The internet has changed how we protest. Not only can people with common morals and goals now coordinate more quickly than ever before, but new connections and tools also make it easier for people to obtain information — sometimes by illegal or questionable means.

“This blending of hacking with activism, known as ‘hacktivism,’ has become increasingly prevalent and is now commonplace,” researcher Dorothy Denning, an inductee to the National Cyber Security Hall of Fame, wrote in a 2015 article in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. “Hacktivism is challenging international affairs, not only because it transcends borders, but also because it has become an instrument of national power.”

In the years since, hacktivism has played a major role in a range of national and international matters, including the 2016 U.S. elections. Groups like Anonymous, Wikileaks and the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) have become household names.

Meet the Players

Although hacktivism’s history is nearly as old as the World Wide Web, today the term is practically synonymous with the groups Anonymous and Wikileaks.

Anonymous

Anonymous began in 2003 on 4chan, a platform that allows for anonymous posting of messages, images and files. In 2004, a 4chan administrator took the site’s anonymity one step further by creating a protocol that signed every post “Anonymous,” writer and polymath Joshua Hehe notes.

What began as pranks, fueled by the ability to hide one’s identity while still claiming credit and social approval within the 4chan community, turned into more organized activism. In 2007, Anonymous members orchestrated a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack against white nationalist Hal Turner. In 2008, the group launched Project Chanology to protest the Church of Scientology, Hehe writes.

When Wikileaks lost its access to PayPal, Mastercard and Amazon in retaliation for its 2010 release of information on the Iraq War, Anonymous members responded by temporarily disabling PayPal’s and MasterCard’s websites.

In 2012, a self-described spokesperson for Anonymous was arrested in Dallas. According to the spokesperson’s lawyers, he had been detained on charges of threatening a federal agent, Jim Forsyth at Reuters reports. Arrests made during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011 and 2012 also weakened Anonymous, causing the group to fade from view in the latter part of the 2010s, Hehe writes.

Throughout its existence, Anonymous has had no formal structure or membership. Members are drawn to Anonymous because they see themselves as sharing the group’s goals, which include freeing information from restriction or censorship and promoting free speech, Patrick Putman at Cybersecurity Magazine says.

Wikileaks

Wikileaks has taken responsibility for a number of disclosures in the past decade-plus, beginning with its November 2007 release of a U.S. Army manual listing standard operating procedures for soldiers guarding inmates at Guantanamo Bay, David Welna at NPR writes.

Pfc Chelsea Manning was later convicted under the Espionage Act for providing the leaked information. In 2019, she was jailed again for refusing to testify to a grand jury about the contents of the information given to Wikileaks.

In 2010, Wikileaks stepped up its game. The group released hundreds of thousands of classified documents from the Pentagon and the State Department, Greg Myre at NPR writes. Over the next few years, the group released documents from various foreign governments; information on major trade deals; and documents from the National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and similar offices.

Wikileaks’ most notorious release, however, may be its July and October 2016 public postings of thousands of hacked emails from leaders of the Democratic National Committee and from John Podesta, who at the time was campaign chairman for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Office employees having argument during business meeting; hacktivism concept

The Rise and Fall of Hacktivism

Hacktivism took off between 2005 and 2016. During that time, “the number of large-scale, international hacking operations most commonly associated with hacktivism has risen astronomically,” according to a report by Recorded Future’s Insikt Group.

These large-scale attacks were carried out by larger groups, as well as by some states “operating under the guise of hacktivism to achieve geopolitical goals,” the report reads.

Because the internet connects so many data sources to one another, practically any information that is accessible via the internet is a potential target for hacktivists. Targets have included large entities like national governments and major corporations. They have also included local government entities like police departments, as well as hospitals.

“Many times hacktivists are most successful when going after these smaller sized organizations simply because they’re not prepared security-wise to defend themselves against sophisticated digital protests,” says Tim Fisher, general manager of LifeWire.

Data gathered by IBM between 2015 and 2019 also showed a decline in publicly disclosed hacktivist attacks. In that time, these attacks declined nearly 95 percent, from 35 publicized attacks in 2015 to only two in 2018.

The largest driver of the decline appears to be the lack of participation by groups once well-known for hacktivist attacks. “Most notably, the Anonymous collective and associated groups that identify themselves as Anonymous in different parts of the world perpetrated fewer attacks,” says Camille Singleton, IBM X-Force IRIS Global Security intelligence analyst.

Anonymous may be fragmenting in part due to increased interest by world governments in stopping the group’s hacktivist activities. Improving cybersecurity and arresting hackers whose identities become known have proven effective against smaller, less professional hacktivist groups in several countries, Isaiah Mayersen at TechSpot writes.

The Emergence of State-Sanctioned Hacktivism

There’s also a new player on the hacktivist scene: National governments.

While the loosely affiliated individuals who make up groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks have quieted down, nation-states have begun using many of the same tactics as part of strategic campaigns of espionage or disinformation. These nation-state groups may collaborate with individual hacktivists or launch their own campaigns.

Nation-states use many of the same tools as individual hacktivists, but they use them in different ways. For instance, while Anonymous frequently used DDoS attacks, nation-states rarely do. “Phishing, credential theft and more are tactics widely used by both criminals and nation-states as well as hacktivists,” says Priscilla Moriuchi, director of strategic threat development at Recorded Future.

Widely available tools for creating malware have made it easier for nation-states to carry out phishing and other scams. The fact that malware is widely used also makes it easier for countries to blend in, carrying out their plans without being identified as a nation-state, Moriuchi says.

hacktivism concept

The Future of Information: How Will We Know What We Know?

Anonymous and Wikileaks aren’t dead. Hacktivists who affiliate themselves with Anonymous, for instance, have taken credit for participating in political unrest in Sudan. Yet these groups aren’t having the impact they once did, says Adam Meyer, vice president of intelligence at Crowdstrike.

Hacktivists participated in the recent Sudanese revolution, carrying out repeated DDoS attacks against the Sudanese Ministry of Defense and leaking defense database information. “But I don’t know that it got broad attention,” Meyer says. “The widespread protests on the ground were making a much bigger impact.”

In 2019, at least one group affiliated with Anonymous, known as the Philippine Cyber Eagles, sought to retaliate for the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange by releasing a file that allegedly contains information stolen from various UK police agencies. On the same day, another Anonymous-related group took credit for a DDoS attack on Police.uk, a UK government website, says Jeff Stone, associate editor of CyberScoop.

The allure of hacktivism may arise in part from the fact that hacktivists tend to see and portray themselves as heroes. In a 2019 article for the International Journal for the Semiotics of Law, Sofia Alexopoulou and Antonia Pavli explore the ways in which Anonymous posits itself as a sort of online Robin Hood, standing up for the little guy in the face of extraordinarily powerful governments and organizations.

Although hacktivist leaks like the 2016 Wikileaks email dump may be happening less frequently, the internet remains a vehicle by which to obtain classified or otherwise protected information by illegal or improper means. So long as our lives are carried out online, our activism and fight to control knowledge will, as well.

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