Behind the mask: the rise of hacktivism

Behind the mask: the rise of hacktivismIn the first industrial revolution, a group of angered weavers and textile workers were made redundant, losing their livelihoods to technology that could do the job quicker and more efficiently.

They responded to this injustice with force, going on systematic nocturnal raids, using heavy instruments to smash machinery and cripple factories.

We are now on the eve of the fourth industrial revolution and those who have grievances against governments or organisations no longer seek to harm the technology of the day. Instead they have harnessed technology and in doing so can amplify the damage they cause to unrivalled proportions. Luddites have been replaced by hacktivists, and according to Lifehacker we are in the midst of an escalating arms race between government and hacktivists. So what can governments do to make sure that they contain the threat?

How is Hacktivism different from other forms of cybercrime?

What distinguishes hacktivism from other forms of cyber attacks is intent. According to Ty Miller, Director of Threat Intelligence, a hacktivist is someone who ‘disrupts systems in order to promote a socially or politically motivated agenda, as opposed to those who are motivated by financial reasons, or for glory.’  The activities themselves can range from infiltrating organisational systems and infecting them to releasing very sensitive information (such as in the case of WikiLeaks or the Panama Papers).

Worms Against Nuclear Killer

The Georgetown Journal of International Affairs notes the first recorded activist attack was in the late ‘80s committed by an Australian group called Worms Against Nuclear Killers, protesting the launch of a space shuttle containing a plutonium-powered space probe. According to The Age, several days before the launch bizarre messages started to appear on their networks:

Your computer has been officially WANKed.

You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war.

Remember, even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat.

This type of hacking, one of the earliest forms, is known as a worm, where a program essentially copies itself throughout a network seeking out any holes in a security system. This worm kept burrowing, through departments in the US, Sweden and Japan. While it did not stop the launch, much time and money was spent shutting the attack down (it allegedly cost NASA $500,000). No one was caught. In fact, it even took several years before the assault could be definitively traced back to Australia. Evidence has lead investigators to believe that two young Melbourne hackers, Phoenix and Electron were behind the attack.

This was nearly 30 years ago, when the internet was in its infancy. If they could cause that level of chaos at the highest echelons of government, what could they do when the internet informs every aspect of our lives? As Chenxi Wang, Vice President of Security at Forrester Research remarked to The New York Times, ‘The weapon is much more accessible, the technology is more sophisticated and your life, my life (is online) — which makes it much more lethal.’


Anonymous is the name of a large and diverse group championing the concept of a ‘free internet.’ They came into the spotlight in 2003, when they started posting hacks on 4chan boards. The types of hacks that they were posting were typical of script kids, infiltrating government sites for larks and bragging rights. It wasn’t until 2008 that their hacking took on a more political flavour. Members of the group began targeting Scientology sites, with an initiative named Project Chanology. Anonymous used a series of DDoS attacks to disable their websites, as well as clogging up their hotlines, and uploading an internal video of prominent member Tom Cruise talking about the religion. The documentary We are Legion explores the events and interviews a number of the group.

One member in the documentary theorised that the attacks on Scientology were so fierce because the group was an anathema to everything the group stood for. ‘Scientology is an interesting target, because it some ways it’s the perfect inversion of what geeks and hackers value, at so many different levels: science fiction, intellectual property discourses of freedom, science and technology. It [Scientology] is also very proprietary, it’s very closed. And so in some ways if you had something like a cultural inversion machine and you put geeks and hackers in there you’d end up with scientologists.’

*Warning: graphic language*

The attack demonstrated (even to the group itself) just how large the organisation had become. Because members don’t know each other, the movement grew from those concerned with internet censorships to largely disparate views.

A group like anonymous demonstrates why hacktivism is so appealing.  The Georgetown Journal states that there are four key reasons for this:

1) You don’t need to be advanced to contribute

Anonymous have tools and outlines so that even someone with low-level skills can contribute to an attack

2) The risks are much lower

If you are protesting in a physical space there is a chance that you will be identified or caught, plus most instances of cyber activism aren’t investigated by the authorities

3) You can protest in the comfort of your own home and connect with like-minded people from all over the world

4) The activity is scalable, so you can have highly targeted individual attacks or amplified, large-scale group efforts

These points also highlight the difficulties agencies have in anticipating and containing this kind of behaviour. In both of the above examples, there has been very little prosecution on these attacks. Yet the ramifications of the activity, such as releasing sensitive information, gaining access to nuclear codes could be catastrophic.

In Australia, the federal government have attempted to address the issue with the launch of its cyber strategy last year. While this is a step in the right direction, the Prime Minister, in its introduction acknowledges the scope of the problem:

‘Australians are targets for malicious actors — including serious and organised criminal syndicates and foreign adversaries — who are all using cyberspace to further their aims and attack our interests. The reach of malicious cyber activity affecting Australian public and private sector organisations and individuals is unprecedented. The rate of compromise is increasing and the methods used by malicious actors are rapidly evolving’.

The strategy suggests that the way to combat these forms of attacks is to make sure that Australia is attracting and retaining talent. In fact, it is rumoured that Phoenix and Electron now work in the private sector advising organisations on how to anticipate and prevent attacks. The other focus needs to be on industry collaboration. Instead of competing, organisations and governments need to work together to create a cybersecurity culture of best practice.

Technological innovation brings great possibilities, but as historical precedents have demonstrated, they also bring great challenges. It’s up to those who work in these spheres to ensure that citizens can leverage the technology in a safe and inclusive way. If you’d like to know more out the latest cybersecurity practices, take a look at the CeBIT Australia 2017 Cyber Security conference today.

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