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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.