Emmanuel Goldstein | Hacktivism and the Hacker Promise

By Emmanuel Goldstein

While the term “hacktivism” was first coined in 1994, the concept extends back much further. We can agree that the primary definition of hacktivism involves the subversive use of computers and/or computer networks to further societal/political change. Perhaps the first truly massive example of this, occurring while the Internet was still in its infancy, was the WANK computer worm from Australia, which struck computers over a network called DECnet in 1989. The message was simple: “You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war,” a quote from Australian band Midnight Oil, who were known for their political activism. It was signed as “Worms Against Nuclear Killers” which is how it became known as the WANK Worm. No actual damage was done here, except for causing some panic and spreading an anti-nuclear message.

If we exclude computer networks from the mix, we can find even earlier examples. In 1986, a disgruntled engineer used special equipment to jam the satellite signal of HBO and superimposed a message protesting the imposition of subscriber fees for satellite dish owners. For months, the world wondered who the mysterious Captain Midnight was who had taken control of the channel for nearly five minutes and gotten his message of dissent out.

We can go back even further and look at the actions of the people known as phone phreaks. These were telephone enthusiasts who had figured out in the 1950s and 1960s how to use the Bell System to make free phone calls using devices known as blue boxes. There was precious little the phone company could do to thwart this since the entire process relied upon a design flaw in their system. While some were only in it for the free calls, many phone phreaks saw this as a form of liberation of technology – a means of equalizing access for everyone – and they sought to spread the word to the masses. In 1971, activists led by Abbie Hoffman began publishing a newsletter known as YIPL (Youth International Party Line), which published information on how to get access to free technology, something they strongly believed people were entitled to. They accessed and used whatever technology they could find to get their message out for free or for cheap: phones, Xerox machines, postage meters, etc. For all intents and purposes, they were hackers without the computers.

For as long as technology has existed, there have been people who have attempted to use it without authorization to get a political message out or to alter our society. If we add radio broadcasting and printing presses into the equation, examples of pure hacktivism stretch back centuries. Today’s technology simply makes it more noticeable.

As publishers of a magazine called 2600 that focused on technology, particularly the security vulnerabilities, the concept of hacktivism existed in our world well before its actual definition. In fact, the existence of the magazine itself came about by using typesetting equipment and copiers that didn’t belong to us, similar to YIPL. We spread the news of our existence through computer bulletin board systems (BBSes) in the 1980s while using all sorts of creative methods to place long distance calls. The purpose, as with hacktivists everywhere, was to get the word out and to change the way things worked. Access to technology simply wasn’t a given in this era. Oftentimes, the only way to get that access, to learn, and to be heard was to use alternative methods. Playing by the rules just wasn’t working for many.

Over the years, we learned how to refine this tactic into very specific actions. Probably the most significant of these was the launch of the Free Kevin movement. Kevin Mitnick was a notorious hacker, skilled in computers, telephones, and the art of “social engineering” (getting people to reveal information to someone who has absolutely no business possessing it). While Mitnick had several run-ins with the law because of this, he was never actually known to have caused damage or to have used his skills for personal gain. It was primarily the pursuit of knowledge that fueled him, something many in the hacker community could identify with and few in the mainstream could understand.

In 1995, Mitnick was arrested in North Carolina, accused of hacking into cellular phone companies to see their source code. He would be held in prison for years and the promise of a trial kept getting put off. He wasn’t allowed access to the evidence against him, and prosecutors made it clear that they intended to make his life miserable for as long as they could, mostly because he had embarrassed them due to their inability to find him for so long. The final straw came when it was revealed that Miramax would be releasing a movie about Mitnick that made him into a super villain and even gave him a fictitious trial where he was found guilty. The injustice of this quickly became apparent to most who took the time to study the case. But that didn’t do much to get the word out to the public or to get Mitnick his trial.

Activist tactics were soon adopted by the hacker community, with protests staged in front of Miramax offices and federal facilities. And a new tactic was employed: the hacking of web pages. While it was relatively easy in the 1990s to take over a target website, the true challenge came in using that ability to convey a message of importance. Since we now had a message as well as the necessary skills, it didn’t take too long.

On December 8th, 1997, Yahoo! was hacked with a message demanding the release of Mitnick, along with the threat of a virus being unleashed if he wasn’t. This didn’t do much to improve the image of hackers, but it was a step up from the usual web page hacks that simply displayed messages of bravado.

Then, on September 13th, 1998, The New York Times was hit by a group calling themselves “Hackers for Girlies” who placed text on their website saying things like “0UR C0MMENTS ARE M0RE ‘LEET THAN 0UR TEXT. DOWNLOAD THE SOURCE T0 TH1S PAGE AND P0NDER 0UR W1ZD0M.” Maturity issues aside, the overall message called attention to the Mitnick case by using the website of a newspaper that hadn’t been covering the story. Not only that, but this was the paper whose reporter had aided in Mitnick’s capture years earlier. (In fact, the movie being protested had come from the book that reporter had subsequently written.) At that point, they became the story. This was an act of hacktivism that changed the conversation and used the resources of an adversary in order to do it.

There is a particular allure to the idea of hacktivism, since it brings with it much of the same satisfaction that traditional activism can achieve without the physical risk to one’s safety or the inconvenience of leaving one’s bedroom. Of course, not all actions get the attention they desire and there is, in fact, considerable risk involved in a society where hacking is seen by some as tantamount to terrorism. And of course, whenever there is movement in one direction, there is resistance to that movement. Throughout the existence of 2600, whenever we have taken a stand on something considered even mildly political, we’ve been met with opposing opinions and, more significantly, opposition to becoming involved in the discussion at all.

In 2007, in response to a reader poll, a significant number of readers (we estimate somewhere in the 20-30 percent range) said we should leave the “politics” out of our magazine. Of all of the responses we received back, not a single one defined what was meant by “politics” within our pages. But it’s widely seen as any discussion of anything beyond mere technical content.

Confronting issues makes people uncomfortable, and it’s always easier to avoid them and focus on the mundane instead. Activists from all areas are pressured to just keep quiet and leave the “politics” to the people in charge, probably some of the worst conceivable advice they could ever receive. Athletes are told to shut up and dribble, actors to not step out of the entertainment box, musicians to create music that doesn’t make us think too much. What this does is amplify the importance of what those who do step out of the comfort zone say and do.

Criticizing policy is a vital part of our society and, if we quell that kind of discussion, we wind up with an even worse problem than what we were criticizing in the first place. There is no movement in history that hasn’t been told that “this is not the right time” or “you are not the right people” or “pushing too hard will result in a backlash.” Movements tied to hacktivism are no exception. Add to that usual pushback the fear and hostility much of the public and government have towards hackers, and engaging in hacktivism becomes even more risky and undesirable for all but the most dedicated. The few hacktivists who wind up getting a message through are the ones we’re all listening to.

It was when we began to fight back through organizing, demonstrating, and petitioning that many of us realized that we had a true voice after all and a whole lot to communicate to the populace and the powers that be. Whether it was shutting down the Clipper Chip, fighting to Free Kevin, being forced to defend our actions/existence in court, or leading online protests from web page hacks to global displays of solidarity, the hacker community has in recent years become so much more active in the political sphere than at any time in history. Add to that the revelations that people with names like Assange, Manning, and Snowden have contributed, and the hypothetical scenarios many of us were pondering have turned into stark reality. Fighting the level of surveillance that we now know is being built and used against us became the raison d’être for a growing number in the hacker community. And here we are, as relevant to politics as any community is.

A pivotal point was reached in 2008, when members of a decentralized international hacktivist group known as Anonymous launched something called Project Chanology. This was a response to the Church of Scientology’s attempts to remove material from the Internet concerning a highly publicized interview with Scientologist Tom Cruise. Means of attack included everything from prank calls to black faxes to denial of service attacks on Scientology’s servers. But what was truly significant was the ensuing crossover into the non-digital world. Actual people started showing up to protest, often wearing Guy Fawkes masks, making it very clear that this was an act of hacktivism come to life. This was a milestone because it woke a lot of people up to the fact that Anonymous wasn’t just a mindless roving Internet gang, intent on causing mayhem and destruction. There was actually thought behind the deeds and a desire for justice. Even those who disagreed with their conclusions were able to see that there were real issues being brought forth here.

Meanwhile, tools continued to develop, making the old methods of hacktivism obsolete for many. A new service called Twitter became an unintentional means of organizing, as text messages could now be sent to many thousands of subscribing devices at the same time. Similar tools designed to reach out to people or to communicate securely were being developed, many from within the hacker community. We no longer needed to piggyback onto the infrastructure to convey a message. We were building a completely new infrastructure.

By the time Occupy Wall Street appeared in 2011, online activism had already reached a fever pitch. The concept of a group that had no leadership was very similar to that of Anonymous, who continued to be increasingly active in the “real world” as well as on the net. The Guy Fawkes masks they embraced were quite visible worldwide at many of the Occupy sites. The lack of a hierarchy and the development of the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly enabled any individual to speak to the crowd through the ingenious use of a “human microphone,” created out of necessity due to an arbitrary ban on megaphones. This adaptability and desire to bypass unfair restrictions using clever tactics is a concept very familiar to the hacker world. But it certainly wasn’t confined to that community.

The Arab Spring had been playing out for nearly a year at this point and some of the parallels sounded very familiar. The government had its state-run media to whitewash the news. The people had social networking and cell phones to get and share updates. It was no contest. The unrest spread to neighboring countries, leading to significant conflicts in no less than 16 of them, the most significant being Egypt, Libya, and Syria. The tensions had always been there. But once the fuse was lit, there was no turning back.

In the past few years, we’ve seen tremendous growth in the use of technology by individuals for truly worthwhile goals. While social networking and smart phones were never designed to foment civil unrest, they can be invaluable tools in a movement gathering steam. Overseas, people used Facebook and Twitter to quickly organize mass demonstrations before the authorities knew what was happening. Attempts to restrict access to these services backfired badly.

In the States, similar tactics were used by demonstrators, with the addition of numerous live video feeds from cities all over the country. When something happened, the whole world could literally be watching. Live. When the crackdown on Occupy occurred in New York City, there were no less than four separate live streams being fed by people’s smart phones, all with surprisingly good video quality and relatively decent audio. Well over 50,000 people were tuned in to these feeds, with many more picking them up from secondary sources. As interest in what was going on swelled, the mass media even joined in, simulcasting these streams since they hadn’t been able to get behind the police barricades themselves. The people had literally become the media.

We’ve learned a great deal from these events. The hacker world, the ideals of full disclosure, the distrust of governments and corporations, the embracing and manipulation of high tech, the desire for free speech, the empowerment of the individual… these are all intrinsically linked together. It really does all matter.

But there’s a flipside. There will always be people and entities who see all of this as a threat and who will try and control it. That’s a battle that will never end and which will be fought in a variety of arenas. We see it every day in the form of corporate copyright abuses, antiquated business practices that fight technological advances, increased government secrecy, or the suspicion that’s injected into the populace towards anyone who doesn’t quite think, act, or look like everyone else.

In other words, individuals may be showing their ability to manipulate technology in a way that benefits them. But those opposed to this sort of thing have been taking notes and will be better prepared to counter this ingenuity the next time around. Hackers and developers of new technology need to always have this on their minds, as the true future of freedom, both here and abroad, can be greatly affected by what we choose to consider as a priority.

This is a train that cannot be stopped; there is simply too much momentum at this point. With every hysterical report of what hackers could be doing to our privacy, with every Congressional hearing about the threat of “cyberterrorists,” and with every political campaign claiming they’re being targeted by the digital underground, what you’re actually seeing is unbridled fear and panic. Because deep down, all of these people know that if they haven’t already lost control, they will fairly soon. Their system and systems are very powerful and omnipresent. They too get better, faster, and more encompassing with every year. But, whether it’s today, next year, or a decade from now, they will become unsustainable. Human ingenuity and the desire for freedom and self-determination always come back up to the surface, regardless of how long they’ve been forcibly submerged. What’s different now is that we have more tools and platforms than ever before to accomplish this. What’s different is that we’re all different, and yet united in this desire. That means thousands or even millions of ways to achieve a goal rather than just one set of rules handed down from the castle.

This is what the hacker promise represents and, while we’re confident and optimistic about the future, it doesn’t mean that some very dark days don’t lie ahead. When coming up against such powerful entities on such fundamental issues, it’s inevitable that we will be demonized, targeted, and punished for daring to be different. This is how we know that we’re winning.

And we win when we’re diverse, when we debate, and when we respect one another. No political party can ever represent us beyond an issue or two. We will always think outside the box and come up with ways of doing things that don’t follow the rules. If the emperor has no clothes, if there’s a way to defeat security, if there’s damning evidence to leak, we will never remain silent, regardless of the political price. That’s the promise of the hacker world that we can never break.