Should We Condone ‘Hactivism’?

Since the subject of hacking has come up recently in lecture, I thought it’d be interesting to discuss how some people have used their talents in a way that has us questioning how we think about the word “hacker”. In the last few years we’ve seen an increase in hackers who use their computer skills to expose corruption and to make social commentary on politics, social media, and privacy. One instance, which happened not too long ago, is the Steubenville rape case, where the hack expert group Anonymous leaked videos, texts, and emails, that showed a massive cover up was taking place to protect high school football players accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl. The work by the hackers eventually led to the charging of the students’ and adults in the situation.

Another well-known hactivist group are a duo based in Milan. Paolo Cirio & Alessandro Ludovico are hackers who call themselves ‘artists’; mainly to get around the legal issues their work entails. In an extremely creative use of hack skill, Cirio developed a schema known as Google Will Eat Itself. The goal of this project was to buy shares of Google and distribute it to the public using Google’s own money. They accomplished this by using bots to click on Google advertisements on a network of hidden websites. They were apparently able to make over $400,000. Another undertaking was the writing of a code and creation of an algorithm that would preview Amazon books repeatedly enough to have previewed a sufficient amount of material to read the entire book. They were then able to put the book together in its entirety and subsequently make the books available to the public. The pair also created face-to-Facebook which scraped Facebook data of a million users and categorized them and then automatically adds them to a custom online dating website. They did this as social commentary on the lack of privacy people who use sites like Facebook have. Another interesting thing the duo did was protest Google street-view by creating real-life replicas of people captured by the cameras. They justified their work by saying that the use of street view was incredibly invasive, and would in essence canonize the people without their permission.

So the questions are should we support hactivists like Anonymous and Cirio & Ludovico? Is their work illegal based on The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act? Would you personally consider their work illegal? Do you think their actions are morally right/wrong according to the rules we learned for judging morally right actions?

7 Responses to Should We Condone ‘Hactivism’?

  1. HDMcCullough

    Overall morality should depend on the current action of the hacking group.
    Take Anonymous’ leaking of media to show the cover up protecting the high school football players. Using an act utilitarian lens, Deric Lostutter (hacker who gathered and leaked the videos, texts, emails, etc.) was doing the morally right thing. Without the evidence he leaked, the rapists and those involved in covering up the case wouldn’t have been convicted (making them happy), however that would have led to the continued mass unhappiness of the community and the girl who was raped. Did Lostutter have to go through some less-than-likely illegal means of obtaining the media? Probably (which led to the FBI raid of his home and arrest), but that’s a different case.
    Now, based on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, he didn’t do anything wrong. The information he obtained was not sensitive to the government, he didn’t obtain any records from any protected computer or department/agency of the US, nor did he break into a nonpublic computer of a US department or agency. Case by case, this action was morally right.
    That is to say not every action of Anonymous is morally right. Organizing a DDoS attack to raid social media/image board website 9GAG may be within legal means, but that does not make it necessarily morally right.
    So, what am I getting at? Anonymous is described as “a very loose and decentralized command structure that operates on ideas rather than directives”. They do not have a form of leadership, so no one action can be attributed to the group as a whole. Every action attributed to Anonymous has been done by a range from one person (as was the case with the Steubenville rape trial) to the whole group. Can we support all actions done by hacktivist groups like Anonymous? Simply, no. Because there is no centralization, half the group may be for idea A and half the group may be against idea A, a quarter of the group may be in favor of action B, half the group may be strongly opposed to action B, and the last quarter may feel completely indifferent. It’s difficult to support a group that may already be internally divided, and then on top of that, some actions may be morally wrong/illegal, which may raise difficulties in supporting. Support should be done case by case, where the Steubenville trial is one example that can and should be supported.

  2. We should support hacking because it will inspire creativity in both hackers and organizations. When the DES encryption standard was broken, a new standard had to be created. Thus the active level of technology progressed. If this example were to be applied on a wider scale, then it could also lead to an advancement of technology. Hackers will have to get more creative to continue breaking through security and organizations will have to be more innovative to stay ahead of the hackers. Over the course of the “digital war” that would ensue, technology (at least in the field of cyber security) would rapidly advance. Though some companies would die off from not being able to protect themselves from the hacker’s attacks, it just means they were not creative enough. Only the strong (innovative) will survive.

    On another note, I would support hackers that go by the past’s definition of people who enjoy having an internal understanding of a machine and its code. Gatherings such as hackathons provide great opportunities for people to get together to not only brainstorm, but actually implement solutions to problems. The gatherings provide a great way for people to learn new methods and ways of thinking when so many ideas and amassed in one place. In general, they normally lead to creative solutions that may not have previously existed or are more efficient than current solutions.

    • Interesting point about hackathons. I think it would be nice to have a separate post about what is a hackathon, why people organize them, and what (if any) good they accomplish.

  3. Interesting question. I want to add another good story about Anonymous action. There was a case that a member of Anonymous in Veracruz, Mexico, was kidnapped by the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas, one of the most violent criminal groups in that country. They declared in a public video post on youtube that if he was not release by November 5 Anonymous would release information about “police officers, journalists, taxi drivers and others working with the Zetas.” and i think Zetas released the guy on November 4. For me, i think i will support hackers if they use their skill to help other like a some case above. I also think its nice that you can just sit home and help other with your skill without knowing who they are.

  4. I think supporting hacking would have positive effects in the long term. Right now, due to the media, hacking has a very negative connotation. This leaves a division in the hacking community. The “bad” hackers are free to do as they please as they are just living up to the expected stereotype. The ”good” hackers are forced to essentially hide in order to avoid judgment, negative attention, and potential legal action. This discourages more people from learning about/how to hack.
    Hacking has proven it can be very useful and beneficial to society as stated in the original post. But, when these hackers are having to spend effort trying to cover their own tracks, it takes away from what they are capable of doing. Society is becoming more and more cyber oriented every day. So then the most valuable/important people will be those who can manipulate and control computer systems, databases etc.
    It is crucial that people with these skills are either recruited to good causes or are at least encouraged to help society. To become enemies with hackers is extremely dangerous, and society’s habit of turning hackers away makes them into enemies in the long run. Supporting “hactivism” now will increase the size of the “good” hacking community. Their knowledge can then be used to expand the purposes and capabilities of current technology.

  5. youstolemycouch.

    You raise some very interesting points about Hacktivism. I am particularly interested in the artists, Paolo Cirio & Alessandro Ludovico, they seem from what I have read about them to genuinely be interested in raising awareness about issues involved in computing and technology; the same issues that we talk about in class.
    I think that the story of sidejacking and Firesheep that we read about in the textbook is also a good example of how Hacktivists have the power to do good. By designing and distributing the Firesheep extension Eric Butler was able to get media attention for the weakness of standard HyperText Transfer Protocol and eventually HTTPS became much more commonplace as a default setting. Traditionally Eric Butler’s actions would be considered Dubious at best because he developed an application that exploited a known security weakness and distributed it for anyone to use. From a utilitarian perspective though, his actions seem to be moral because the end state was increased security and privacy for internet users which would make them happier. According to our reading many other activists had tried to raise awareness through more conventional means, but were ignored. Meaning that Butler’s hactivism also lead to more happiness than traditional awareness raising methods, another indicatior that Butler’s actions were moral.

  6. Thanks for replying everyone; you all make very interesting points. I have a question about “HD”‘s comment. I don’t know much about The Computer Fraud and Abuse act, but I do know that it has been amended several times and its sometimes used in more nonspecific cases. I guess my question is, does it just apply to government/classified information and commerce? If that is the case, are there laws specifically geared towards just regular hackers, who do low-level hacking? For example, if I were to hack into my partners’ email, Facebook, bank account to track his purchases, maybe the GPS in his car to track where he’s going, etc., and he were to find out and then press charges against me, under what laws are those types of hacking governed? And would that be what someone like Lostutter is charged under?

    Now, in terms of whether or not hacktivism is something we should support; my previous stance was that yes we should support hactivism because it produces good. But now I’m not so sure. My worry is if we start to support hacking for good, we’ll see a whole lot of things going very wrong and bad for well-intentioned people. And as we’ve discussed several times in class we need to consider the happiness of everyone involved. Like Cirio & Ludovico’s scraping of Amazons’ book feature. Although, we might consider that action relatively trivial, you have to imagine how Amazon felt, especially considering that they sued them for copyright infringement and then settled out of court. Should we support something like that? Although they made all the books available to the public for free, which probably produced a large amount of happiness, do we rule out Amazon’s minuscule unhappiness? I think I support “HD”‘s suggestion of only supporting certain actions, like that of the Steubenville hacker. But do we want a bunch of vigilante hackers running around, claiming to do public good? I feel like supporting groups such as Anonymous, we’ll be taking us down a very slippery slope.

    Also, I too would like to hear more information about hackathons. To be honest, it’s the first time I’m hearing of such a thing.