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In roughly the last
two-and-a-half decades, society has seen the rise of a new type of
digital phenomenon. Technological expertise has converged with
social and civil unrest to produce a new form of civil disobedience:
Hacktivism. The people who practice hacktivism, also known as
Hacktivists, or politically-motivated hackers, are distinct from
other hackers, as their motivations are usually driven by the pursuit
of social change, as opposed to personal profit or causing malicious
damage. However, recent history has shown that hacktivism has had
collateral damage and done a great deal of harm as well as good.
Hacktivism is a relatively recent, but highly controversial form of
civil disobedience. This paper will discuss the ramifications of
this new form of civil disobedience in the information age, and
whether it should be considered unethical to practice.
Hacktivism
VS Hacking

While the
difference between hacking and hacktivism may seem like a trivial
difference to most people, the terms are absolutely not
interchangeable. Hacking may form the core platform that hacktivism
operates from, but the two are distinctly different, heavily divided
subjects. The main difference comes from the motivation behind the
act itself.

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Hacking itself
can be a positive, negative, or neutral endeavor, depending on the
agenda, methods, motivation, and outcome of the person or group doing
the hacking. In fact, there are several classifications along those
terms: white hat, gray hat, and black hat hackers. White hat hackers
are generally professional or aspiring security professionals, the
people who review code and report vulnerabilities directly to be
fixed as quickly as possible. Gray hat hackers are, as is easily
guess, in-between: they generally look out more for themselves, but
do not crack software or attack people or organizations for personal
gain. Black hat hackers are the cyber criminals, the people who
maliciously attack others solely for personal financial gain. While
each is distinctly different, the real distinction between hacking
and hacktivism is the motivation fueled by some form of political
agenda.

Hacktivism
generally does not make the distinction between types of hacking, as
most hacktivists consider themselves to be promoting a positive
political agenda of some kind. Generally they see something wrong in
the world and attempt to improve or fix it, and if that proves
impossible, they attempt to tear it down. There is occasionally a
fine line between hacking and hacktivism, but it is an important
distinction to understand a group or person’s motives.
While every
hacktivist is a hacker, not every hacker is a hacktivist. Hacking
and hacktivism may be divided by their motivation, but they share an
intimate history, and hacktivism certainly would not exist without
hacking. Hacktivism arose from groups of hackers who were
dissatisfied with the world around them and strove to change it.

Hacktivism
History and Notable Groups
Hacktivism as a practice
is relatively new in the timeline of society, rising with the growing
social unrest and rapid expansion of technology. Indeed, the term
“Hacktivist” was first coined by the user called “Omega” in
the Cult of the Dead Cows as recently as 1994. Hacking and
hacktivism have altered over a small time frame to become the
“hacktivism” we think of today. Some of the most notable events
over time include the major attacks and breaches, as well the forming
and splintering of notorious groups such as “Anonymous”, to the
debacle surrounding Wikileaks.
The year 2008 saw the
forming of easily the most well-known hacktivist group in the world:
Anonymous. Anonymous originally came into its fame in 2008 by
targeting the Church of Scientology for a series of hacks, dubbed
Project Chanology, aimed to frustrate and embarrass the Church of
Scientology for their indoctrination practices. Since then, they
have gained infamy as one of the most symbolic and well-recognized of
hacktivist groups, with people rallying around or despising them and
their symbol: the Guy Fawkes Mask. However, not everyone with their
group agreed with their politically-motivated agenda, and a major
splinter group was formed.

In 2011, a subsection of
Anonymous broke off and formed its own group, dedicated less to
strongly politically-motivated goals and more to the basic freedom of
information. They made a name for themselves by successfully
attacking larger corporations such as Fox News, PBS, Sony, Nintendo,
and the Senate.gov website. However, they came to national and
governmental attention when they managed to take down an FBI website.
This ultimately led to their disbanding as their leader was
subsequently captured by the FBI. Alongside Lulzsec’s more
information-based attacks, Wikileaks was proving just how powerful
information could be.

Despite the fact that it
was established in 2006, Wikileaks, the “multi-national media
organization and associated library.”(1) came to prominence in
2010 when they leaked the documents known as the Afghanistan War
Logs(2). The Afghanistan War Logs were viewed as the single most
massive military leak in the history of the United States. Wikileaks
was also responsible for the 2016 uncovering and leaking a
search-able database of over twenty thousand confidential emails and
eight thousand file attachments from the Republican Democratic
Committee, many of which showed the Republican Democratic Committee
attempting to undermine the presidential campaign of the
then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders(3). While Wikileaks was
extremely controversial, they spread massive amounts of information
and were undeniably successful hacktivists.

Hacktivism as a practice
has changed and evolved over time. However, one factor has remained
the same: the divide over whether or not hacktivism should be
condemned or supported. Both sides have been argued heatedly and
often in recent years.

Arguments
Supporting Hacktivism
The
freedom and opportunity to express your dissent is a founding
principle of any democratic setup. Hacktivists generally try to
fight some form of perceived injustice, either at home or abroad, by
using their technical knowledge to combat what they see as a
violation of human rights or civil liberties. In numerous cases,
hacktivists have allowed people to undermine oppressive government
regimes, and to have their voices heard in a world that would
otherwise ignore their plight. Although it was supported by major
corporations such as Google instead of just the fringe groups
generally associated with Hacktivism, such was the case in the
Egyptian government-sanction internet blackout during the 2011
protests(4). Many people liken Hacktivism to the civil disobedience
of the past that led to restructuring of laws and regulations by
exposing corrupt institutions and their seedy underbellies. However,
there are also arguments opposing hacktivism and the groups that many
see as digital outlaws.
Arguments
Opposing Hacktivism
As
with any form of civil disobedience or protest, Hacktivism creates
collateral damage, and has members who take extreme measures to
achieve their goals. The main argument against hacktivism is that it
does more harm than good. This is a legitimate argument stemming
from multiple cases where hacktivists attempting to correct something
they perceived as wrong ended up catching unsuspecting users in the
middle of the attempt. An example of this would be the MyBart police
protests of 2011. In attempting to protest the BART police officers
of the San Francisco Bay Area by publishing their personal
information, over twenty-four hundred innocent riders of the system
were caught in the cross-hairs and had their personal information
exposed(5). Criticisms against also assert that hacktivism can be
random, and fight for social causes that simply do not require their
aide.
Hacktivism’s
Impact on Our Society
Hacktivism,
despite its relatively recent rise in the world, has already had
major impacts on our society and the world at large, both positive
and negative. There has been significant collateral damage alongside
the spread of free ideals and information. People have slowly
started to accept the idea that information should be free as the
default state of the world, but consequently have also become more
informed about the blatant lack of security concerning their data.
Hacktivism is slowly pushing the envelope towards the inevitable
outcome of people being aware of the security risks inherent in the
world and their now increasingly digitally-focused lives. As
technology continues to advance and change, new forms of hacktivism
will likely crop up in the future and require new strategies to deal
with the expanding and developing world.

Conclusion
Hacktivism
is neither purely ethical nor unethical. It can be either depending
on the agenda of the group backing it and their actions taken towards
their goal. It is the digital expression of a group’s collective
ideology or dissent in a new form. It is the information-age
evolution of our collective sense of justice. Anything guided by a
sense of morality can be skewed and twisted, but the general intent
is still there- a sense of helping improve the lives of fellow human
beings in whatever way possible. Hacktivism uniquely represents the
human condition: hope and refusal to back down borne from
frustration. Whether or not the practice itself is ethical will
likely continue to be a debate for many years in the future.