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What is hacktivism?

From Anonymous to Omega, here’s everything you need to know about hackers with a conscience

Two masked members of Anonymous demonstrating during the Occupy protest on October 15, 2011 in The Hague

The reputation of hackers has always been tainted by the black hats - the offensive side of cyber security that’s most often responsible for the truly fascinating stories in the industry.

These are the security miscreants that develop and distribute malware, more recently ransomware, and launch DDoS attacks on groups, companies, or countries. But while the black hats have been off having their dastardly fun, the white hats have started generating a reputation of their own.

It’s arguably unfair to mention hacktivists in the same breath as ethical hackers, because a lot of what they do could also reasonably be described as politically motivated vigilantism and pure offensive hacking. It’s certainly not just harmless fun. Recent cases have shown this, but hacktivists are far from a new breed of security experts.

The term "hacktivism' was first coined in the 90s by Omega, a member of the retro hacking group Cult of the Dead Cow. But it wasn't until the 2010s that it truly gained notoriety, in no small part due to Anonymous.

In a more digital world, the one we now inhabit, it’s often easier and less expensive to make a statement - political or otherwise - by defacing a prominent figure’s social media page, for example, rather than rallying a horde to protest outside, let’s say, the Houses of Parliament.

There is a fine line, though, as there is with in-person activism, that defines what should and shouldn’t be achieved through hacktivism. Extinction Rebellion is an example of protestors in the UK that, to some, have got it wrong on occasions and there is no shortage of incidents in cyber space where that line was definitely crossed. Nevertheless, the parallels we can draw between activism and hacktivism are boundless - but only with hacktivism can you devastate from the comfort of your home.

The history of hacktivism

Hacktivism has its roots in the early days of the internet when hackers primarily congregated on Usenet and message boards. Many of these early hackers were motivated by idealism, with a general tendency towards left-wing, anti-capitalist, and anti-corporate viewpoints. This, combined with a sense of anarchic mischief and a love of messing with people and systems, spurred numerous hacks protesting various social and political issues.

Hackers deployed various forms of malware against targets to disrupt their operations, hindering progress by rendering computer systems and networks unusable. An early example was the hilariously named Worms Against Nuclear Killers malware, which was released into NASA's networks in 1989 to protest the launch of the nuclear-powered rocket carrying the Galileo probe into orbit. The attack reportedly cost the project half a million dollars in lost time and resources, according to officials.

Who are the Anonymous hacking group?

A person wearing a Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of the Anonymous hacking collective

Shutterstock

Modern hacktivism, however, has been defined mainly by the group known as 'Anonymous'. First emerging in the early 2000s, 'Anonymous' was originally the collective name given to groups of users from the 4chan message boards, who would frequently band together to attack targets based on little more than an idle whim. These attacks ranged from relatively harmless pranks, such as ordering numerous pizzas to someone's house, to more vicious attacks such as carrying out DDoS strikes against websites or doxxing people.

What makes Anonymous unique is that it has no formal membership, controlling body or internal structure. Anyone can participate in its operations at will, and the targets and attack vectors it picks are determined by popular consensus amongst its members and fans. In its early days, Anonymous wasn't overly focused on political or ideological issues, preferring instead to target internet personalities that its members felt needed to be taken down a peg or two.

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The group's first real foray into hacktivism came in 2008 when the group began a campaign of attacks against the church of Scientology. Operation Chanology, as it was known, included a week-long DDoS against the church's website, along with physical protests outside various Scientologist properties. The adoption by protestors of the Guy Fawkes mask from cult graphic novel V for Vendetta, incidentally, is what led to its now-iconic status as a symbol of hacktivism.

Following Project Chanology, Anonymous has also been heavily involved in various campaigns to foil attacks on internet freedoms. The group mounted significant efforts to fight the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), both of which were accused of being efforts to censor the web. In more recent years, the group has been carrying out persistent attacks against the online arms of the terrorist group ISIS, targeting websites and social media accounts used to spread propaganda.

Most recently the group formed a stand against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and has shouted loud and proud about its efforts in cyber space so far. Most notably, the group claimed it was able to replace the disinformation broadcast to the Russian public through state-affiliated media with genuine images and messages from inside Ukraine.

Hacktivism is often controversial. While many decry the use of objectively illegal cyber attacks, no matter how noble the cause, many applaud vigilante hackers like Anonymous and others for taking the law into their own hands.

Recent cases of hacktivism

In the years surrounding the infamous Sarah Palin email hack, Anonymous could have been considered somewhat of a fixture in the daily news cycle. At the time, social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter were in their infancy and organising mass collective action over the internet, often under the radar of the media and law enforcement, still seemed like something completely new and unusual. The number of large-scale, international hacking operations most commonly associated with hacktivism has declined dramatically over the last 10 years, with IBM reporting a 95% drop in the number of hacktivist attacks between 2015 and 2019. According to Recorded Future, this could be due to the fact that, while corporate defences have improved over the years, the attack vectors, tools, and techniques used by hacktivist groups have remained largely unchanged since 2010.

However, this doesn’t mean that hacktivists have given up their efforts. In fact, multiple events from earlier this year have been considered to be symptoms of a resurgence of hacktivism, one of them being the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, videos of which were taken and uploaded onto right-wing social media site Parler by the rioters themselves. One hacker, known online as donk_enby, launched a collective action to gather the evidence of the Capitol lootings so that the perpetrators could be identified and prosecuted. Weeks later, donk_enby was asked by protesters in Myanmar to use her skills and platform to help identify numerous military contractors involved in the coup. According to Reuters, this ultimately led to the military leaders having their Google accounts suspended and sanctions imposed on them.

George Floyd mural in Manchester

Getty Images

Despite 2021 already being a busy year for hackers, the new wave of hacktivism can actually be traced to May 2020, following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin. The event reportedly prompted Anonymous to shut down the website belonging to the Minneapolis Police Department, which is where Chauvin was stationed prior to his arrest and trial. When the site was finally restored, users were asked to complete a captcha in order to ensure they were not automated bots orchestrating a DDoS attack.

Two months later, hackers managed to breach the server of a major contractor working on behalf of the Russian intelligence service. They obtained 7.5TB of sensitive data and shared it freely with other hackers and journalists. Much of this included detailed information about sensitive government IT projects commissioned by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB).

Although Anonymous is no longer in its heyday, the group has potentially inspired a new generation of hacktivists who have access to new technologies such as 5G or artificial intelligence, which was used as a tool in identifying participants of the Capitol riots. With today’s heightened social consciousness, widespread access to information, and technological proficiency, 2021 might just be the beginning of a new revival of hacktivism.

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