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Hacktivists: Cyber Activists or Cyber Vandals?

While governments continue to contend with the proliferation of traditional terrorist networks, rogue states and staple criminal activities such as drug smuggling and fraud, the immersion of the cyber realm into society has forced governments to engage with these emerging threats in increasingly sophisticated and unprecedented ways. Among the many users of cyberspace, hacktivists are coming under increasing scrutiny by states to curb what is deemed disruptive and illegal behaviour that poses direct threats to national security.

A portmanteau of “hack” and “activism”, hacktivism has become commonplace in the vernacular of governments and security agencies, as well as proponents of privacy and civil liberties. Prominent and well-documented cases, such as Julian Assange and Wikileaks, Anonymous, and Edward Snowden and the NSA, have brought hacktivism to the forefront of public discourse surrounding ideas of privacy, the rights of whistle-blowers and the ideological battles that are being waged between states and cyber activists. ‘Activism’ and ‘vandalism’ are often used interchangeably by governments to describe the actions of individuals or groups who operate within the cyber realm - whether the motivations behind such actions are altruistic or otherwise. In her recent address at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., Foreign Minister Julie Bishop emphasised that “cyber thieves operating as hacktivists” continue to work to undermine the I.T. infrastructure of governments and directly endanger the interests of citizens who rely on a secure and functioning state.

By definition, online activities that come under the umbrella of hacktivism are portrayed differently by advocates and those who oppose such activities. Opponents often term them as being either inherently subversive and possibly destructive or essential to the growth and maintenance of democracy and the free transference of information. This ‘same but opposite’ approach by groups at opposing ends of the spectrum drives home the disconnect that exists between them, and the often insurmountable ideological differences that lie at the core of this divide. There has always been opposition and activism against government and big business, from Daniel Ellsberg and the ‘Pentagon Papers’ who revealed U.S. government’s rationale behind its decisions during the Vietnam War, to Mark Whitacre who worked with the FBI to expose agricultural price-fixing, where more traditional methods were used to whistle-blow on criminal activities that were in direct public interest. The utilisation of the cyber sphere to coordinate, circumvent and unmask has irrevocably altered the way in which institutional dissent is handled, in ways that states and corporations fear. Whilst government and private enterprise offer a cohesive and unified condemnation of acts of hacktivism, it is often difficult for supporters of cyber activists (and the activists themselves) to appropriately defend such practices as the cyber hacking community is by its very definition fractured and ruled by competing priorities, ideologies and disputes.

Benign or malicious?

Hacktivists are one component of a complex and multi-faceted online community where activities can range from the benign, such as circulating online petitions or organising a ‘Distributed Denial of Service’ (DDoS) event, to the more malicious, which can include cyber theft (doxing), vandalism or espionage. Even within this small section of the cyber community there is great diversity and range of activity, making concrete definitions even harder to pin down. To many, hacktivism is the contemporary equivalent of traditional forms of resistance, activism and dissent. Instead of mounting mail campaigns, street marches or boycotts, hacktivists utilise their advanced technical know-how to illuminate and agitate social change through relatively peaceful means.

And the Oscar goes too…

Hacktivism and hacktivists have again made headlines with the documentary CitizenFour, which features hacktivist Edward Snowden, winning the award for ‘Best Documentary’ at the 2015 Academy Awards. Its win poses many questions for governments, the cyber community and the general public alike. Are hacktivists Robin Hood-like figures that use their considerable intellect and access to breakdown barriers to knowledge and information, or are they cyber vandals that illegally circumvent secure networks and I.T. infrastructure to promote personal or collective ideologies? Perhaps they are both, or neither. There are few easily identifiable lines drawn in these debates, and it remains difficult to use traditional paradigms to understand or to predict such activity. Governments must ensure that the right to protest and sufficient protections for whistle-blowers is equally balanced with the desire to maintain sovereignty over online infrastructure and protect the privacy of citizens.

William Read is the Cyber Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: Mike Mozart (Flickr: Creative Commons).

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