Today’s activists are as likely to sit in front of screens as they are to march in the streets carrying signs, but their efforts are no less sincere and their causes no less important. What is so-called hacktivism and where is it leading us? The experts weigh in. 

Hacking for good

Hacktivism has gotten a lot of attention lately with stories about WikiLeaks, the NSA scandal, the Arab Spring, and networks like Anonymous. Perspectives on hacktivism are shifting from negative to positive, and hacking itself tends to be less related to criminal activities and more and more utilized as a medium for expression.

What is hacktivism?

A combination of the words hacker and activism, hacktivism is “the act of hacking, or breaking into a computer system, for a politically or socially motivated purpose,” according to Margaret Rouse of WhatIs.com.

The history of hacktivism shows that the first digital activities leading to the disclosure of secret information were spearheaded by the hacker collective The Cult of Dead Cow in the 1980s. This and other networks aimed to keep citizens informed by increasing their knowledge of political and social issues.

Today, the Anonymous movement is one of the strongest international networks. Certainly since their 2008 “Message to Scientology” video against the Church, they have imposed themselves at the forefront of hacktivism and taken the Internet as their combat ground. “Their main actions consist of responding to any attempt to regulate the Internet,” as François Paget explains.

Ingredients for hacktivism

Hacktivism is built on an ecosystem of people, places, and ideas. These include:

The Hacker

According to TechTerms.com, a hacker is “someone who can gain unauthorized access to other computers.” But there is a fundamental distinction to be made between so-called white hat and black hat hackers. Techopedia explains: “A white hat hacker is a computer security specialist who breaks into protected systems and networks to test and assess their security. White hat hackers use their skills to improve security by exposing vulnerabilities before malicious hackers (known as black hat hackers) can detect and exploit them.”

The Hackerspace

Noisebridge, a famous hackerspace in the Mission District of San Francisco, defines hackerspaces (sometimes also called maker spaces) as “community-operated physical places where people can meet and work on their projects.” These spaces welcome everyone and allow for people to gather and take action around similar interests. Noisebridge runs a Tor exit node to enable online anonymity.

The Hackathon

Wikipedia refers to a hackathon, typically lasting between a day and a week, as a gathering in which computer programmers and others in software development, including designers, collaborate intensively on software projects (though occasionally there is also a hardware component). This video exemplifies a hackathon.

What’s next for hacktivism?

We asked five experts to weigh in on the future of hacktivism and what it means for their field.

For Society
For Society

“Hacktivists are the guardians of our digital freedoms,” says Stefania Milan, Assistant Professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands “Not only is hacktivism good for democracy, it is a form of democratic participation in itself. In the near future, we are likely to see the emergence of an army of hacktivists that can be readily mobilized in case of future threats, both to online and offline freedoms. Society ought to listen to the message of hacktivists, for it reminds us of the value of openness and of an uncensored internet.”

For Startups
For Startups

“The 1,600 hackerspaces all over the world are great places for people to explore and do what they love,” says Mitch Altman, Inventor of TV-B-Gone universal remote controls and co-founder of the Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco. “These communities will, of course, continue to spread and grow, leading, before long, to a million hackerspaces on the planet, providing opportunities for people to live lives they feel are worth living.”

For Society
For Society

“Hacktivists are the guardians of our digital freedoms,” says Stefania Milan, Assistant Professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands “Not only is hacktivism good for democracy, it is a form of democratic participation in itself. In the near future, we are likely to see the emergence of an army of hacktivists that can be readily mobilized in case of future threats, both to online and offline freedoms. Society ought to listen to the message of hacktivists, for it reminds us of the value of openness and of an uncensored internet.”

For Art
For Art

!Mediengruppe Bitnik are contemporary artists living in Zurich and London who use hacking as an artistic strategy.

“We call ourselves net.artists,” says this duo. “But like hacktivists, we do combine an in-depth understanding of our informational surroundings with lateral thinking. And it is here that the futures of the interwebz lie: We need to engage within networrrrrrrrks, to understand their technical, economic and political dimensions to ensure self-determined structures for society and space for us as artists to work in.”

For Startups
For Startups

“The 1,600 hackerspaces all over the world are great places for people to explore and do what they love,” says Mitch Altman, Inventor of TV-B-Gone universal remote controls and co-founder of the Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco. “These communities will, of course, continue to spread and grow, leading, before long, to a million hackerspaces on the planet, providing opportunities for people to live lives they feel are worth living.”

For Governments
For Governments

“When it comes to government, the hack is the new norm,” says  Hannes Gassert, a civic entrepreneur and community organizer who founded http://liip.ch and http://opendata.ch. “When blockade rules, all progress is a hack. When everybody’s just winging it all the time anyway, the hack is the way things are done. Bricolage is the new construction. So when it comes to hackers, we’re not at the fringes, we’re at the very center of society. Hackathons are mainstream, and your mom knows Anonymous. A hacktivist thus is the sorcerer’s apprentice that peeked behind the curtain – and found out there is no magic. Just hacks. And a vague idea of progress made of hacks.”

For Art
For Art

!Mediengruppe Bitnik are contemporary artists living in Zurich and London who use hacking as an artistic strategy.

“We call ourselves net.artists,” says this duo. “But like hacktivists, we do combine an in-depth understanding of our informational surroundings with lateral thinking. And it is here that the futures of the interwebz lie: We need to engage within networrrrrrrrks, to understand their technical, economic and political dimensions to ensure self-determined structures for society and space for us as artists to work in.”

For Journalists
For Journalists

“Digital whistleblowing is probably the most flourishing field where the cooperation between professional journalists and hackers can happen,” says Philip Di Salvo, a PhD Candidate at Università della Svizzera italiana and Web Editor at the European Journalism Observatory. “Journalists need to develop more skills in digital security and encryption to properly protect their sources and communications. It is crucial for newsrooms to start hiring hackers and for journalists themselves to develop basic coding skills to develop further ideas in computer-assisted reporting, data journalism, and online journalism at large.”

For Governments
For Governments

“When it comes to government, the hack is the new norm,” says  Hannes Gassert, a civic entrepreneur and community organizer who founded http://liip.ch and http://opendata.ch. “When blockade rules, all progress is a hack. When everybody’s just winging it all the time anyway, the hack is the way things are done. Bricolage is the new construction. So when it comes to hackers, we’re not at the fringes, we’re at the very center of society. Hackathons are mainstream, and your mom knows Anonymous. A hacktivist thus is the sorcerer’s apprentice that peeked behind the curtain – and found out there is no magic. Just hacks. And a vague idea of progress made of hacks.”

For Journalists
For Journalists

“Digital whistleblowing is probably the most flourishing field where the cooperation between professional journalists and hackers can happen,” says Philip Di Salvo, a PhD Candidate at Università della Svizzera italiana and Web Editor at the European Journalism Observatory. “Journalists need to develop more skills in digital security and encryption to properly protect their sources and communications. It is crucial for newsrooms to start hiring hackers and for journalists themselves to develop basic coding skills to develop further ideas in computer-assisted reporting, data journalism, and online journalism at large.”

 

Read more about projects related to security and privacy and join the conversation on hacktivism on July 10, 2014, at swissnex San Francisco during a discussion with Swiss artists and hacktivists !Mediengruppe Bitnik; April Glaser, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Andy Isaacson of Noisebridge; Thomas Maillart, SNF Fellow at UC Berkeley School of Information; and more.

Featured image is the  parcel equipped with a camera !Mediengruppe Bitnik sent to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. 

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