Throughout time, activists have undertaken many different modes and methods to portray powerful messages and oppose specific groups of people and organizations. In the era of digital mania, it is no wonder that activism has flowed into the online arena, forming the likes of what is now known as hacktivism.
While “activism” refers to the promotion of specific social or political perspectives and “hacking” is the process whereby one breaks into a computer system, the term “hacktivism” refers to the hacking into of computer systems for politically or socially motivated reasons.
Hacktivism can take many forms – some of which are legal, others that are illegal. While the scale and methods of these kinds of movements may vary, the general aim remains the same – to promote a specific message or cause and gain visibility for that which they are promoting. Targets of hacktivism tend to be organizations or groups that support a belief that the hacking group directly disagrees with.
Hacktivism is a modern form of civil disobedience that is often related to issues pertaining to human rights, free speech, and freedom of information. When working towards a specific goal, hacktivists may work in a network of many activists, or an individual may work alone without assistance or an authority figure.
Who do hacktivists target?
This varies, of course, but, hacktivists target groups and organizations that they believe are promoting values that are unethical. This may be political groups, religious groups, social movements, or big corporations. Of course, another target of hacktivism is often government organizations – a far riskier operation. Thus, depending on the attacker, hacktivists may have several different targets depending on their motivations.
What motivates hacktivists?
Often ideologically motivated, hacktivists tend to feel a deep need to right a perceived wrong or oppose an organization or group that may be promoting ideas that they intrinsically disagree with. Sometimes, hacktivists may simply aim to spread awareness and make their opinion and discontent known. However, in other cases, their motivations may be more sinister.
Getting slightly more risqué, hacktivists may aim to teach the targeted group a lesson and really get their attention. However, in the most extreme cases, hacktivists may attempt to undermine the validity of an entire organization, and they may very well use nefarious means to do so.
Commonly, hacktivists – much like ordinary activists in other contexts that use different means to pursue their agenda – justify their actions with a sense of moral purpose. That is, by framing themselves as ethically superior, hacktivists attempt to gain traction and support by exhibiting their target as morally flawed. Thus, they believe that their fight is just and in the spirit of maintaining high moral standards, the ends justify the means.
Thus, while the scale of the attack may vary depending on the hackers and the cause in question, hacktivists are generally motivated by a need to provoke, question, and challenge organizations or groups that represent moral values that conflict with their own.
What are hacktivists’ goals?
While hacktivists’ objectives may vary greatly, past incidents have provided us with several common goals that seem to recur. Hacktivists may focus on one or many of these objectives.
- Protest war or political conflict
- Speaking out against censorship and limited freedom of speech
- Aiding local uprisings
- Protesting against capitalism or other political systems
- Utilizing social media to try and help people who have been censored and silenced
- Undermining large corporations
- Protesting toward a government agenda or general authority
- Promoting other causes such as environmental issues
- Speaking up against the oppression of different kinds – for instance, gender-based or religious
Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive, but these certainly are some of the most common goals that hackers seem to have when setting out on hacktivist expeditions.
Different types of hacktivism
Just like any other kind of activism, hacktivism may take many different forms. The chosen modus operandi may be dependent on many different factors, including motivation, target and the group (or individual) behind the hacktivist attacks.
- Distributed Denial of Service - DDoS Attacks
- This mimics a classic protest tactic that has been used in many different social and political situations throughout history. An effective and (usually) peaceful method of civil disobedience, the aim is to prevent an organization from conducting their normal business by physically getting in the way. As a result, the activists manage to attract attention to the cause because the organization’s operations are not able to continue as normal.
- In the context of hacktivism, denial-of-service attacks take a similar approach, just by means of online methods. Essentially, hackers flood the website with requests and activity that renders the site incapable of functioning, preventing regular visitors from being able to utilize its services or access its content.
- A popular form of hacktivism – and one that may be used for a variety of different purposes – doxing involves hackers accessing and stealing sensitive information and releasing it to the public. The type of information targeted may vary from official government documents and military information or to personal and private information about politicians.
- In some contexts, the aim of doxing may be to sabotage an operation or campaign – perhaps politically or militarily related. Alternatively, this type of hacktivism may very well be used to simply embarrass a public figure or jeopardize their job or position of power.
- Often politically motivated, hackers gain access to geo-location features on certain footage and then publish their findings for public consumption. This is a type of hacktivism that is commonly used for political purposes – for instance, publishing the location of political or war prisoners during conflicts.
- Leaking sensitive information
- While doxing is one way of doing this, the leaking of sensitive information may also not be about the actual information at all. Rather the very act of releasing it to draw enough attention to the hacktivists that they achieve their goal.
- The use of RECAP software
- Often governments and national courts hold certain documentation in confidentiality, and it is not accessible to the public. RECAP is a specific kind of software that allows people access to copies of documents that are usually held by the US Federal Court and are not available to ordinary people. The motivation here is, generally speaking, that these documents ought not to be confidential.
- Changing website codes
- Commonly referred to as “definition hacking”, this form of hacktivism aims to alter the information being portrayed on an organization’s website. By altering the website’s very code, hackers can influence public perception of the organization which can be an incredibly powerful tool.
- Anonymous blogging
- Reasonably self-explanatory, anonymous blogging allows hacktivists to write and promote ideas to the public from a specific account or website without anyone knowing who the author is. This may be a tactic used to push a specific agenda or discredit an organization or public figure.
- Website mirroring
- Website mirroring allows hacktivists to copy the content of websites that have been censored and blocked and publish it under an alternative Uniform Resource Locator (URL).
Examples of infamous hacktivist groups and campaigns
fince hacktivism gained popularity and traction as a method of effective activism in the last couple of decades, it is a phenomenon that has been ever-changing. Hacktivists continue to come up with new methods and means of achieving their goals, and since the internet is so full of possibilities, it doesn’t seem like this is going to slow down any time soon.
Some of the most well-known and successful hacktivist attempts have targeted the likes of government agencies, celebrities and political groups.
- Anonymous: We’ve all heard of Anonymous – commonly referred to as Anon. Originating in 2008, Anonymous initially targeted the Church of Scientology and went on to launch several more attacks that have also been politically and ideologically motivated.
- Wikileaks: In 2012, Wikileaks retaliated against high-profile companies such as PayPal, Visa, Amazon, and Mastercard, in opposition to the US government. Later, it leaked the infamous emails between Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager in the lead up to the 2016 US presidential election.
These are just two well-known hacktivist groups, but there are far more – both hacker groups and individuals.
Final thoughts on hacktivism
Hacktivism is a modern phenomenon, but its ramifications have been significant for its targets. While it may often be relatively innocent in terms of civil disobedience, hacktivism has also taken slightly more extreme turns in the last decade. Thus, it seems as though hacktivism will be on the rise as the internet continues to develop and progress in the coming years.