The act of protesting is nothing new in our day and age. Protesting has been used for thousands of years to effect change in unfair parts of society – whether it be political, social, economic, etc. Through the years the world has been witness to the various forms of protesting: mass, public-led marches, picket-fence protesting, boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, strikes, lockdowns, petitions, riots, civil disobedience, and even more heinous types such as bombings or wars. Humans are adaptive creatures; we are built on the notion of advancement and create new methods to match our needs. Technology plays a large role in modern society, so it comes as no surprise that humans have found a new way to protest their grievances: cyber protests. As our society fades deeper and deeper into the world of technology, computers begin to rise as the most devastating weapons. With this increased suspicion and fear towards computers, the lines begin to blur between cyber protesting and a ctive cyber terrorism.
It was during the catastrophic attack of 9/11 that national cybersecurity became a top priority among the U.S. officials. Before then, no one really took into account just how attached our society was to its technology. Bank accounts wired through the internet, top-secret documents hidden in files deep in the web, identity theft, and other underground systems and files were all at risk of being uncovered to the public. Before the attack, internet ‘hackers’ were simply seen as a group of talented and innovative programmers committed to making a better and more efficient use of the Internet, but afterwards they were listed with the same classifications as a terrorist. The new term ‘hacktivist’ littered every newspaper article and news headline as another way to describe cyber terrorists, and it wasn’t long before the two terms began to blend together.
A “hacktivist” is used to describe someone who uses the Internet to bring about change through protests. There are two primary forms of hacktivism; one is used to exploit illegal access to networks for financial gain, and/or cause expensive damage, while the second form is simply used to advocate for social or political change (Hampson 511). In many cases, those who violate the cybercrime laws are doing so out of protest. But of course there are always a few bad apples that contaminate the whole batch. In June 2014 hackers broke into P.F. Chang’s point of sale machines and recorded customer card numbers, which then found their way to the black market a few days later. It was reported that thousands of people were affected by the breach, and officials at the food chain are still working with U.S. Secret Service to find the perpetrators. Crimes of this nature are not out of the ordinary for internet hackers; after all, it’s the main reason for cybercrime. With so much of our world being hidden away in our computers, it’s not hard to forget how much easier it makes for criminals to access our personal information. By storing all of our important documents, numbers, files and records in one place, we leave ourselves vulnerable for attack.
Not all of said “hacktivists” are blatant criminals, however. Just like there is black and white, there is also varying shades of grey surrounded the two sides. Some tend to be darker, and some lighter but all the same legitimate. An example of a lighter-grey side would be the hacktivists of German Chaos Computer Clubs e. V. (CCC). A few year ago, the group broke into a set of voting computer systems used in many European countries and exposed that they were open to manipulation easily and could be registered to vote numerous times under the same name and even overrule a previous entry made by another. (Vierecke 1). Without this appalling information exposed, political parties in all of Europe would be governing unfairly, imposing ideas and regulations and laws that could have harmed the people and economic systems of said countries. It is thanks to the efforts of these hacktivists that Europe side swept potential ballot rigging, and thus made a valuable contribution to their society.
In another showcase of the good deeds hacktivists are capable of, a collective known as ‘Anonymous’ hacked into over 40 illegal child pornography sites. They took down 1,589 active members from the popular site Lolita City, providing the FBI with records of each member’s photo uploads, usernames and length of time as a member on the site (Schwartz 1). With this information, the world was able to be rid of that many more criminals and threats to the children of our societies. Though some of the agents stated that they weren’t right to hack the information in the first place, the group still helped to put away pedophiliac criminals, and many more people consider that to be a heroic action. As stated before, many hackers are out for attention; they seek justice against unjust forms of politics. They aren’t out to target anyone unless they are doing something hurtful to society. When Aaron Barr, the CEO of the corporate cybersecurity firm HBGary Federal, stated that he had successfully hacked their group, Anonymous hit him with one of their biggest attacks to date. Before he could hold his conference in which he would divulge the secrets and members he found during his attack on Anonymous, over 68,000 of his company’s emails were exposed. These exposed emails included presentations, information collected against other firms, and even a plan to takedown WikiLeaks through various cyberattacks and a campaign of disinformation (Wolchover 1). With this leaked information, it was revealed that Hunton & Williams, the law firm which organized the anti-WikiLeaks campaign and also works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce actually contracted HBGary Federal to target political organizations that were critical of the chamber (Wolchover 1). This eventually led to a national investigations of the companies involved in the scandal, and the resignation of Aaron Barr.
Under the right circumstances, hacktivist groups have done phenomenal good to the greater populations, yet it is from the few bad apples that the connotation of the word is regarded in such distaste. The media certainly plays a valuable role in the presentation of these groups; and it is through them that people base their opinions on. Whether they are represented in a good light or a bad light, let it be known that there is always two sides to one story. The amount of good that has been done through numerous hacktivists is overwhelming, and may very well outweigh the damage. In order to be deserving of the title of a ‘hacktivist’ I believe the following traits should apply: integrity, determination, intelligence, a sense of justice, and courage. That’s where I draw the line between a ‘hacktivist’ and a cyberterrorist; because they aren’t the same thing at all. In fact, they are quite opposite. Terrorists are out to scare and manipulate the public so as to brain wash them into their views. Hacktivists are those among us who are brave enough, smart enough, and determined enough to speak up against the secrets and lies and unjust ideals that hide behind the doors of our civilization. They don’t make up information to strike fear; they release information to strike protest, to strike change. They are simply the technologically advanced versions of what built America in the first place. It was an act of pure protest (and also illegal) to dump the British shipments of tea into the Boston Harbor, as our founding fathers engaged in during the ‘Boston Tea Party’. Stop regarding everything illegal as ‘bad’ and start looking into the reasons behind it. Hacktivism was created as a modern way of exposing the crimes in our modern society – there are people who make it what it is, but there are also people who try to make it what it’s not. It’s important to note the difference. In a statement made by Paul Graham describing hackers as “unruly” he goes on to say these important and impactful sentences: “That [unruly] is the essence of hacking. But that is also the essence of Americanness”. I like the think that these were meant in particular for the late Aaron Swartz, who embodied the full traits I view that define a true hacktivist; that define an American hero.
Hampson, Noah C. N. “Hacktivism: A New Breed of Protest In A Networked World.” Boston College International & Comparative Law Review 35.2 (2012): 511-542. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Schwartz, Matthew. “Anonymous Attacks Child Pornography Websites.” Information Week: Dark Reading, 24 Oct. 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Vierecke, Andreas. “‘Hacktivism’ – Legitimate, Criminal or Both?” ‘Hacktivism’ – Legitimate, Criminal or Both? Alumni Portal Deutschland, 8 Mar. 2009. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Wolchover, Natalie. “Best Hacks by the Hacktivist Group ‘Anonymous'” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 1 May 2015.
Xiang, Li. “Hacktivism And The First Amendment: Drawing The Line Between Cyber Protests And Crime.” Harvard Journal Of Law & Technology 27.1 (2013): 301-330. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.