Who Are The Hacktivists?
Hacktivists: Social Justice Warriors Or Criminal Troublemakers?
Today’s mainstream usage of the word ‘hacker’ mostly refers to online criminals – highly skilled individuals capable of subverting computer security to ‘crack’ in uninvited. Hacktivists are challenging this view and causing the social imaginary to stretch between harsh criticism and exaltation.
The term ‘hacktivist’ was coined by a member of hacking group Cult of the Dead Cow during the early days of the World Wide Web. Hacktivism was then defined as the use of computer hacking to express political or sociological beliefs motivated by idealism, with general left-wing, anti-capitalist and anti-corporative tendencies.
Over time, hacktivism has been associated to the activities of other prominent hacking groups who divide the public opinion, especially regarding the lawless nature of their activities.
One such group, Anonymous, emerged in the early 2000s. Its members banded together to orchestrate attacks ranging from relatively harmless pranks, such as ordering numerous pizzas to someone’s house, to more vicious ones, such as doxing people (exposing private information about an individual or organisation). In 2008, Anonymous’ Operation Chanology – in which they condemned the Church of Scientology for their speech-suppression tactics – marked what is considered their first real foray into hacktivism.
Writer Keumars Afifi-Sabet describes Anonymous as a ‘unique’ activist group for its lack of formal membership, controlling body or internal structure. “Anyone can participate in its operations at will, and the targets and attack vectors it picks are determined by popular consensus amongst its members and fans. While many decry the use of objectively illegal cyber attacks, no matter how noble the cause, many applaud vigilante hackers like Anonymous and others for taking the law into their own hands.”
So current hacktivists aim to raise awareness about a particular issue and bring about some sort of social or political change. Does that make them ‘good’? Their weapon to achieve such goals is information – mostly stolen. Does that make them ‘criminals’?
As with many technologies, hacktivism can be a force for good or evil. How you categorise them depends largely on whether you sympathise with the same causes they do. Dan Lohrmann words this ethical dilemma well:
“There is an evolving definition of right and wrong regarding hacking. For example, I may think that Edward Snowden stealing NSA records was wrong. However, I may also agree that the information he disclosed was valuable to society to help protect online privacy. Although I do not believe that the ends justify the means, millions of Americans now believe that Snowden was a hero. Bottom line, they think his illegal actions were justified.”
Some other times, popular discourse doesn’t back up the hacktivist. The ethical questions surrounding hacktivism get especially tricky when their causes aren’t political, and when those affected aren’t only faceless institutions, businesses and governments- but also individuals like you and me, taken by surprise. Sometimes, what hacktivists see as transparency, security experts see as harassment.
In 2015, hackers known as ‘The Impact Team’ stole the account details of 32 million users of a cheating site called AshleyMadison.com whose slogan is “life is short, have an affair.” The hacking group demanded that the website be taken down in exchange for not releasing its customers’ data. The website’s owners refused to comply with the hackers. Public embarrassment, angry cheated spouses, and vulnerability to blackmail or fraud were some of the breach’s potential consequences that terrorised 32 million users when they discovered that their names, passwords, addresses and phone numbers had been exposed.
The Impact Team targeted AshleyMadison over what the hackers considered to be questionable morals and fraudulent business practices. The sites’ owners responded, in a statement, that “this event is not an act of hacktivism, it is an act of criminality. (…) The criminal, or criminals, involved in this act have appointed themselves as the moral judge, juror, and executioner, seeing fit to impose a personal notion of virtue on all of society. We will not sit idly by and allow these thieves to force their personal ideology on citizens around the world.”
Activism is by no means a new phenomenon. But transporting activism to the digital space transforms it. Protesters become anonymous, causes borderless, civil disobedience becomes digital disruption. Hacktivists are looking to make a statement. And in this new trend of activism, just a few individuals -those skilled and passionate enough- have the power to cause more disruption with a click than masses of people occupying streets for days.
Technology enabled new types of protests and actions. Hacktivists are exploiting that and inventing new tools to be heard and have an impact. Perhaps a more productive focus is not attempting to fit hacktivism into good and bad categories, but trying to understand it as a digital phenomenon – but one that is challenging current social norms in and outside the digital spectrum. Not everyone will love this trend. But hacktivists, regardless whether ‘good guys’ or ‘criminals’, are forcing us to face challenging ethical dilemmas about democracy and freedom in a digital age.