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When Activists Go Online, They Become "Hacktivists"

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In 2011, America and the world saw protests as they hadn't seen since the 1960s. One of the biggest was Occupy Wall Street, which began on September 17, 2011, in New York City's Wall Street district. Thousands of people poured into the area in an attempt to bring Wall Street's business to a halt. That event sparked similar movements against perceived social and economic inequality across the country and worldwide. In every case, activists wanted to disrupt business as normal and a city's daily routine to make their statement.

But eventually those protests that take place at specific, symbolic on-site locations lose steam. Their impact powerful, but temporary.

That's probably why an online movement of social protest called "hacktivism" has gained steam. The word itself, obviously, combines activism and hacking.

By definition, hacktivism is "the subversive use of computers and computer networks to promote a political agenda." With deep roots in hacker culture and stealth-like hacker behavior, hacktivism strives to exercise free speech, protest for human rights and demand freedom of information.

But hacktivists bring more attention to themselves, and more heat from government agencies, than do street activists. That's probably because street activists don't generally break into government buildings to steal files—they generally don't go that far for fear of physical arrest and prosecution. Hacktivists, however, under the veil of being anonymous online, take their brand of activism to the next level.

Hacktivism has become an umbrella concept that defines a variety of online disruptive activity. The debate about what it truly is has become somewhat controversial, to the point where some online social activists don't like it when some hacks are automatically labeled as hacktivism.

That's because by definition, it is a direct, computer-based method intended and designed to bring attention to social issues...and ideally to bring about change. To a pure hacktivist, their programming and thinking skills, combined with their particular ideology, are a force of change...not just troublemaking.

Shades of hacktivism.

But as someone pointed out, clamoring for change through computer attacks can take different shapes. It can be:

  • politically motivated
  • a form of civil disobedience or anarchy
  • a social commentary, such as an expression of anti-capitalism
  • part of a political protest
  • a fight against security companies and agencies trying to limit free expression

For instance, some self-proclaimed hacktivists have defaced government websites for political reasons or attacked websites that are at the opposite end of their political spectrum. Generally, as you might imagine, the hacktivists see themselves as progressive and their targets as the "status quo."

"Anonymous"...yet still famous.

An organization known as "Anonymous" is perhaps the most prolific and well-known hacktivist group worldwide. It reportedly has been prominent and prevalent in many major online hacks over the past decade. In 2008, they reportedly attacked the Church of Scientology in a massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, in which they brought the Church of Scientology's website to a halt by flooding it with traffic.

"Anonymous" has been linked to attacks on government websites (and specific government departments) as well as the websites of politicians they've singled out and targeted. Their work has also been linked to online attacks against PayPal, MasterCard, Visa Card and even the Twitter accounts of ISIS.

In 2010, "Anonymous" activists were behind "Operation Payback," an all-out attack by piracy proponents against organizations that were opposed to (and tired of) copyright infringement and Internet piracy. And actually, it was an entertainment alliance that struck first, hiring their own hackers to attack piracy culprits and their supporters. Not long afterward, "Anonymous" joined the fray. The full-blown cyberwar turned into a wave of attacks by Anonymous on pro-copyright and anti-piracy organizations, law firms and individuals.

Hacktivism and the future.

The Data Breach Investigations Report from Verizon recently revealed that hacktivists are responsible for more data theft than hackers who seek financial gain or who are politically motivated. What's more, hacktivists account for only about three percent of all hacking incidents.

Those facts indicate that hacktivism is likely here to stay. Plus, there are many other reasons hacktivism is likely to continue:

  • There will always be protesters (and something to protest) in some part of the world.
  • The Internet has brought like-minded people, with good or bad intentions, "closer together."
  • As the world has fully adopted social medial, hacktivism has become the new way to protest.
  • Hacktivists feel it's their duty to speak up, speak out or act up online when they disagree with a company, their government, another government or any organization they deem to be "out of line."
  • There is actually free software that's available online that makes it easy for a hacktivist to launch a DDoS attack. It doesn't take too much sophistication to pull one off.
  • Until targeted organizations get more sophisticated with their cyber defenses, hacktivists will find it easy to do their disrupting—they're not out to loot a bank, but rather to make a point. Because of that, they probably haven't run into the strongest firewalls and lines of defense.

Yet.

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