Hacking for a cause
First Monday

Hacking for a cause by Brian Still

Abstract
This paper explores the concept of hacktivism, which is hacking for a political or social cause on the Internet. Generally hackers, even those hacking government–sponsored sites, have been negatively stereotyped as malicious thrill seekers or, worse yet, cyberterrorists. But increasingly there are more politically motivated hackers distancing themselves from cyberterrorism by engaging in hacktivism that is intent more upon disruption than disobedience. Certain hacktivists, in fact, have created tools or taken advantage of those already available to provide freedom of speech in the electronic frontier for those living in oppressive nation–states. This paper will show that these hacktivists are, far from being online terrorists or thrill–seekers, organized, technically skilled, politically conscious and socially aware hacktivists who seek to challenge the authority of oppressive nation–states.

Contents

Introduction
Discussion
Conclusion

 


 

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Introduction

Ever since the Internet exploded into our consciousness and we have come to rely on it for business or entertainment, the hacker has become a representative figure of all that is negative about the Internet. Labeled in the media as nerd, victimizer, enemy, abnormal, or criminal, the hacker usefully represents what good citizens should not be.

Because of the real, somewhat real, and imaginary threats hackers pose, an entire industry exists that is dedicated to stopping the hacker. Seminars are held every week across the world where computer security experts tell government and corporate managers what they need to fear and how they need to stop it. Even the United States government has created a "Cyber Czar" position responsible for protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure from hacker attacks.

Such efforts to develop security measures are not without good reason. Computer viruses are damaging, and every day different hackers across the world find their way into computer systems they are not supposed to enter. Still, to throw all hackers into the same negative category too easily simplifies what is a complex situation. In fact, many who would consider themselves "true" hackers define their identity in large part by their creation of (or positive additions to) computer systems that are the backbone of today’s technology infrastructure, and by their opposition to those that seek to control information and access to technology that many, not just hackers, believe should not be controlled.

In fact, some exceptionally skilled, more socially and politically conscious hackers, discouraged by the actions and policies of governments they feel to be arrogant, corrupt and oppressive, are increasingly lending their skills to political or social causes. Working individually or in virtual collectives and sometimes associated with established non–governmental groups (NGOs) or other political activists or associations, these hackers, also called hacktivists, are hacking for a cause. Using hacker tools already available or creating their own, they are targeting those governments responsible for what they consider political, economic, or social injustice or oppression [1].

Hacktivists seek to show the general public and the media that they are standing up against the establishment to protect the rights of people around the world that are endangered by national or corporate oppression and greed.

Why are some hackers now hacking not for fun but for a cause? In answering this question I will argue that certain hackers are not thrill–seekers hacking for fun or to be destructive. Rather, they are engaging in purposeful acts of "electronic civil disobedience," and in doing so are establishing hacktivism as a legitimate movement in the hacker community [2]. In fact, as this hacktivism occurs and increasing numbers of hackers join together in support of varied political causes, their actions also help constitute fluid, loosely structured transnational virtual neighborhoods that are, by their very existence and actions, obvious threats to the nation–state.

These nation–states, threatened by the hacktivists, seek to convince the media and the general public that hackers are anarchists and criminals with no allegiances but to themselves, with no goals but to destroy or steal. Hacktivists, on the other hand, seek to show the general public and the media that they are standing up against the establishment to protect the rights of people around the world that are endangered by national or corporate oppression and greed.

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Discussion

One of the more publicized examples of hacktivism occurred in 1998 when the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT), in solidarity with Mexican Zapatistas, used "virtual sit–ins" to target the Mexican government, White House, Pentagon, School of the Americas, and the Frankfurt and Mexican Stock Exchanges. According to Dorothy Denning, "to facilitate the strikes, the organizers set up special Web sites with automated software. All participants had to do was visit one of the FloodNet sites. When they did, their browser would download the software (a Java Applet), which would access the target site every few seconds" [3]. Despite the fact that more than 10,000 people visited the FloodNet sites in one day, Denning (1999) concluded that there was not any severe damage done to any of the sites, and that if anything the security of those attacked and others were strengthened because of the EDT attacks.

But the point of the action was not necessarily to do damage. The point was to make the Zapatista position known throughout the world by targeting those entities EDT and the Zapatistas felt were most responsible for the plight of the people of Chiapas, Mexico. For EDT and other hacktivists, the action on behalf of the cause is just as important as the result, especially if that action draws attention to the cause represented by the "hack" and, as a corollary, presents the hacker in a more proactive, cause–oriented light.

...the action on behalf of the cause is just as important as the result, especially if that action draws attention to the cause represented by the "hack" and, as a corollary, presents the hacker in a more proactive, cause–oriented light.

Not too soon after the EDT attack on behalf of the Zapatistas, Stefan Wray, a member of EDT, delivered a paper entitled "On Electronic Civil Disobedience" to the Socialist Scholars Conference. Wray made connections between EDT’s actions and that of other social and political protest movements beginning as far back as Henry David Thoreau. According to Wray, hacktivists make possible electronically the same kind of civil disobedience championed by Thoreau and made apart of the fabric of our modern society during the grassroots movements of the 1960s and 1970s [4].

The connection between hacktivism and the protests of the 1960s and 1970s is an interesting one that others have touched on. Douglas Thomas in his book Hacker Culture (2002) pointed out that some of the first serious counter–culture hacking occurred as a part of the Yippies movement. According to Thomas, Yippies led by Abbie Hoffman got technical help from hackers to exploit existing phone systems, passing on the information to others as a means of protesting the establishment.

Not necessarily a part of this movement but certainly influenced by the milieu it helped create were the many young hackers working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) or participating in computer hobbyists clubs throughout the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Here the "Hacker Ethic" that Steven Levy wrote about was formulated. This Hacker Ethic was not debated as much as it was just "silently agreed upon" [5]. Now often quoted on hacker Web sites around the world, the Hacker Ethic was born from an environment where computer enthusiasts willingly shared information about their attempts and successes because the end goal was that computers, certainly in their infancy during this time, would grow in power and flexibility, but only if everything that was known about them was shared, debated, and the results improved upon.

The irony is not just that some of the great figures of computers today were participants during this period when the Hacker Ethic was developed, but that they now find themselves and their ideas on different sides. Hackers, especially the old school ones, will tell you that true hacking meant then and still does today that all computers should be accessible, that all information should be open and free, that no central authority should exist to control things, that computers can change lives positively, and that computers can create "art and beauty" (Levy, 1994). The Internet, at least when it was first created, can be seen as a reflection of these Hacker Ethics. Today, the Open Source Movement in computers is championed by the believers in these tenets, many of whom helped to create an Internet they envisioned would be the perfect representation of their beliefs: no controlling authority, free access to all information with the tools necessary to access that information free as well.

On the other side of the debate then and now are those that saw from the beginning the economic possibilities of computers. Bill Gates (co–founder of Microsoft), as well as others, argued then and now that developing and controlling information, such as software, could be lucrative, especially since such software was the key to making computers do the sorts of things, such as handling and disseminating seemingly endless amounts of data, that would transform the way the world communicates and does business. The rift between those, such as Gates, that see computer programming as intellectual property and those that see it as information that should be freely exchanged still is, Thomas noted, "one of extreme hostility" [6].

If Microsoft can build itself into a transnational corporation through politics and proprietary software, then hackers think they can intervene in opposition, engaging in counterculture politics by developing and using tools that challenge, if not damage, Microsoft and those they are in league with, namely oppressive nation–states.

In addition, Microsoft actively engages in politics, aligning itself, for example, with the Chinese government to acquire lucrative contracts, ignoring in the process China’s many human rights violations. By doing this, Microsoft positions itself, Thomas wrote, as "part of the mechanism of oppression" [7]. Flowing from all this is the beginnings of a justification for hacktivism. If Microsoft can build itself into a transnational corporation through politics and proprietary software, then hackers think they can intervene in opposition, engaging in counterculture politics by developing and using tools that challenge, if not damage, Microsoft and those they are in league with, namely oppressive nation–states.

The hacktivist wants to expose the darker side of what these corporations positively refer to as globalization. Effective rhetorically as much as technically, building and deploying hacking tools is part of what Geert Lovink called an "information war" [8], pitting politically conscious hackers against corporations and government. The weapons of this war are words and technology. Hackers use rhetoric to try to establish them as politically conscious fighters for the little guy, and corporations and governments try to frame the hacker as an unproductive, if not destructive, menace to society. At the same time, the very technology infrastructure corporations and governments use to control and spread their power and influence is a weapon used against them by many of the hackers (or those with like–minded views) that helped to build it.

Of course, the typical young hackers rebel not because they are aware of this engagement, or the plight of China’s dissidents. Some are aware enough to justify their tagging of a site as a political action, but they tend to do this after the fact as a cover. As Lovink wrote, "politicized computer hackers…are still an elusive breed" [9]. So most who hack do so because they can and because they don’t like authority of any kind. Hacking is for them empowerment (Thomas, 2002). They hate school because it is boring and they like to play with computers because it is challenging and breaking into systems offers them a chance to control something that they’re not supposed to control (Koerner, 1999). It is as if the young hackers are crying for attention while trying to alleviate their boredom by playing games. They are doing what young people do everywhere; except they have special skills that make their "testing of the waters" create a few more ripples than others.

The weapons of this war are words and technology. Hackers use rhetoric to try to establish them as politically conscious fighters for the little guy, and corporations and governments try to frame the hacker as an unproductive, if not destructive, menace to society.

Hacktivists, however, although poised against authority, are not hacking for fun. In their actions and their words a clear philosophy can be seen that distinguishes their motivations from other hackers. Hacktivists do not just want to take on governments because they represent authority. Instead, these entities for them censor information, they oppress their people’s basic human rights, and they make technology proprietary and available only to those that can pay enough for it. In short, they engage in activity that is unacceptable to a culturally and politically more aware and, perhaps, mature hacker.

In addition, hacktivists do not, as is typical of most hackers, work in isolation or just with other hackers. Instead, hacktivists and non–governmental organizations (NGOs) that previously "inhabited vastly different worlds" have now "created a tentative esprit de corps" [10]. EDT, for example, has worked closely with or on behalf of the Zapatistas. The Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) focuses much of its efforts on raising awareness regarding China’s human rights abuses [11]. Hacktivists then, armed with knowledge now as well as power, are engaged, purposeful activists, working in conjunction with others against the kind of established and even corrupt control that their precursors resisted before.

This political and social awareness, as well as how the awareness is acted upon, separates hacktivists from other hackers, those that are young and hacking for fun, and those that are hacking to cause damage or steal for personal gain. Some hacktivists are even going out of their way to distinguish themselves from other so–called hacktivists, simply because they are concerned that the newly created image they are trying to protect isn’t usurped or tarnished by groups that call themselves hacktivists but really aren’t. According to Oxblood Ruffin (2002), one of the founders of cDc,

"many online activists claim to be hacktivists, but their tactics are often at odds with what we consider hacktivism to be. From the cDc’s perspective, creation is good; destruction is bad. Hackers should promote the free flow of information, and causing anything to disrupt, prevent, or retard that flow is improper. For instance, cDc does not consider Web defacements or Denial of Service (DoS) attacks to be legitimate hacktivist actions. The former is nothing more than hi–tech vandalism, and the latter, an assault on free speech" [12]

What is interesting about this statement is not just that certain hacker groups, such as the Electrohippies [13], have drawn the ire of the cDc and other hacktivists because of their hacking tactics. It is that this criticism shows that certain hacktivists are establishing boundaries or are creating ground rules for membership in a group. They are doing this in part because of the divide that now seems to exist between hacker generations. There are those in the old school (many of whom make up the ranks of the hacktivists) poised against those younger hackers that are, Michael Martinez writes, "less disciplined and more destructive than past generations" [14]. To separate themselves from these more lawless but less skilled, younger hackers, and to paint themselves in a positive light that will enable even the media to distinguish them from rogue hackers, crackers, phreakers, script kiddies, or other so–called hacktivists, hacktivists like those who align themselves with cDc are going out of their way not just to engage in electronic civil disobedience but also to explain why they are doing it, what it means, and what it is not.

One obvious way they are doing this is to create organizations dedicated to hacktivism. An example of this is Hacktivismo (http://hacktivismo.com), a hacktivist organization created by Ruffin and other members of cDc. It can be argued that those associated with Hacktivismo have established themselves as members of a unique, electronic community separate from the larger, loosely connected hacker community or computer underground. Although they may never physically meet, Hacktivismo’s members have a virtual meeting place, the Hacktivismo Web site, that enables them to exchange ideas and engage in activities related to the common beliefs regarding hacking and activism that have drawn them to the Hacktivismo Web site and the causes Hacktivismo champions. Computers are the tools these hacktivists use to resist and protest, and at the same time they are also the means by which they can engage in the sort of communication that Tim Jordan and Paul Taylor have asserted allows "individuals to recognise in each other membership of the same community" [15]. Drawing on Benedict Anderson’s theories regarding the concept of the imagined community, Jordan and Taylor wrote that "Anderson names the power of an imagined identity to bind people, who may never meet each other, together in allegiance to a common cause" [16].

As a means of making their intentions clear (and uniting themselves into a single unit committed to a cause), the Hacktivismo hacktivists issued a Hacktivismo Declaration on 4 July 2001 that reads, in part, "state–sponsored censorship on the Internet is a serious form of organized and systematic violence against citizens, is intended to generate confusion and xenophobia, and is a reprehensible violation of trust" [17]. The declaration, available in multiple languages, further states that the hackers of Hacktivismo "will study ways and means of circumventing state sponsored censorship of the Internet and will implement technologies to challenge information rights violations" [18].

Already hackers associated with this cause have begun to take on governments. Hacktivismo example, has developed and made available a Web browser, Peekabooty, that resists monitoring and censorship from nation–states, such as China, that seek to filter or deny Internet access to its citizens [19]. Hacktivismo also released another tool, Camera/Shy [20], which enables users to conceal information inside graphic files on Web pages. According to Ruffin, "although not all of us are Americans, we share the fundamental ideals of the Constitution of the United States, especially freedom of speech. Camera/Shy is a small first step in sharing that privilege" [21].

This dedication is not enough, of course, to convince every critic of the motives of Hacktivismo. Just as Camera/Shy could be used to allow dissidents to hide secret information from an oppressive regime, it could be used by terrorists to pass information without being detected by a democratic country trying to protect its people. It is this possibility of multiple uses that blurs the lines between hacktivism and cyberterrorism for so many. Some argue that cDc is now and has always been a hacker group, that it has created tools before that were used for harmful purposes, and therefore the stand the cDc hackers say they are taking now against oppression is more of a joke on anyone willing to believe it. Even if it is not, the fact that their tools can be used for devious purposes undermines for critics any rhetoric cDc and others like them may offer up to support their dedication to fighting oppression.

In response to this, Hacktivismo has issued its own "Hacktivismo Enhanced–Source Software License Agreement" (HESSLA) [22]. The HESSLA is meant to govern how Hacktivismo–created tools, such as Peekabooty or Camera/Shy can be used, even threatening lawsuit against any individual, organization, or country that uses a Hacktivismo tool maliciously. This license, of course, goes against the idea of open and free access to information, a central tenet of the Hacker Ethic [23]. But it also shows that Hacktivismo’s hackers have moved away from the larger hacker group. Faced with allowing their tool to be used by anyone for any purpose and the negative rhetoric and actual negative consequences that may occur because of this unrestrained access, Hacktivismo’s hacktivists have chosen to qualify the access allowed, hoping by doing so that their tools will only be used for positive political or social action. As a result, Hacktivismo’s hackers and others that support HESSLA are binding themselves to yet another rule that helps define them as a group outside of other hackers.

Relying further on Jordan and Taylor’s analysis, it could be argued that Hacktivismo is a "community that offers certain forms of identity through which membership and other social norms are negotiated" [24]. Here are a few of the traits by which Hacktivismo defines itself, and through which any hackers affiliated with it set themselves off from other non–Hacktivismo hackers:

  • its connections to specific (such as the Hong Kong Blondes) protest movements or acts of civil disobedience;
  • its adherence to certain Hacktivismo Ethics that establish a code of conduct for differentiating between good and bad hacking and establish its boundaries and the requirements for membership;
  • its "creation story" detailed on its Web site, explaining how and why it began, that gives it a unique group history;
  • its press releases and news coverage of political and social issues help reflect its own ideology;
  • its Web site, which serves as a meeting place or virtual locale for its members to interact;
  • its issuance of a declaration that serves rhetorically to declare its position and distinguish it apart from other hackers or dissidents who lack similar declarations or offer different ones; and,
  • its list of members complete with a chain of command, including an executive director, Oxblood Ruffin, imply an existent organizational structure.

There are perhaps other traits as well that help define Hacktivismo’s unique group identity, including but not limited to the tools it creates, such as Camera/Shy and Peekabooty. Hacktivismo also allows its members to create online accounts. Those signing up make their commitment official and at the same time use their id and password to gain access to "members–only" sections of the Hacktivismo site. By enabling this, the Hacktivismo site offers its hacktivists a place to meet that is only accessible to those who by their "signing on" consider themselves to be a part of the group. They are not just curious visitors; they are, because of their membership, participants who, to some degree, contribute actions, words, beliefs, and experiences that collectively create a sense of community.

Specifically, hacktivists participating through Hacktivismo are creating what the cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls "virtual neighborhoods" that are "able to mobilize ideas, opinions, moneys, and social linkages that often directly flow back into lived neighborhoods in the form of currency flows, arms for local nationalisms, and support for various positions in highly localized public spheres" [25]. For example, Hacktivismo builds hacker tools that can be used by groups or individuals to resist the Chinese government’s censorship efforts. Although Hacktivismo hasn’t necessarily raised any monies for local resistance efforts, the tools and publicity it provides have a substantial value since most local groups lack the funds, the technology, and in some cases the freedom to build their own technologies or host their own Web sites. The Zapatistas, working from the heart of the jungle in Chiapas, could have never built let alone hosted the Web sites required to forward their message to the rest of the world without the technology of the EDT hacktivists.

In other words, governments and other entities won’t be targeted because hackers are bored or want to have some fun. Instead, they’ve broken an agreement and Hacktivismo as a monitoring entity has an obligation to punish them for it.

These relatively new hacktivist virtual neighborhoods reflect what Appadurai characterizes as a "new organizational form" that is "more fluid, more ad hoc, more provisional, less coherent, less organized, and simply less implicated…Many of them are explicitly constituted to monitor the activities of the nation–state" [26]. The Hacktivismo Declaration, for example, was written to allow Hacktivismo to position itself as such a monitoring entity. At the beginning of the Hacktivismo Declaration, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [27] is quoted so that the remainder of the document will have a moral and legal grounding. It gives Hacktivismo leverage when it takes on governments and transnational corporations, allowing it to argue that any actions it takes are because of violations against Article 19 by signatories that agreed to it. In other words, governments and other entities won’t be targeted because hackers are bored or want to have some fun. Instead, they’ve broken an agreement and Hacktivismo as a monitoring entity has an obligation to punish them for it. Ruffin, who wrote the Declaration, later commented that he knew Article 19 had no teeth, but "I figured, if these bastards had signed a document at the United Nations, Hacktivismo would help them ratify according to the original terms whether they wanted to or not" [28].

As virtual neighborhoods, like Hacktivismo, produce themselves, they create contexts that define their identities. But these contexts are not isolated. Just as the neighborhood is influenced by a "context wider than itself," it also contributes "to the creation of that wider context" [29]. Hacktivists, therefore, are products as well as producers. Their actions and ideals connect them to other hacktivists who share their interests, and the result is a neighborhood of like–minded hacktivists. At the same time, what they do has an impact on the landscapes surrounding them.

This is a contribution then that isn’t gauged just by the "hack," because that may sometimes fail. It is the impact the hacktivist has on making the cause known to the larger national and global communities that is perhaps a more significant measuring stick.

Hacktivists hope the impact is positive, that their image is improved or at least seen apart from other hackers, and that the causes they champion with their tools, actions, and words are brought into larger contexts of thought. EDT championed the Zapatistas so that the world will know about them, and even if its hacking attempts failed, the EDT in some small measure as a part of a larger campaign made the Zapatistas’ plight a matter of world attention. By issuing a Hacktivismo Declaration, by creating hacktivist tools, and by hosting a Web site that lists the latest examples of government or corporate injustice, Hacktivismo is attempting to do the same thing as EDT and other hacktivists. This is a contribution then that isn’t gauged just by the "hack," because that may sometimes fail. It is the impact the hacktivist has on making the cause known to the larger national and global communities that is perhaps a more significant measuring stick.

Oppressive governments certainly understand this. It is this potential impact that most worries them regarding the hacktivist, especially given the tenor of these times when governments around the world feel under siege from various ethnic autonomy and democratic movements as well as wide–sweeping changes to the global economy. Virtual neighborhoods like Hacktivismo possess beliefs and carry out actions that run counter to if not attack the collective national imagination nation–states rely on for existence. As Appadurai writes, "neighborhoods as social formations represent anxieties for the nation–tate, as they usually contain large or residual spaces where the techniques of nationhood…are likely to be weak or contested" [30].

Of course, it isn’t easy to control hacktivists. They are generally anonymous and they possess skills that often place them a step ahead of the government trying to stop them. But censoring citizen exposure to ideas and causes championed by hacktivists or others is something governments have tried and continue to try. Reporters sans frontières (Reporters without borders, at http://www.rsf.org/) lists 45 countries that filter or deny technology access, including the Internet [31] (2003). Still other governments, such as Ukraine, have killed citizens because of their online political activities [32]. Many have also imprisoned citizens for Internet crimes. China, according to Amnesty International, leads the list with "33 prisoners of conscience who have been detained for using the Internet to circulate or download information" [33].

China has entered into agreements with corporations, such as Microsoft and Yahoo, to insure that only state–sponsored technology and state–approved information are available to its citizens. The fact that corporations are complicit in this by trading technology for profit further enrages and motivates hacktivists.

China has also entered into agreements with corporations, such as Microsoft and Yahoo, to insure that only state–sponsored technology and state–approved information are available to its citizens [34]. The fact that corporations are complicit in this by trading technology for profit further enrages and motivates hacktivists, such as Ruffin:

"Witnessing hi–tech firms dive into China is like watching the Gadarene swine. Already fat and greedy beyond belief, the Western technology titans are being herded towards the trough. And with their snouts deep in the feedbag, they haven’t quite noticed the bacon being trimmed off their ass. It isn’t so much a case of technology transfer as digital strip–mining. Advanced research and technical notes are being handed over to the Chinese without question. It couldn’t be going better for the Communists. While bootstrapping their economy with the fruits of Western labor and ingenuity, they gain the tools to prune democracy on the vine." [35]

Whereas corporations provide resources, democracies look the other way. So from Ruffin’s perspective, at least "until Western governments become engaged, the main challenge for hackers is to keep focused on the goal of liberating the Internet." Not so much through civil disobedience but through what Ruffin calls "disruptive compliance" [36]. In other words, although hacking a government Web site causes damage to that government’s image and pocketbook, it doesn’t necessarily do anything for the people oppressed by that government or the cause the hacktivists are trying to further through legitimate ties with organizations and perhaps even other governments also opposed to censorship and oppression. But creating and implementing technology that allows people to access the Internet freely isn’t illegal, isn’t damaging, and isn’t something that the world would condemn since freedom of expression and access to information is a basic human right only the most oppressive of regimes don’t recognize [37].

For every successful attempt that governments make to stop a hacking tool, there is usually a new one developed not soon after to replace it, and it appears as though this cycle will only continue. Using rhetoric to paint the hacker as a threat, however, is a very effective tool that governments and corporations can rely on...

This commitment to engage oppressive nation–states poses a clear danger to national control. Nation–states, after all, are not facts. Their sovereignty comes from their citizenry, and to maintain control of that relationship the nation–state must police the neighborhoods. If neighborhoods are not producing good citizens as they should, then their impact on other good citizens has to be checked (Appadurai, 1996). This can be done via technology, but the effectiveness of the nation–state to do that is debatable. For every successful attempt that governments make to stop a hacking tool, there is usually a new one developed not soon after to replace it, and it appears as though this cycle will only continue. Using rhetoric to paint the hacker as a threat, however, is a very effective tool that governments and corporations can rely on, as they have in the past, to paint the hacker in a negative light, thereby thwarting many of the efforts hacktivists make to legitimize their actions in support of valid causes that many people might or do support.

Accurate or not, the hacker is technology’s deviant, and this is not by accident. If government and even corporations can make the hacker to appear as an example of what not to do, then whenever the hacker does something the general public will see that action, regardless of the result, as an example of bad behavior. In this way, Deborah Halbert noted, hackers "help define appropriate behavior and appropriate identities for all…citizens, especially in a computer age when ethical guidelines are still ambiguous" [38]. The message to the "us" is that "we" don’t want to be like "them," the hacker. Of course, hackers, at least those now politically aware and motivated, argue that ethics drive them to act, and they are waging their own effort now to convince the public as well as traditional activists that they are not "them," that in actuality they are agents acting on behalf of "us" against the true "them" — the corporations and governments that oppress us.

Hackers, at least those now politically aware and motivated, argue that ethics drive them to act, and they are waging their own effort now to convince the public as well as traditional activists that they are not "them," that in actuality they are agents acting on behalf of "us" against the true "them" — the corporations and governments that oppress us. This is a hard sell for hackers...

This is a hard sell for hackers, especially given the efforts of the nation–state to pose the hacker as a danger that the nation–state can show that it is confronting to defend its people. Rarely seen except for the results of their actions, negatively stereotyped in the media, associated increasingly with terrorists, and possessors of mysterious skills, hackers are easily made the face of danger to a public where few understand technology. If our government tells us that hackers can shut down our systems, crash our planes, and steal our credit cards and identities, then whether or not that is possible or would ever happen without there being problems with the systems the governments and corporations maintain doesn’t diminish the fear we already feel that is still further heightened by the possibility of such scenarios.

David Campbell argued that "the state requires discourses of ‘danger’ to provide a new theology of truths about who and what ‘we’are by highlighting who or what ‘we’ are not, and what ‘we’ have to fear" [39]. The nation–state, therefore, relies on the continual production of dangers to justify its existence. By showing that a danger exists the nation–state gives itself purpose as the securer of the borders between "us" and those "others" that "stand in the way of order" [40].

The events of September 11, 2001 (9/11) in the United States have made this process increasingly difficult and yet all the more important for, in particular, the U.S. government. 9/11 to a certain degree challenged the idea that the government is capable of securing the people from danger. 9/11 further increased our fear and the government’s fear of those threats that might be or that cannot be seen. In the wake of this tragedy, more intrusive measures have been proposed and passed, such as the PATRIOT Act, which gives to the government broad sweeping powers to monitor Internet activity and Web site searching of citizens without having to report to citizens or the courts what or why the surveillance has occurred.

The problem is that the danger until now has always been one that could be easily recognized. But that is not so much the case now. There is no nuclear power détente that offers up an easily understood engagement between two sides, two political systems, and two spheres of influence. The enemy is within and around, is splintered into numerous factions, and is faceless or just like us, operating electronically outside of government monitoring or working inside by blending in to every day society. Not willing or able to be impotent in the face of this new "them," the U.S. government recently engaged in a war in Iraq. Attacking Iraq made it obvious it was "them", and it showed the government’s proactive defense of "us" against a "them" capable of awful things, such as unleashing weapons of mass destruction. Of course, the other dangers have still been difficult to peg, and if the new terror alert system indicates anything it is that using colors to quantify danger (by reflecting threat levels) isn’t especially effective.

In a computer underground where not everyone plays by the same rules and in a society where all hackers are generally seen as threats, hacktivists face difficult challenges to establishing a positive identity...

In a world that seems increasingly resistant to simplistic thinking that stamps identities and their actions as good or evil, governments especially, but corporations as well, have managed, with help from the mass media, to make their ongoing battle with hackers as one that simplistically matches the defenders of order and society (the government and corporate world) against the anarchical nihilists (the hackers) who destroy and steal just because they can. This is propaganda that starts early. For example, in the United States the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) children’s television programming offers a cartoon, CyberChase, which pits a maniacal hacker against well–meaning, multicultural kids who use their math skills to save "Motherboard" and the rest of "Cyberworld" from the hacker’s tricks. So "good" TV even tells our kids that hackers are untrustworthy, genius bullies that can only be defeated if you’re smart and you play fair.

In an online interview, members of the Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) were asked if they felt that creating and distributing tools to nameless masses that could use them negatively was "a good method at getting back at the real evils?" Nightstalker, one of cDc members, responded by saying that "virtually anything can be used for evil, as virtually anything can be used for good" [41] (Roblimo, 1999). Such is the dilemma facing cDc hacktivists and others participating in the creation and implementation of hacking for the "right" reasons. Not only are their actions associated with other hackers that do not share their ethics or beliefs, the tools they create for political and social action can be easily used by some 14–year–old script kiddie to break into a Web site just to tell the world he loves a girl at his high school. In a computer underground where not everyone plays by the same rules and in a society where all hackers are generally seen as threats, hacktivists face difficult challenges to establishing a positive identity, especially when governments and corporations cannot and will not accept any challenge to their authority or credibility.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

Future trends point in more than just one direction, and just as hackers continue to be considered menaces to society, hacktivists are making strides. Although Web sites still exist where hackers go to brag about their recent exploits, others, such as Hacktivismo.com, are also establishing themselves as virtual neighborhoods where hackers, motivated by long–held ethics or a new political consciousness, gather to share ideas and tools in the support of traditional political and social causes. The result is twofold: hacktivist tools are at work throughout the world, from the Zapatistas in Mexico to the Hong Kong Blondes in China; and awareness of these efforts is increasing and, in the process, the "social activities of production" hacktivists are engaging in are moving outward, influencing, albeit indirectly at times, the rest of society [42]. As Appadurai theorizes, when "local subjects engage in the social activities of production, representation, and reproduction (as in the work of culture), they contribute, generally unwittingly, to the creation of contexts that might exceed the existing material and conceptual boundaries of the neighborhood" [43].

So just as the efforts of hacktivists are continuing to be labeled negatively, directly or by association with other hackers that do not share their beliefs, at the same time there is movement, even at the highest levels of government, to recognize and fight for the same political cause the hacktivist neighborhood has championed. In fact, the Global Internet Freedom Act, originally proposed in the 107th U.S. Congress, would, if passed into law, support the development and deployment of technologies to stop Internet censorship [44]. The bill not only draws on the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but it also refers to Article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the same document used by Hacktivismo to give its declaration moral and political leverage. Clearly, a neighborhood, even a virtual one, is capable of the kind of production that will influence neighborhoods outside of it, including, ironically, lawmaking representatives of the established power which views its potential influence as a threat that must be checked. This is the hope of the hacker turned hacktivist, that because of their efforts those currently poised against them recognize that they can contribute to positive political action that is only threatening to oppressive regimes and corporations. As Ruffin writes, "there’s a new generation of freedom fighters, sitting behind computers, who believe that it can be done" [45].

Still, the fact that this bill exists but the U.S. government still treats hackers as impish if not evil troublemakers is a confusing contradiction not easily reconciled. If anything, it shows an ironic hypocrisy that exists which reflects perhaps either a lack of understanding or an inability for the U.S. government to backtrack on its rhetoric that paints all hackers negatively. Although hacktivists can’t easily take direct credit for legislation such as the Global Internet Freedom Act currently in the U.S. Congress, and their efforts to reconfigure their image in a more positive light have been thwarted if not made less effective by a threatened establishment, the steps they have taken to raise awareness of governments using the Internet to oppress their citizens basic freedoms have most certainly led to the beginnings of indirect change, as their virtual neighborhoods produce themselves and through that production produce new meanings and new calls for action for others. End of article

 

About the author

Brian Still is an information technology consultant and lecturer teaching technical communications at Texas Tech University.

 

Notes

1. There are more than a few who claim to be the creator of the terms "hacktivist" or "hacktivism." In the FAQ section of the Hacktivismo.com Web site the words are first attributed to a Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) member, Omega. Oxblood Ruffin, another cDc member and leader of Hacktivismo, has given it the definition that this paper draws on for understanding: "hacktivism is the use of technology to advance human rights through electronic media" (http://hacktivismo.com).

2. The term "electronic civil disobedience" is now widely used by hacktivists to help explain their stance and actions regarding the use of hacker tools for the benefit of political or social causes. The group Critical Art Ensemble first coined the term as the title of a book, Electronic Civil Disobedience, in 1994. This book and all others produced by Critical Art Ensemble are freely available and can be accessed online at http://www.critical-art.net/.

3. Denning, 1999, p. 265.

4. Stefan Wray, "On Electronic Civil Disobedience," at http://www.thing.net/~rdom/ecd/oecd.html, accessed 11 April 2003.

5. Levy, 1994, p. 39.

6. Thomas, 2002, p. 87.

7. Thomas, 2002, p. 102.

8. Lovink, 2002, p. 309.

9. Lovink, 2002, p. 312.

10. Hartigan, 1999, p. F01.

11. In fact, cDc was affiliated with a Chinese hacker group, Hong Kong Blondes. Critical skeptics argue, however, the group was actually cDc’s creation meant to draw attention to China’s oppression of Internet freedoms. For more on this debate, see http://www.computeruser.com/newstoday/99/08/18/news3.html.

12. Oxblood Ruffin, "Waging Peace on the Internet," at http://hacktivismo.com/news/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=10, accessed 28 April 2003.

13. For more information on the type of hacktivism the Electrohippies practice vs cDc, see Julie L.C. Thomas’ article, "Ethics of Hacktivism," at http://www.sans.org/rr/hackers/hacktivism2.php.

14. Michael J. Martinez, "The Great Hacker Divide: Computer Subculture Faces Generational Questions," at http://abcnews.go.com/sections/tech/DailyNews/hackers990203.html, accessed 12 April 2003.

15. Jordan and Taylor, 1998, p. 763.

16. Ibid.

17. "The Hacktivismo Declaration," at http://hacktivismo.com/about/declarations/en.php, accessed 10 April 2003.

18. Ibid.

19. Peekabooty can be accessed and downloaded at http://www.peek-a-booty.org/pbhtml/index.php.

20. Camera/Shy can be accessed and downloaded at http://sourceforge.net/projects/camerashy/.

21. Oxblood Ruffin, "Waging Peace on the Internet," at http://hacktivismo.com/news/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=10, accessed 28 April 2003.

22. Full details of the HESSLA can be accessed at http://www.hacktivismo.com/about/hessla.php.

23. For more on the problems with the HESSLA, see the Free Software Foundation’s position on it at http://www.gnu.org/licenses/hessla.html.

24. Jordan and Taylor, 1998, p. 763.

25. Appadurai, 1996, pp. 195–196.

26. Appadurai, 1996, p. 168.

27. "The Hacktivismo Declaration," at http://hacktivismo.com/about/declarations/en.php, accessed 10 April 2003.

28. Oxblood Ruffin, "The Hacktivismo Declaration," at http://hacktivismo.com/about/declarations/, accessed 12 April 2003.

29. Appadurai, 1996, p. 186.

30. Appadurai, 1996, p. 190.

31. "The 20 Enemies of the Internet," at http://www.rferl.org/nca/special/enemies.html, accessed 17 April, 2003.

32. Oxblood Ruffin, "Waging Peace on the Internet," at http://hacktivismo.com/news/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=10, accessed 28 April 2003.

33. Amnesty International, "People’s Republic of China: State Control of the Internet in China," p. 1, at http://web.amnesty.org/aidoc/aidoc_pdf.nsf/Index/ASA170072002ENGLISH/$File/ASA1700702.pdf, accessed 18 April 2003.

34. Amnesty International, pp. 3, 13.

35. Oxblood Ruffin, "Waging Peace on the Internet," at http://hacktivismo.com/news/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=10, accessed 28 April 2003.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.

38. Halbert, 1997, p. 362.

39. Campbell, 1992, p. 54.

40. Campbell, 1992, p. 69.

41. Roblimo, "Bizarre Answers from Cult of the Dead Cow," at http://slashdot.org/interviews/99/10/22/1157259.shtml, accessed 17 April 2003.

42. Appadurai, 1996, p. 185.

43. Ibid.

44. The Global Internet Freedom Act, originally House Resolution (HR) 5524 and then later HR 48, can be read in detail at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c108:H.R.48: The bill still remains in committee, as does a similar version of it introduced in the United States Senate.

45. Oxblood Ruffin, "Waging Peace on the Internet," http://hacktivismo.com/news/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=10, accessed 28 April 2003.

 

References

"The 20 Enemies of the Internet," at http://www.rferl.org/nca/special/enemies.html, accessed 17 April 2003.

Amnesty International, 2002. "People’s Republic of China: State Control of the Internet in China," at http://web.amnesty.org/aidoc/aidoc_pdf.nsf/Index/ASA170072002ENGLISH/$File/ASA1700702.pdf, accessed 18 April 2003.

Arjun Appadurai, 1996.Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

"Camera/Shy" at http://hacktivismo.com/news/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=12/, accessed 10 April 2003.

David Campbell, 1992. Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dorothy Denning, 1999. "Activism, Hacktivism, and Cyberterrorism: The Internet as a Tool for Influencing Foreign Policy," Washington D.C.: Nautilus, at http://www.iwar.org.uk/cyberterror/resources/denning.htm, accessed 29 July 2005.

"The Hacktivismo Declaration," at http://hacktivismo.com/about/declarations/en.php, accessed 10 April 2003.

Deborah Halbert, 1997. "Discourse of Danger and the Computer Hacker," Information Society, volume 13, number 4, pp.361–374. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/019722497129061

Patti Hartigan, 1999. "They Call it ‘Hacktivism," Boston Globe (24 January), p. F01.

Tim Jordan and Paul Taylor, 1998. "A Sociology of Hackers," Sociological Review, volume 46, pp. 757–780; also at http://no-smok.net/uploads/1244356.pdf, accessed 29 July 2005.

Brendan I. Koerner, 1999. "Who are Hackers, Anyway?" US News & World Report (14 June), p. 53.

Steven Levy, 1994. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Penguin.

Geert Lovink, 2002. Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Michael J. Martinez, 1999. "The Great Hacker Divide: Computer Subculture Faces Generational Questions," ABCNews.com (3 February), at http://abcnews.go.com/sections/tech/DailyNews/hackers990203.html, accessed 12 April 2003.

Roblimo, 1999. "Bizarre Answers from Cult of the Dead Cow," Slashdot (22 October), at http://slashdot.org/interviews/99/10/22/1157259.shtml, accessed 17 April 2003.

Oxblood Ruffin, 2002a. "The Hacktivismo Declaration," Hacktivismo (4 July), at http://hacktivismo.com/about/declarations/, accessed 12 April 2003.

Oxblood Ruffin, 2002b. "Waging Peace on the Internet." Hacktivismo (26 June), at http://hacktivismo.com/news/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=10, accessed 2 May 2003.

Douglas Thomas, 2002. Hacker Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Stefan Wray, 1998. "On Electronic Civil Disobedience," Proceedings of the 1998 Socialist Scholars Conference (New York, 20–22 March), at http://www.thing.net/~rdom/ecd/oecd.html, accessed 18 April 2003.


Editorial history

Paper received 13 June 2005; accepted 18 July 2005.
HTML markup: Susan Bochenski and Edward J. Valauskas; Editor: Edward J. Valauskas.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

Hacking for a cause by Brian Still
First Monday, Volume 10, Number 9 - 5 September 2005
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1274/1194





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