Julian Assange, World Famous Hacktivist
Hacktivism–a portmanteau of the words “hack” and “activism”–despite all the recent news coverage, is not a new movement. In fact, it’s a concept that’s been around since the 1980s, and it typically used to achieve–or give awareness to–some political/social goal. It’s sometimes ambiguous in its intent, however, and always nonviolent. Alexandra Samuel, in her 2004 dissertation “Hacktivism and the Future of Political Participation,” defines it more specifically as follows:
“…The nonviolent use of illegal or legally ambiguous digital tools in pursuit of political ends. These tools include web site defacements, redirects, denial-of-service attacks, information theft, web site parodies, virtual sit-ins, virtual sabotage, and software development.”
Wikileaks founder and hacker Julian Assange, in an article for CounterPunch in 2006, documented the first recorded act of political hacking as occurring in 1989. The anti-nuclear WANK worm, which was traced to the son of Robert Morris, National Security Agent chief cryptographer, hit NASA computers on October 16, 1989. The welcome screen? “Your computer has been officially WANKed. You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war.”
Earlier this year, the Internet whistleblowing organization Wikileaks released thousands of classified diplomatic cables both on its website and to a a few internationally-known news organizations, like the U.K.’s The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel. Assange was simultaneously arrested on sexual assault charges. Finance giants Mastercard, Paypal, and Visa stopped hosting services that supported donations for Assange’s defense fund. Soon afterward, a group of decentralized computer hackers called Anonymous spearheaded a series of attacks — mainly Denial of Service attacks — on these entities. They even distributed a program for mass attacks that layhackers could use to send attacks. Accordring to ABC, over 50,000 people downloaded the programs.
Even more recently, the group LulzSec–which seems to have broken off from Anonymous–has committed a number of high-profile attacks, though theirs seem (at least at first glance) slightly less political. They claimed responsibility for (among other things) compromising the website accounts of Sony, Fox.com, Nintendo, and the U.S. Senate. The group mostly claims that it hacks “for the lulz” — that is, for pure entertainment purposes–but have occasionally performed politically-motivated hacks. (For example, they hacked PBS in retaliation for its alleged mistreatment of the material in a “Frontline” documentary about Wikileaks by posting a breaking news article stating that rapper Tupac Shakur was still alive and living in New Zealand.) They’ve also attacked government websites as part of “Operation Anti-Security,” an aggressive protest against Internet censorship. To give slight credit to the “ethical hacking” side of their mission, LulzSec also claims that their hacking shenanigans point out the security flaws in major websites–inspiring big companies to clean up their acts.
Perhaps needless to say, there’s no definitive consensus on what constitutes “good” or “bad” hacktivism, or whether the term itself has unilaterally positive connotations. It’s definitely controversial, however. While some “white hat hackers” — hackers hired by corporations only to expose security flaws in a way that is constructive for the company — detect the stunts pulled by some hacktivists, others praise them for what they see as direct action in one of its purest forms. One thing is for sure: with the meteoric rise of LulzSec and Anonymous, it’s inevitable that we’ll see a slew of imitators in no time at all.