The word hacking, at least for me, conjures images of late 90s movies where a character types furiously for 15 seconds and gains access to every security camera and satellite in the world. Hacking was and is always kind of a super power in movies and TV. Look at modern examples like Arrow or NCIS. These shows rely on brute force, but it’s always the computer person typing furiously that shows the beefed-up hero where to go.
These examples are silly, and hacking is certainly something much more difficult and time consuming than it appears on TV. But maybe it’s because the public has such a fear (or maybe fearful respect) of hackers that we show them this way.
Hackers have been in the news a lot this year. After the recent Paris attacks, the hacktivist group Anonymous declared war on ISIS. The recent Ashley Madison scandal, perpetrated by the hacktivist group “Impact Team,” leaked millions of users personal data. Earlier this year, Sony was famously hacked, causing widespread debate and panic.
Hackers seem to be unstoppable, working in the shadows with no real control. A Gallup poll found that more Americans are more afraid of being hacked than of any other crime, even home burglary or murder. Protecting a physical space seems much more reasonable than protecting the mass chaos that is the online world.
So where does Hacktivism play into this world of hacking, and is it something that should be feared or welcomed? “With great power comes responsibility” led Spiderman to direct his powers, but what does the application of super powers look like in real life?
Unfortunately, there’s good answer to this question. It’s a bit like trying to ask if guns or cell phones (or even the internet itself) are inherently evil. There are certainly people on both sides that would say absolutely yes or no, but the answer is really somewhere in between. These are just tools, just as hacking is just a tool. It can be used for good just as much as a it can be used for evil.
Take the group Anonymous. Their recent efforts to shut down ISIS social media accounts have been met with all manner of criticism and praise. While some question the value of the cyber-attacks, others have suggested that the US should support Anonymous, even going as far as paying them in Bitcoin. This same group has been charged by the US for attacking government websites, but has also been called the “Robin-Hood” of the internet. Regardless of its value, Anonymous creates waves, even being listed on Time’s “100 most influential” list.
It is impossible to agree on the degree to which hacktivism is beneficial or harmful. But it is not enough to say that it is simply either all good or all bad. Instead it must be recognized that hacktivism is, in many ways, a form of civil disobedience. Hacktivists force conversations that might not otherwise be had. Edward Snowden is often seen either as a ruthless criminal or a brilliant man of the people. He gave people an awareness they didn’t have before, and seemed to do it out of goodwill rather than spite. I’m not saying what he did was good or bad, only that it forced a conversation that might not otherwise exist.
Perhaps the greatest unknown regarding hacktivism is its structure. Groups of hackers exist, but they so often seem shadowy and uncoordinated. Hacktivists exist without any real structures or rules. This gives them their power, but it also makes them seem inherently dangerous. So perhaps the way for hacktivists to really gain trust with people is to be more public and open. The internet is so terrifying because so much of it is hidden. The hacktivists job should be to expose these hidden parts of the internet, to do good but be accountable for wrongdoing. Only when hacktivism steps out of the shadows can it truly be a force for good.
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