An introduction to hactivism

Internet attacks on highly visible corporations and government agencies have flooded the media over the past year. These attacks are often sensationalized (as is the goal of the media) and just as often misunderstood by the public because of the reasons for and methods of attack.

Media reports of attacks on major corporations such as Sony, Lockheed and PBS, as well as government entities like the Department of Defense have created a new vocabulary, fueled by reporters looking to grab the attention of the public with catchy phrases and buzz words.

Once uncommon terms like hacking, cyber attacks, malware, trojans, Internet security and hacktivist are now part of our everyday conversations.

Of all of the new terms added to our vocabulary, the term hacking has gained perhaps the most visibility. Once a term used for unstructured computer software development and discovery, hacking now takes on a much more sinister definition.

Though hacking was, at one time, thought of in both acceptable and destructive (malicious) forms, with the media primarily reporting on hacking with an evil intent, “malicious hacking” has been shortened to just the word “hacking”, with the acceptable versions of hacking being forgotten except by computer specialists who still practice it.

Reasons for malicious hacking

Attacks on Internet facilities are launched for many reasons – the primary three being greed, social activism and social acceptance. I believe greed is the most easily understood form of hacking. Internet commerce is a billion dollar industry—a level where greed and cyber crime is to be expected.

Social acceptance as a reason for hacking is a bit harder to understand. That is until one considers the enormous video game industry, much of it online, where interaction and competition amongst peers is a substantial driver.

Hacking, where techniques and successes are shared amongst peers, may be considered a far more interesting form of video gaming, where the fields of play, commercial websites, are far less structured than any video game, and the risks of failure (getting caught) are real and may add another level of excitement.

Hacking for social activism reasons (termed “hacktivism”, a joining of the terms “hacker” and “activist”), may be the most interesting form of hacking to study. On the surface, stereotypes of hackers—withdrawn, socially awkward individuals looking for an escape from society—do not lend themselves to the illusion of a desire to improve society, especially if such actions include a risk to the hacker himself.

But hacktivists do exist and, at least within the framework of media reporting, are active within the hacking communities.

With my own professional focus on web security and a personal interest in the seemingly newly minted practice of hacktivism, I have been led to a somewhat eclectic study of the merger of these two. Though intriguing, I would like to propose that hacktivism in concept is hardly new. It is just a different face on a small segment of society’s desire to change their world through rebellious actions—in this case through Internet technology.

In the following weeks my posts will explore the history of hacktivism and the groups that made the term famous, including Anonymous. Are today’s self-proclaimed hacktivist groups this generation’s activists or just malicious hackers looking for justification? Continue reading next week and join the conversation on Twitter.

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Alan Wlasuk is a managing partner of 403 Web Security, a full service, secure Web application development company. A Bell Labs Fellow award-winner with 18+ years of experience building secure web applications, Alan is an expert in Web security - from evaluation to Web development and remediation.