What happens when a politician conveniently knows how to hack into a multinational corporation’s database or when a computer programmer suddenly adopts a strong political ideology?
For a while, it was safe to assume that politicians and computer programmers could never be the same people. To a politician, the term “code” meant a system of laws that one either has to follow or fight against and to a programmer, the term “protest” could only possibly refer to stubbornly refusing to use Internet Explorer until the bugs in its security are fixed.
So what happens when a politician conveniently knows how to hack into a multinational corporation’s database or when a computer programmer suddenly adopts a strong political ideology? “Hacktivism” is what happens – the limits of technology are stretched to promote political ideals. Are these online renegades justified in their cause or do they simply get away with it because of their anonymity?
Hacktivism began tamely enough in the early 90s when hackers would recode expensive software in order to make it freely available to the public. That eventually led to the widespread development of legal open-source software and initiatives like Freenet (a peer-to-peer file-sharing website that protects its users’ identities and is resistant to censorship) and the GNU Project (one of the world’s leading open-source software providers). However, over time, hacking became more politically motivated, often tackling issues like capitalism, censorship and even Scientology. Nowadays, hacktivism is almost exclusively political. The most prominent example being Anonymous, which has progressed from being a banner-term for a group of internet hackers to being an entire school of thought.
Last year, Anonymous was vilified for taking the Occupy Movement to the internet and threatening to black out Facebook (they were not successful). Second-year computer engineering student Johan Grobelaar believes that most hackers choose to hide under Anonymous’s alias because it is easier. “Anonymous is the hero right now,” he says. “If I was brave enough to take my political views to the web, I’d be honoured to let [Anonymous] take the credit.”
However, as empowering as using your hacking skills to fight for whatever you believe in may be, the question remains: is it ethical? As Anonymous proves, most digital vigilantes practise their hacking under the cover of obscurity. Very few hacktivists are ever caught and brought to justice. Hacktivism transgressions can range from altering a corporation’s website home page to hacking into strictly guarded government mainframes and procuring government secrets. According to Dr James Baillie, chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Portland, most hacktivists claim that their actions should be seen as civil disobedience: the motive usually justifies the means.
The world was appalled early last year when Egypt’s internet servers were reportedly shut down by the government ahead of one of the country’s largest planned protests against then totalitarian president Hosni Mubarak. Internet censorship is still a big problem in China and according to Amnesty International, the country “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.”
But in a few cases, such as Anonymous’s, protesters get caught up in their rogue mentality and begin to believe that since they cannot be seen and identified, they’re untouchable. This isn’t hard to believe when, for example, at the beginning of the year, Anonymous disabled a number of websites that belonged to the FBI, Universal Music Group, the Recording Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America after the peer-to-peer file-sharing website Megaupload was shut down as part of America’s ongoing battle against online piracy. No one was convicted for the attacks.
Moreover, hacktivism’s biggest asset is how global it is. Hacktivists in South Africa could be fighting battles for civilians in Afghanistan. Their mystery and potential omnipresence is what makes them both effective and dangerous.
With such lax laws and regulations when it comes to internet security, is the world safer with or without hacktivists? Second-year journalism student Malusi Mthembu says he doesn’t feel safe knowing a shrouded group of strangers have the ability to take down governments. “No one should have that much power. If it corrupts them, the noble causes they’re fighting for today could turn ugly tomorrow, and then we’ll have anarchy.”
Illustration: Ezelle van der Heever