Throughout history, political lobbying generally has been done in-person, using lobbyists and strategic monetary donations to facilitate their goals. With the growth of the Internet however, new means of political activism have arisen. The most prominent of these is the “hacktivist” movement, consisting of those with both the technical skill and willpower to bring about change on their own. The vanguard of this movement is the nebulous organization known only as Anonymous, and the success they have seen in recent years has proven the worth of this nascent concept.
The idea of hacktivism traces its roots back to the 1990s, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy and computer hacking was a venture reserved for those persons derogatorily referred to as “geeks.” The hacker ring known as the Cult of the Dead Cow claims to count among its members the originator of the term, but aside from scattered basic attacks, the method of political hacking would not come into its own until around the turn of the millennium.[i] Hacktivism, in its broadest form, is the use of virtual tools to lodge nonviolent protests against political causes.[ii]
While the hacktivists of old had to make do with command-line interfaces and basic networking tools, the modern movement has quite a few more advanced devices at its disposal. These range from the coordinating powers of social networks like Twitter and Facebook (such as during the so-called “Arab Spring,” when members provided alternative methods of accessing the internet over Twitter direct messages) to programs like the Low Orbit Ion Cannon, a tool designed to make participation in a distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS, ridiculously easy for even the least skilled of computer users to employ in the name of the cause.[iii] The prevalence of such tools has made hacktivism an easy way of showing support for a political viewpoint.
Anonymous, regarded as the vanguard of the modern hacktivist movement, the proverbial “tip of the spear,” is the most recent evolution of the early hacktivists. It is important to note that they are not a unitary group; within the larger Anonymous banner there are a varied and ideologically diverse group of people. They began in the United States, on an image-board known as 4chan. A member posted a call to arms of sorts, imploring the members of 4chan to use their vast numbers to do something productive with their time instead of simply reposting pictures of cats with captions and bad music videos; from there, the loose confederation of persons emerged to be the group we know today.[iv]
There are three ways one can consider categorizing the decentralized organization, and they are best described through the handy acronym of ICE: Ideology, Conscience, and Ego. Ideologically, Anonymous members (or Anons, as the individuals within the group are sometimes referred to) generally looks to defend both freedom of the Internet and freedom of the individual to think and decide for oneself, as evidenced by their actions against tyrannical governments such as those in Egypt and Libya as well as their ongoing assaults on the Church of Scientology. Other Anons see themselves as saviors of the less fortunate. Any member who does not fit into the above categories can be safely said to be in it “for the lulz,” as the saying goes; they are in it for the thrill of the hunt. They are a disparate group, to be sure, but one thing is certain: they are here to stay. [v]
Anonymous and the hacktivist movement entered the public eye with the release of a video in 2008; it was a “press release” telling of the start of operations against Scientology, a religious movement known for their suppression of dissent and celebrity ties.[vi] The video and subsequent actions against Scientology centers around the United States and the rest of the world are typical of the tactics Anons employ against their opponents: cyberattacks to shut down their websites and communications, and real-world protests to provoke their ire. This particular method has also been used recently to assault Sony Online Entertainment’s U.S. division, in protest of their lawsuits against prominent members of the PlayStation3 homebrew scene, and other organizations who have positioned themselves against the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.[vii],[viii] Offshoots of the Anonymous “organization,” such as LulzSecurity, or LulzSec as it is more commonly known, have taken even harsher stances against opposition groups, wantonly breaching and revealing their confidential and private information to the world without regard for the aftereffects.[ix] Much of these wanton revelations have caused problems of their own, however, and the aftereffects are still being felt as still more material is released on a daily basis.
Not all hacktivism has detrimental results, however. Hacktivists are widely credited with assisting in the successful overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s government in Egypt earlier this year, in no small part due to their shrewd use of social networks and their high levels of technical skill. Many provided low-to-no-cost dial-up service and other means of telephony when all normal routes of communication were cut off by governmental order.[x] Others within the country took the time to set up meeting places and rallying points, even in the face of crackdowns by the government and affiliated parties. In the U.S., hacktivists have continually raised awareness of issues such as net neutrality and governmental transparency by bringing things that have dubiously been considered secret into the light of the public view, often to the aggravation of law enforcement agencies that have had a hard time tracing the Anons.[xi] The ongoing protests over corporate and monetary influence in Washington (known as #OccupyWallStreet) is yet another development stemming from the pervasion of the power hacktivism has in mobilizing large groups of people towards a common end.
Hacktivism is the very embodiment of a grassroots political movement. The power of the medium is derived solely and completely from those involved in its employment. There are no politicians, no petitioners, and no one holding the reins; such things are unheard of in traditional activist roles where lobbying and cash flow are the life force of power. Groups categorizing themselves under the banner of hacktivism are ad hoc gatherings of people devoted to a common cause, with an immediate goal in mind, then dispersed once that goal has been achieved. Above all else though, the practitioners of this new breed of activism have one overarching objective in their sights: the return of or provisioning of power to the people of the world, the downtrodden and the oppressed.
By all accounts, hacktivists have succeeded in giving a voice to many of those without one, and are indeed a force to be reckoned with. With the increasing role of the Internet in all our daily affairs, it should be unsurprising to many that the younger generations would seize upon it as a force for political will. The process has changed the game, in ways that the current groups in power within the United States have not yet begun to see. For the political system and those in it, the effect of hacktivism on their power base is unpredictable, and the consequences for ignoring the movement will never be the same.
[ii] Samuel, Alexandra Whitney. Hacktivism and the Future of Political Participation. September 2004. (accessed September 22, 2011).
[iii] Neuman, Scott. Hacking Made Easier, Thanks To User-Friendly Tools. September 16, 2011. http://www.npr.org/2011/09/16/140540913/hacking-made-easier-thanks-to-new-tools (accessed September 22, 2011).
[iv] Landers, Chris. Serious Business: Anonymous Takes On Scientology (and Doesn’t Afraid of Anything). April 2, 2008. http://www2.citypaper.com/columns/story.asp?id=15543 (accessed October 2, 2011).
[v] Anderson, Nate. Technopaedia: Anonymous. 2011. http://arstechnica.com/technopaedia/terms/2008/05/anonymous.ars (accessed September 22, 2011).
[vii] Anderson, Nate. “Anonymous” attacks Sony to protest PS3 hacker lawsuit. April 2011. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/04/anonymous-attacks-sony-to-protest-ps3-hacker-lawsuit.ars (accessed September 22, 2011).
[viii] Bright, Peter. 4chan rushes to WikiLeaks’ defense, forces Swiss banking site offline. January 2011. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2010/12/4chan-rushes-to-wikileaks-defense-forces-swiss-banking-site-offline.ars (accessed September 2011, 2011).
[ix] Bright, Peter. Titanic Takeover Tuesday: LulzSec’s busy day of hacking escapades. July 2011. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/06/titanic-takeover-tuesday-lulzsecs-busy-day-of-hacking-escapades.ars (accessed September 22, 2011).
[xi] Shapira, Ian, and Joby Warrick. WikiLeaks’ advocates are wreaking ‘hacktivism’. December 12, 2010. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/11/AR2010121102897.html (accessed September 22, 2011).