Celebrate the Facts!
Hacktivism, or digital means to obtain data for political means, has changed the arc of political discourse and governmental power. Often presented as digital vigilantes and watchdogs serving progressive causes, these individuals and groups have much more nuanced agendas, including acting as self-appointed military and law enforcement organizations. Governments cannot affect hacktivists other than by legal threats, so they represent a wild card. Regardless, hacktivism is here to stay.
Hacktivism is computer hacking (as by infiltration and disruption of a network or website) done to further the goals of political or social activism. These digital vigilantes target large corporations, religious organizations, terrorists, drug dealers, and pedophiles. Government-sponsored cyberwar activities are entirely different.
Hacktivism is necessarily asymmetric. Hacktivist organizations are lone wolves, individuals, or small groups of loosely-aligned people collaborating on a common goal. These efforts are digital judo, where the opponent's strengths become their weaknesses. Large organizations require networks to connect users. The larger the organization, the more the users and the larger the digital infrastructure. However, the servers themselves are weak, and every virtual user, such as sales, operations, department, and employee, adds more weaknesses.
Hacktivism is a relatively new phenomenon dating from the 1980s. As hacktivism is a unique and evolving phenomenon, people struggle to define it and attempt to break it into discreet categories. These ‘splitters’ attempt to segregate strategies but the finiteness of this obscure understanding and clarity. ‘Lumpers’ tend to try to lump groups into broad categories and can blur deeper understanding. Intermediate approaches to hacktivism may be a better strategy.
Hacktivists can be civil disobedients with lofty and progressive motives. Depending on ones’ ideological viewpoint, their actions might be free speech acts founded on sincere political commitments. This gloss makes hacktivism a protest, like civil disobedience, in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. This scenario pits the noble revolutionary or crusading reporter against the power of a repressive state and seems positive, but obscures nuance.
Hacktivism and Whistle Blowing
Hacktivists can have an outsized effect on political discourse and may help check government overreach. A controversial example is the case of Edward Snowden, a now-exiled American computer specialist, and former CIA employee and National Security contractor. He leaked classified details of the top-secret United States and British government mass surveillance programs to the press. Snowden resides in Russia under political asylum and is a fugitive from American justice authorities. The United States charged him with espionage and theft of government property.
Chelsea Manning is another whistleblower case intersecting Wikileaks. In 2010 authorities arrested Chelsea Manning for disclosing information to Wikileaks, then published by The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel. In 2013 the court convicted Manning of 17 of the 22 charges but acquitted her of ‘aiding the enemy.’ President Barack Obama commuted all but four months of her sentence at the end of her term resulting in freedom in 2017.
Hacktivists as Law Enforcement and Quasi-Military Organizations
Hacktivists can be self-appointed law enforcement, paramilitary organizations, and citizen-militias. The Anonymous hacktivist collective has been bombarding Russia with cyber-attacks since declaring ‘cyber war’ on President Vladimir Putin in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine. For example, anonymous hacktivists interrupted Russian television programming with a video clip with images of bombs exploding in Ukraine and soldiers talking about the horrors of the war. Other hacktivists temporarily disrupted the websites of the Moscow stock exchange, Russia’s federal security agency, and the country’s largest bank Sberbank. Anonymous also hacked darknet websites dedicated to pedophilia and publicized the user names of the sites.
A potential risk to these activities in the Ukraine conflict is a Russian interpretation of the hacktivist acts as sponsored by the United States government, a scenario the government has likely accounted for and developed contingencies to address. Whether the United States government is behind such activities is unknown, but certainly, cyberwarfare has been a significant amount of the research budget of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It is certainly plausible the United States government funds or otherwise assists some of these efforts.
One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist and such is true in hacktivism. The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) is a group of computer hackers who support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It initially emerged in April 2011 during the rise of anti-regime protests in Syria. The SEA disrupted the website of the Washington Post in 2013 and hacked social media accounts and websites associated with National Public Radio (NPR), the Associated Press (AP), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Al-Jazeera, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Hacktivists Attacking Bigotry
Hacktivists have also targeted white nationalists. For brief periods Hacktivists shut down Gab, a social network catering to white nationalists and other right-wing extremists. Distributed Denial of Secrets publicized information on the Oath Keepers, a Christian nationalist revolutionary group. That information included about 5 gigabytes of emails, chat logs, members and donor lists, and other files from the Oath Keeper servers.
These hacktivist attacks on Christian Nationalist groups date back to 2012 when Anonymous declared ‘Operation Blitzkrieg’ against neo-Nazi and other hate groups and caused havoc, including website disruptions and releases of the supporter’s personal information. In 2021 Anonymous pilfered and leaked data held by Epik, a website hosting firm popular with far-right organizations like the Proud Boys. The leak included 150 gigabytes of data from years of online activities from far-right groups.
Following the death of George Floyd in 2020, Anonymous focused its efforts on the Minneapolis Police Department. It used distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack to disable the department’s website. A DDoS attack is a malicious attempt to disrupt the regular traffic of a targeted server, service, or network by overwhelming the target or its surrounding infrastructure with a flood of Internet traffic. Additionally, to further condemn police brutality, Anonymous crashed more police department sites around the country and defaced other networks.
When Liberals Collided with Hacktivism
One of the areas where ideologies collide with hacktivism is when the hacktivist action results in damage to a nominally liberal figure. The most famous is when Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, leaked a collection of emails between then-candidate Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager. WikiLeaks is a whistle-blowing organization. As the name indicates, its preferred hacktivism attack type is leaks, and it has been a hosting domain of leaked documents since its launch in 2006. Most likely, a group of Russian hackers whose objective was to tilt the election in Donald Trump's favor provided the data to Wikileaks. The material affected media coverage of the Clinton campaign, with many blaming her loss mainly on the incident. The Department of Justice ultimately indicted 12 Russian hackers for the email hacks.
The United States government uses the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which initially targeted Mafia groups and anti-terrorism anti-treason statutes to suppress hacktivism. This mechanism is the primary check on the activities of these organizations. Defensive measures such as security also help passively, but the expertise of the hackers in these organizations is impressive and proven by the empirical results.
Dangers of vigilantism are inherent in their structures, and hacktivism is no exception. The small sizes combined with fervent political convictions can result in extremism. Unfortunately, this tendency is relatively unchecked and indeed not governed by a democratic process. On the other hand, the United States has a long history of whistleblowers and truth-tellers keeping power in check, and they often seem to provide beneficial results. Whether one agrees with these organizations, they appear here to stay.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.