Is hacktivism a fight for justice or a crime?

Anton P. | May 3, 2021

Hacktivism is a fusion of internet activism and hacking. People or groups identifying as hacktivists typically have an ideology or firm beliefs they seek to defend. Many harbor values of free speech, human rights or advocate for political and social change. Usually, hacking as a form of activism is not after monetary gain. Instead, such hacking incidents are more about uncovering the truth and exposing something discreditable or scandalous. Nevertheless, hacktivism initiates attacks to sabotage systems in some way. Thus, these techniques used are illegal and mirror the ones employed for traditional cybercrime.

What is hacktivism?

Hacktivism refers to the use of hacking techniques to expose injustice, racist movements, or political controversies. Members of such groups or independent hackers support social or political change that corresponds with their ideals and ethics. In other words, they defend values they hold dear and condemn activities or public figures that go against them.

Typically, hacktivism confronts topics, debates, or disputes in the following areas of present-day society:

  • Social. Hacktivists might advocate for current societal issues and encourage alteration of the social order. For instance, they could support protests or movements against racism, hate speech, or inequality.
  • Political. Political reasons are one of the most common motivations behind hacktivism. Thus, it typically means that computer hacking skills spawn politically motivated digital civil disobedience. Hacktivism could target entire government agencies, specific political parties, or influential political figures.
  • Religious. Religion-based motivations behind hacktivism can relate to several end goals. Hackers could target members of specific religious groups in an attempt to contradict or criticize them. On the other hand, some hacktivists could promote clear morals, worldviews, and the relationship between science and religion.
  • Anarchist. Some hacktivists might reject conventions or institutions treated as authoritative. Thus, they might disrupt the operations of the government or civil entities.

Main techniques hacktivists use

Typically, hacktivism employs several hacking techniques for its fight against governments or other institutions.

  • Doxxing. The latter technique means releasing confidential, personal, and potentially incriminating information to the public. It might include leaked government documents, emails, or other digital data.
  • Defacement. It means manipulating the visual appearance of websites. For instance, hacktivists could control sites to convey a specific message to their owners and visitors.
  • DDoS. Distributed Denial of Service attacks overload systems. It means that websites faced with too much traffic will consequently crash. Thus, hackers take down websites, typically temporary until web owners manage to restore access and functionality.

Is hacktivism illegal?

The means hacktivism uses for making a political or ideological statement do not align with legal systems. Even if its goal is to promote ethical or moral values, law enforcement agencies treat it as criminal behavior. Thus, even if hacktivists claim to have altruistic motives for breaching networks or computer systems, the fact remains. They break the law and will face legal consequences of their actions.

However, there are plenty of hacktivism supporters claiming that its activities work for the greater good. From the legal perspective, individuals participating in such affairs essentially risk their freedom for their causes.

A brief recap of hacktivism incidents

Throughout history, we saw many incidents involving hacking as a form of political or social activism.

  • OpIceISIS. Run by Anonymous, the most famous hacktivist group, the OpIceISIS operation rallied against the Islamic State (ISIS). This terrorist group and many others use social media as means to spread information or recruit new members. Since 2014, Anonymous had a role in closing thousands of social media accounts belonging to terrorists.
  • OpChile. The latter operation started sometime in October 2019. In this case, hacktivists supported the protestors opposing recent government reforms. Thus, DDoS attacks, web defacement, and other hacking techniques disrupted Chilean websites (most of them belonged to government agencies).
  • Attack against PayPal. In 2010, 14 members of the Anonymous group participated in a cyber-attack against PayPal. The reasons behind it related to PayPal’s refusal to support donations to Wau Holland Stiftung’s account. The latter was set up to accept donations for WikiLeaks and had links to Operation Payback.
  • WikiLeaks. Often described as a whistleblower against corruption, WikiLeaks is an archive of classified documents. The latter put many diplomats, politicians, and government agencies under pressure by exposing what they hoped to remain secret. To this day, WikiLeaks and data leaked within this archive are notable for changing the relationship between citizens and the state.

Many more institutions and organizations have fallen prey to hacktivism. For instance, websites belonging to the Church of Scientology suffered many DDoS attacks as punishment for supporting internet censorship.

Specialists note that the golden age for hacktivism lasted until 2016. After that, many groups went relatively silent. Most of it might relate to businesses, governments, and other institutions evolving in their defense strategies. However, hacktivism upholds its position as one of the biggest threats in the private sector and beyond.

Hacktivism recently

Specialists note that the face of hacktivism seems to change. Many new or old players return to the scene, hoping to fight for what they believe is right.

In June 2020, BlueLeaks surfaced and mirrored the purpose and agenda of WikiLeaks. In essence, it is a collection of confidential files from police departments across the US. This hacktivism event relates to the Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoSecrets), a whistleblower site founded in 2018. The successors of WikiLeaks received a ban on Twitter following the BlueLeaks incident.

Another incident that caused much controversy was the Verkada breach. In this case, Tillie Kottman, a 21-year-old Swiss hacker, stole private data from poorly secured Verkada surveillance cameras. The leaked footage included video feeds from clinics, hospitals, schools, and police departments.

The hackers involved claimed to perform their activities in the name of “fun anarchism.” For them, hacking and leaking data meant exposing the cybersecurity flaws in products we purchase. Thus, they claimed the attack to be against companies over-focused on profit, not the security of their clients.

It is difficult to predict the future of hacktivism, but it continues to be a powerful virtual weapon. It is a controversial subject, with several schools of thought. Some might defend hacktivists because of their agenda. Others can condemn them, stating that hacking does not justify their causes. However, the reality is that even genuine motives do not remove the criminal implications.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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