Hacktivism: Pushing the Boundaries of Internet Expression

You return to your computer after a long day’s work, ready to check the heaven knows how many Facebook notifications you managed to garner after a week of Internet abstinence. You quickly type in your password – incorrect. Confused, you try again, no go. Bewildered, you check for caps lock and then give it another shot. Must have changed it without realizing, you think, as you go ahead and file a password recovery request. You head to your e-mail and sign in there, but again your try fails. As attempt after attempt is rejected, you begin to panic as you think of the possibility of someone else having access to your Facebook, reading through your e-mails, and having full access to all the information you put online.
As horrific as the above scenario might sound, it’s only one of many nightmare scenarios lurking in wait for users of the Internet. With the Internet ingraining itself in just about every part of our lives, from connecting real-world relationships to setting up virtual stores to providing entertainment, the web has grown from its nascent form into an all-encompassing medium. The Internet’s immeasurable stores of information and distribution mechanisms have made it a battlefield for groups vying for power. One needs only to look at recent examples of targeted attacks on key websites in the South Ossetia War of 2008 and Israel’s ability to subvert Syria’s radar systems in 2007 air strikes to see the prevalence of cyberwarfare among disputing nations. However, nation states are not the only armed parties in the combat zone; computer hacker groups have emerged as a noteworthy contender in any battle over the World Wide Web. With growing threats to Internet and civilian safety, we must consider what limits, if any, should be placed on Internet expression.
At their core, computer hacker groups are a collection or community of hackers, those Internet users who detect and possibly exploit weaknesses in computers or websites. The history of these bodies dates back to the advent of the electronic computer in the 1980s. For the next thirty years, computer hacker’s abilities have matched the increased sophistication of computer systems as initial hacking groups such as the Legion of Doom and Masters of Deception of the 1980’s and ‘90s have given way to the high-profile groups of today such as Lulz Security.
While the illegal breaking into of computers seems antagonistic and unfavourable, perhaps people would be more willing to grant sympathy to the surging “hacktivism” movement. As the name may suggest, hacktivism combines the practice of hacking with political activism, using entry into computer systems and Internet attacks as a means of expression and method of fueling change. Popular forms of hacktivism include altering web pages to produce political content undesired by the website’s owner or denial-of-service attacks (DoS attack) where hackers slow down or make unavailable Internet services through overloading a site’s servers. Less disruptive hacktivism tools include creating websites or software to achieve a political purpose. This can be seen in the case of the activist site WikiLeaks, and bloggers blogging anonymously about sensitive political issues.
Here, we see that it becomes difficult to distinguish hacktivism from Internet activism as a medium for political expression. Typically, internet activism consists of using electronic communication technologies to raise awareness about issues. For example this can be achieved through Facebook campaigns or chain e-mails. This can be contrasted with cyberterrorism, where the Internet is used as a medium for terrorist activities. One of the more prominent examples in recent history is the series of DoS attacks on Estonian government sites by a pro-Kremlin youth movement of Transnistria following the relocation of the Soviet World War II memorial “The Bronze Solider of Tallinn”. Even the term cyberterrorism itself is incredibly nebulous, as there is no agreement among governing bodies what constitutes terrorist activities or how cyberterrorism should be defined.
With political speech being arguably the most important protection granted by the First Amendment and being recognized as a necessary universal human right, drawing the line between what is acceptable protest and what is not on the Internet is crucial. Making the task even more challenging is the Internet’s transcendence of national borders. If any resolution achieved regarding protected speech on the Internet is not uniform or consensual, enforcement becomes difficult as extradition and international relations comes into play.
It might be more helpful to ground a discussion regarding hacktivism in terms of recent events, especially with the increased amount of media attention given to hacktivist groups in the past year. Internet censorship and protected speech came to the forefront of the United States’ attention when the whistle blowing site WikiLeaks began publishing diplomatic cables from the State Department in November of 2010. WikiLeaks provides a mechanism for news sources and whistle-blowers to share classified information that is then published and shared with large media outlets. Controversy arose as proponents of WikiLeaks praised its ability to provide transparency in government while critics denounced its actions as detrimental to national security and international diplomacy. The unintentional release of an unredacted version of the cables prompted further fears regarding safety for the lives of confidential informants. In the week following the U.S. cables leak, Amazon, PayPal, MasterCard and Visa Inc. all froze or suspended payments to WikiLeaks, which is primarily funded by online donations. Hacktivists responded by DoSing a number of websites in what was termed “Operation Avenge Assange.” While similar Internet battles have been occurring for years, this instance brought the issue back into the nation’s limelight.
From the WikiLeaks example, it is seen that hacktivism can represent a number of interests and political views, from transparency of government to human rights issues. One central theme of hacktivist groups that has become especially relevant is that of freedom of expression and Internet censorship. In 2003, a meme termed “Anonymous” began circulating around the Internet that held the idea of Internet users forming a digitized global brain. Since then, Anonymous has grown in membership and reputation as a collective of hackers or an identity that hackers adopt. Their secrecy, as their name might suggest, makes it hard to pinpoint any person or group as “Anonymous.” Instead, members of Anonymous use Guy Fawkes masks popularized in “V for Vendetta” and an image of a suited figure with a question mark for a face o establish their identity.
In 2011, another of today’s high-publicity hacker groups, LulzSec, was formed. The group’s name is derived from the Internet acronym “LOLs” (laughing out loud) and “security.” Since their formation, the group has been active in exploiting security flaws of highly public organizations. In June, 2011, LulzSec declared a partnership with Anonymous and began “Operation AntiSecurity,” a series of hacking attacks. Targets included the United Kingdom’s cyberterrorism branch, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and the governments of Zimbabwe and Tunisia. Other government-targeted attacks by LulzSec include DoSing the Central Intelligence Agency’s website www.cia.gov and releasing sensitive account information associated with the US Senate’s www.senate.gov.
Hacktivism has again been brought to attention regarding Internet censorship. The primary impetus to this past month’s events in the United States were two pieces of legislation up for debate in Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives and its Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act (PIPA). These two bills sought to protect intellectual property and enforce copyright laws by increasing enforcement power of governing bodies and expanding the scope of forms of expression that fall under copyright legislation. As termed by one CNN reporter, the debate regarding the proposals soon became a battle of Hollywood versus Silicon Valley. As organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) tried to push the bills through, tech giants such as Google and Facebook urged their users to voice their dissent. Opposition culminated on January 18th with Reddit, the English Wikipedia, and 7,000 other sites “blacked out” in a joint effort against the proposed legislation. This Internet activism was met with success as plans to draft the bills were postponed indefinitely.
However, many free Internet advocates were disappointed the next day when they found Megaupload, a popular file-hosting site, was shut down and that several Megaupload executives had been arrested. In retaliation, Anonymous launched a series of attacks on sites including the Department of Justice, FBI, RIAA, and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The attacks brought back down to earth the peaceful, white knight-esque efforts of the previous day’s protests. Consequentially, Internet-interest groups have denounced these hacks as unproductive while legislators have pointed to it as a need for more regulation.
We as a nation or a collective of Internet users are at a crossroads regarding the appropriateness of hacktivism. As we weigh the pro’s and con’s of how much freedom of expression we wish to allow on the Internet, we have to remember that freedom is most at danger when safety is at stake. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “he who gives up freedom for safety deserves neither.” After seeing both sides of the issue, we must decide to either denounce these Internet hackers as irresponsible terrorists or herald them as champions of freedom.


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