A hacktivist is defined as one who breaks into a computer or network for political or social motives. The more I read about hacktivists, the more I wonder if they are hackers cloaked in the ideals of activism, or activists borrowing a page from the hacker playbook to further their cause? In this post, I will highlight a few recent incidences of hacktivism and let you decide.
The Sony hack tops the list, both for its recency and its impact. A group of hackers called The Guardians of Peace broke into Sony’s internal computers and released sensitive documents and e-mail exchanges, some of which involved Sony partners. Five movies were released to download sites, four of which had not yet been released in theaters. They blocked the release of the movie The Interview by threatening to bomb theaters that showed the film. The Interview is a comedy about a plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Ironically, or maybe not, as of this writing the FBI is claiming the hack originated from North Korea. Was this an attempt to expose Sony’s inadequate defenses, a case of defending a country’s honor from a fictitious film, or was it plain and simple malice? Whatever the motives, The Guardians of Peace crossed the line from hacktivism to terrorism when they threatened to bomb theaters.
The hacktivist group Anonymous Africa attacked and closed down fifty websites during the 2013 Zimbabwean election, including those associated with the ruling Zanu PF party and those of the newspaper The Herald. The group claimed President Robert Mugabe’s regime dominated the Internet and airwaves and did not allow access to the opposing party. Was their attack successful? Ninety-year-old Mugabe is still in power, but the oppression in Zimbabwe was exposed, if only briefly.
The Arab Spring was sparked in January 2011 by an uprising against the ruling party in Tunisia. The hacktivist group Anonymous stole Tunisian government documents and funneled them to the website Wikileaks, which published them. The documents showed a pattern of abuse by the government against the citizens. In Egypt, when citizens tried to expose government oppression and the government responded by trying to shut down the Internet, various hacktivists provided alternative methods for citizens to expose the actions taking place in their country. In these instances hacktivism was a weapon, just like bombs or guns, and hacktivists tried to win the hearts of the people and expose activities deemed to be unfair and oppressive. The same method is being used in Syria today.
So is hacktivism good or bad? That depends. There are definitely economic losses in politically motivated hacks, so it is not a zero-sum activity. There can be embarrassment and expense for those who are hacked. I think that these hacks may have started out with reasonable and objective motives, but more often than not they cross the line into cyber-terrorism. I believe that there are better ways to further a cause than breaking into electronic files and exposing them, preventing them from being seen, or outright stealing them.
Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.