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‘Hacktivism’ – Web activists on a scale between good and evil

The internet not only changes the way we live and do business, it also opens up for web activists a whole new range of possibilities for active citizenship and social protest – not least through ‘hacktivism’. Two examples serve to show how vulnerable our digital society is and that ‘hactivists’ can play very varied roles.

For people all over the world, the internet has changed life fundamentally and for good. It not only affects the way we work, the way we get information or how and what type of friends we make, it has also changed approaches to political involvement and social protest.

Online petitions are currently experiencing a real boom – and not just in Germany. Platforms such as Change.org or openpetition.de make it easy for web activists to launch online campaigns that enable people to participate at the click of a mouse.

Regardless of the success of this form of social commitment, it is not without risk. Cyber campaigns, on the other hand, are specifically designed to cause damage and bring down entire networks – and all, in the hactivists’ view, in the name of a good cause.

Hacktivism – illegal vigilantism ...

In 2010, the donor-financed whistle-blowing platform WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of confidential progress reports from US embassies around the world. In the view of WikiLeaks, the general public had a right to know what US diplomats really thought about their partners around the world. The US Government, on the other hand, felt that the publications were damaging to national security and served only to harm international relations.

When it was announced that various banks and credit card companies were under political pressure to stop processing all future financial contributions to WikiLeaks, the servers of the companies in question were temporarily paralysed by means of focused DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks. The web activists’ targets included credit card companies Visa and Mastercard, the internet pay service PayPal, Swiss-based PostFinance and Bank of America.

... or ‘of democratic value’?

In technical terms, such attacks are relatively simple to achieve using programmes already circulating on the internet. And depending on the target, the consequences can be dramatic. They may force a company into bankruptcy or paralyse a country’s entire infrastructure. So how one views a specific campaign varies greatly from one case to another and depends on one’s individual viewpoint.

There are, however, examples of ‘democratically useful’ hacktivism. A few years ago, for example, hackers belonging to the German Chaos Computer Clubs e. V. (CCC) and its local scene demonstrated that the voting computers used in many European countries were open to manipulation by attackers, who could register a vote for one candidate against the name of another competitor. The hacktivists therefore helped prevent potential ballot rigging and made a valuable contribution to the democratic cause.

Vulnerable digital society

Two very different examples of hacktivism once again show how vulnerable our global digital society really is. There are many unresolved questions. Can freedom and security be equally sustained in the long term in the digital society? Or do we have to make a choice?

Arte documentation: ‘Hactivists – rebels on the internet’ (in German)

July 2014

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