The Hacktivist: Courageous Friend or Brazen Foe?

by Dan

Hacktivism, a nouveau intersection where activism and hacking join forces, has its share of both supporters and critics. Centered on achieving political ends and drawing attention to issues like free speech, human rights and information ethics, online hacktivists operate within a gray area where the difference between Robin Hood-like feats and nefarious illegal crimes can be difficult to discern. Are hacktivists providing a necessary, albeit non-traditional, public service through their activities? Or are they dangerous criminals whose behavior wreaks unnecessary havoc?

Hacktivists, first and foremost, exploit weaknesses within cyberspace. When it comes to learning the ropes of cybersecurity, the multitude of threats grows more complex each day. While hacktivism may not immediately register as a primary dangerfor organizations, companies and countries, the tools and methods of a hacktivist are the same ones employed by other cybercriminals. Here are some of the ways and means of the hacktivist set and why some oppose their actions.

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Hacktivism as Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience takes place when an individual or group actively and intentionally refuses to abide by certain laws or demands of a government in order to achieve a more just society. It is almost always a form of non-violent resistance, and across the world, it has been notably demonstrated by:

  • Gandhi and the Indian fight for independence
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and The American Civil Rights Movement
  • Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution
  • East Germany’s efforts to end communist rule

Hacktivism is a new frontier within the realm of civil disobedience. While hacktivists activitiesaretechnically illegal, they believe some situations require circumventing the law. Some noteworthy hacktivist civil disobedience efforts of the last five years include:

  • Speak to Tweet. During widespread protests in Egypt in 2011, the Egyptian government mandated and enacted a complete Internet blackout. Google joined forces with SayNow and Twitter to provide protestors with the means to tweet via voicemail so people outside the country could receive first-hand news.
  • Anonymous and Iran. During the 2009 Iranian election protests, Internet hacktivist groupAnonymous, helped Iranian activists get information in and out of Iran through a variety of cyber means.
  • Aaron Swartz. A young hacktivistresponsible for downloading and releasing millions of federal court documents among other feats, he was eventually arrested and prosecuted. He committed suicide while facing significant jail time and fines.

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Participation and Organization

There are a large number of hacktivist groups and individuals around the world. For the most part, if they are organized at all, the organization is a loose onerelying heavily on the individuals to take action. Hacktivists include computer programmers, business leaders, stay-at-home parents, students, patriots and anarchists. They act in response to issues, laws and situations they feel are unjust, dishonest or a threat to Internet freedom. Some hacktivist groups have been instrumental in bringing rape perpetrators to justice. Others have shed light on the weaknesses within the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s website—work many view as essential in getting the United States government to seriously consider the need for more stalwart Internet security.

Illegal Is Illegal

To many critics of the hacktivist movement, their goals and aims do not justify their means because their activities arestill often illegal. As the Internet becomes an ever-increasingly integral source and medium for people’s work, lives and relationships, hacking—regardless of its motivation—is viewed as a serious threat. In the United States, legislation against cyber attacks makes no distinction between hacktivism and other forms of cyber crime. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act outlines and defines many hacktivistactivities as belonging to only one category: illegal. Examples of hacktivist behavior that can be prosecuted include:

  • Accessing and disseminating costly, protected or copyrighted material for the purposes of making it available and free to others.
  • DDoS attacks, where a server is flooded with traffic until it overloads and shuts down.
  • Publishing a target’s private and personal information online.

Long before there was cyberspace, there was activism, and sometimes working for justice can mean working in legal gray areas. In many ways, the efforts of hacktivists sit within a near-science fiction space where the law is still uncertain about how to maneuver, punish and protect. Only time will tell how hacktivists will be remembered in history.

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