As the internet and social media play an increasingly important role in daily life, dedicated computer whiz kids and hacker teams will continue to use their technological know-how to disrupt political systems, correct perceived wrongs and promote social good.
Imagine waking up one morning to find every ATM in the city down. The bank records have all been wiped out, and the global markets are in disarray. World leaders, international organizations and the so-called one-percenters are scrambling.
Freed from the shackles of debt, everyone is a financial equal.
This global revolution and its fallout, realistically and stylistically portrayed on USA Network’s Mr. Robot, is one extreme example of what can happen when Robin Hood-minded hackers take on ”The Man.”
Hacktivism is defined as “the act of hacking, or breaking into a computer system, for a politically or socially motivated purpose.” It puts the emphasis on activism, and hacktivists are tech-savvy individuals who want to change the world, for better or worse.
“Hacktivists want to display their disapproval of the government, a company or some sort of event, and they use hacking to do that,” explained Bruce Snell, cybersecurity and privacy director at Intel. “For example, there have been a lot of hacktivist events surrounding the situation between the Ukraine and Russia, a lot during the Arab Spring.”
Today, people live much of their lives online, from using digital banking services to posting selfies on social media. Taking activism online, Snell said, is simply a part of this natural evolution. He sees parallels between hacktivism and traditional protests where people stage sit-ins or march with placards.
Activism Goes Digital
Snell said there’s a growing culture to use social media as a form of protest, noting how people often turn to Facebook or Twitter to share their political views through articles, posts or memes.
“It’s a medium more people have engaged with and flocked to in order to put their messages out,” Snell said. “On the hacktivism side, these groups are able to reach a much bigger audience than they would carrying signs.”
Moving activism online also means hacktivists are able to support on-the-ground efforts — think Occupy Wall Street marches — with an online call to action, said Matthew Rosenquist, a cybersecurity strategist and evangelist at Intel.
He said hacktivists will broadcast news about a cause in order to increase the physical presence at a protest. In other cases, hacktivists have used their skills to circumvent a country’s cyber firewalls in order to share information outside its borders, bringing even more attention to a cause.
“Activists have been around long before the digital world expanded and touched all our lives,” Rosenquist said. As more people consume news online, the internet becomes a more important platform. “Hacktivists get a great return on investment for their efforts.”
While the internet may be the ideal target for hacktivists, their attacks take many forms. Some hacktivists take over a celebrity’s Twitter account and share views contrary to what the celebrity believes. Others, like the Guardians of Peace who perpetrated the 2014 Sony Pictures hack, steal damaging or embarrassing information and expose it to the world.
A more common method involves website defacement or takeovers, said Rosenquist. This category of hacks can involve anything from a distributed denial of service (DDoS) that uses many computers to flood a website or system until it shuts down, to simply changing a website’s text or images to support a specific cause.
Hacktivists may also redirect URLs so that anyone looking to shop on a superstore’s website, for example, might end up at a page about the evils of big-box retailers.
Rosenquist said that while hacktivists tend to be motivated by “what-needs-to-be-done syndrome,” not financial gain, some hacktivism can include theft or destruction of resources.
“Hypothetically, hacktivists who want to save the whales might track down whaling companies and disrupt their supply chain or interfere with the boat’s navigation in order to prevent them from doing their activities,” he said. “Then they will make their hack public in order to encourage society to change its opinion on the issue.”
In the case of the fsociety attack on Mr. Robot, the hack required real-world theft (co-opting a minivan, copying an employee’s ID badge information), a raspberry pi (a small programmable computer that was attached to a thermostat to overheat and create a disastrous fire) and a dash of made-for-TV magic to take down the multinational conglomerate, E(vil) Corp.
The Evolution of Hacktivism
The varied range of attacks make sense when considering the overwhelming diversity of the hacktivists themselves.
“Today there are thousands of hacktivist groups worldwide supporting practically every cause imaginable,” Dorothy Denning wrote in “The Rise of Hacktivism.”
She said some groups associate themselves with a particular country, government or other political entity, others express no particular allegiance. The way these groups operate, however, has changed over time.
Rosenquist said early hacktivists were mostly small, tight-knit groups, but today, they often work in large, loosely connected confederations where the individual members act independently and anonymously in case someone gets caught.
Hacktivists don’t even need to be particularly tech-savvy. Snell said groups like Anonymous can provide tools like the High Orbit Ion Cannon to less technically adept members (known as script kiddies) before giving them a target to attack.
Newer hacktivist groups also tend to be more brand-conscious than their predecessors.
“When you think about Robin Hood, you immediately imagine someone who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Technically a criminal, but largely viewed as a righteous hero,” said Rosenquist. “Preconceived expectations can establish credibility, empathy and support from audiences.”
Some hacktivist groups strive to position themselves in a similar way, Rosenquist said, building a reputation through their identity.
Probably the most well-known hacktivist collective, Anonymous, does precisely this: When people see Guy Fawkes masks or an illustration of a man with a question mark for a head, they know exactly who carried out the hack. Depending on how a person feels about Anonymous will dictate whether the cause seems worthy of support.
On Mr. Robot, the hackers also wear a mask before delivering messages to the public. In the show, supporters march through Manhattan wearing them as a show of solidarity for the group’s debt-erasing cause.
Whether hacktivism is a “good” or “bad” thing, a “political protest” or a “crime” will remain a matter of opinion, but one thing is certain: It’s only going to get more prevalent.
“There will always be people who are upset with the system,” Snell said. “I would expect to see hacktivism incidents rise over the next few years as we come to do more of our daily activities online.”
Rosenquist agrees these factors will play a significant role in helping hacktivism continue to gain traction, especially now that the media is paying attention to large-scale data breaches.
“These activists will be using digital tech and media to their advantage,” he said. “As the world changes to a digital format, this will be the playing field.”