From protests and sit-ins to doxxing and distributed denial-of-service attacks, a new kind of activism rose in the ranks. In 1996, cyber-activism gained a reputation and was given a new name: hacktivism. Consisting of breaking into a computer system for political, social, religious, or anarchistic reasons, hackers began to wage a war on information.
Proven to be powerful agents for change, virtual vigilantes built and deployed hacking tools for the agenda’s greater good. More about disruption than disobedience, there have been countless instances of political and social change as a result of hacktivist campaigns. Here we explore some of the most notable projects, the group responsible, and the results that followed.
Jump to the full timeline of campaigns.
Hacktivism is a form of non-violent digital activism where the motive is not, primarily, personal financial gain. Instead, hacktivist campaigns aim to achieve political, social, or religious justice in line with the group’s cause. Hackers use tactics such as doxxing, defacement, and denial-of-service to break into government or private organization systems.
Results often scrutinized, these agendas are carried out in the name of transparency claimed for the public good. Unlike typical hackers, these computer connoisseurs will often work in groups instead of alone. In the name of anonymity, these groups are typically fashioned as a decentralized network of individuals around the world.
Types of Hacktivism
Hacktivists carry out data breaches for more than monetary gain. Instead, their distinct agenda wages an informational war for political lean, social justice, religious intent, or anarchy.
- Political: Hacktivism as a form of political mobilization aims to lean or sway the population to the hacker’s agenda.
- Social: Social justice in hacktivism aims to bring about societal change.
- Religious: Hacktivism for a religious agenda aims to recruit or disavow a religious entity.
- Anarchist: Hackers can have an anarchist agenda to access or control civil infrastructure, military equipment, or the general population.
Six Most Infamous Campaigns by Influential Hacktivist Groups
Hacktivism is often anonymous, unlike traditional activism. Although plenty of groups work without ever revealing its members, there have been instances where someone couldn’t resist their claim to fame. Although not an exhaustive list, these are six of the most infamous campaigns that have shaped hacktivism in the past century. More influential campaigns are covered in the timeline below.
1. Black Lives Matter Movement
Anonymous, coined Anon, was silent for years following the relaunch of Operation Darknet in 2017. That is—until the group spoke out against police corruption following the death of George Floyd. The group has raised similar condemnations of police brutality in the past, following the deaths of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice.
In support of the major social and political movement Black Lives Matter, the group released a video on Twitter specifically criticizing the Minneapolis police department. “We do not trust your corrupted organization to carry out justice, so we will be exposing your many crimes to the world.”
Anon’s Twitter account exploded in popularity, with an influx of 3.5 million new followers in the days following the video. At the time of writing, the campaign consisted of a series of DDoS attacks that have briefly shut down the Minneapolis police department website, its parent website, and the Buffalo, New York, government site over the course of a weekend.
2. Collection of Clinton Emails Leaked
Julian Assange, founder and director of WikiLeaks created the site to shift “politically distorted language into a position of clarity.” In its existence, the group has released everything from documented corrupted investigations and the manual of operations at Guantanamo Bay. In 2016, the group released a series of emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) acquired by a group of Russian hackers in GRU.
WikiLeaks defines its mission as protection of freedom of speech and media publishing. It denotes that transparency creates a better society with more scrutiny and less corruption. The group leaked a collection of emails from the DNC, specifically between Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, said to have originated from Russian hackers to further the campaign in Donald Trump’s favor.
Hackers sent spear-phishing emails to employees of the Clinton campaign to steal the credentials of DNC members. The emails leaked significantly affected the Clinton campaign, and many have attributed to her resulting loss. Following the leak, the Department of Justice indicted 12 Russian hackers for the incident.
3. Attack on US Executive Branch
Allegedly associated with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian Electronic Army has carried out operations using spear-phishing and DDoS attack tactics to compromise government, media, and privately-held organizational websites. In 2016, the FBI charged two individuals affiliated with SEA with criminal conspiracy.
The Syrian Electronic Army aims to disavow “the massive distortion of facts about the recent uprising in Syria” and compromise computer systems and organizations deemed as a direct threat to the Syrian government. SEA also aims to collect information on Syrian enemy countries.
The group infiltrated U.S. government media, and private-sector organizations to steal credentials and perform DDoS and defacement attacks. The group successfully released a false tweet about an explosion in the White House which claimed to injure the President. The Dow briefly dropped 140 points after the tweet went live.
4. Project Chanology
Anonymous performed a DDoS attack on the Church of Scientology after the church attempted to remove a video of Tom Cruise voicing his affiliation with the organization. In-person protests followed with attendees wearing the infamous Guy Fawkes masks around the country.
Project Chanology attempts to combat web censorship by the Church of Scientology. The campaign was a protest against the organization and its members.
The campaign ran DDoS attacks to prevent access to the church’s websites. A series of prank calls and black faxes followed. Anon further exercised doxxing by distributing private documents stolen from Scientology computers over the Internet.
5. Hacktivismo Declaration
Hacktivismo is an offshoot of the hacker group, Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc). In its first public act of hacktivism, Hacktivismo released a declaration that elevated freedom of speech. The group explicitly attempted to not only engage in its civil disobedience but explain the reasons behind its attacks.
Hacktivismo wrote and released a declaration that cites the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The group released information in a FAQ that states “the main purpose was to cite some internationally recognized documents that equate access to information with human and political rights”.
The campaign created moral and legal grounds for future hacktivists to perform their campaigns. The group went on to release a Web browser, Peekabooty, that prevents censorship from nation-states that deny web access.
6. Worms Against Nuclear Killers
Believed to have been created by Melbourne-based hackers, “Electron” and “Phoenix”, W.A.N.K was the first glaringly apparent hacktivism attempt. At the time of its campaign, there was a hugely anti-nuclear sentiment in the country which fueled the attack.
The Realm created this attack as an anti-nuclear protest. Days before a NASA launch, the group attempted to shut down the DECnet computer network with a worm that defaced the devices.
The campaign consisted of two worms, W.A.N.K and OILZ, which contained bugs that prevented access to accounts and files and changed passwords. The worm exploited weak security in the system, identifying accounts that had passwords identical to the username.
A Timeline of Hacktivism
The term “hacktivism” was coined in 1996 by Omega, a member of the early hacktivist organization Cult of the Dead Cow. Although this new name solidified the importance of these events in history, it wasn’t the first instance of cyber-activism. In this timeline, we explore major events during the evolution of hacktivism in the last century.
What is hacktivism? Some may say its acts of heroes and vigilantes. Others will argue it’s the effect of cybercriminals performing digital attacks hiding behind the mask of online anonymity. In either regard, it’s clear that the political and social effects of these hackers are vast.