Hacktivists: Rebels with a cause

hacktivists hacktivism hacking activism

In July 2015 a group of hackers called The Impact Team hacked into Avid Life Media’s websites, two of which include the controversial Ashley Madison website (a dating site where people go to have extramarital affairs) and Established Men (a human trafficking/prostitution website for rich men). The hackers threatened to release all of the users’ private, sensitive information (including credit card information and photos) to the public if all of the sites weren’t shutdown.

Unfortunately for the users of these sites, Avid Life Media did not comply with demands in time which resulted in a systematic leak of the information and subsequent extortion emails to users. The reasoning behind the hack was two-fold. One was the fact that Avid Life Media promised secrecy and discretion to their users, but this was not the case. The other was that the hackers viewed the individuals who used these types of sites as immoral and believed that they deserved to be publicly humiliated.

Seeing as this hack was so high profile and salacious, it caught the attention of the world and brought to the fore a new word in the everyday person’s vocabulary: “Hacktivism”. Hacktivism is a linguistic blend of the two words “hack” and “activism”. It essentially means to use technological hacking (of computers and networks) in a subversive way to bring about social change or promote a political agenda. Oftentimes the hackers believe themselves to be fighting for free speech, human rights or freedom of information.

Hacktivism may be a word that is new to many people’s ears, but it is not a new concept. The term was coined in 1994 by Omega, one of the users from the computer hacking and DIY media organization “Cult of the Dead Cow” (cDc). This group was well-known back in the 1990s for waging an online war against the Church of Scientology because they felt the organization was nothing more than a cult who preyed on, and oppressed, helpless people.

One of the most well-known hacktivist groups today is Anonymous which originated on the image board 4chan. Their members, also referred to as “Anons”, are often seen wearing Guy Fawkes masks, a symbol associated with the movie V for Vendetta wherein a revolutionary fights against the rule of a totalitarian government. Anonymous’ operations are based on ideas rather than directives, and consist of both online and offline members. Similar to cDc mentioned above, their hacktivism started with an onslaught against the Church of Scientology in 2008, but has spread further afield with various cyberattacks against other groups, and even governments since then.

There are many ways in which hacktivists can carry out their operations. Some of these include website mirroring to give people access to censored websites, the use of RECAP software that makes US case law searchable by the public, anonymous blogging through IP masking, and Denial-of-Service (DoS) attacks. Many hacktivists also steal data as a means of extortion, and others deface websites to spread a message to whoever owns and visits the particular website.

Hacktivism has garnered a lot of criticism alongside praise since it first came to the fore. There are many people who believe that these hackers are the voice of the people and help to bring about social and political change, often in cases where nothing has been done to stop injustices by those in charge. However, many people believe that the way they go about it is perhaps not the best or most productive. Essentially many say that fighting one evil with another is not effective and can potentially cause more harm than good.

Prominent hacktivism events

  • Project Chanology: This was Anonymous’ first (known) hacktivist attack. A video interview with Tom Cruise on his beliefs in Scientology was leaked to YouTube in 2008. This was followed by the Church of Scientology claiming copyright violation and demanding the removal of the video. Anonymous did not take kindly to this, calling it Internet censorship. This prompted the declaration of their “War on Scientology” in a press conference as well as in a video entitled “Message to Scientology”. The group’s war entailed DoS attacks on Scientology websites, endless prank calls, and the sending of black faxes (documents that are uniformly black which aims to waste the receiver’s resources and time). The war didn’t stay online — 7,000-strong protests were organized at Scientology centres on three separate occasions.
  • Iranian Election Protests (also known as the Green Revolution and the Persian Awakening): During the 2009 Iran elections there were allegations of vote rigging which led to thousands of Iranians protesting the results. Anonymous along with The Pirate Bay (a peer-to-peer filesharing site that uses torrents) and Iranian hackers launched a site called Anonymous Iran in order to disseminate information to and from Iran after the Iranian government attempted to censor all news about the protests on the Internet.
  • Egyptian Protests: During 2012 and 2013 millions of Egyptians protested against the then-president of the country Mohamed Morsi after he was granted unlimited powers. One of the government’s responses to these protests was to order an Internet blackout. Google teamed up with engineers from SayNow and Twitter to provide communications for the Egyptian people in support of their cause. People could leave a voicemail via phone (called Speak to Tweet) which was then tweeted on Twitter as well as a link to the message on Google’s SayNow service. Telecomix, a group of net activists, also provided dial-up services to Egyptians.
  • Westboro Baptist Church: This very controversial religious group is known for practicing hate speech against a variety of groups, and most notably picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers. Let’s just say that they are hated by many Americans. They faced the wrath of Anonymous in 2012 when they promised to protest at the funerals of the people killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, most of whom were young children. Anonymous promised to dismantle their organization with a sustained attack. Anonymous spread Westboro members’ personal information on Twitter, hacked into their computers and even placed the name of the leader, Shirley Phelps-Roger, on a death certificate to prevent her from using her social security number. They also formed a human wall at the protest itself which led to Westboro abandoning their activities on that day entirely.