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The Face of Hacktivism: How Did It Start, and How It’s Going

Protests, sit-ins, and boycotts have been an effective means of voicing one’s displeasure at the status quo for centuries. Now that we spend much of our time engaging with the digital world, activism has had to follow. The hacktivists that arose from– this shift have strong convictions and the means to do real damage to individuals, companies, and even governments.


This article dives deeply into the subject of hacktivism. It sheds light on hacktivists' motivations and means and offers a brief history of their most famous activities.

The Face Of Hacktivism

Key Takeaways

  • Hacktivism involves using computer technologies to convey a message or advocate for a cause, distinguishing itself from traditional hacking by its aim of social or political change.
  • Hacktivists pursue diverse objectives, including promoting free speech, challenging authoritarian regimes, and exposing injustices. Some operate similarly to white hat hackers, uncovering cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
  • Hacktivists utilize various tactics, such as Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks to disrupt websites, whistleblowing to expose irregularities, and potentially unethical actions like doxxing and data breaches.
  • The term "hacktivism" gained prominence in the late 90s and early 00s, notably during the rise of groups like Anonymous and WikiLeaks. Significant events include actions during the Arab Spring and high-profile breaches targeting organizations and governments.
  • Hacktivism has evolved, with contemporary groups exhibiting hierarchical structures and pursuing specific political agendas, particularly evident in state-sanctioned cyber warfare incidents.
  • Individuals are advised to enhance their privacy and security measures to mitigate potential risks posed by hacktivist activities, including using encrypted VPNs and employing strong passwords with two-factor authentication.

What Is Hacktivism?

Hacktivism is the act of leveraging computer technologies to send a message or promote an agenda. Unlike traditional hackers who are in it only for money and notoriety, hacktivists carry their actions out in hopes of drawing attention to injustice or bringing about social change.


It’s not certain when the portmanteau first came to be. Most sources attribute its first appearance to an email written by a member of the Cult of the Dead Cow collective called Omega. The term would appear sporadically throughout the late 90s and early 00s, cementing its place in the global consciousness during Anonymous’s heyday.


What Are Hacktivists’ Goals?

It’s important not to think about hacktivism as a single unified activity. Rather, different hacktivist collectives dedicate themselves to accomplishing specific goals. Some promote free speech and wish to spread democracy inside authoritarian regimes. Others bear a grudge against governments and capitalism in general.


A subset of hacktivists operates similarly to white hat hackers. The governments and companies whose systems they break into don't sanction such "pen testing." Still, they benefit from the cybersecurity insights such vigilantes share.


What Methods Do Hacktivists Use?

Again, this depends on the group, its goals, and how appropriate a specific action is. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) is among the most common and effective hacktivist tools. It's useful for overwhelming a website and stopping its normal operations. Such disruptive and damaging effects make it clear that no one is out of hacktivists' reach.


Whistleblowers are a popular type of hacktivist who brings to light irregularities and injustices. They put their safety on the line to expose documents their owners would never disclose to the public. Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are the most prominent examples, but they’re far from alone.


Some types of hacktivism blur the ethics line, while others are nothing more than acts of cybercrime perpetrated for a supposedly worthy cause. It’s not uncommon for hacktivists to dox individuals, infect websites with malware, or steal personal information through data breaches.


The Origins and History of Hacktivism

The first known hacktivist incident predates the word by half a decade. It involved a worm that infected computers at NASA and the US Department of Energy. The worm protested the use of nuclear energy and weapons, calling them “nuclear killers.”


The 90s saw the formation of the first hacktivist groups who sought to take action against politicians and governments. Others, like the Hong Kong Blondes, targeted governments and telecommunications operators to allow more users access to the fledgling internet.


Hacktivist groups started taking off in the '00s. The decade birthed Anonymous, the most famous and active hacktivist collective in existence. They gained notoriety by taking on the Church of Scientology in response to a YouTube video takedown. That was to be the first of their many publicized exploits. WikiLeaks started operating, too, uncovering everything from fraudulent banking activities to war crimes that might not have seen the light of day otherwise.


The first half of the 2010s saw the most hacktivist involvement to date. 2011 was a particularly turbulent year, marked by the Arab Spring. Protests in Tunisia sparked an upheaval across the Middle East, and Anonymous lent their aid. Specifically, they and a group called Telecomix thwarted governments’ attempts to suppress online news sources and cut communication via social media. The two groups collaborated to provide protesters with alternate servers and other safe means of communication.


Other notable incidents from this period include the LulzSec group’s takedown of the CIA's website, several data breaches affecting Sony, and the release of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign emails.


Shifting Strategies in the Modern Cyberscape

Hacktivism saw a lull in activity for several years, only to burst back onto the scene in the form of state-sanctioned cyber war following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. While past greats like Anonymous still exist and contribute, modern hacktivist groups take on a new form.


They’re much more beholden to a political agenda, as one can see from the many new groups that sprung up on either side of the Russia – Ukraine and Israel – Hamas conflicts. They're hierarchical, better organized, and even have a flair for PR.


How Not to Become Collateral Damage

While they tend to pick their targets based on importance and impact, ordinary netizens aren’t necessarily safe from hacktivists’ methods. Protecting yourself from them boils down to becoming more privacy- and security-conscious.


You can start by securing your connection with an encrypted VPN. Doing so maintains your anonymity while ensuring no one can access your secure information as you enter it. Moreover, VPNs let you bypass geo-restrictions and access alternate sources of information. But is the usage of VPNs permissible under the law, though? It might depend on your location, so don’t forget to find this out before downloading the app.


Data breaches are a regular hacktivism side effect. Make sure to protect all your accounts with long, complex passwords and update them regularly to maintain their relevance. Adding more security on top via two-factor authentication is also indispensable for your most important accounts.


Conclusion

Hacktivism has gone a long way from a snippet of code sent from someone's basement to today's highly organized and partisan groups. We don't yet know what shape future hacktivist efforts will take, but it's clear a fundamental change is already underway.


FAQ'S

Q: What is Hacktivism?

A: Hacktivism involves using computer technologies for activism purposes, aiming to raise awareness or effect social or political change.


Q. What Are Hacktivists' Goals?

A: Hacktivist groups have diverse goals, including promoting free speech, exposing injustice, or challenging authoritarian regimes and capitalism.


Q: What Methods Do Hacktivists Use?

A: Hacktivists employ various methods, such as Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, whistleblowing, or cyberattacks to achieve their objectives.


Q: What is the History of Hacktivism?

A: Hacktivism dates back to incidents like the 90s worm protesting nuclear energy. The 2000s saw the rise of prominent groups like Anonymous and WikiLeaks.


Q: How Has Hacktivism Evolved?

A: Hacktivism has evolved from decentralized groups like Anonymous to more organized, politically motivated collectives engaged in state-sanctioned cyber warfare.


Q: How Can Individuals Protect Themselves from Hacktivism?

A: Individuals can enhance their online security by using encrypted VPNs, employing strong passwords and two-factor authentication, and staying informed about potential threats.

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Ravi Shah

About the author

Ravi Shah


Ravi is the head of Content Strategy at iFixScreens Corporate. With over a decade of experience writing technical content for his readers, Ravi has helped thousands of readers with helpful content, tips, and tricks. He mainly writes content related to gadget repairs, such as iPhones, Smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

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