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

Hacking is most often associated with criminal behaviour, be it the taking down websites or spreading malware for financial gain. However, some hackers are not in it just for the money. Due to the heightened sense of political awareness across society, some hackers have chosen to use their skills to take a stand by engaging in agenda-driven attacks.

What is hacktivism?

The term ‘hacktivism’ originated in the mid-90s when it was first coined by Omega, a member of the retro hacking group Cult of the Dead Cow. However, it wasn’t until the 2010s that it truly gained notoriety. 

Although the execution of hacktivist attacks has evolved over the years, the term has more or less remained the same. It is usually defined as the use of computer-based techniques for some form of civil disobedience in order to promote a political agenda or social change.

In light of the range of motivations that drive hacktivists, there is also a wide range of tools and methods to carry out one's desires - the most common being a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. These attacks are launched to take down a website by flooding it with fake traffic.

Elsewhere, hacktivists have previously relied on data theft to expose sensitive files or records belonging to a target publicly over the internet - a method typically deployed to expose targets with something to hide, such as large corporations or governments. Prominent targets have also included donors to political campaigns, or individuals alleged to have evading tax.

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.

Anonymous

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.

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.

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

Although hacktivism no longer generates as much media attention as during Anonymous’ heyday, 2020 was not exempt from such incidents.

One notable example is from July, when 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).

Another notable incident involves Anonymous themselves. Following the death of George Floyd on 25 May, the organisation resurfaced to reportedly shut down the official website of the Minneapolis Police Department. 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.

The notorious hacking group also claimed responsibility in June for convincing Korean pop music fans to hijack pro-police and white supremacist Twitter hashtags in support of Black Lives Matter. K-pop superfans also took down a Dallas police department app for reporting allegedly illegal activity by flooding it with K-pop fan videos.

However, although there are recent examples of hacktivism, the number of large-scale, international hacking operations most commonly associated with hacktivism has declined dramatically over the last 10 years. According to Recorded Future, part of the reason for a decline in successfully hacktivist operations might be that, while corporate defenses have improved over the years, the attack vectors, tools, and techniques used by hacktivist groups has remained largely unchanged since 2010.

In a report released in 2019, IBM also reported a 95% drop in the number of hacktivist attacks since 2015.

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