Activism in America has a rich and vibrant history and the actions of American activists have resulted in sometimes dramatic and far-reaching social, government and industrial changes. By declaring themselves activists, hactivist groups Anonymous, LulzSec and WikiLeaks have entered a lofty arena full of history and significance.
In order to better understand the nature of hacktivism, it is important to consider this concept in a broader context. However, before I dive into the potentially controversial world of activism, I must say that I am apolitical by nature and not a historian by training. Please keep in mind that my intent is not to pass value judgment on other activists groups, but rather to provide a more in-depth discussion of hacktivism, using historical examples of activism.
Activism: A Historical Example
For comparison purposes, consider one of the country’s most renowned activist actions, the United States’ Civil Rights Movement. This movement, which ran between 1954 and 1965, was remarkable because of its passionate focus on desegregation and goal of achieving equal rights for African Americans, as well as the methods put in place to achieve these goals.
Its members, who were subject to arrest and violence, and who were even killed as a result of their actions, considered the Civil Rights cause even above their own safety. The members and leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were publically visible and open to retribution and attack. However, leaders of the American Civil Right movement followed the non-violent philosophies of Mohandas K. Gandhi and, as a result, even while facing violence, the movement was characterized by peaceful sit-ins and boycotts. The culmination of the Civil Right Movement was the 1963 peaceful march on Washington, D.C. of over 250,000 protestors.
While the Civil Right Movement emotionally polarized the United States, its early stages (pre-1966) were never characterized as anything but a peaceful rejection of America’s injustice against blacks. The actions of Civil Rights activists were never directed against persons or property.
When it comes to selflessness, as we compare today’s self-proclaimed Internet activist groups to historical activists, the US Civil Rights Movement may have set an unachievable standard. However, if an organization is positioning itself as activist in nature and justifying its actions as seeking betterment of society there is the unavoidable tendency to compare…
Unlike the US Civil Rights Movement and WikiLeaks (which we will consider below), the Anonymous hackivist organization does not appear to have central figures who set the tone and philosophical direction of the organization.
To reinforce the fragmented group mentality of Anonymous we start with an April 2, 2008 quote from Chris Landers from the Baltimore City Paper – it reads: “[Anonymous is] the first Internet-based superconsciousness. Anonymous is a group, in the sense that a flock of birds is a group. How do you know they’re a group? Because they’re traveling in the same direction. At any given moment, more birds could join, leave, peel off in another direction entirely.”
This is confirmed by a quote from an Anonymous member in that same article: “We have this agenda that we all agree on and we all coordinate and act, but all act independently toward it, without any want for recognition. We just want to get something that we feel is important done…”
To explore Anonymous’ actions and impact on the cyber world we can look at some of their hacking actions. A few such actions that demonstrate Anonymous’ desire to change the world for the better:
- “Project Chanology” In 2008, upset with the Church of Scientology’s decision to remove a leaked video of Tom Cruise, something they view as Internet censorship, Anonymous declared a “War on Scientology,” recruiting ten of thousands of individuals and organizing protests in 93 cities worldwide.
- 2009 Iranian Election Protests In June 2009 Anonymous, and various Iranian hackers, launched an Iranian Green Party Support site called “Anonymous Iran.” The site drew over 22,000 supporters and allowed information supporting Iranian protesters to be exchanged around the world.
- The Australian Cyber Attacks In February 2010, as the Australian Government planned Internet filtering legislation; Anonymous uploaded a YouTube video addressing the Australian Prime Minster and an Australian TV news service. This video contained cyber threats including denial-of-service attack (DDoS) on Australian government websites.
- Arab Spring Activities During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Anonymous hacked and took offline Egyptian government websites, along with the website of the ruling National Democratic Party. The sites remained offline until President Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
It is remarkable that, even with the coordination difficulty of a diverse and distributed membership—one without a well defined leadership, Anonymous has been, for the most part, consistent in its philosophies.
Even given the significant number of activist supporting actions, the question as to whether Anonymous is truly an activist organization is difficult to answer. There is no doubt that Anonymous has been a solid participant in a diverse a diverse set of social, political, economic, or environmental change efforts. The question, however, is whether Anonymous is truly an agent of change or merely an organization whose primary role is to react to and support what they believe are repressive or freedom restrictive actions. My impressions are that Anonymous does not initiate actions for change, but is more than happy to and capable of supporting those that do.
I won’t pretend to be clever enough to sort out whether Anonymous’ role qualifies them as a legitimate activist group, but as I use my Civil Rights activist metric I am pushed towards a comparison to the many 1950’s journalist who wrote in favor of the Civil Rights, but did put their safety and livelihood on the line. Like Anonymous, I am sure many of these journalist were passionate and their work was important to the Civil Rights movement, but with the true risk taking Civil Rights leaders I doubt the changes we see today would have happened.
Any speculation that LulzSec might qualify as a hacktivist organization quickly disappears when their activities and public taunting of their victims are examined.
Consider a few of LulzSec actions:
- PBS Hack In May 2011, LulzSec, unhappy with PBS’s the less than complementary interview shown of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, hacked the American public television network Public Broadcast Service website replacing web pages and posting a fake story that suggested that murdered rapper Tupac Shakur was alive and living in New Zealand.
- AT&T Data Dump In June 2011, LulzSec released a huge data dump of seemingly unrelated identify signatures and documents. This included information on 90,000 AT&T phone users, 750,000 usernames and passwords from social and game networks and private documents from various corporations.
- PlayStation Network Breach LulzSec’s most notable hack targeted Sony in April 2011. This breach encompassed tens of millions of PlayStation Network (PSN) user accounts and closed the entire PSN network down for weeks. Uncharacteristically of LulzSec (and other hacktivist organizations), the Sony attack also included the theft of a large quantity of credit cards, reportedly with the offering the sale of these cards on the open cybercrime market.
Obviously, there is neither a consistency nor a focus to these attacks. Nor is there any indication that LulzSec will have any lasting impact on the cyber world.
My impression is that LulzSec is made up of a small group (they have often indicated this number is six) of semi-professional hackers on an ego trip. They justify their actions in odd ways, taunt their targets and play towards other hackers and the media.
Unlike Anonymous and LulzSec, WikiLeaks is a public facing organization with prominent, visible leadership figures; its use of the Internet is a vehicle for the display and dissemination of information, not as a means of disguising its members to avoid prosecution. WikiLeaks charter is well stated:
“The broader principles on which our work is based are the defense of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history.”
Perhaps because of its clear focus and centralized leadership WikiLeaks has consistently demonstrated its desire and ability to fulfill its charter. A few of the more prominent WikiLeaks actions include:
- The April 2011 release of files related to the Guantanamo prison, revealing the innocence of over 150 Afghan and Pakistani detainees.
- The release of a classified video of the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike which showed two Reuters employees being fired at.
- The release of approximately 400,000 documents relating to the Iraq War in October 2010.
Due to the organization’s actions, a number of governments have tried (often without success) to put measures in place to guard against Wikileaks:
- The Australian Communications and Media Authority added WikiLeaks to their proposed blacklist of sites that will be blocked for all Australians
- The Thailand Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) currently censors WikiLeaks in Thailand
- Access to WikiLeaks is currently blocked in the United States Library of Congress.
- The White House Office of Management and Budget sent a memo forbidding all unauthorized federal government employees and contractors from accessing classified documents publicly available on WikiLeaks
- The Obama administration has asked Britain, Germany and Australia (among others) to consider bringing criminal charges against Assange for the Afghan war leaks and to help limit Assange’s travels across international borders
Unlike LulzSec, WikiLeaks has not strayed from its charter, either in action or direct reporting of its involvement in political events. Unlike both Anonymous and LulzSec, WikiLeaks uses the Internet as a tool in its activism role, not the sole vehicle of its power. The difference in a threat to take down a government website as compared to releasing huge numbers of documents that could possibly embarrass or end the career of government figures is enormous.
By all metrics, WikiLeaks is truly a self and publicly proclaimed activist group, with its leadership risking prosecution public disdain as a result of their actions. I believe we can compare WikiLeaks with past, important activist groups and view it as an organization that will continue to have an impact across the world.
Activists of the Future
The world has changed in ways we never have imagined even five years ago. Our Internet centric lives are ever more dependent on the viability and security of financial, government, service and product entities on the Internet. We are, literately, being held hostage by organizations and cyber gangs that can invade and disrupt these Internet entities.
Activist groups have achieved their successes over the years not so much by the changes that they have directly implemented, but rather by the changes that have occurred as a result of a larger public being awareness of the changes that are needed. In order words, it’s not that actions of activists that cause changes, but rather the awareness brought about by these actions.
The Internet provides activists (and hacktivists) with the ability to attract public that highlight the goals of true hacktivists or, as in the case of LulzSec, make us wonder who these children are that pretend to be important as they wreck havoc solely because they can.