Anarchist hackers

Internet activism, hacktivism, or hactivism (a portmanteau of hack and activism), is the use of computer-based techniques such as hacking as a form of civil disobedience to promote a political agenda or social change.[1] With roots in hacker culture and hacker ethics, its ends are often related to free speech, human rights, or freedom of information movements.[2]

Hacktivist activities span many political ideals and issues. Freenet, a peer-to-peer platform for censorship-resistant communication, is a prime example of translating political thought and freedom of speech into code. Hacking as a form of activism can be carried out by a singular activist or through a network of activists, such as Anonymous and WikiLeaks, working in collaboration toward common goals without an overarching authority figure.[3][4]

"Hacktivism" is a controversial term with several meanings. The word was coined to characterize electronic direct action as working toward social change by combining programming skills with critical thinking. But just as hack can sometimes mean cyber crime, hacktivism can be used to mean activism that is malicious, destructive, and undermining the security of the Internet as a technical, economic, and political platform.[5] In comparison to previous forms of social activism, hacktivism has had unprecedented success, bringing in more participants, using more tools, and having more influence in that it has the ability to alter elections, begin conflicts, and take down businesses.[6]

According to the United States 2020-2022 Counterintelligence Strategy, in addition to state adversaries and transnational criminal organizations, "ideologically motivated entities such as hacktivists, leaktivists, and public disclosure organizations, also pose significant threats".[7][8]

Origins and definitions

Writer Jason Sack first used the term hacktivism in a 1995 article in conceptualizing New Media artist Shu Lea Cheang's film Fresh Kill.[9][10] However, the term is frequently attributed to the Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) member "Omega," who used it in a 1996 e-mail to the group.[11][12] Due to the variety of meanings of its root words, the definition of hacktivism is nebulous and there exists significant disagreement over the kinds of activities and purposes it encompasses. Some definitions include acts of cyberterrorism while others simply reaffirm the use of technological hacking to effect social change.[13][14]

Forms and methods

Self-proclaimed "hacktivists" often work anonymously, sometimes operating in groups while other times operating as a lone wolf with several cyber-personas all corresponding to one activist[15] within the cyberactivism umbrella that has been gaining public interest and power in pop-culture. Hacktivists generally operate under apolitical ideals and express uninhibited ideas or abuse without being scrutinized by society while representing or defending themselves publicly under an anonymous identity giving them a sense of power in the cyberactivism community[citation needed].

In order to carry out their operations, hacktivists might create new tools; or integrate or use a variety of software tools readily available on the Internet. One class of hacktivist activities includes increasing the accessibility of others to take politically motivated action online[citation needed].

Repertoire of contention of hacktivism includes among others:

  1. Code: Software and websites can achieve political goals. For example, the encryption software PGP can be used to secure communications; PGP's author, Phil Zimmermann said he distributed it first to the peace movement.[16] Jim Warren suggests PGP's wide dissemination was in response to Senate Bill 266, authored by Senators Biden and DeConcini, which demanded that "...communications systems permit the government to obtain the plain text contents of voice, data, and other communications...".[17] WikiLeaks is an example of a politically motivated website: it seeks to "keep governments open".[18]
  2. Mirroring: Website mirroring is used as a circumvention tool in order to bypass various censorship blocks on websites. This technique copies the contents of a censored website and disseminates it on other domains and sub-domains that are not censored.[19] Document mirroring, similar to website mirroring, is a technique that focuses on backing up various documents and other works. RECAP is software that was written with the purpose to 'liberate US case law' and make it openly available online. The software project takes the form of distributed document collection and archival.[20] Major mirroring projects include initiatives such as the Internet Archive and Wikisource.
  3. Anonymity: A method of speaking out to a wide audience about human rights issues, government oppression, etc. that utilizes various web tools such as free and/or disposable email accounts, IP masking, and blogging software to preserve a high level of anonymity.[21]
  4. Doxing: The practice in which private and/or confidential documents and records are hacked into and made public. Hacktivists see this as a form of assured transparency, experts claim it is harassment.[22]
  5. Denial-of-service attacks: These attacks, commonly referred to as DoS attacks, use large arrays of personal and public computers that hackers take control of via malware executable files usually transmitted through email attachments or website links. After taking control, these computers act like a herd of zombies, redirecting their network traffic to one website, with the intention of overloading servers and taking a website offline.[22]
  6. Virtual sit-ins: Similar to DoS attacks but executed by individuals rather than software, a large number of protesters visit a targeted website and rapidly load pages to overwhelm the site with network traffic to slow the site or take it offline.[23]
  7. Website defacements: Hackers infiltrate a web server to replace a specific web page with one of their own, usually to convey a specific message.[24][23]
  8. Website redirects: This method involves changing the address of a website within the server so would-be visitors of the site are redirected to a site created by the perpetrator, typically to denounce the original site.[23]
  9. Geo-bombing: A technique in which netizens add a geo-tag while editing YouTube videos so that the location of the video can be seen in Google Earth.[25]
  10. Protestware: The use of malware to promote a social cause or protest.[26] Protestware is self-inflicted by a project's maintainer in order to spread a message; most commonly in a disruptive manner. The term was popularized during the Russo-Ukrainian War after the peacenotwar supply chain attack on the npm ecosystem.[27]


Depending on who is using the term, hacktivism can be a politically motivated technology hack, a constructive form of anarchic civil disobedience, or an undefined anti-systemic gesture.[28] It can signal anticapitalist or political protest; it can denote anti-spam activists, security experts, or open source advocates.[29]

Some people[who?] describing themselves as hacktivists have taken to defacing websites for political reasons, such as attacking and defacing websites of governments and those who oppose their ideology.[30] Others, such as Oxblood Ruffin (the "foreign affairs minister" of Cult of the Dead Cow and Hacktivismo), have argued forcefully against definitions of hacktivism that include web defacements or denial-of-service attacks.[31]

Hacktivism is often seen as shadowy due to its anonymity, commonly attributed to the work of fringe groups and outlying members of society.[15] The lack of responsible parties to be held accountable for the social-media attacks performed by hactivists has created implications in corporate and federal security measures both on and offline.[22]

While some self-described hacktivists[who?] have engaged in DoS attacks, critics suggest[who?] that DoS attacks are an attack on free speech and that they have unintended consequences. DoS attacks waste resources and they can lead to a "DoS war" that nobody will win[citation needed]. In 2006, Blue Security attempted to automate a DoS attack against spammers; this led to a massive DoS attack against Blue Security which knocked them, their old ISP and their DNS provider off the Internet, destroying their business.[32]

Following denial-of-service attacks by Anonymous on multiple sites, in reprisal for the apparent suppression of WikiLeaks, John Perry Barlow, a founding member of the EFF, said "I support freedom of expression, no matter whose, so I oppose DDoS attacks regardless of their target... they're the poison gas of cyberspace...".[33] On the other hand, Jay Leiderman, an attorney for many hacktivists, argues that DDoS can be a legitimate form of protest speech in situations that are reasonably limited in time, place and manner.[34]

Notable hacktivist events

See also: Timeline of events associated with Anonymous

Notable hacktivist people/groups


Main article: WikiLeaks

The video released by WikiLeaks, showing the slaying of Reuters employee Namir Noor-Eldeen and a dozen other civilians by a U.S. helicopter. Content may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.

WikiLeaks is a media organisation and publisher founded in 2006. It operates as a non-profit and is funded by donations[72] and media partnerships. It has published classified documents and other media provided by anonymous sources.[73] It was founded by Julian Assange, an Australian editor, publisher, and activist, who is currently challenging extradition to the United States over his work with WikiLeaks.[74] Since September 2018, Kristinn Hrafnsson has served as its editor-in-chief.[75][76] Its website states that it has released more than ten million documents and associated analyses.[77] WikiLeaks' most recent publication was in 2021, and its most recent publication of original documents was in 2019.[78] Beginning in November 2022, many of the documents on the organisation's website could not be accessed.[78][79][80][81]

WikiLeaks has released document caches and media that exposed serious violations of human rights and civil liberties by various governments. It released footage, which it titled Collateral Murder, of the 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike, in which Iraqi Reuters journalists and several civilians were killed by a U.S. helicopter crew.[82] WikiLeaks has also published leaks such as diplomatic cables from the United States and Saudi Arabia,[83][84] emails from the governments of Syria[85][86] and Turkey,[87][88][89] corruption in Kenya[90][91] and at Samherji.[92] WikiLeaks has also published documents exposing cyber warfare and surveillance tools created by the CIA,[93][94] and surveillance of the French president by the National Security Agency.[95][96] During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, WikiLeaks released emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and from Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, showing that the party's national committee had effectively acted as an arm of the Clinton campaign during the primaries, seeking to undercut the campaign of Bernie Sanders. These releases resulted in the resignation of the chairwoman of the DNC and caused significant harm to the Clinton campaign.[97] During the campaign, WikiLeaks promoted false conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party and the murder of Seth Rich.[98][99][100]

WikiLeaks has won a number of awards and has been commended for exposing state and corporate secrets, increasing transparency, assisting freedom of the press, and enhancing democratic discourse while challenging powerful institutions. WikiLeaks and some of its supporters say the organisation's publications have a perfect record of publishing authentic documents. The organisation has been the target of campaigns to discredit it, including aborted ones by Palantir and HBGary. WikiLeaks has also had its donation systems disrupted by problems with its payment processors. As a result, the Wau Holland Foundation helps process WikiLeaks' donations.

The organisation has been criticised for inadequately curating some of its content and violating the personal privacy of individuals. WikiLeaks has, for instance, revealed Social Security numbers, medical information, credit card numbers and details of suicide attempts.[101][102][103] News organisations, activists, journalists and former members have also criticised the organisation over allegations of anti-Clinton and pro-Trump bias, various associations with the Russian government, buying and selling of leaks, and a lack of internal transparency. Journalists have also criticised the organisation for promotion of false flag conspiracy theories, and what they describe as exaggerated and misleading descriptions of the contents of leaks. The CIA defined the organisation as a "non-state hostile intelligence service" after the release of Vault 7.[104]


Main article: Anonymous (group)

The Guy Fawkes mask is commonly used by Anonymous.

Perhaps the most prolific and well known hacktivist group, Anonymous has been prominent and prevalent in many major online hacks over the past decade. Anonymous is a decentralized group that originated on the forums of 4chan during 2003, but didn't rise to prominence until 2008 when they directly attacked the Church of Scientology in a massive DoS attack.[105] Since then, Anonymous has participated in a great number of online projects such as Operation: Payback and Operation: Safe Winter.[106][107] However, while a great number of their projects have been for a charitable cause,[106] they have still gained notoriety from the media due to the nature of their work mostly consisting of illegal hacking.[108]

Following the Paris terror attacks in 2015, Anonymous posted a video declaring war on ISIS,[109] the terror group that claimed responsibility for the attacks. Since declaring war on ISIS, Anonymous since identified several Twitter accounts associated with the movement in order to stop the distribution of ISIS propaganda. However, Anonymous fell under heavy criticism when Twitter issued a statement calling the lists Anonymous had compiled "wildly inaccurate," as it contained accounts of journalists and academics rather than members of ISIS.[110]

Anonymous has also been involved with the Black Lives Matter movement. Early in July 2015, there was a rumor circulating that Anonymous was calling for a Day of Rage protests in retaliation for the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, which would entail violent protests and riots. This rumor was based on a video that was not posted with the official Anonymous YouTube account.[citation needed] None of the Twitter accounts associated with Anonymous had tweeted anything in relation to a Day of Rage, and the rumors were identical to past rumors that had circulated in 2014 following the death of Mike Brown.[111] Instead, on July 15, a Twitter account associated with Anonymous posted a series of tweets calling for a day of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The Twitter account used the hashtag "#FridayofSolidarity" to coordinate protests across the nation, and emphasized the fact that the Friday of Solidarity was intended for peaceful protests. The account also stated that the group was unaware of any Day of Rage plans.[112]

In February 2017 the group took down more than 10,000 sites on the Dark web related to child porn.[2]


DkD[||, a French cyberhacktivist, was arrested by the OCLCTIC (office central de lutte contre la criminalité liée aux technologies de l’information et de la communication), in March 2003. DkD[|| defaced more than 2000 pages, many were governments and US military sites. Eric Voulleminot of the Regional Service of Judicial Police in Lille classified the young hacker as "the most wanted hacktivist in France"[113]

DkD[|| was a very known defacer in the underground for his political view, doing his defacements for various political reasons. In response to his arrest, The Ghost Boys defaced many sites using the “Free DkD[||!!” slogan.[114][115]


Main article: LulzSec

In May 2011, five members of Anonymous formed the hacktivist group Lulz Security, otherwise known as LulzSec. LulzSec's name originated from the conjunction of the internet slang term "lulz", meaning laughs, and "sec", meaning security.[47] The group members used specific handles to identify themselves on Internet Relay Channels, the most notable being: "Sabu," "Kayla," "T-Flow," "Topiary," "AVUnit," and "Pwnsauce." Though the members of LulzSec would spend up to 20 hours a day in communication, they did not know one another personally, nor did they share personal information. For example, once the members' identities were revealed, "T-Flow" was revealed to be 15 years old. Other members, on the basis of his advanced coding ability, thought he was around 30 years old.[116]

One of the first notable targets that LulzSec pursued was HBGary, which was performed in response to a claim made by the technology security company that it had identified members of Anonymous. Following this, the members of LulzSec targeted an array of companies and entities, including but not limited to: Fox Television, Tribune Company, PBS, Sony, Nintendo, and the website. The targeting of these entities typically involved gaining access to and downloading confidential user information, or defacing the website at hand.[117] LulzSec while not as strongly political as those typical of WikiLeaks or Anonymous, they shared similar sentiments for the freedom of information. One of their distinctly politically driven attacks involved targeting the Arizona State Police in response to new immigration laws.[118]

The group's first attack that garnered significant government attention was in 2011, when they collectively took down a website of the FBI. Following the incident, the leader of LulzSec, "Sabu," was identified as Hector Xavier Monsegur by the FBI, and he was the first of the group to be arrested. Immediately following his arrest, Monsegur admitted to criminal activity. He then began his cooperation with the US government, helping FBI authorities to arrest 8 of his co-conspirators, prevent 300 potential cyber attacks, and helped to identify vulnerabilities in existing computer systems. In August 2011, Monsegur pleaded guilty to "computer hacking conspiracy, computer hacking, computer hacking in furtherance of fraud, conspiracy to commit access device fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft pursuant to a cooperation agreement with the government." He served a total of one year and seven months and was charged a $1,200 fine.[119]

Related practices

See also: Civic hacking and Electronic civil disobedience

Culture jamming

Hacking has been sometime described as a form of culture jamming.[120]: 88  This term refers to the practice of subverting and criticizing political messages as well as media culture with the aim of challenging the status quo. It is often targeted toward subliminal thought processes taking place in the viewers with the goal of raising awareness as well as causing a paradigm shift. Culture jamming takes many forms including billboard hacking, broadcast signal intrusion, ad hoc art performances, simulated legal transgressions,[121] memes, and artivism.[citation needed][122]

The term "culture jamming" was first coined in 1984 by American musician Donald Joyce of the band Negativland.[123] However, some speculation remains as to when the practice of culture jamming first began. Social researcher Vince Carducci believes culture jamming can be traced back to the 1950s with European social activist group Situationist International. Author and cultural critic Mark Dery believes medieval carnival is the earliest form of culture jamming as a way to subvert the social hierarchy at the time.[citation needed]

Culture jamming is sometimes confused with acts of vandalism. However, unlike culture jamming, the main goal of vandalism is to cause destruction with any political themes being of lesser importance. Artivism usually has the most questionable nature as a form of culture jamming because defacement of property is usually involved.[citation needed]

Media hacking

Media hacking refers to the usage of various electronic media in an innovative or otherwise abnormal fashion for the purpose of conveying a message to as large a number of people as possible, primarily achieved via the World Wide Web.[124][125] A popular and effective means of media hacking is posting on a blog, as one is usually controlled by one or more independent individuals, uninfluenced by outside parties. The concept of social bookmarking, as well as Web-based Internet forums, may cause such a message to be seen by users of other sites as well, increasing its total reach.

Media hacking is commonly employed for political purposes, by both political parties and political dissidents. A good example of this is the 2008 US Election, in which both the Democratic and Republican parties used a wide variety of different media in order to convey relevant messages to an increasingly Internet-oriented audience.[126] At the same time, political dissidents used blogs and other social media like Twitter in order to reply on an individual basis to the presidential candidates. In particular, sites like Twitter are proving important means in gauging popular support for the candidates, though the site is often used for dissident purposes rather than a show of positive support.[127]

Mobile technology has also become subject to media hacking for political purposes. SMS has been widely used by political dissidents as a means of quickly and effectively organising smart mobs for political action. This has been most effective in the Philippines, where SMS media hacking has twice had a significant impact on whether or not the country's Presidents are elected or removed from office.[128]

Reality hacking

Reality hacking is any phenomenon that emerges from the nonviolent use of illegal or legally ambiguous digital tools in pursuit of politically, socially, or culturally subversive ends. These tools include website defacements, URL redirections, denial-of-service attacks, information theft, web-site parodies, virtual sit-ins, and virtual sabotage.[citation needed]

Art movements such as Fluxus and Happenings in the 1970s created a climate of receptibility in regard to loose-knit organizations and group activities where spontaneity, a return to primitivist behavior, and an ethics where activities and socially engaged art practices became tantamount to aesthetic concerns.[clarification needed]

The conflation of these two histories in the mid-to-late 1990s [citation needed] resulted in cross-overs between virtual sit-ins, electronic civil disobedience, denial-of-service attacks, as well as mass protests in relation to groups like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The rise of collectives, groups, and those concerned with the fluid interchange of technology and real life (often from an environmental concern) gave birth to the practice of "reality hacking".

Reality hacking relies on tweaking the everyday communications most easily available to individuals with the purpose of awakening the political and community conscience of the larger population. The term first came into use among New York and San Francisco artists, but has since been adopted by a school of political activists centered around culture jamming.

In fiction

The 1999 science fiction-action film The Matrix, among others, popularized the simulation hypothesis — the suggestion that reality is in fact a simulation of which those affected by the simulants are generally unaware. In this context, "reality hacking" is reading and understanding the code which represents the activity of the simulated reality environment (such as Matrix digital rain) and also modifying it in order to bend the laws of physics or otherwise modify the simulated reality.

Reality hacking as a mystical practice is explored in the Gothic-Punk aesthetics-inspired White Wolf urban fantasy role-playing game Mage: The Ascension. In this game, the Reality Coders (also known as Reality Hackers or Reality Crackers) are a faction within the Virtual Adepts, a secret society of mages whose magick revolves around digital technology. They are dedicated to bringing the benefits of cyberspace to real space. To do this, they had to identify, for lack of a better term, the "source code" that allows our Universe to function. And that is what they have been doing ever since. Coders infiltrated a number of levels of society in order to gather the greatest compilation of knowledge ever seen. One of the Coders' more overt agendas is to acclimate the masses to the world that is to come. They spread Virtual Adept ideas through video games and a whole spate of "reality shows" that mimic virtual reality far more than "real" reality. The Reality Coders consider themselves the future of the Virtual Adepts, creating a world in the image of visionaries like Grant Morrison or Terence McKenna.[citation needed]

In a location-based game (also known as a pervasive game), reality hacking refers to tapping into phenomena that exist in the real world, and tying them into the game story universe.[129]

Academic interpretations

There have been various academic approaches to deal with hacktivism and urban hacking. In 2010, Günther Friesinger, Johannes Grenzfurthner and Thomas Ballhausen published an entire reader dedicated to the subject. They state: "Urban spaces became battlefields, signifiers have been invaded, new structures have been established: Netculture replaced counterculture in most parts and also focused on the everchanging environments of the modern city. Important questions have been brought up to date and reasked, taking current positions and discourses into account. The major question still remains, namely how to create culturally based resistance under the influence of capitalistic pressure and conservative politics."[130]

See also


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Further reading