join. One Web site called Protest.net even includes an 'activists' handbook' section advising how to become a successful protester.
According to an article entitled 'Hacktivism Today' on the US Web site About.com, 2600, a quarterly magazine about hacking, registered several domain names to protest the business practices of famous brands. 'Civil disobedience in cyberspace is not limited to international issues,' the article said. 'Companies in the US have been and are targets for hacktivists also. Recently, 2600 registered several site names with names such as VerizonReallySucks.com and f**kGeneralMotors.com to protest the business practices of these companies.'
In 1999, there were 238 cases of hacking reported to the police in Hong Kong. The figure jumped by 15.5 per cent to 275 last year. Police received 41 reports in the first quarter of this year.
Among the widely reported cases was the attack on the SAR Government's Interactive Government Services Directory in June last year. The home page, offering investment advice and traffic details, was twice forced to close down within 24 hours. Messages left on the site read 'Owned by the Crows', 'hacked by O Analista' and 'Hackers for Justice'. The hackers could not be traced.
A police spokesman declined to comment on cyber protests or how successful the police have been in pursuing hacking cases.
Allan Dyer, chief consultant at Yui Kee Computing, an anti-virus and network-security consultancy, says malicious activity is frequently routed through a chain of computers. 'It is extremely difficult to determine the true origin of a hack attack,' says Mr Dyer, who also chairs the information-security special-interest group under the Hong Kong Computer Society. 'It is difficult to prevent hacking, as it is difficult to track down the hacker and so it is difficult to prosecute him.'
Dr Ding says a cyber protest should not be a crime if it does not cause harm to others. 'Sometimes a cyber protest is similar to a street demonstration.'
Experts say security software can give some level of protection against hacking but that the public's lack of awareness of the problem is more worrying. 'Big companies usually do better in the prevention of hacking,' says Mr Dyer, 'but smaller firms tend to think this kind of problem won't happen to them.'