"Hacktivist" redirects here. For the band, see Hacktivist (band).

In Internet activism, hacktivism or hactivism (a portmanteau of hack and activism) is the subversive use of computers and computer networks to promote a political agenda. With roots in hacker culture and hacker ethics, its ends are often related to the free speech, human rights, or freedom of information movements.[1]

The term was coined in 1994 by a Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) member known as "Omega" in an e-mail to the group.[2][3] Due to the variety of meanings of its root words, hacktivism is sometimes ambiguous 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.[4][5]


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 (anybody should be able to speak freely) into code. Hacking as a form of activism can be carried out though a network of activists, such as Anonymous and Wikileaks, or a through a singular activist, working in collaboration toward a common goals without an overarching authority figure.[6]

"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.[7]


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.[8] It can signal anticapitalist or political protest; it can denote anti-spam activists, security experts, or open source advocates.[9]

Some people describing themselves as hacktivists have taken to defacing websites for political reasons, such as attacking and defacing government websites as well as web sites of groups who oppose their ideology. 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.[10]

While some self-described hacktivists have engaged in DoS attacks, critics suggest 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. 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.[11]

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...".[12] 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.[13]


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.

  1. Code: Software and websites can achieve political purposes. 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.[14] 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...".[15] WikiLeaks is an example of a politically motivated website: it seeks to "keep governments open".[16]
  2. Website Mirroring: is used as a circumvention tool to bypass censorship blocks on websites. It is a technique that copies the content of a censored website and posts it to other domains and subdomains that are not censored.[17]
  3. Geo-bombing: a technique in which netizens add a geo-tag while editing YouTube videos so that the location of the video can be displayed in Google Earth.
  4. Anonymous blogging: 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.[18]
  5. RECAP is software that was written to 'liberate US case law' and make it freely available online. The software project takes the form of distributed document collection and archival.[19]

Notable hacktivist events

The earliest known instance of hacktivism as documented by Julian Assange is as follows:[20] "Hacktivism is at least as old as October 1989 when DOE, HEPNET and SPAN (NASA) connected VMS machines world wide were penetrated by the anti-nuclear WANK worm."

Notable Hacktivist Groups


Main article: Anonymous (group)

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 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.[37] Since then, Anonymous has participated in a great number of online projects such as Operation: Payback and Operation: Safe Winter.[38][39] However, while a great number of their projects have been for a charitable cause,[38] they have still gained notoriety from the media due to the nature of their work mostly consisting of illegal hacking.[40]

Following the Paris terror attacks in 2015, Anonymous posted a video declaring war on ISIS,[41] 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. .[42]

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 off a video that was not posted with the official Anonymous YouTube account. 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.[43] 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.[44]


WikiLeaks was founded in 2006 by Julian Assange as a "multi-national media organization and associated library."[45] WikiLeaks operated under the principle of "principled leaking," in order to fight societal corruption.[46] The not-for-profit functions as a whistleblowing organization that serves as an archive of classified documents. Originally, WikiLeaks was operated with the principles of a wiki site, meaning that users could post documents, edit others' documents, and help decide which materials were posted.

The first notable release of documents by Wikileaks was the release of Afghanistan War logs.[47] In July 2010, WikiLeaks published over 90,000 documents regarding the war in Afghanistan. Prior to the leak, WikiLeaks gave access to the documents to three newspapers. Though WikiLeaks did not identify a source for the documents, it was speculated that the leak came from a former army intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning. Manning was arrested in the July of 2010, but it is not confirmed that he was the source.[48] The war logs revealed 144 incidents of formerly unreported civilian casualties by the US military. The leak of the Afghanistan war logs was the greatest military leak in United States history.[49]

WikiLeaks is also notable for its leak of over 20,000 confidential emails and 8,000 file attachments from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), on July 22, 2016. The emails are specifically from the inboxes of seven prominent staffers of the DNC, and they were leaked as a searchable database.[50] The emails leaked showed instances of key DNC staffers working to undermine Senator Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign prior to primary elections, which was directly against the DNC's stated neutrality in primary elections. Examples of targeting Senator Bernie Sanders included targeting his religion, hoping for his dropping out of the race, constructing negative narratives about his campaign and more. Other emails revealed criticism of President Barack Obama for not helping more in fundraising.[51] Following the leak, DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced she would be stepping down from her position in the DNC.[52] On July 25, 2016, the Democratic National Convention opened without Wasserman Schultz. The DNC issued an apology to Sanders the same day the Democratic National Convention opened.[53]


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.[31] The group member's 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.[54]

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 Senate.gov website. The targeting of these entities typically involved gaining access to and downloading confidential user information, or defacing the website at hand.[55] Though the attacks carried out by LulzSec were 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.[56]

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.[57]

Related notions

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.[58][59] 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.[60] 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.[61]

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.[62]

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.

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.

The conflation of these two histories in the mid-to-late 1990s 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 collectivies, net.art 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.

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.[63]

See also


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Further reading

External links

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