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Hacktivists: Vanguards or vigilantes?

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In February of 2017, a hacker claiming to be from the group Anonymous targeted over 10,000 web sites on the dark web, many of which had ties to illicit content like illegal drug sales and child pornography. The hacker then leaked information from the hacked databases and made it all available for free download. Information from the databases included email IDs of over 380,00 users. No arrest have been made in relation to this hack, but there may be some nervous people out there knowing their personal information is floating in cyberspace.

The Internet has a become an effective tool for change, or at the very least one for opening debate for those previously left out of political discussions and decision-making. But criminals, extremists and other sinister characters can operate comfortably in the Internet's darkest corners as well. Hacktivists are considered to be the transposition of street protesters and civil disobedience in cyberspace, supporting freedom of speech and human rights. Since the Internet (and especially the dark web) is full of links to human rights injustices, hate speech and extremism, there's plenty opportunity for politically motivated hackers to involve themselves in expressing dissent through cyberspace.

By providing forums for organizing, publishing, and communicating, this new kind of civil disobedience is a growing part of our political landscape. The hacktivist approach is different of course, but the spirit is the same as abolitionist, civil rights activist, anti war protesters, etc.; considered to be functioning outside of the political, social and legal institutions. And hactivisim hasn't taken the place of the old-fashioned street protesters in any way — the need for people to take to the streets will always be there — but for those with the technological skill have another tool at their disposal.

The 2017 doxxing wasn't the first time Anonymous attacked illicit sites. In 2011 the group launched Operation Darknet, a series of denial-of-service (DDoS) aimed at a child pornography sharing website. Then for Operation DeathEaters, launched in 2014, Anonymous gathered evidence against international pedophilia ring that called itself Lolita City and issued instruction on a video for activist to aid in their operation. Websites run by the Islamic State, Ku Klux Klan and the Bay Area Rapid Transit service (BART), when they cut cell service to disrupt protest over their fatal shooting of Oscar Grant III, have also been subject to Anonymous attacks.

As coordinate as it may seem, Anonymous is a loose, decentralized organization with some hackers claiming affiliation who may not be part of the organization at all. So even if these attacks against the dark nets sites appear to be a collective effort — and they are to a certain degree — there is no command structure in place.

In 2600: The Hacker Quarterly a hacker going by the name Dr. G, poses an intriguing question: “What if hackers all over the world began to systematically locate and shut down any site used for child pornography, sex slavery or human trafficking?” Dr. G says hacktivists can practice their skills by taking out nefarious sites while confronting a serious world problem. According to Dr. G, no one in law enforcement would care if those sites were shut down. But instead of individuals and small groups doing the work, Dr. G's looking for a coordinated effort to systematically eliminate the problem — something that isn't happening now.

A 2016 poll by the Centre for International Governance Innovation reveals that the general public has conflicting views about hacktivism. 66-percent of those polled think they are breaking the law and should be stopped, while 52-percent say hacktivist groups ought to step in when no one else will hold online criminals accountable. This ambiguity may not change soon. We seem to lump hacktivism with cyber terrorism and crime, but it's closer to civil disobedience in that hacktivists are non-violent aren't out for profit — there's a strong ethical motivation behind hacktivism.

Though there is some desire in the hacktivist community to formally organize, the idea of giving up their anonymity, for whatever reason, keeps most underground. The result is a an informal community of activists. Hackers rarely see each other and have little social or physical contact, unlike like their street protester counterparts. This may seem like a major disadvantage, but consider your every day online communities like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where ideologies are shared and close friendships are formed with people who have never physically met, or hardly see one another.

There's also a tactical reason for hacker anonymity: it's more difficult for law enforcement entities to stop their activities, which are still considered illegal, and the ability to act on political impulses can be hampered by organizing a large group.

“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly but as machines…,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience. In other words, civil disobedience is not concerned with the individual soldiers that carries out the duty of the state, but those more interested in taking down unjust laws that the state implements. In this sense, it would seem that the hacktivists are following Thoreau’s theory of civil disobedience — the idea that the minority could change an unjust system through sheer will and dedication. And there has never been a time in history where the relatively small collective can affect so much change.

The Internet has provided an opportunity for freedom of expression that no other technology has allowed in history. It's also allowed spaces where atrocities are carried out in the open. It's comforting that we have talented and skilled people, driven by civic duty, out there combating the crimes that are being committed in anonymity — hacker tactics should be adopted by law enforcement agencies with the same mission. We already have a love/hate relationship with hackers, with some of the best of them eventually being hired by top cyber security companies and government agencies. Recruiting and training an army of cyber warriors will go far to make the Internet a safer place, but until those decisions are made, hacktivist are our best resource digital crime and corruption.

Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at thruss09@gmail.com, and his photography at thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com.

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