What Is Hacktivism?

Hacktivism is a social or political activist act that is carried out by breaking into and wreaking havoc on a secure computer system. Hacktivism is a mix of “hacking” and “activism” and is said to have been coined by the hacktivist group Cult of the Dead Cow.

Key Takeaways

  • Hacktivism involves breaking into a computer system and making changes that affect a person or organization.
  • Targets range from religious organizations to drug dealers and pedophiles.
  • Some activists, such as Occupy Wall Street and the Church of Scientology protestors, use hacktivism in addition to in-person protests.
  • Hacktivists use a wide range of techniques to work towards their goals including doxing, denial of service attacks (DoS), anonymous blogging, information leaks, and website replication.
  • Hacktivism’s goals include circumventing government censorship by helping citizens get around national firewalls (or helping protestors organize) and using social media platforms to promote human rights.
  • Some of the most widely known hacktivist groups include Anonymous, Legion of Doom (LOD), Masters of Deception (MOD), and Chaos Computer Club.

Understanding Hacktivism

Hacktivism is usually directed at corporate or government targets. The people or groups that carry out hacktivism are referred to as hacktivists. Hacktivists’ targets include religious organizations, terrorists, drug dealers, and pedophiles.

An example of hacktivism is a denial of service attack (DoS) which shuts down a system to prevent customer access. Other examples involve providing citizens with access to government-censored web pages or providing privacy-protected means of communication to threatened groups (such as Syrians during the Arab Spring).

Hacktivists’ methods may include distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which flood a website or email address with so much traffic that it temporarily shuts down; data theft; website defacement; computer viruses and worms that spread protest messages; taking over social media accounts, and stealing and disclosing sensitive data.

There is disagreement within the hacktivist community over which techniques are appropriate and which are not. For example, while hacktivists may claim supporting free speech as an important cause, the use of DoS attacks, website defacements, and data theft that hinder or prevent free speech may be at odds with that goal.

The methods hacktivists use are illegal and are a form of cybercrime. Yet they often are not prosecuted because they are rarely investigated by law enforcement. It can be difficult for law enforcement to identify the hackers and damages that ensue tend to be minor.

Hacktivist attacks themselves are not violent and don’t put protestors at risk of physical harm, unlike participating in a street protest, but hacktivism might incite violence in some cases.

Hacktivism also makes it possible to support geographically distant causes without having to travel there and allows geographically dispersed people with common goals to unite and act in support of a shared goal.

Hacktivism may be used as a substitute for or complement to traditional forms of activism such as sit-ins and protest marches. Occupy Wall Street and the Church of Scientology protests involved both the physical presence of supporters in the streets and online attacks.

Types of Hacktivism

Hacktivists use a wide range of tools and techniques to work towards their goals. They can include actions like:

  • Doxing: In this method, hacktivists gather sensitive information about a specific person or organization and make it public.
  • Blogging anonymously: This tactic is primarily used by whistleblowers, journalists, and activists to bring light to a specific issue while maintaining privacy.
  • DoS and DDoS attacks: This tactic aims to flood targeted computer systems or networks to prevent users from accessing them.
  • Information leaks: In this tactic, an insider source with access to sensitive or classified information (that implicates a specific individual or organization) makes it public.
  • Website replication: This method seeks to mirror a legitimate website, using a slightly different URL, to circumvent censorship rules.

Hacktivism Goals

Hacktivism’s goals include the following: 

  • Circumventing government censorship by helping citizens get around national firewalls or helping protestors to organize online
  • Using social media platforms to promote human rights or help censored citizens of oppressive regimes communicate with the outside world
  • Taking down government websites that pose a danger to politically active citizens
  • Protecting free speech online
  • Promoting access to information
  • Supporting citizen uprisings
  • Assisting computer users in protecting their privacy and avoiding surveillance through secure and anonymous networks such as Tor and the Signal messaging app
  • Disrupting corporate or government power
  • Helping illegal immigrants cross borders safely
  • Supporting democracy
  • Protesting globalization and capitalism
  • Protesting acts of war
  • Halting the financing of terrorism.

Hacktivist Groups

While there are thousands of hacktivist groups worldwide, some of the better-known from the 1990s to the present day include Cult of the Dead Cow, Hacktivismo, Lulz Security (Lulz Sec), Anonymous, Legion of Doom, The Electronic Disturbance Theater, Young Intelligent Hackers Against Terrorism, Syrian Electronic Army, and AnonGhost.

Let's take a brief look at some of the major hacktivist groups.

Anonymous

Anonymous is quite possibly the most iconic and well-known hacktivist group, widely recognized for its cyber-attacks against governments and government institutions, large corporations, and even the Church of Scientology.

Legion of Doom (LOD)

Created in 1984, Legion of Doom grew to be one of the most influential hacking groups in technological history. The group is best known for publishing the Hacker Manifesto, often cited as the inspiration for a flood of new hackers.

Masters of Deception (MOD)

Based out of New York, the Masters of Deception (MOD) is best known for hacking into and exploiting a large number of telephone companies. All members were eventually indicted in 1992 in federal court.

Chaos Computer Club

With roughly 5,500 registered members, Chaos Computer Club is Europe's largest association of hackers. Generally speaking, Chaos Computer Club advocates for government transparency and freedom of information.

How to Prevent Hacktivism

In order to prevent hacktivism, consider some of the following steps:

  • List and identify all sensitive/critical information in your environment
  • Perform an audit of your environment on a regular basis
  • Implement multi-factor authentication systems for log-in websites
  • Invest in security software or even a firewall
  • Educate all staff and contractors/vendors on the correct storage, management, and deletion of data
  • Implement response procedures and policies in the case of an actual attack

Real-World Example of Hacktivism

One of the most well-known examples of hacktivism in real life is when Julian Assange, founder of the infamous WikiLeaks, leaked a collection of emails between Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager.

The emails were said to have come from a group of Russian hackers whose objective was to tilt the election in Donald Trump's favor.

The leaked emails negatively impacted the Clinton campaign, with many blaming her loss largely on the incident. The Department of Justice ultimately indicted 12 Russian hackers for the email hacks.

WikiLeaks' general purpose is the defense of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our historical record, and the support of peoples' right to create new history.