A decade since 'the year of the hacktivist', online protests look set to return

A news and commentary website that is independent of academics and journalists. A news and commentary website that is independent of academics and journalists.Many people vaguely recall hacktivism as a term ten years ago. Before serious ransomware attacks became the norm, certain hacking techniques were used to send political messages and information to corporate and government entities.Hacktivism has been reduced as a form or protest in part because of the convictions of prominent hacktivists and sometimes with disproportionately harsh sentences. Hacktivism could be on the verge of regaining its status due to global restrictions on physical protests and new laws being drafted to curb offline protest.My research on hacktivism, cybercrime and hacktivism has helped me to place hacktivism within its historical context. This allows us to understand why, how and where hackers might resort to digital protest around the globe.Hacktivism reached its peak 10 years ago, but it has been an integral part of online activism ever since the advent of the internet. In the late 1990s, hacktivist groups such as the Electronic Disturbance Theater and the Electrohippies, were active. They supported the Zapatista Mexican movement, protested global wealth inequality, and raised security concerns in popular software.Hacktivist protest tactics were used by many traditional activist groups, such as Greenpeace or the German anti-racist collective Kein Mensch ist illegal, long before it rose to global prominence.Kein Mensch was actually illegally involved in a collective blockade on Lufthansas's website in 2001, protesting the German government's deportation policies. Frankfurt Appeals Court would ultimately rule that hacktivist activity was freedom of expression and not criminal activity, but courts did not follow this precedent elsewhere.Hacktivism's golden ageHacktivism first attracted global attention after Anonymous, an anonymous collective of hackers, political internet users, trolls, and pranksters, decided to concentrate on political issues. The group targeted the Church of Scientology in 2008 for censoring online content. They mobilized to protect WikiLeaks and other whistleblower websites in 2010. Major cybersecurity companies would soon label 2011 the year of hacktivist due to Anonymous's activities.Hacktivist groups began to emerge all over the globe quickly. Anonymous had many branches across the country. These groups were active in local uprisings and contributed to political struggles. During the Arab Spring protests of 2012, Anonymous removed dozens websites belonging to Egyptian governments.This hacktivist explosion was not ignored, despite hacktivist claims that online protest is just as valid as offline. Hacktivists were found guilty of violating cybercrime laws such as the UK's Computer Misuse Act 1990. Various protesters were also prosecuted in the UK and USA.The most prominent prosecution was perhaps that of Aaron Swartz, an American internet whiz-kid who had evaded security precautions at universities in order to make available a complete database of academic papers. Swartz committed suicide during the trial. This brought into question US cybercrime laws as well as their strict enforcement.Hacktivists have had to retreat as cybercrime laws and other criminal acts have intensified over the years. Their tactics are still effective, and hacktivism, which has been severely restricted in our ability to protest physically around the world, could be re-used as an alternative method of expression of discontent in the post COVID era.Hacktivist tacticsHacktivists have attempted to imitate offline protests and civil disobedience in the online space. Hacktivists have used website defacements (often called internet graffiti) to write political messages on targeted websites. Denial of service attacks (DoS), which aim to overload a website with visitors in order to cause it to crash, are also quite common. These virtual sit-ins are often called hacktivists.Virtual sit-ins are not like internet graffiti which can be done by one skilled hacker. This makes them more democratically valid and effective, as well as sharing criminal liability among the virtual protesters.I have highlighted the positive aspects these tactics in my research and praised how they allow citizen dissent to be expressed online while also globalizing important political causes. However, virtual sit-ins can have serious financial consequences for the targeted organisations and systems. Some commentators criticize hacktivism as an empty form of slacktivism, which they claim isn't comparable to street protests' political conscientiousness and resolution.Hacktivism is a principled movement that promotes socially beneficial causes and minimizes harms. However, it can be muddled by a less justified vigilantist argument. Anonymous members have exposed personal information of police officers and put their families at risk. Lulzsec, a hacktivist group, has been known to attack large organisations not for political reasons but for the challenge. Nationalist hacktivists are also known to be involved in hacker warfare that has sometimes escalated into violence in the real world.Is hacktivism on the rise?These criticisms aside, it is easy to see how these tactics might become more popular in the new post-pandemic age, when everyone spends much more time online. There have been instances that hacktivism has become a side-tactic of groups like Extinction Rebellion. Extinction Rebellion has been rethinking its future strategies in light preemptive arrests and restrictions.Hacktivists never disappeared completely. Anonymous was able to resurface during the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. They targeted police force websites with hacks. However, we are still in transition with organized hacktivist efforts much less common than a decade ago.The stage is set for hacktivism's third wave. Hacktivist activity could be a popular alternative for in-person civil disobedience during a time when many are still concerned about COVID-19 transmission.It will be interesting to see if hacktivist tactics can really help to mobilize change in a more politicized world as environmental and anti-discrimination groups grow globally.This article is by Vasileios Karaagiannopoulos (Reader in Cybercrime and Cybersecurity University of Portsmouth), and it has been republished by The Conversation under Creative Commons licensing. You can read the original article.