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Direct Action Against Computerization (1960-1990)

In the political genealogy of computing and even more so in the dominant historiography of the Internet, neo-luddites oppositions are often neglected.

When talking about the actors who contributed in one way or another to shaping these technologies and the discourses around them before the 1990s, the literature often talks about humanist scientists of the post-war period and the technophilic hippies of the 1960s (see for example the work of cultural historian Fred Turner). Together, they contributed to claiming computer technologies back from large bureaucracies, promoting smaller machines, conceived as tools of individual liberation, with all the unthinking that was theirs (and ours, I should say, since their hopes and utopias have also largely influenced the dominant discourses on the Internet...). In the history of the right to protection of personal data, one also hears about computer engineers, scholars or lawyers who, as early as the 1960s, alerted public opinion and lawmakers on the threat of these technologies for privacy and other rights.

But in this literature, the more fundamentally technocritical oppositions agitating the New Left from the 1960s onward, and for which the computer represented an inherently technocratic and warlike machine, often appear as a mere backdrop. Little attention is paid to these actors, to their discourses or to their practices of opposition to computers.

Recent works have begun to correct these historiographical gaps, mainly in the United States. Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, for example, has pointed out the connection between the hackers of the 1980s in the United States and radical groups inspired by nonviolent direct action, such as the Yippies. More recently, in his book "Surveillance Valley", journalist Yasha Levine has uncovered forgotten archives documenting the opposition of activist organizations like the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) to the ARPANET at the turn of the 1960s. The author recounts how the ARPANET, which was the first packet-switched network and is generally presented as the forerunner of the Internet, was denounced during student protests for its ties to the military-industrial complex, while also being implicated in scandals related to the surveillance of social movements by the American secret service.

A forgotten history...

But historiography has very little to say about the more offensive modes of action, and in particular about sabotage actions targeting computer equipment. When this question is addressed, it is rather through the computer workers of the 1980s, which scared governments for their ability to hack and explore the digital infrastructures of strategic bureaucracies (for example through computer intrusions) in order to hinder their functioning (deletion or modification of data). This led to the repression of the hacker movement and the adoption of legislation dedicated to "computer fraud". However, if traces of this rhetoric of securitization are easy to find, these forms of digital sabotage remain relatively poorly documented. It seems to me that there are few convincing examples dating from this period that would testify to the fact that this is a militant practice deeply rooted and practices across the milieu of politicized hackers. Until the end of the 1990s, hackers rather seem to have stuck to a process of exploration or "détournements".

What is often overlooked in this historical narrative is also the fat that fears of hackers were also the result of a long series of sabotage and physical destruction of computer equipment by groups associated with the radical left. In France, Celia Izoard's work on resistance to computerization has for example allowed the Toulouse-based group CLODO to be brought out of oblivion. This "Committee for the Liberation or Hijacking of Computers" was responsible for several fires and explosions aimed targeting the computer industry and government data centers between 1980 and 1983.

But what I recently found out is that the actions of CLODO were not isolated. They were part of a much broader context where, since the 1960s, "direct action" practiced by radical activist groups regularly targeted the computer centers of large companies or institutions tied to the military-industrial complex (see some examples below). For years, such acts of material destruction punctuated the news (some sources I found mention around two hundred operations of this type over a period of twenty years), and it is likely that they had a determining influence on less violent and more "situated" forms of sabotage (for example, workers sabotaging their computer work tools), as well as on the multiple forms of resistance to computerization that emerged at the time. Taken together, this multi-pronged resistance probably influenced the general apprehension of this technology throughout society -- at least until the very end of the 1970s when much of public opinion finally started endorsing the idea that computerization was a positive process. And yet, less than half a century later, these radical oppositions to computerization have been swept under the carpet of history.

These sabotage operations, and the response of the authorities who were then building the foundations of contemporary anti-terrorist policies, represent a neglected area of research that deserves further attention. This would not only counterbalance the dominant historiography, but also enrich our long-term perspective on the threats associated with technology in general and computers in particular while raising important questions about civil disobedience and offensive militant action, as well as the evolution of police treatment of political violence.

Some examples

On the basis of some initial sources mentioned below (mainly researchers close to security circles writing in the 1980s), I wanted to record on this page some examples of these sabotages. The descriptions I found are sketchy and would warrant closer scrutiny, they are also very focused on the United States and Western Europe. A detailed and more global history of computer sabotage would be needed. But they have at least the merit of offering some leads for future investigations on the subject.

  • In 1969, in the United States, five members of an anti-Vietnam War group calling themselves the "Beaver 55" attacked Hewlett-Packard equipment at a chemical company in Midland, Michigan. The goal was to destroy data associated with its research programs related to counter-insurgency warfare (which apparently was not the case).
  • That same year, also in Michigan, saboteurs broke into the Sperry Corporation and destroyed computer equipment used by the army to guide nuclear bombs and command and control systems.
  • Between 1968 and 1970, the computer centers of Boston University, Fresno State College and the University of Kansas were also targeted.
  • A demonstration (undated - perhaps in 1969) against the war in Vietnam also took place inside the Pentagon: the toilets above a computer unit were sabotaged, leading to a flood that spread to the room below and put the computers out of order.
  • On September 28, 1973, a time bomb exploded in the offices of the Latin American section of the New York headquarters of the International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) company, without causing any casualties. The attack was attributed to the Weatherman, a faction of former SDS activists, and linked to opposition to ITT's activities in Chile (two weeks after General Pinochet's coup).
  • In March 1976, a Hewlett-Packard electronic circuit manufacturing plant in Palo Alto was targeted by an explosive charge.
  • In Italy, at the end of the 1970s, the Red Brigades attacked computers as an "instrument of the capitalist system" and of the "class struggle." They denounce its links with the military-industrial complex and call for "bazooka bombing of computer systems, data banks and computer networks... which constitute the "technical" material basis of information and total control." Numerous attacks are perpetrated. For example, in July 1976, three men and a woman broke into the premises of the Italian International Computers company in Turin. After having asked the employees to leave the premises, they set a fire.
  • In January 1978, the computer center of the Piedmont region was set on fire by the Prima Linea organization.
  • In April 1977, the Gruppo Combattente Comuniste destroyed a computer at the University of Bocconi, an institution they believed to be complicit in the development of anti-labor management methods.
  • Two months later, four people destroy the computer dedicated to the coordination of the staff of the University of Rome.
  • In France, in 1979 (thus before the actions of CLODO), the computer department of the Rothschild Bank was attacked with a Molotov cocktail (probably Action Directe), causing significant material damage.
  • En 1983 en Allemagne de l’Ouest, un groupe féministe armé appelé Rote Zellen détruit un centre informatique de l’entreprise Maschinenfabrick Ausburg-Nuernberg (MAN Corporation), lié à l’industrie de l’armement, et plus précisément à la fabrication de missiles Pershing et Cruise. L’opération entraîne des pertes matérielles estimées à 7 millions de dollars. La même année, ses militantes s’en prennent également à Nixdorf et à Siemens, dénonçant « la vision d’horreur d’un État surveillant et contrôlant tout [qui] doit ôter aux hommes tout courage de vivre et de se battre ».
  • In 1984 in the United States, the United Freedom Front detonated an explosive charge in the offices of IBM in White Plains, New York, to protest the role played by the firm with the government of South Africa, and its complicity with the Apartheid regime (almost at the same time, an opposing group killed a young computer scientist in Durban, South Africa, during an attack on a small computer company that offered its services to South African dissidence, and in particular to the ANC)
  • In 1984 and 1985, in Belgium, the Cellules Combattantes Communistes (CCC), associated with the German Faction armée rouge as well as with Action directe, and led by Pierre Carrette, attacked the buildings or car garages of several companies in Belgium and Germany (Litton Data systems, MAN Corporation, Honeywell-Bull, Motorola, IBM, AEG Electronics). The computer centers of NATO, the Belgian Liberal Party, the American base in Mannheim and the Frankfurt stock exchange were also targeted during this period.
  • On April 30, 1985, in France, Action Directe detonated charges on Parisian buildings of two telecommunications companies.
  • In April 1987 in Germany, a bomb exploded in a TST TeleSecurity computer center located in Bavaria that specialized in, among other things, the production of cryptanalysis systems used by the German security services. The explosion caused approximately 4 million dollars in material damage.
  • Also in 1987, in the UK, a group of activists called the Angry Brigades attempted to blow up a London police computer room.
  • À compléter…


August Bequai, Technocrimes: The Computerization of Crime and Terrorism, Lexington Books, 1987.

Douglas E Campbell, « Terrorist and Hostile Intelligence Actions Against Computer Resources » PhD Thesis in Security Administration, Soutwestern University, Kenner, New Orleans, 1992.

Belden Menkus, « Notes on terrorism and data processing », Computers & Security, 2-1, 1983, p. 11‑15.