Hacktivism is a portmanteau of hack and activism. It typically consists of manipulating a computer system for a politically or socially motivated purpose and often involves the nonviolent use of illegal or legally ambiguous digital tools and techniques. An individual who performs an act of hacktivism is said to be a hacktivist, and often seeks to accomplish what traditional activists achieve through physical protests. Hacktivists conduct their "protests" by bypassing censorship restrictions, shutting down online services, obtaining and distributing sensitive information, defacing websites, and generally circumventing online authorities and accepted practices. Whereas traditional activism was more location specific, hacktivism allows people to voice their social and political concerns to a larger audience. Far fewer people can do so much more to get a point across. Consider the number of people that would be affected if a popular website like YouTube were disabled for an hour compared to the audience a group of activists reach standing outside the capitol building for an entire day.
Among the more famous hacktivists are members of a group known simply as Anonymous. Anonymous is a loose association of users, with somewhat of a hierarchy, that don’t know each other’s real identities and act together in civil disobedience in the internet realm. They communicate in public online areas and use their collective knowledge and decisions to carry out acts they feel will further their collective agenda. A large number of high-profile hacktivism incidents have been carried out by members of Anonymous.
This article examines several of these incidents and considers the associated practical and ethical implications. Just as traditional protests range from peaceful to violent, acts of hacktivism range from legal free speech to distasteful vandalism and destruction. The cases that follow give a glimpse into the type of acts that fall under the umbrella of hacktivism.
|“||Both hacking and activism, and thus hacktivism, are loaded words ripe for a variety of interpretation. Therefore it is preferable not to clinically define hacktivism but rather to describe the spirit of hacktivism.||”|
Even among hacktivists that associate themselves with a particular group (e.g., Anonymous) there tends to be wide variance in the types of hacktivism performed. Some incidents reflect behavior that are generally condoned as acceptable civil disobedience while others reflect behavior most would consider immoral. As a result, hacktivisim is a contentious subject with adamant supporters and strong critics. Some people view hacktivism as a new means of activism, others view it as cyberterrorism. Cyberterrorism is an activity that purely seeks destruction and disruption, while hacktivism seeks to convey a message to the public and/or support a particular side of a debate. Both use similar techniques and both typically run afoul of the law, but the ethical questions tend to be much more unclear. The following three cases demonstrate the ambiguity.
SOHH: Hacktivism as Vandalism & Cyberterrorism
Anonymous has no regard for one’s material gains or how nannified a racial demographic is. Anonymous only exists to destroy. That lesson has been made abundantly clear to SOHH.com
In many cases, people express concerns about the unregulated power hacktivists exhibit. A disconcerting display of this power was made apparent during an attack of the popular hip hop forum and news site Support Online Hip Hop. In June 2008, SOHH.com was attacked by Anonymous. Members of the popular SOHH.com forum “Just Bugging Out” made comments which offended certain ebaumsworld.com users. In retaliation, members of Anonymous flooded the forums of SOHH, essentially shutting them down because of massive traffic. A few days later, on June 23, 2008, Anonymous arranged a series of DDOS attacks against the website, annihilating 60% of the website's service capacity. On June 27, 2008, a final cross-site scripting attack was launched which resulted in the compromise of employee information and the defacement of SOHH.com’s main page. The website was littered with “images of Hitler, Nazi swastikas, images of slaves with nooses around their necks” and multiple ethnic slurs targeted at minority communities whose members regularly frequent the site.
The website was heavily damaged in an attack clearly designed to humiliate and retaliate. Whether the attack was a simple prank or a definitive case of racism is unclear. However, this case does prove the point that since it is nearly impossible to track down and prosecute hacktivists, they are free from legal and moral restraints that many people live by.
Operation Egypt: Hacktivism as a Means of Bypassing Censorship
We aim to help people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time by being involved in the free exchange of information.
"Anonymous wants you to offer free access to uncensored media in your entire country. When you ignore this message, not only will we attack your government websites, Anonymous will also make sure that the international media sees the horrid reality you impose upon your people."
Hacktivism should not always be shed in an immoral light just because of it’s clandestine nature and questionable legality. The 2011 Egyptian Revolution is an excellent case of hacktivism for the “right” reasons. On January 25, 2011, protests broke out in Egypt, with demonstrators crying out for free elections, freedom of speech, economic stability, the end of police brutality, and the end of corruption within the government. In support of the Egyptian people’s right to free speech and in opposition to the government’s restriction of sites such as Twitter, Anonymous began Operation Egypt, a massive DDOS attack on major websites of the Egyptian government. This attack took most major government websites offline until President Mubarak stepped down.
At the end of January 2011, the Egyptian government ordered the nation’s Internet Service Providers to shut down operation, effectively blacking out the country’s access to the Internet. It is likely that these measures were taken to limit the communication between members of the opposition as well as to censor news from outside world. Google and Twitter responded to this outrageous disruption of information and communication by launching a service called speak2tweet. The service allows users to leave voicemails which are then tweeted, essentially bypassing the restrictions of the Egyptian government by allowing large-scale communication without Internet access. Google representatives laid out a carefully designed message to explain their actions without stepping on too many toes: “We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time.” Here we see an example of two major, well-respected companies participating in a form of hacktivism.
WikiLeaks: The Grey Area
|“||I do think that at the moment, WikiLeaks is the absolute most important project on the globe.||”|
WikiLeaks is a non-profit organization that runs a website where anyone on the internet can anonymously publish documents and information. It is often used to distribute secret, classified governmental reports that were never designed for public access. WikiLeaks states that its "primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their governments and corporations."
Wikileaks represents a type of “information hacktivism”, where instead of attacking other websites, it attacks information secrecy with the goal of forcing openness, governmental transparency, privacy, and political change. In December 2010, WikiLeaks began publishing large numbers of secret United State diplomatic cables and was came under intense pressure by US government to stop. Hacktivists operating with the group Anonymous declared support for WikiLeaks' right to free speech and began "Operation Avenge Assange" -- a pro-WikiLeaks hacktivism campaign to take down the opposition.
|“||Julian Assange deifies everything we hold dear. The future of the internet hangs in the balance. We are Anonymous. We do not forgive; we do not forget. Expect us.||”|
Anonymous organized a series of DDOS attacks against major companies, including Amazon, PayPal, Mastercard, in retaliation for their anti-WikiLeak behavior. A threat researcher at PandaLabs credited Anonymous for launching an attack which brought down the Swedish prosecutor's website when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested in London and refused bail in preparation for his extradition to Sweden. The attacks received widespread media coverage and disabled many of the target's web presences for days. Wikileaks has made it clear that Anonymous glorifies the concept of freedom. Whether it is freedom of speech, freedom of information, or freedom of action, hacktivists such as Anonymous will stop at nothing to maintain these "rights."
As the cases above demonstrate, hacktivism can refer to a very diverse set of acts of civil disobedience that are politically or socially motivated. Most hacktivism is illegal, but may or may not be immoral. The blessing and the curse of hacktivism is that it is easy to remain anonymous and untraceable -- it is often impossible to hold a particular individual accountable for their actions. As such, "peer pressure" and "societal acceptance" cease to be effective deterrents for irrational and unethical behavior. Some acts by self-proclaimed hacktivists fall squarely on one side of the line between hacktivism and cyberterrorism; many others depend on exactly where the line is drawn. The corresponding ethical issues are equally uncertain. One thing is for sure: hacktivists don't show any signs of quitting anytime soon.
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