Derived from combining the words ‘Hack’ and ‘Activism’, hacktivism is the act of hacking, or breaking into a computer system, for politically or socially motivated purposes. The individual who performs an act of hacktivism is said to be a hacktivist. The hacktivist who does such acts, such as defacing an organization’s website or leaking that organization’s information, aims to send a message through their activities and gain visibility for a cause they are promoting.
Common targets for hacktivists include government agencies, multinational corporations, or any other entity perceived as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ by the hacktivist group or individual. Of course, gaining unauthorized access to any organisation’s assets through such activities is a criminal act, no matter what the intention might be.
Primarily hacktivism is sparked by an individual’s or group’s perception of what they consider to be ‘wrong’ or ‘unjust’ and hence incentivizes them to do something about it. Motivations include revenge, political or social incentives, ideology, protest, a desire to embarrass certain organisations or individuals within those organisations or sometimes sheer vandalism.
In general, hacker groups aim to question, provoke, and challenge governments, organizations, and companies who go against their moral position.
There are many hacktivist groups worldwide, all working towards different, though sometimes the same, goal of disrupting or exposing the inner workings of government or private organisations in the name of transparency and the public good. The most famous of these types of hacktivist group is that known as ‘Anonymous’.
Formed in 2008, the ‘Anonymous’ hacktivist group were brought to light through their expose on the Church of Scientology orgnisation via the leaking on YouTube of a video involving Tom Cruise. Following requests by the executives at the Church of Scientology for the video to be taken down, Anonymous continued to proceed with a Distributed Denial of Service attack that brought down the Church’s website.
Since then the group has continued their campaigns of non-violent online protests with a regular flow of DDoS attacks and have even targeted the terrorist group ISIS in their efforts to bring their version of justice to the world.
Anonymous has been behind some of the largest hacktivist attacks in recent history, with 2011 seeing a major surge in acts committed against the threat to internet transparency and also saw the group successfully break into a number of corporations and security agency servers, disable government security sites, steal sensitive information such as credit card details, and deface commercial websites. They were not carrying out these acts for their perpetrator’s own financial or personal gain however for the greater good in showing opposition against internet censorship and control.
Additional notable groups include LuzSec, an offshoot of the Anonymous group, who carried out attacks against Fox.com the Sony Playstation Network and the CIA, who had sensitive passwords and private user data stolen as well as networks taken offline by the group.
In 2012, the WikiLeaks political whistle blower site retaliated against Amazon, PayPal, Visa and Mastercard who had been pressure by the US government to halt services in order to prevent its supporters from donating to the hacktivist organization. The retaliation came in the form of DDoS attacks that shut down these sites and caused large scale company losses.
Despite global government efforts, hacktivism has become a force to be reckoned with and still holds the ability to cause mass disruption.