A COMBINATION of the words “hack” and “activism,” hacktivism is the use of computers and computer networks as a means of protest toward the promotion of political ends such as transparency, access to information, freedom of speech and human rights. Its methods include different forms of hacking such as website defacement, redirects, information theft, and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS). Hacktivism has impacted many national events such as the Seoul mayoral election campaign, and captured the attention of public security professionals such as Lim Jong-in (Director, The Graduate School of Information Protection, Korea Univ.) who anticipates “an increase in hacktivism activities this year.” It has assumed an even greater importance on the international stage. Through affairs such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Wikileaks controversy, and the release of private information from the U.S. Federal Reserve, hacktivists have proven that social movements have reached a milestone as activism on the internet has become a new global phenomenon. However, the wide range of campaigns undertaken by hacktivists has produced mixed results and obscured the original meaning of hacktivism. Anonymous, an organization at the forefront of this novel trend, exemplifies the ambiguity surrounding hacktivism and the need for clarity and direction in “activism by hacking.”
Starlings: A movie without a director
“Anonymous” as a concept and an entity first became widely-acknowledged in 2004 on 4chan**, an imageboard website, where a site administrator began to enforce the rule that all postings be anonymous. This inspired the creation of a collective identity within the community. Initially, this decentralized online community worked toward loosely agreed goals for entertainment purposes only. However, later the direction of the group’s interests began to shift toward organized social movements.
In 2008, a controversy surrounding the Church of Scientology, a religious organization, proved revolutionary for the users of 4chan in activating a movement dubbed “Project Chanology.” In response to the Church’s violation of netizens’ right to freedom of expression, nameless users of 4chan coordinated DDoS attacks on Scientology websites, protested outside Church of Scientology centers, and posted their first video on YouTube titled “Message to Scientology,” under the moniker Anonymous. This project set off a worldwide series of coordinated hacktivist endeavors – that stem from chaotic and random collaboration of pseudo individuals –aimed at making a difference in society.
Following Project Chanology, Anonymous began to steadily gain followers as well as a reputation for being an authentic organization that promotes justice and political freedom. However, its previously established credibility and seriousness soon began to falter. From attacking government websites to stealing bank account information and persisting in random assaults against the public and various governments, Anonymous has demonstrated that hacktivism is no longer a clear concept as hacktivists have petitioned for the good of society while they have also endangered innocent people and backtracked from their original goal of protecting freedom of speech. Even groups such as Hacktivismo*** that formed for the sole purpose of promoting social justice have compromised their original intentions, proving that the only constant in the hacktivist movement is its inconsistency in committing to a set of principles. Previously hailed as the “freedom fighters of the internet” or “digital Robin Hoods,” hacktivists now receive criticism that they are actually “cyberterrorists” and mere “internet-trolls.”
Furthermore, the lack of leadership and order in hacktivism has contributed to its ambiguity. Because it is impossible to “join” a hacktivist cause in the traditional sense and individuals need only to follow along like a flock of starlings flying in random directions, the members of each campaign can differ radically day-by-day; they can no longer contain the bandwagoning effect that has literally allowed anyone – even minors – to join their cause and tarnish their achievements. This suggests that hacktivist groups have no core values and indefinite membership, thus voiding them of credibility as organizations that petition for justice.
For the betterment of society
Despite its confusing identity, there are several ways in which hacktivism can establish direction in adopting and serving its true purpose. Firstly, real activists must separate from the self-proclaimed hacktivists who continue to wreak havoc in the online and offline worlds, arguably negating the efforts to better society that continue to be made in the name of the larger hacktivist community. Claims like “We just happen to be a group of people on the internet who need – just kind of an outlet to do as we wish, that we wouldn't be able to do in regular society. ... Do as you wish. ... There's a common phrase: we are doing it for the lulz,” by LulzSec, draw a fine line between stealing from the rich to give to the poor and stealing just for the heck of it. True humanitarians should detach themselves from these kinds of cybercriminals by taking discerning measures such as legitimization. By joining hands with NGOs or organizations that do have a public face and name, hacktivists flying under the radar can lend authenticity to their cause and maintain a clearer sense of membership and direction. Telecomix is one such joint hacktivist-NGO group that has inspired many others to follow suit.
In addition, hacktivists must be careful not to use their organizations and actions for their own political means, as groups such as the Cult of the Dead Cow and Anonymous have done in the past. Maintaining slogans such as, “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us,” runs the risk of engaging in propaganda and promoting the group’s reputation and prestige rather than engaging in genuine activism. Likewise, day-long DDoS attacks or the theft of personal information merely serves to make headlines and create buzz surrounding the organizations that engage in such activities rather than achieving long-term social change. Activists must use their discretion in employing the right hacking tools to convey their message in the most effective and honest way. This can establish direction and more lucid goals for these individuals to strive toward: actual social change rather than the preservation of a certain reputation.
* * *
Hacktivism must never be taken lightly by those who choose to participate in it. Not all participants practice hacktivism’s more nefarious aspects – meaning cybercrime – but either way, hacktivism in essence is indeed a criminal activity. What hacktivists should strive for is to carry out their work with noble intentions, in other words breaking the law only when it serves a higher purpose. Past arrests of Anonymous members should be a reminder to all hacktivists that the Web is no playground for Script kiddies****.
*Another term for “lol” which is internet slang for “laugh out loud,” suggesting something done for laughs.
**A website (much like Korea’s DCInside) that hosts images and content related to manga, pornography, internet memes, politics and various other arbitrary subjects.
***A sub-group of The Cult of the Dead Cows, which first coined the term “hacktivism”
****A pejorative term for unskilled juvenile individuals who use scripts or programs developed by others to attack computer systems and networks, and deface websites in order to try to impress their friends or gain credit in computer-enthusiast communities.