Hactivism: Decoding the Cyber Culture


Hackers aren't just people who try to get into your computer. (MARIA KOVOROS/THE OBSERVER)
Hackers aren’t just people who try to get into your computer. (MARIA KOVOROS/THE OBSERVER)

Rule breaking, defiant and most importantly, faceless – these are the qualities most commonly attributed to hackers. Historically, they’ve been notorious for disrupting cyber networks that were meant to be protected. It wasn’t until the recent emergence of hacktivism that infiltrating such networks was no longer considered to be 100 percent taboo. Instead, recent hacktivist agendas have made the public more inclined to reevaluate traditional opinions on hacking. But is this enough to overshadow the practice’s infamous dark side?

Aaron Devera, Fordham College at Rose Hill (FCRH) ’16, has been on the Computer Science Society’s (CSS) executive board since its reboot in 2012 and elected Research Director for the past three semesters. He defines hacktivism as “the application of aggressive computer techniques towards a political end goal.” Elana Tee, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’17, is the current Marketing Director of CSS. She shed light on a common misconception surrounding the definition of hacking. “Hackers can also refer to people who just program to build things, like hack together a website or project.” Tee believes that this double-meaning contributes to why she doesn’t see individuals discussing hacktivist efforts openly online. “The issues they target are controversial, which is why many hackers don’t associate themselves with hacktivism.” They may also not want to tarnish their digital image and “be seen as that ‘breaking into people’s computers’ type of hacker.”

Recently, hacktivism has been a hot topic in light of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that left over a hundred people dead. An online hackers collective, fittingly known as Anonymous, has declared digital war on ISIS, the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the fatal attacks. One of the ways Anonymous intends on attacking ISIS is through sabotaging its social media recruitment efforts, which have proven to be effective so far. ISIS targets individuals through platforms like Twitter by appealing to that common feeling of not belonging and wanting to make a difference in the world. As of 2015, over 3,400 Westerners have been successfully recruited and are currently fighting for ISIS and similar jihadist groups.

While hacktivists claim that their actions serve the greater good, Devera rejects this premise. “Good isn’t objective,” he said, “and neither are the means in which information is accessed; most of the effective hacktivists didn’t access the info they target by means of expert attack, but are usually someone with privileged access [whistleblowers–Snowden, Manning].” While he doesn’t mean to belittle the intentions of individuals who utilize their online presence to seek justice, Devera does question their overall effectiveness in affecting political change. “Anonymous is largely a loose association of nominally-skilled activists; only a select few possess experience waging effective persistent campaigns.”

Sajal Bhatia, PH.D., professor of Computer Science and coordinator of Fordham’s M.S. program in cybersecurity, cites one of the earliest forms of hacktivism as being the 2012 attacks on a number of companies of which Anonymous was also responsible. What began as a targeting of the music industry over its antipiracy stance soon turned into a campaign in support of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, after backlash against the publication of classified information. These cyber-attacks caused companies including but not limited to PayPal and Ministry of Sound to lose millions of British pounds.

In regards to targeting ISIS, Bhatia said that the hacking collective claims to have hacked into around 20,000 Twitter accounts and thus blocked communication between various participants of the terrorist group. “However, very recently, it has been reported that all of this was not true,” Dr. Bhatia said. Such revelations contribute to why people often doubt the abilities of hackers to truly undermine their targets. Regardless of this misunderstanding, Devera recognizes what hacktivist groups can accomplish. “If Anonymous doxxes individuals in ISIS, they may expose information about those individuals that was not previously known to the public,” he said. “In that sense, Anonymous may expose some information that could be helpful to the intelligence community.”

If cybersecurity is of interest to any Fordham students, Bhatia will be teaching a course titled, “Secure Cyber Networks,” in Spring 2016 on various facets of the subject. This course will cover not only the limitations and vulnerabilities of a network, but also how to protect against unwanted access. “In order to defend your network or your information against various intruders, you have to think like an intruder,” he said. “That’s why seeing the other side of the story or the other side of the coin is equally important.”

When it comes to the appeal of hacking groups like Anonymous, Bhatia attributes it to the way they present themselves. “I think the image that they have is that they are ‘for the people’, and by people, I mean the global victims of recent terrorist attacks.”