Hacktivism (or hactivism) is the use of cyberattacks to raise awareness of social, political, or other issues. The term is a fusion of the words “hack” and “activism.” Unlike conventional black hats, hacktivists generally cite motivations other than financial or other gain.
Hacktivist targets tend to be large companies, government bodies, or public figures whose actions contravene the hacktivists’ ideology. For example, hacktivists might target an organization that they believe violates human rights or freedom of speech. Some hacktivists are experts who attack organizations to highlight vulnerabilities publicly.
To achieve their goals, hacktivists employ the same methods as regular cybercriminals. The most common of these are:
- Defacing — changing the content of the target website, typically posting content that promotes the hacktivists’ ideas;
- Doxing — harvesting confidential information about a person or organization for the purpose of further disclosure;
- DDoS — employing simultaneous attacks from multiple devices to disable a particular resource. Hacktivists typically claim responsibility for such attacks and publicly voice their motives;
- Geo-bombing — using geotags on YouTube to link multiple videos about a particular social issue to a specific point on the map. Geotagged videos appear on Google Earth at the corresponding location.
Other hacktivists specialize in creating and distributing tools, such as secure browsers and messaging apps, anonymizers, means for bypassing content restrictions, and more, for sharing uncensored information.
Some hacktivists operate alone, others in teams. Individual hacktivists can be part of several groups at once. A few hacktivist groups have become relatively well-known.
One of the most (in)famous hacktivist groups, Anonymous has claimed responsibility for numerous cyberattacks, including ones against the Church of Scientology and antipiracy organizations. Anonymous is a decentralized group that operates worldwide.
Cult of the Dead Cow
A group member nicknamed Omega is credited with coining the term hacktivism back in 1996. In 1999, the group formed an offshoot, Hacktivismo, that specializes in anticensorship technologies and advocates for the free publication of any information. The Cult of the Dead Cow has developed and released many tools both for hacking and for sharing information through steganography and cryptography.
Hacktivism exists in a gray area, ethically speaking. On the one hand, hacktivists can raise awareness of important social and political issues, but on the other hand, they use methods that many countries consider criminal.