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WHAT IS HACKTIVISM by The Hacktivist.Com
Hacktivism is the fusion of hacking and activism; a merger in which technically proficient hackers engage in electronic direct action in order to bring pressure on institutions engaged in unethical or criminal actions, particularly in relation to the Internet and computer technology. Hacktivism is the expression of hacker skills in the form of electronic direct action. Neither the tactics nor the objectives of hacktivism are static. Rather, hacktivism is a continually evolving recombinant and open form of activism\protest combined with a willingness to creatively solve the problem being addressed.

Since hacktivism is a recombinant initiative comprised of two divergent communities (hackers and activists) it is necessary to understand their respective backgrounds in order to analyze this historic merger and to examine its challenges and future capabilities. This may explain how hacktivism may or may not overcome both “hacker intolerance for the technologically impaired, and activist intolerance for those who are not politically correct”1 in order to become a secure network operating for social and political change worldwide.

The term hacker “seems to have been first adopted as a badge in the 1960s by the hacker culture surrounding TMRC and the MIT AI Lab.” 2 It is a term that represents a deep understanding of computer systems and networks and the ability to invent, modify, and refine such systems. It is a recombinant attitude through which promotes problem solving and creative instinct for it does not limit one's options to the possible. Moreover, it involves belief in “freedom and voluntary mutual help”.3 The hacker ethic formulated by Steven Levy in his 1984 book “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution” outlines the hacker tenets:

  1. Access to computers should be unlimited and total.
  2. All information should be free.
  3. Mistrust authority - promote decentralization.
  4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  5. You create art and beauty on a computer.
  6. Computers can change your life for the better.4
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These principles combined with technological skill have endowed hackers with the capability to create solutions and solve problems in a truly amazing way. Eric Raymond explains the successes and technological advancements created by hackers, creative solutions that benefit society:

There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest ARPAnet experiments. The members of this culture originated the term `hacker'. Hackers built the Internet. Hackers made the Unix operating system what it is today. Hackers run Usenet. Hackers make the World Wide Web work. If you are part of this culture, if you have contributed to it and other people in it know who you are and call you a hacker, you're a hacker.5

However, these developments coincided with the practice of “short-cuts” that extended to the use of unauthorized computer access. Bruce Sterling suggests that “Some off-the-cuff experience at computer intrusion was to be in the informal resume of most "hackers" and many future industry giants.” 6 Indeed a culture of computer intrusion developed along side the understanding that such intrusions would not involve malicious damage to the affected systems.

The anti-authoritarian and anti-bureaucratic sentiments have led hackers to believe that information should be freely accessible. Moreover, hackers abhor censorship especially when it is combined with mistrust of restrictive legislation that encroaches on free access to information and cherished electronic privacy. Thus a natural aversion to restrictive governments and predatory private institutions has developed. In Phrack magazine Dr. Crash explains that computer technology is being misused not by hackers but by governments and corporations:

The wonderful device meant to enrich life has become a weapon which dehumanizes people. To the government and large businesses, people are no more than disk space, and the government doesn't use computers to arrange aid for the poor, but to control nuclear death weapons.7

This sentiment is not an isolated rant. There is definitely a trend within hacker culture that not only focuses on technical aspects of computing but political aspects as well. In the “Hacker's Manifesto” the ment0r explains:

We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore... and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge... and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias... and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it's for our own good, yet we're the criminals.8

Whereas “In the 1960s, definitions of 'property' and 'privacy' had not yet been extended to cyberspace” the information economy of the 1990's has thrust hackers into an environment where cyberspace is increasingly becoming “privately-owned unreal-estate” subject to severe restrictions.9 Hackers faced serious questions and allegations of criminal behavior regarding computer intrusions. In fact, both the word “hacker” and hackers themselves have become nearly synonymous with computer criminality - however misguided it may be. As a result, there is now an array of words intended to highlight the difference between hackers and computer criminals. Persons who use hacker technology with the primary purpose of breaking into secured systems are known as “crackers”. But, Bruce Sterling explains that there is still plenty of confusion surrounded the term because “'hacker' is what computer intruders choose to call themselves.”10 The hacker\cracker debate aside, there has been antagonism between government\corporate restrictions and domination of computer technology and the hackers who want to ensure free access to information and prevent monopoly control and censorship of that technology.

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The integration of activism and computer\Internet technology has been easily accomplished. The new technology plays a complementary and beneficial role and seems to fit perfectly with existing activist networks. In fact, “Many non-governmental groups now depend on the Web and e-mail to motivate, activate and communicate their uncensored messages.”11 From its inception the Internet, and its predecessor ARPANET were designed to facilitate communications transfers. Although its initial function was linked to the military Bruce Sterling explains that “ARPANET's users had warped the computer-sharing network into a dedicated, high-speed, federally subsidized electronic post- office.”12 The dominant network traffic was “news and personal messages” and there was a proliferation of newsgroups.13 “There are no official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, no stockholders”14 and it is not unimaginable why activists saw this as a golden opportunity. Stephen Wray points out that “The origins of computerized activism extend back in pre-Web history to the mid 1980s.”15 Wray notes that the creation of PeaceNet, a text-based newsgroup service, in 1986 allowed “political activists to communicate with one another across international borders with relative ease and speed.”16

As the growth of the Internet skyrocketed in the early 1990s technology, such as the graphical web browser, was developed in order to allow the less technically proficient access to the Internet.17 This has allowed activists with little or no technical skills to utilise the benefits of digital communications. With the previous methods “telephone, fax or mail it was prohibitively expensive to share information or build links between different organisations.”18(The Economist Dec 11 1999 p 21) The organisational component revolves primarily around the use of email, which is essentially free. Email, and now instant messaging systems, allow for speedy interaction and exchange of information. The BBS system and real time chat also allow for online debates and discussions in which relevant data can be hyper-linked and accessed by the participants in no time at all. The convergence of meetings, debates, and research in one convenient and fast medium greatly enhances not only the organisational capabilities but also the ability of non-violent activists to react to a constantly changing world in a timely manner. In order to educate the public and promote causes and campaigns activist organisations have adopted the use of the web page. This allows the group to have an accessible, updateable, interactive, and international presence that was previously difficult if not nearly impossible to maintain.

Hacktivism is the fusion of the evolution of computer activism with the politicization of the hackers. The evolutionary progress of both communities has put them in a position where they can compliment each other because they increasingly face the same institutions. The fusion has emboldened each community and provides a conduit for electronic activism. Oxblood Ruffin of the cDc explains:

Hacktivism forges conscience with technology and girds us against the disagreeable nature of conflict. It allows us to mount better arguments, rally unseen allies, and take on any tyranny.19

The methodology of hacktivism is being developed and thus subject to change. Hacktivism could be as simple as posting banned or censored material on the Internet. However, the media rarely reports such events and hacktivists have taken to “bending” the law in order to attract attention to particular causes. Indeed, there is a strong relationship between hacktivism and civil disobedience since both thrive on the edge of legality - some would indeed say illegality. This dichotomy is well articulated by CountZero of L0pht & cDc:

"Hacktivism" is the evolution of activism in a wired, global community. Using hacking "techniques" to achieve activist goals. And like "real world" activism, sometimes "hacktivism" involves breaking the law.....spraypainting slogans on a public wall vs. altering a website...both are the same level, in my mind. Also, what some people call "hacktivism" is, in my mind, really "information warfare." InfoWar is about nuking your enemy..stifling their expression...and that's something that "hacktivism" definitely is NOT.20

The debate surrounding the tactics of hacktivism (especially in the media) have focused on web site defacements. (In addition to's defaced web page mirror there is a website that catalogues politically motivated defacements.) Additionally, the use of email bombs, viruses, worms, and denial of service methods have been included by some as hacktivist tactics.

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The actualization of politicized hacking continues to occur primarily in the form of web site defacement - although this would more properly be labelled as “cracking” since it involves illegal computer access and the alteration of data. While there is major objection to and contestation of the motivation and methodology of such activities some major events are:

These are some of the often quoted and publicized cases cited as examples of hacktivism. Since unauthorized access can be sensationalized cases like these seem to be prominent in the media.

Hacktivism gives expression to electronic civil disobedience through the capability to actualize both blockade and trespass, conducted in a manner that reflects traditional street based civil disobedience. There have been two major electronic civil disobedience campaigns organized on the basis of denial of service techniques along with mass public participation. They are the FloodNet campaign by the Electronic Disturbance Theatre and the “virtual sit-in” organized by the electrohippies to coincide with street based demonstrations occurring in Seattle at against the World Trade Organization meeting.

Critiques of Hacktivism:
Some veteran hackers believe that hacktivism just provides “more ammunition for anti-hacker hysterics to demand get-tough measures, with little to show for the sacrifice.”21 Brian Martin of is quoted as saying, “Do these kids think that by defacing some Web sites, it's going to make the country change? I understand what they are doing, but they are deluding themselves if they think it is going to help.”22 Indeed, “Most infiltration into cyberspace has either been playful vandalism, politically misguided espionage, or personal revenge against a particular source of authority.”23 Furthermore many hackers denounce the denial of service strategy used in ECD campaigns and suggest better strategies. Oxblood Ruffin argues that “One does not make a better point in a public forum by shouting down one's opponent.”24 The debate surrounding hacktivism is quite vibrant and diverse.

From the activist perspective, hacktivists are considered to be “shadowy” and acting from behind the cover of anonminity.25 Some feel that it actually detracts from the activists cause. For example, when was domain-jacked and visitors were redirected to the director of HateWatch David Goldman objected, “This type of action, hacktivism, is not only [against] the First Amendment but it also takes away one of the greatest civil rights tools we have -- using the words of bigots against them”.26

In contrast others have spoken out on behalf of tactics such as web page defacement. Alex Fowler of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is quoted as saying, “Graffiti is about a space for the disenfranchised to cry out and inform those around them, even when anonymity has been forced upon them”27 in seemingly direct support of such tactics. Others, such as ZDNet's Kevin Poulsen distinguish between vandalism and hacktivism:

Vandalism is malicious destruction or damage, not artful and subversive tampering. The proof for protest is in the quality of the work, the clarity of the message, and the motives behind it.28

The discussion and critiques of hacktivism abound, but that is one of its strengths rater than a weakness. By widening the range of debate and possibilities the impossible becomes possible and solutions are created. This recombinant concept, hacktivism, is being defined and redefined and practice and theory evolve with actualization.

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Hacktivism vs activism
Hacktivism is not strictly the importation of activist techniques into the digital realm. Rather it is the expression of hacker skills in the form of electronic direct action. It acknowledges that neither the tactics nor the objectives of hacktivism are static. Rather, they must continually evolve in order to be effective. Thus a distinction is made between hackers engaged in activism and activists attempting utilize the technical aspects of hacking to mimic and rationalize traditional forms of activism. This sentiment is summed up by Oxblood Ruffin of the cDc:

Hacktivism is about using more eloquent arguments - whether of code or words - to construct a more perfect system. One does not become a hacktivist merely by inserting an "h" in front of the word activist or by looking backward to paradigms associated with industrial organization.29

Disruption (whether by computer break-ins on denial of service), in this regard, is no longer a viable option. Instead, it is argued that the focus of hacktivism should be shifted from electronic disruption to problem solution. Oxblood Ruffin explains:

Hacktivism is an open-source implosion. It takes the best of hacking culture, and the imperatives of the quantum community, and fuses a solution.30

Indeed, the evolution of technology and the development of political theory have clearly shown that effectiveness requires the ability to look to the future. To remain confined in the comfortable static bunkers is to renounce the ability to adapt for the better. That is, through creative thinking, practical solutions and applications, new and possibly more effective methods of Hacktivism\ECD can be developed.

An example the actualization of this line of thought is the work of the Cult of the Dead cow and the Hong Kong Blondes in trying to assist democracy activists in China. In addition the cDc is organizing a project called hacktivismo. "The specifics are still secret, but the group will reportedly write applications to defeat government content filters in totalitarian countries."31 A solution-oriented project like this will require a lot of time an effort but hacktivismo organizer Oxblood Ruffin assures that "hackers have a lot of stamina for harsh bug fixes when they believe in the program."32

The Future:
Although in its relative infancy, hacktivism has emerged as a vibrant, new mechanism to achieve social and political change, specifically by applying pressure to institutions engaged in unethical or criminal behavior and by drawing attention to specific cause and thus widening the range of debate surrounding relevant issues. However, in order to reach a higher level of effectiveness the bugs must be worked out of both hacktivist theory and methodology. This needs to be done in a open manner in which criticism is positive and constructive not malicious and destructive. Furthermore, the debate needs to extend beyond legitimization and protest but to focusing on problem solving through creative and critical thinking. Through this process, perhaps, the hacker\activist schism can be overcome thus creating a secure a stable hacktivist network.

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