Introduction: Merry Christmas, Nerds!
On the morning of December 25th, 2014, a hacker group known as "Lizard Squad" broke into Sony Playstation and Xbox networks, effectively shutting all of its users out of the globally popular video game systems.iii All over the Internet, those who had plans to spend the day gaming leveled their outrage at Lizard Squad via online platforms such as Twitter, 4Chan and Reddit. Cartoons and scathing verbal attacks depicting Squad members as stereotypical geeks—young white or Asian males occupying their parents' basement, pulling nihilistic pranks on any target they deemed fit—spread throughout these sites. Xbox and Sony, which was still recovering from a major public relations crisis done by a hack on its internal security system, scrambled to restore service to their networks while a particular strain of humor-spiked outrage unique to the Internet set the tone for many a gamer's holiday.
Hacking is an activity capable of exacting enormous abuses against its victims, damages that far outweigh the minor inconvenience of an inability to enjoy one's brand-new video game on Christmas morning. 2014 was dubbed "the year of the hacker" by technology news site CIO Today.iii Indeed, it seemed that each week brought a fresh case of malicious hacking to the forefront of broadcast news and social media feeds worldwide. By the time the end of 2014 rolled around, a question loomed large in the minds of those in the global computing community: what next?
Thanks to the Squad, that Christmas also saw individuals all over the world engaging in the activity popularly known to the Internet community as a "facepalm," or a gesture of regret in the event of a gaffe or significant embarrassment. Lizard Squad's seemingly senseless operations evoked the ire of the most famous hacker group in the world, a collective known simply as “Anonymous.” Although their attacks on Sony and were enough to warrant a sharp reaction, the harshest vitriol directed toward Lizard Squad by Anonymous was inspired by an announcement of their intended next victim: the Tor network. The Tor network comprises a number of technologies developed to protect online privacy and is well known among techies, hackers and anti-surveillance activists.iv Noted for combining technical sophistication with user-friendliness, technologists praise its inner workings, while those with no functional knowledge of online security are still capable of enjoying its services. Tor is available to the public entirely for free and has been publicized as one of the best privacy protection tools available. v Because of its relative popularity, Anonymous and their supporters understood that an attack on Tor would do more than just secure Lizard Squad's place in the hacker hall of fame. Indeed, it would provide yet another opportunity for the media to offer significant misrepresentations of the personalities and motivations behind hacking. This is arguably as destructive as any attack on Tor's network; I personally believe that it is worse. I hold that common misrepresentations of hacking and hacktivism are ultimately more destructive than any isolated incident of hacking, as they discourage populations who do not see themselves and their values in these images from engaging with a practice that has the potential to do an enormous amount of good.
Despite popular culture's love affair with its image and mythos, a common misunderstanding as to why so many proudly bear the title "hacker" remains. The case of the Christmas attacks by Lizard Squad served as a reminder to non-malicious hackers around the world that there will always be those who hack for nefarious purposes. Indeed, the entire community around and evolution of the practice would not exist without its darker variations. However, not only do these ill-intentioned actions fail to wholly represent hacking as a practice and culture, they deviate widely from the original meaning of term, which championed curiosity, playfulness, cleverness and innovation without commanding any malicious actions. In fact, a subset of those who claim title of "hacker" insist on distinguishing bad hacking from "real" hacking with names such as "black hat hacking" and "cracking." Though not popularly known outside of technology communities, these monikers serve as reminders within the hacking universe that many among them regard profit-seeking or intentionally destructive practices as undeserving of the title "hack."
Because the media frequently takes up hacking and digital activism as a subject of interest (if not straightforward sensationalism), it is more crucial than ever for those who call themselves hackers to promote positive and accurate depictions of hacking and hacktivism in the media. Fighting the operative stereotypes of hackers and (by extension) hacktivists, because the wide variety of practices and groups that go by these names is currently suffering from media representations whose agenda is to perpetuate a scintillating but ultimately narrow and divisive vision of hackers. My thesis is that these images, which denote hacking as the province of heterosexual men of white or Asian descent, are inaccurate and have a chilling effect on the activities of hacktivists. I furthermore submit that in order to move beyond this, it is essential to offer more constructive images of hacking. In illuminating the ways that negative hacker stereotypes misrepresent hacktivism, and through the provision of positive counter-examples, I aim to demonstrate the need for and possibility of better representations of hacking and hacktivism.
Part 1: We’re From The Internet: Hacktivism and Hacker Identity
The term “hacktivist”—a portmanteau of the words “hacker” and “activist”—was coined in 1996 by Omega, a member of hacker collective The Cult of the Dead Cow.vi Because the term “hacking” is conceptually nebulous, I believe it is key to confront it before exploring the various ways in which “hacktivism,” a subset of hacking, is used. The phrase “hacking” emerged in the 1950s, several decades before “hacktivist” was conceptualized, and has been redefined frequently since then.vii It encompasses a distinctly heterogeneous set of practices, individuals and groups across the world. A definition of "hacking" that suits all possible contexts and applications is therefore difficult to pin down. This is also accounted for by one of the few cultural values of hacking that would, in all likelihood, be agreed on by most who identify with it: the fact that hacking rewards cleverness, trickery, and (at times) intentional obfuscation. These qualities dovetail with a sort of bull-headed individualism and stubbornness that characterizes many who willfully assume the title "hacker."
Hacking praises the capacity of individuals to find their own definitions for loosely-construed terms and abstractions, up to and including the word “hack” itself; thus an attempt to say what it is not would surely raise red flags among quite a few. Because of this, it can be easier to speak of hacking in terms of loosely bound social and technical elements than well-defined actions and identity markers. Famous hacker and free software proponent Richard M. Stallman is quoted as follows: “It is hard to write a simple definition of something as varied as hacking, but I think what these activities have in common is playfulness, cleverness, and exploration. Thus, hacking means exploring the limits of what is possible, in a spirit of playful cleverness. Activities that display playful cleverness have “hack value.” viii Of course, not everybody agrees with Stallman’s definition of hacking. He notes that “everybody’s first hack” is “running the wrong way on an escalator,” which fits one of his definitions—“playfully doing something difficult.” ix This is certainly a far cry from the destructive security breaches that, under the same name, topped the list of crimes that most concerned Americans in 2014.x Yet the programmer, whose definition of hacking also includes creative misuses of chopsticks,xi is internationally recognized as an authority on the topic. The truth is that hacking exists within a number of cultural and political contexts that vary widely from country to country, between and within cities, and among global subcultures.
Gabriella Coleman, the foremost scholar on Anonymous, notes that the collective—which began in the United States of America—would not exist without its European contingents, xii and has also stated that international styles of and attitudes toward hacking are highly diverse.xiii Insofar as it is frequently used to refer to illegal behavior, what constitutes "hacking" is, for many, inextricably linked to its legal status. What can be said definitively is that there exists a significant divide between the way the word "hacking" is perceived within the technology community and the public at large. Whereas hacking is most frequently portrayed in the context of criminal activity, the term “hacker” also frequently appears in the job descriptions and biographies of computer programmers and is often deployed in tech-focused journalistic pieces in an unambiguously positive context. On this division, Stallman notes:
Around 1980, when the news media took notice of hackers, they fixated on one narrow aspect of real hacking: the security breaking which some hackers occasionally did. They ignored all the rest of hacking, and took the term to mean breaking security, no more and no less. The media have since spread that definition, disregarding our attempts to correct them. As a result, most people have a mistaken idea of what we hackers actually do and what we think. xiv
This situation is made more complex by the fact that even the good sort of hacking, which sometimes goes by the name “white hat hacking,” can venture into territories of subversiveness, trickery, and play, making it difficult to ascertain the motivation behind such behaviors. In a sense, hackers are always performing computer science experiments; a spirit of exploration is at the heart of what they do. These excursions into the unknown have lead individuals into ethical territory uncharted not only by fellow programmers, but by lawyers, policy makers and journalists whose task it is to interpret such activities in the context of right-versus-wrong. The truth is that it is exceedingly difficult to impose a traditional moral framework on the activities of even the most lawful and ethical hackers.
In terms of how they regard their practice, it must be made clear that constant revision and mutability is not only critical to the way hackers approach code and network infrastructures, but reflects a wider attitude of way many hackers conceive of themselves and their lives. There are several cases of those who began as criminal hackers before going to work for the government, often as part of a plea deal, such as the notorious Hector Monsegur, AKA Sabu, a founding member of hacktivist group LulzSec and a high-level member of Anonymous who became an informant for the FBI following his arrest in June 2011.xv Monsegur was exposed as a double agent for the FBI in March 2012, xvi earning him no small measure of disrepute among the activists and community of which he had once been a hero. Hacking history contains several instances of individuals whose lives are definitively unconventional, blurring the boundaries between institutional fidelity and anarchy, profit motivations and vigilante justice, playfulness and threatening behavior. I believe that this is not coincidence or tangent of the intrinsic definition of hacking. Lack of concern for fitting into conventional societal frameworks is part and parcel of the impulses that drive individuals to hack.
Both within and outside of the community, those who seek to represent hacking accurately must possess both the patience to learn about it from a technical perspective and a high tolerance for the eccentric personalities that populate its world. While it is essential that those who work with hackers gain some familiarity with its techniques and shared cultural features, I submit that a sophisticated understanding of hacker personalities—the true selves of hackers—precedes any ability to explain or represent the practice in good faith. The personal lives of those associated with cybercriminality often inspire as much intrigue as do their actions. That cases of hacking have historically offered rich fodder to the media is no coincidence; behind many a famous hack is a programmer that demonstrated highly interesting behavior long before their story appeared on television and Internet newsfeeds worldwide.
For many groups and individuals across the globe, declaring themselves hackers is tantamount in importance to the assumption of a spiritual, cultural, professional or otherwise deeply ingrained and socially legitimated identity. Among those who bear the nname “hacker,”there is an implicit understanding that though it may manifest in discrete actions, the quintessence of hacking is in an all-encompassing mindset that is commonly, though not always, expressed as a fascination with and ethos of technology. This ethos is palpable among the chat rooms in which DDoS attacks (a common collective strategy that involves the crashing of web servers by sending them a huge volume of requests en masse) are coordinated. It is also at the heart of whistleblowing actions, through the providence of malware scripts masquerading as Adobe Flash downloads, and in the consumption of a piece of sushi with four chopsticks in each hand. Despite their differences, each of these activities resolves to a particular mentality that forms the basis of what I acknowledge as a distinct and fully formed culture: hacking culture.
Hacking culture includes many of the same distinguishing points as other more widely-studied social and intellectual movements of the 20th century, such as futurism and feminism. As with futurism and feminism, hacking culture contains, under its broad umbrella, a number of smaller schools of thought and practice. It also features a canonical, if not unanimously agreed-on, manifesto. The document, titled "The Conscience of a Hacker,"xvii was written by a hacker known pseudonymously as The Mentor. In spite of the fact that it lacks particular reference to what hackers actually do (or, perhaps, because of it), the document is interwoven with hacking history. The work is referenced on many a t-shirt and Internet meme as well as throughout the film “Hackers" which, artistic merit notwithstanding, is notable for being one of the earliest mainstream depictions of hacking. Toward the end of The Manifesto, the mindset of a hacker is laid bare:
This is our world now... the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore... and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge... and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias... and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it's for our own good, yet we're the criminals.
Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.xviii
This effusive spiel is designed as a clarion call—a motivational speech for the dispossessed, those who seek language to describe and vitalize nameless urges. Unlike manifestos published to inspire and engage those already primed to join a growing force-for-positivity, it addresses a population that evidently regards itself as victims of misunderstanding. This sense of dispossession characterizes its intended audience above and beyond any identification as creative vanguards or crusaders for justice. I hold that this is intentional and possibly accounted for by the fact that its author was aware that his readers included individuals who might well find themselves in a position similar to the one he was in at the time. The Manifesto was published shortly after The Mentor, otherwise known as Loyd Blankenship, was convicted of cybersecurity related crimes.xix
Within its visionary effusiveness exists a truth that dwells at the kernel of hacker culture: it is globally powerful as a form of self-identification in part because it bypasses typical demographic or culturally-determined features. While the observation that hackers exist “without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias,” “judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like” is utopian, I believe that it is grounded firmly in reality. The practice is wholly divorced from the identity of individuals as determined by their race, gender identity, disability status or sexual orientation. Hacking takes place through the veil of anonymity. One’s hacking identity is a function of activities determined solely by one’s desire, imagination, and individuality.
As with Loyd Blankenship/The Mentor, most hackers have at least one pseudonym. While the use of a false moniker is common to anyone with an e-mail account, the hacker handle is of a slightly different order. Its function is more akin to a name conferred as part of a religious initiation, only becoming operative in the spaces of, say, the chatroom or the monastery. Many well-known hackers are known by these two names (if not more): the one bestowed on them at birth and the one they take on as a function of their work. Julian Assange, one of the most currently famous hacktivists, began his cyber career as “Mendax.”xx The choice of Mendax for his name was a nod to the nature of his activities: coming from Horace’s splendide mendax, meaning “nobly untruthful,” xxi it was the pseudonym under which he formed the ethical hacker group the International Subversives. The Subversives’ members swore by a set of golden rules: “Don’t damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don’t change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information." These rules reflect a commitment to an ethical framework that activates as the members carry out the actions with which their names and group membership are inextricably interwoven. The Subversives included two other members, “Trax” and “Prime Suspect,”xxii neither of whom are publicly associated with their legal names. The hacker handle and hacking activities come as a pair.
The Mentor’s Manifesto, Stallman’s “On Hacking” and the International Subversive’s ruleset enshrine perspectives on hacking rarely cited in mainstream media: the hacker’s own views. Though they diverge widely in tone and content, these documents are philosophically united in a commitment to principle and value that supersedes sheer instrumentality or goal-oriented behavior. “On Hacking” and “The Hacker Manifesto” speak to deeply-felt personal experiences and issues of selfhood, topics more frequently written on by those who study psychology and philosophy than computer science. Neither work confronts the technical specificities of hacking. This compounds the notion that, at its heart, hacking is about topics a bit loftier than those details of computer science that, at first blush, appear to occupy the entirety of the hacker mind. All three works focus on the subjective relationship the authors have to their practice as opposed to an intended target or narrowly defined array of activities.
I assert that the guiding value behind each of these documents is honor: a dedication to intangible qualities recognized for their intrinsic value. The “noble” in the noble untruthfulness sworn by Assange in his nom de guerre has turned out to be more descriptive of his career than “untruthfulness.” Regardless of whether one sees Assange's actions as ethical, "untruthfulness" does not factor into the way his projects have operated. The organization for which he is famous, WikiLeaks, deals in the provision of documents concealed from the public by powerful political and corporate entities. In their exposition of these materials, WikiLeaks has revealed a great many untruths.
That the life of so many hackers across the entirety of North America may be so finely and thoroughly distilled to the framework outlined in Coleman's work is possible because there is such a thing as a distinct “hacker identity;” those who bear these features comprise hacking culture. This identity is replete with features and designations as operative and tangible as any other more widely acknowledged form of self-identification, such as those derived from spiritual, ethnic, or professional affiliations. It is profoundly important to many, and I believe that its preeminent values are why many hackers engage in activist work. However, not only are these positive values excluded from their media representations, they are frequently inverted in favor of a darker, and arguably more interesting, narrative.
Although the causes for their misrepresentations are powerful and thus difficult to dismantle, I maintain that it is the ethical imperative of the media to offer a more representatively accurate image of hackers. This is so that those who may accede to a higher degree of self-awareness and perform meaningful work as a function of the conscious identification as a hacker and/or hacktivist are not deterred. Images that may lead would-be hacktivists to perceive their natural curiosity and individuality as societally deviant or otherwise "weird" or "wrong" must be supplemented by more constructive visions.
An important issue that comes to bear on the recognition of hacker identity is the notion of cultural legitimacy: the need for marginalized identities to be depicted and explained realistically in order to attain power in the greater sociopolitical milieu. Neşe Devenot, a scholar of philosophy and art history, identifies "psychedelic identity" as a subject of similar mischaracterizations. In her essay: “A Declaration of Psychedelic Studies,” Devenot promotes the notion that "psychedelic identity" is societally valid as a form of queer identity insofar as it follows a definition of the term “queer” advanced by theorist David Halperin:
Unlike gay identity, which, though deliberately proclaimed in an act of affirmation, is nonetheless rooted in the positive fact of homosexual object-choice, queer identity need not be grounded in any positive truth or in any stable reality. As the very word implies, “queer” does not name some natural kind or refer to some determinate object; it acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. “Queer,” then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative… “Queer”… describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance. It is from the eccentric positionality occupied by the queer subject that it may become possible to envision a variety of possibilities for reordering the relations among… forms of knowledge, regimes of enunciation, logics of representation, modes of self-constitution, and practices of community-for restructuring, that is, the relations among power, truth, and desire.xxiii
I would argue that “hacker identity” is queer on virtue of the same logic by which Devenot determines “psychedelic identity” to be so. Both “The Hacker Manifesto” and “On Hacking” assert that hacking exists in oppositional relation to a norm. This norm is the “you” addressed in the former text and the notions of conventionality of which the latter commands playful, curiosity-driven subversion. Hacking always denotes difference: finding routes through systems and toward objectives that stray from what is considered "typical" or "standard." This is also a critical part of what it means to be a progressive activist: to recognize something in one’s society or worldly context that, at a fundamental level, needs to be different than what is currently the norm.
I believe that as per Halperin’s queerness, hacktivism functions not as a positivity but a positionality. The identity of any sort of activist always exists as a subject of the entity on which she or he works, which is to say that it exists in relation to it. The documentary film, We Are Legion: The Story of Anonymous, quotes a member of the collective as follows: “[to] get out the hump of the bell curve and move forward to a par of the masters of society and do battle with them on an even playing field. That's hacktivism." xxiv Since hacking and activism are both positional as activities, I believe that we could also think of hacktivism as doubly queered, and thus doubly exiled from what is normal and dominant. The external force against which hacker identity positions itself are technical programs that present themselves as authoritative—such as a closed-source software program (a program that prevents users from accessing the code on which it is built). Hackers see such systems as an affront to their intelligence and technical prowess. I believe that this drive for mastery over technical systems and a high degree of self-assuredness is one of the characterizing features of hacker identity. In their paper "Insights Into The Hacking Underground," Michael Bachmann and Jay Corzine write of "the predominant role of inquisitive motives for hacking activities, [and] hackers' unusually high self-confidence in their decision making ability." xxv I believe that the impulses which manifest themselves as seemingly anti-authoritarian actions are inherent to hacker identity, and that these impulses stem more from unusually high levels of self-trust than stubbornness or anti-authoritarianism. This mechanism of deep trust and almost-incontrovertible belief in one's own legitimacy are perhaps why hackers themselves have not stepped forward en masse to demand recognition by media and legislative forces.
“A Declaration of Psychedelic Studies” argues for the recognition of psychedelic studies as a legitimate field of inquiry within humanities scholarship. Devenot claims that, as a selfhood, “psychedelicness” is on par with more widely acknowledged identity markers such as sexuality in terms of the extent to which individuals meaningfully understand it as part of who they are. In response to counter-arguments that claim such an equation is offensive—that "psychedelic people" have neither the same history of oppression nor the tangible cultural objects through which that self-image can become culturally valid—she writes “how can one be certain that a psychedelic lifestyle is less of an identitarian issue than a queer lifestyle? Many view their psychedelic identities, interests, or religious views as inherent to who they are.”xxvi In a conversation I had with Devenot, she reflected on the fact that she believed that she was a “psychedelic person” before ever having psychedelic experiences, and that her psychedelic identity is not contingent on any experience with a hallucinogenic chemical or more broadly construed psychedelic occurrences. xxvii
Hacker identity and the culture for which it serves the basis are likewise indispensably meaningful to its members. Coding Freedom offers a substantial amount of evidence for this, as do many other first-person reports given by notable hackers. Jacob Appelbaum, independent security researcher and Tor Network developer, is noted as saying: “The Internet is the only reason I’m alive today,” xxviii in reference to the passion that served as a stabilizing force through his adolescence. Maddy Varner, a young female programmer, is quoted in an interview as saying: “when I was in middle school, I was obsessed with reading hacker manifestoes and I was like, I want to be a hacker, I want to be a hacker…”xxix It was only when given opportunities to act on this impulse, such as the offer to be a part of an all-female hacking collective, that she gained the confidence necessary to refer to herself as such.The desire to hack, particularly in the Stallmanian sense, emerges organically. It is a manifestation of resourcefulness, critical thinking and, perhaps most importantly of all, curiosity. Self-confidence is essential in empowering the would-be hacker to fuse these qualities together in the service of their craft. The master narrative of hacking projects such a narrow vision of the individual that claims it as a selfhood that those who do not share its stereotypical features—such as Ms. Varner on account of her gender—may not feel the self-assuredness necessary to pursue the practice. An explicit affirmation of hacking as a queer identity that is inclusive of all forms of otherness via more progressive media representations will, I believe, function to assist those like her in gaining the confidence necessary to associate themselves with it. This will not only bring a wider array of individuals into the hacking sphere, but may help to engage a wider population in a conversation about hacker motivations. These are the impulses whose misconstructions are fodder for a sensationalizing media. The impact of their misrepresentations is compounded by the fact popular image of hackers is arguably a deterring factor for those who do not see themselves reflected in it, i.e., those who do not identify as white or Asian, heterosexual, cisgender and male. The ultimate effect of this is a vicious cycle in which lack of truthful representation leads to a popular notion of hacking which bears lesser and lesser resemblance to its origins and current reality as time moves forward.
For the lack of knowledge about what drives hackers to hack, many individuals have faced extreme legal consequences. On January 22nd, 2015, journalist Barrett Brown was sentenced to 63 months in prison for the crime of sharing a link to data obtained in a breach of private intelligence contractor Stratfor. xxx Brown, who was associated with Anonymous until a formal renunciation of his ties with them in 2011xxxi did not himself carry out the hack (that would be an individual named Jeremy Hammond, who is also serving a prison sentence), he simply made the information available. I believe that what Barrett Brown did—a leaking of documents akin to the way in which WikiLeaks works—is as an act of hacktivism, although he had no role in carrying out the security breach itself. Another example of this is given by Matt DeHart—a former American soldier who claims that he was tortured by the U.S. government in an attempt by the F.B.I. to gain information about Anonymous. DeHart had been involved with Anonymous at a young age and ran a computer server using Tor through which he had unwittingly received a file that contained "information that demonstrated malfeasance and criminal activity on the part of a government agency.”xxxii He had sought asylum in Canada to escape a country that he claims not only tortured him, but falsely charged him on accounts of child pornography as a ruse to investigate Anonymous. He was denied this reprieve. xxxiii
One of the most famous and illustrative cases of the outcome of zealous anti-hacktivist prosecution is the untimely death of Aaron Swartz. Swartzwas a programming prodigy noted for helping to develop the syndication protocol RSS, the website Reddit, and the content licenses which form Creative Commons along with several web technologies (Schwartz).xxxiv Aaron’s death occurred after years of engagement in a difficult legal battle. In 2011 Swartz gained access to JSTOR, a subscription-based journal for distributing scholarly work, and automated the download of over four million articles from its database. The potential penalties he faced for this included up to thirty-five years in prison and one million dollars in fines (Schwartz). xxxv Extenuating circumstances surrounding Aaron’s death have led many of Aaron’s more prominent friends, including Harvard professor and copyright law expert Lawrence Lessig, to point a finger at the justice system that pursued Swartz even after JSTOR itself dropped the charges against him. Lessig writes:
Aaron got lost in a story that Kafka could have penned—a two-year struggle with an over-eager federal prosecutor, keen to make an example out of this young man’s delict but failing to see that instead he was making Aaron a martyr. I knew some of the despair that Aaron suffered as he watched his fortune bleed away on legal fees, and as he argued again and again that, in the open network of MIT, his behavior was not actually criminal. But the government was not to be moved.xxxvi
The legal exigencies that come to bear on whether Aaron actually committed a crime have been hotly debated. It seems that the actions under which he was convicted were threatening simply as a matter of scale; many people casually share articles culled from JSTOR and similar databases with others who may not have direct access to it. As for Swartz’s motivations, it is clear that he believed strongly that JSTOR was acting unethically by erecting a paywall around scientific and scholarly resources. “Information is power,” wrote Swartz in an online memo dated July 2008. “But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.” xxxvii In a talk he gave at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Swartz informed computer science students that they had a “moral obligation” to make knowledge easily accessible.xxxviii It is noted that one of his interests in obtaining massive amounts of documents from JSTOR was in illuminating the trajectory of papers that denied the impact of climate change denial from scientific journals to their citations in federal policy communique.xxxix
I contend that Carmen Ortiz, the “over-eager federal prosecutor” that sought to hold Swartz up as a warning to other would-be hacktivists, was able to pursue Swartz in such an unchecked fashion because hacktivism (an activity for which Swartz was, and remains, a figurehead) is profoundly misunderstood. As stated, the difficulties of demarcating ill-intentioned, “black hat” hacking from curiosity-based or ethically motivated hacking demand a familiarity with hacking not common among those beyond the technology community. Without such an awareness, it would be easy to misinterpret why Swartz would engage in behavior that could be seen as deliberately destructive. This is compounded by an environment in which most individuals come to understand hacking as a definitively criminal activity, and hacktivists as either poseurs who deploy “social justice” as a façade to indulge aggressive impulses or as a straightforward danger to the state: the Government Communications Headquarters of Britain (GCHQ) officially recognizes Anonymous as a threat to national security, and they have been referred to by journalists in the United States as “domestic terrorists.” xl
Though the motivations behind hacking are nebulous on first encounter, they are not so abstract as to be meaningless to those without esoteric cybersecurity knowledge. I hold that hacker drives and tendencies have suffered more from mistakes and mischaracterizations made by journalists than from their own conceptual impenetrability. Hacking has been the target of a media campaign that has, unwittingly or not, supplanted hacking and hacktivism with a series of stereotypes that make it appear profoundly unattractive to those who may share the ethical compass of those like Aaron Swartz. I would argue that Swartz was simply trying to apply his intelligence to making society a more just and open place for people of all classes, ages, and backgrounds. To conceal an honest portrayal of him and those who share his ethics from those who may follow in his footsteps would constitute an act of deep injustice.
Part 2: For The Lulz: Hacker Portrayals and Hacktivist Realities
In the summer of 2007, Los Angeles-based Fox news affiliate KTTV Fox 11 ran a report on Anonymous that painted the group in no uncertain terms: it opens with a furrow-browed reporter declaring that members of Anonymous “attack innocent people, like an Internet hate machine” before launching into a lurid depiction of the collective’s activities. xli The clip has attained a certain level of infamy among Internet-culture junkies—it is cited on the website “Know Your Meme” as the source of a particular short video frequently used in comical treatments of media sensationalism.xlii This video features a van turned into an explosive device and makes reference to a threat stated as coming from Anonymous, though it offers no credible citation toward that end. Even on YouTube, whose popularity is not a function of any bias toward the more net-savvy (unlike Know Your Meme), the popularity of this image and the KTTV report exist as a result of the implicit, shared understanding that they exemplify journalistic hype. There is something deeply funny about the video, a comic air that requires no familiarity with Anonymous to grasp.
As amusing as the piece may be, however, its disregard for objectivity differs from other representations of Anonymous and hacktivism only in the extent to which it appeals to paranoia. While most portrayals of hacktivism are not quite as easily satirized, the truth is that many pander to a deep and widespread fear of cyber criminality. The large knowledge gap that exists between technologists and the general public where hacking, data and network security is concerned offers journalists an empty space that can be filled by any story with the air of technical plausibility. Even as individuals all over the world become more technologically adept, journalists addressing a mainstream audience may, I believe, act on the assumption that a story that makes reference to a host of dry and detailed technological specifics will go unchecked by its intended audience. With a large measure of hacker mythos already widely disseminated across the world, it is eminently possible to weave a series of details more fit for scholarly analysis into the tales of intrigue, deception, and cabalistic behavior that have come to characterize the Hollywood Hacker.
In his essay “The Devil Drives A Lada: The Social Construction of Hackers as the Cybercriminal,” David S. Wall writes “the roots of cybercrime… are actually cultural rather than scientific, and shape the way that we view and react societally to online deviance.”xliii He argues that the public has come to understand cybercrime partially as a function of representations offered through films, science fiction literature and artworks that fall into the genre of cyberpunk. “It is important to understand this relationship,” Wall writes, “because it also frames legal and policy responses to cybercrime.” He elaborates on what that looks like in the public sphere:
Fear of the future tends to rear its head whenever there is a significant period of technological transformation. The fear of the future easily becomes articulated as a fear of technology because technology symbolically and literally reflects the future… One of the knock-on effects of the growing societal concern over risk has been a proliferation of fears about the future and the development of a “culture of fear” about everyday issues such as technology and also crime. [It has been] argued that the fear of technology, or ‘Franken-Tech,’ now exists because the ‘public debate on complex policy issues is often dominated by information entrepreneurs (including activists and the media) who attempt to engender information cascades to further their own agenda.xliv
That “information entrepreneurs” use information they have available about any subject or another to further their own aims is not unique or surprising. It is, however, of distinct concern when the agenda at hand influences profoundly impactful legal decisions and the image of hacktivists. These are the two realms of influence that I believe are most operative (and therefore dangerous) in terms of hacktivist misrepresentations, though it would be misleading to view the two as wholly distinct. The well-established precedent for strong prosecutorial actions against hackers leads individuals to believe that it is incorrect to regard computer science as a field in which deviation from the norm is rewarded. This creates a sort of vicious cycle that results in ethical hacking being relegated further and further to the margins of society, until it becomes conceptually bundled with nefarious hacking and other variations of cybercrime.
This situation works symbiotically with the professional and academic institutionalization of computer science as it stands today. Whereas work in the humanities champions free thought as a creative tool, and other scientific disciplines may encourage outside-the-box thinking as a part of problem solving, this principle takes on a sinister air in the context of mainstream academic and professional computer science. Institutionalized hacking education is largely in its infancy in part because it is a decidedly difficult subject to formalize. In a lecture given at the Army Cyber Institute in 2014, cyber security expert Bruce Potter noted:
One thing I've noticed over the last number of years is that our industry has become much more professionalized and there are some good aspects of that and there are some really bad aspects of that as well. It tends to hamper innovation as we professionalize people, as we provide course material and curricula and tests, it becomes standardized. And we tend to make a bunch of people that all look the same, they all look like the tests, like the course material... this ultimately causes problems. xlv
Potter was specifically addressing the topic of cyber security as it pertains to malicious attacks, particularly those done on government networks. However, he also devoted a significant period of his lecture introducing himself as a college dropout who fell more or less unassumingly into the field of security after a chance encounter with an early distribution of Linux, a free and open-source operating system that is the largest competitor of those made by Windows and Mac. What at first blush may have struck some as non-essential autobiographic information was included as a way of situating his very successful cyber security career in the context of a sort of old guard of computing. This is important because it suggests that his work existed not in spite of his unorthodox history, but because of it. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have told similar life stories.
The reality that Potter gets at in decrying the professionalization of the cybersecurity industry is that as a practice and field of inquiry it resists institutionalization. The skills and mindset required to think like a hacker are difficult to impart in a conventional academic or vocational setting because they demand, indeed, what one might think of as a criminal—or at least “alternative”—mindset. This is why accounts of dropping out of college, frustrating parents and employers, and holding unusual political views are common among self-identified hackers. Because they do not fit easily into such frameworks, it is easy to regard these individuals and activities as actual criminals (not just criminal minds) or otherwise dangerous, even in cases when they are not. This is compounded by some of the aforementioned identity features of hackers and can result in a toxic combination wherein these characteristics, on contact with a high degree of public suspicion cultivated by the media, can lead to devastating circumstances.
I do not mean to suggest that hacking is never dangerous or that it should exist uninvestigated and perfunctorily praised. It is, in fact, a growing threat to individuals and nations worldwide, particularly in the United States; the need for a greater number of highly skilled security experts was among the reasons Potter addressed the Army Cyber Institute. However, there is nothing inherently malicious about subversion, just as there is nothing categorically wrong with a programmer who recognizes that they possess the power to change features on a computer's operating system in ways different from the functionalities described in its instruction manual. In fact, this very programmer may be precisely the type of person necessary to protect the security of states and citizens. What is essential is that the mindset of hacking is worked with and not against, which can often lead one into territories that challenge one's tolerance for ambiguity and complexity. In a media environment that seeks to condense as much content into as little space as possible, however, the nuances of hacking are dispensed with in favor of its more marketable elements. This has frequently been the case with reports on Anonymous; the KTTV Fox story, while a particularly notable case, is but one among many that promotes a particularly dark version of the collective.
A subtler but perhaps more insidious example of this is found in the article "The Truth About Anonymous’s Activism," written by Internet culture specialist Adrian Chen for The Nation in November 2014.xlvi Chen opens the piece by invoking an incident in which members of Anonymous misidentified the police officer that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August of the same year:
The absurdity of the Ferguson debacle is overshadowed only by the fact that somehow we are still expected to take Anonymous seriously. How did we get to a point where people expect a gang of young geeks with nanosecond attention spans wearing masks from an action movie, who write manifestos in faux-revolutionary prose and play amateur detective in chat rooms, to help a fraught social cause like Ferguson? xlvii
Chen's description of Anonymous as a gang of "young geeks...wearing masks from an action movie" (he was referring to the mask worn by the character of V in the 2005 film V For Vendetta, which has been adopted as an unofficial uniform and logo of Anonymous)xlviii is neither entirely incorrect nor particularly damning, but his intention is clear. He believes Anonymous does more harm than good and seeks to enlighten the general public about their "truth" so as to quell the steady flow of positive attention they have received in recent years. Chen's article suggests that Anonymous misunderstands sensitive racial issues due to the fact that they planned a strategic operation to show support for the Ferguson community that coincided with the time and location of a protest organized by a Black female blogger. It also portrays Anonymous as a categorically sexist organization: "Any female-identified person who seriously engages the group, positively or negatively (but especially negatively), can expect to receive a torrent of sexist remarks.” Chen proceeds to imply Gabriella Coleman's treatment of sexism within Anonymous is naïve:
When Coleman encounters 'constant belittling of female contributions from certain Anons' during her research, she pauses to wonder: 'Is this sexism or just trolling?' When Coleman introduces Topiary, the spokesman of an Anonymous offshoot called LulzSec, we are told he is a master of 'brilliant nonsense and absurdist media manipulation.' Then Coleman offers this bit of chatroom banter to illustrate his charm: 'Anyway,' Topiary chats, 'just got done talking with some monstrous homogay named Andy who’s writing up on our latest fax shenanigans.' Perhaps this is some sort of meta-troll and the joke is getting a respected leftist publisher to put out a book that offers stupid frat-boy humor as the epitome of wit. In which case: lulz. xlix
"Lulz" is a style of humor that has emerged from Internet culture. Understanding its features and how it is used among members of Anonymous is important to a working understanding of how Chen regards the group, as well as conclusions Coleman has drawn from her research on them. While it is difficult to conceive of hacker Topiary's homophobic epithets as anything other than reprehensible, there is, in fact, a broader framework in which such a tasteless insult takes on a character markedly different than it might have had in a less clandestine environment. The concept of "lulz" is inextricably interwoven with this distinction."Lulz is a corruption of L O L, which stands for 'Laugh Out Loud,” writes Coleman.l She notes that lulz typically comes from "random pranks" and is "longer, girthier and more pleasurable" than other forms of humor due to a particularly sinister nature. She writes:
As an anthropologist, it is tempting, no matter how ridiculous it seems, to view lulz in terms of epistemology—through the social production of knowledge. At one level, the lulz functions as an epistemic object, stabilizing a set of experiences by making them available for reflection. For decades, there was no term for the lulz, but trolls and hackers nevertheless experienced the distinctive pleasures of pranking.li
Coleman takes care to note the absurdity of giving a profoundly silly concept such serious analysis. This, I believe, is not only to indicate that she is aware of the tension that exists between the often lowbrow, “lulzy” behavior of Anonymous and the intellectual sincerity of her work, but to draw attention to the incisive thought and sensitivity to subtlety necessary to grapple with Anonymous. The risks of being misunderstood as a hacktivist apply likewise to those who take an interest in it, and in some cases it is critical to distance oneself from the subject at hand. Coleman’s doctoral degree offers her some measure of immunity to an equation with Anonymous’ stranger and decidedly unappealing exponents. Her painstaking efforts to identify Anonymous as a worthy subject of research and to locate them in the broader context of activism, millennial culture and the digital humanities are pronounced throughout Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, almost as if she was anticipating responses akin to that of Adrian Chen’s. Indeed, hacktivist depictions such as Chen’s are far more common than Coleman’s. In light of this, it is particularly noteworthy that Chen—who is himself a longtime researcher and reporter on Internet culture, and was no stranger to Anonymous well before “The Truth About Anonymous’s Activism” was published—took the position he did.
Chen’s proximity to Anonymous and the network of websites, memes and related groups that surround them places him in a slightly different category than most who write journalistic pieces about hacking and hacktivism; he has cultural awareness of the subjects. From the outside looking in, it may appear that Chen’s resume, which includes prior work on Anonymous, 4Chan, Reddit, and a number of Internet-related scandals offers him the credentials necessary to give Anonymous a proper media treatment. However, it must be mentioned here that hacker culture and Internet culture are fundamentally different. While hacktivism groups such as Anonymous use network infrastructure to self-coordinate, the artifacts by which the Internet has made an impact on popular culture—such as memes and social media platforms—are, I would argue, only related to hacker culture insofar as they both exist under the broad category of "digital culture." In fact, those associated with hacking frequently evince disdain for the way non-technical types use the Internet, including the fact that for many, "computing" is synonymous with opening up a browser window and going online. Well-loved platforms for programmers and hackers, such as IRC and Pastebin, enjoy the popularity that they do partially because they are not well-known among those outside the tech community.
This situation indicates that Chen's article is the result of the same lack of familiarity with hacktivism that underscored the KTTV Fox Piece or, perhaps, the same opportunistic mindset that seeks to profit off a lack of general understanding about hacking in the mainstream media. Needless to say, this is unfortunate. However, it is not enough to simply acknowledge this information gap and its abuses. The current image of hackers, hacker culture and hacktivism must be supplanted by those whose work directly challenges these stereotypes. Fortunately, there is no shortage of worthy examples.
Part 3: Removing The Mask, Undoing The Stereotypes
On November 14th, 2014 news hit European headlines that Turkish hacker group Red Hack illegally entered the Turkey Electricity Transmission Company website and erased what they claimed to be 1.5 trillion lira (or $675 billion U.S. dollars) in unpaid bills. lii This act of Robin Hood-esque vigilante-style justice was both an offering to the people Turkey and a message to the state. Red Hack's aims are expressly political: they are Marxist-Leninist and target the Turkish government almost exclusively in a series of operations that, though relatively infrequent, are well-planned and strategized for deep impact. Red Hack is the only hacker group in the world classified as a terrorist organization, and while they obscure the identities of their individual members, they also openly claim responsibility for each of their operations.liii
As part of their November 2014 operation, Red Hack released a list of government-related username and password combinations that it publicized via its website and Twitter account. Their motivations are clear; in an article regarding this incident, an English-speaking Red Hack spokesperson (who chose to remain unidentified) writes: “The current government is [the] enemy of the environment and humanity." Of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, s/he states: “He is on route to be a ruthless dictator. Every single day people are killed by the police and not a single person in authority brought in front of the justice system.”liv Unsurprisingly, the actions of Red Hack have attracted the attention of Turkish authorities. In an operation that took the central Turkish police website and related domains offline in 2012, members of the group and those accused of being associated with the group have faced up to 24 years in prison under anti-terrorism laws.lv As of the time of writing, I have not been able to find information on whether or not any individuals are currently serving this sentence in whole or part.Red Hack is one of the most internationally famous hacktivist groups. It offers a distinctly different flavor of the practice than that generally associated with Anonymous. Anonymous got its start as a quasi-nihilistic, lulz-seeking Internet pranking brigade; the descriptor "Internet hate machine," applied quite seriously to the group in the KTTV Fox News report was, in fact, a moniker the group had first jokingly taken on for itself. Red Hack, on the other hand, began as an explicitly political organization. It has continually demonstrated higher measures of intentionality and coordination than has Anonymous. Formed in 1997, they predate the inception of Anonymous by six years and the beginning of Anonymous' hacktivist work, which began in 2008, by eleven. On specific occasions, Anonymous works in concert with Red Hack to offer their assistance to them, but Red Hack only associates itself with Anonymous operations that specifically regard its own plans.
Because they openly promote a specific ideology and operate in strict accordance with it, it is easier to attain a general idea of who Red Hack are, and to speak of them summarily, than it is with Anonymous. Several Anonymous factions around the world are expressly political. Some roughly delineated "chapters" of Anonymous, particularly those that exist in oppressive regimes, are primarily devoted to executing anti-government actions similar to those of Red Hack. However, Anonymous exists overall in the same conceptually vague space as the term "hacking" itself; whereas Red Hack is, by design, easier to understand.
Red Hack also does not perform the mischievous and oft-reviled humor of Anonymous. It would be difficult to justify critical speculation as to why individuals take them seriously (as per Adrian Chen’s assertion, which is a common refrain of reporting on Anonymous). Following the November 2014 attacks, Turkey's oldest English-language daily paper, the Hürriyet Daily News, reported an erasure of only 1.5 million lira's worth of citizen debt. lvi This is, of course, significantly less than the 1.5 trillion claimed by Red Hack. This report features an official statement from the Turkish government that the hack failed because their system did not allow for full erasure of debt records. Regardless of the sum and whether the action was effective, however, hacking blog Cryptosphere notes that "the hack is much more than a propaganda victory." lvii Illuminating this perspective is a quote from its spokesperson: “We will continue our action despite a threat against us, threats to kill us or capture us and imprison us for long period. We have been declared a terrorist organisation and thanks to Twitter bowing down to the Turkish government our main account @theredhack [is] censored in Turkey.” S/he also relayed a message on behalf of Red Hack:
We are a hackers [sic] collective only to work for the needs of the people and show the corrupt system that no one is untouchable. Our previous hacks have proved this numerous times. Greetings to our Anonymous brothers and Jeremy Hammond. Hackers of the world unite against tyrants. We have nothing to lose but our keyboards.lviii
Despite the fact that Red Hack is significantly smaller in size and scope than Anonymous (one report lists them as comprising only twelve individuals), lix I maintain that they are as salient an example of hacktivism as Anonymous. Although humor and playfulness are important angles of hacker identity and culture—particularly in the United States, which gave birth to the perpetually lulzy Anonymous, and in which Richard Stallman continues to champion these childlike qualities as essential to the practice—it is not a prerequisite of hacktivism. Red Hack’s existence and the seriousness with which they execute their operations destabilizes current Western narratives about what a hacker group looks like. With an "official" photo that features stern-looking men with faces largely obscured by red bandanas, Red Hack bears closer resemblance to the popular romantic notion of a communist or anarchist revolutionary than it does to the images of Lizard Squad members that spread throughout the Internet on Christmas day. It is easier to imagine Che Guevara than Bart Simpson at home among the Red Hack contingent.One deeply-entrenched stereotype of hacking is, however, eminent in the photo of Red Hack: maleness. That hacking is almost exclusively the province of male-identified individuals is so widely held that, where pop-culture depictions are concerned, the female hacker generally exists as little more than a novelty in science fiction and suspense-genre films and literature. Lisbeth Salander from the novel and film series The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is an illustration of this; lx likewise is the character of Kate Libby in the film Hackers.lxi Female digital activists are largely overlooked, and while it is true that women are underrepresented within hacktivist culture, they very much exist.
One month after Red Hack's infiltration of the Turkey Electricity Transmission Company's website, a hacker group of an entirely different order met in person for the first time on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University. The collective known as “Deep Lab” was formed by artist Addie Wagenknecht, who sought to bring together female hackers and artists to explore issues related to cybersecurity, anonymity, and big data through a number of technical, artistic and research-focused initiatives. In late 2014 and early 2015, Deep Lab created a series of filmed lectures, a short documentary, and a two hundred and forty page book reflecting the critical perspectives of its members on their respective fields of inquiry.
The status of Deep Lab as a bona fide hacker collective is tenuous. They exist with formal institutional support and refer to themselves as a "cyberfeminist congress" with a very obvious mission to make not only their work but their legal names and personal identities public. This constitutes a major departure from the modus operandi of precedent-setting hacktivist collectives such as LulzSec and The Cult of the Dead Cow. Those groups were resolutely grassroots and institutionally unaffiliated. For them, privacy was seen as a necessity and taken as a point of subcultural distinction. However, forthrightness is part of the manner in which Deep Lab "hacks." One of the reasons for the existence of Deep Lab is to offer the public a new perspective on the critical engagement with technology that defines hacking. In the Stallmanian sense, I believe that Deep Lab arguable counts as a hack on the popular vision of hacking. In the Deep Lab documentary, Wagenknecht observes:
The presumed identity of anybody on the internet is, you know, a straight white male and anybody who shows themselves on the Internet not to conform to that is put through a lot of scrutiny and a lot of criticism, and really for no reason. When we try to protect ourselves, we offer up solutions that anyone can pick up to protect themselves. It seems to me that once one person starts trolling you, that more and more people start getting on your back… waking up to an inbox full of hate can emotionally drain you to the point where you want to escape or just quit.lxii
The situation of online harassment to which Wagenknecht speaks is extremely common and, unfortunately, discouraging to its victims. Yet the need for women not to "escape" or lose interest in the subjects that Deep Lab creates projects on is urgently needed. Women comprise only 24% of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (also known as STEM) workforce, and despite the fact that 41% of STEM PhDs awarded every year go to women, only 28% of tenure-track positions in STEM fields are given to female professors.lxiii While this certainly resolves to circumstances that extend beyond hacktivism, I believe that all issues related to the relative lack of women in STEM are interrelated; by addressing one or a handful of these subjects, one calls attention to the whole.
While Deep Lab offers a notable case of female hacktivism, their ethos and polished output does not represent the entirety of hacktivist work done by women (and certainly, they themselves would not claim this). We Are Legion opens with a vignette featuring Mercedes Haefer,lxiv who was nineteen years old when she participated in the first famous Anonymous hacktivist operation. An ardent supporter of both Anonymous and WikiLeaks, Haefer participated in "Operation Avenge Assange," a strategy to freeze the websites for PayPal, Amazon, MasterCard, Visa, and other groups that stopped processing payments to WikiLeaks due to political pressure. Haefer and thirteen others (who came to be known as "The Paypal Fourteen") were arrested for coordinating a DDoS attack toward this end in December 2010. lxv The charges were later dropped, and Haefer is a vocal supporter of Anonymous and her actions with them to this day.
While Wagenknecht observes that the Internet presumes its inhabitants are straight, white and male, statistical evidence tells a different story. A 2014 Pew poll offers a breakdown of Internet use via mobile device in the United States by gender: 87% of men and 86% of women have mobile access to the web, a very narrow difference. The Pew poll also includes information on race: for White, African-American and Hispanic populations respectively, the numbers stand at 85%, 81%, and 83%. lxvi
This diversity also reaches into the upper echelons of hacktivist fame. Chelsea Manning is a transgendered woman; Hector Monsegur/Sabu is of Puerto Rican descent. Where their hacking activities are concerned, however, Monsegur and Manning are very much distinct: the former is famous for his actions as an agent of the U.S. government, and the latter is currently serving a prison sentence for her actions against it. In fact, the only manner in which the two are alike is in the way their respective fame as non-stereotypical hackers has been treated by the media: both have suffered from tokenization. In his deployment as an emblem of non-white/non-Asian hacking, Monsegur and other hacktivists of color suffer the same treatment offered to the female hacker: they are mythologized and upheld for their uniqueness, which calls attention away from their specific contributions to hacking. The existence of Deep Lab, Chelsea Manning, Mercedes Haefer and other hackers who challenge this on a regular basis prove that there is, indeed, a way out of this feedback cycle. The perpetual occupation of the space of queerness, of otherness, allows for such groups and individuals to declare their own norms and promote them as a precedent for those who will follow such a path in the future.
Conclusion: We Are Everywhere
With respect to the enormous diversity that exists within the hacker and hacktivist community, the difficulty of defining hacktivism and the misrepresentations produced by this vagueness are easy to understand. Activities that count as hacktivism range from those that require sophisticated programming skills, such as the techniques deployed by Red Hack to erase the debt of Turkish citizens, or may be as simple as the provision of a link that contains information gleaned from another person's illegal security breach (it is for this latter activity that Barrett Brown is serving a sixty-three month prison sentence). These instances are widespread, but generally still exist in legal, ethical and cultural gray areas.
Hacktivism is very much in its infancy; the concepts and words that afford it any measure of definition are, by and large, still obscured from and intellectually inaccessible to all but those who take an active interest in it. I believe that at this particular juncture in time, those individuals have a moral duty to make proactive efforts to raise awareness of the realities of digital activism, particularly insofar as they diverge from its depictions. This is so the narratives by which it will come to be understood in future generations are fair and representative.
One of Anonymous’ slogans is "We Are Everywhere," a phrase whose seemingly performative ominousness belies the extent to which it might be true. Those who have partaken in strategically oriented hacktivism may not even be aware of it. During the Arab Spring in 2009, users of the social media platform Twitter across the world changed their profiles to identify their location as Tehran, Iran. What some users may not have recognized is that the effectiveness of this act superseded that of a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the Iranian people, at least in theory. It was thought to have been impactful as a hacktivist strategy because of its potential to render location data gathered by Iranian censors effectively meaningless: using a false location online generates user data that, naturally, is useless to those looking to attach real identities to Internet users.lxvii Generation of false data as a means to obscure identity or bypass censors, a tactic known in this context as "obfuscation," is yet another way in which digital activists undertake their work. This usage of the term is advanced by Helen Nissenbaum, who has promoted it via her work as a theorist and software developer. Nissenbaum’s research develops a political theory of obfuscation. lxviii She was involved in the creation of AdNauseum,lxix a piece of software that uses obfuscation as a tactic to diminish the usefulness of user data collection by adware. Though she does not proclaim it openly, I believe these actions align her with hacktivism and offer female programmers in particular a worthy role model.
I hold that the evolution of the Internet and all code-based technology constitutes a revolution whose magnitude may only be compared to that of the invention of the printing press. It is impossible to overstate the measure of power the Internet stows on those who are highly skilled and familiar with its mechanisms. The reality of this new order of power, however, is that it excludes many. Indeed, the division between those who have access to and working knowledge of network technology and those who do not constitutes an entirely new strain of haves-versus-have-nots across the world. Because the Internet is a superstructure whose maintenance must be overseen by governments, large corporations and human interest groups, those whose work exists beyond the control of these large entities must fight for their recognition and just representation.
It is my hope that a more positive and constructive view of hacktivism will leads those who identify as hackers-for-good to take pride in their identity and be inspired to reach out to others like themselves. This is of particular importance to those who fall outside the narrowly-defined popular image of the hacker: women, people of color, people with disabilities, the elderly, the LGBTQ community and all who have not followed traditional academic or professional routes through their lives. These individuals will undoubtedly have to work harder for recognition than those whose personalities and demographic markers match that of the mythologized media hacker. Fortunately, there exists an abundance of precedents from the past and present that challenge this. It is in the recognition of these individuals for their ethics, innovation and courage that we will ensure a future in which all feel at liberty to use technology for the proliferation of freedom worldwide.
i McCormick, David and Richard Spillett. “Please Let Us Play!” The Daily Mail. 25 Dec. 2014. Web. Accessed 3 Jan. 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2887270/Hackers-calling-Lizard-Squad-ruin-Christmas-gaming-fun-millions-taking-Sony-Playstation-Microsoft-Xbox-servers.html
iii “2014, Year of the Hacker, More To Come in 2015.” CIO Today. 31 Dec. 2014. Accessed Jan. 27th 2015. http://www.ciotoday.com/article/index.php?story_id=011000CR2B4C
iv “Tor: Overview.” Tor.org. N.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2015.
v Quinton, Cooper. “Tor is for Everyone: Why You Should Use Tor.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, 13 June 2014. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.
vii Coleman, E. Gabriella. “Hackers [draft] [#digitalkeywords].” Culture Digitally. 6 Oct. 2010. Web. Jan. 27th 2015. http://culturedigitally.org/2014/10/hackers-draft-digitalkeywords/
x Rifkin, Rebecca. “Hacking Tops List of Crimes Americans Worry About Most.” Gallup, 27 Oct. 2014. Web. 8 Dec. 2014. http://www.gallup.com/poll/178856/hacking-tops-list-crimes-americans-worry.aspx
xii Coleman, E. Gabriella. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2014, 61.
xiii Coleman, E. Gabriella. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, 19.
xv Sengupta, Somini. “Arrests Sow Mistrust Inside A Clan of Hackers.” The New York Times, 6 Mar. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/07/technology/lulzsec-hacking-suspects-are-arrested.html?_r=0
xix Qrin, Elf. Elf Qrin's Cyberlab."Elf Qrin Interviews The Mentor." Elf Qrin's Cyber Lab, 21 July 2000. Web. 4 December 2014. http://www.elfqrin.com/hacklab/menu/interviews.php
xx Khatchadourian, Raffi. “No Secrets: Julian Assange’s Mission For Total Transparency.” The New Yorker, 7 June 2010. Web. 14 Jan. 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/06/07/no-secrets
xxiii Devenot, Neşe (writing as Senol, Neşe). “A Declaration of Psychedelic Studies," MAPS Bulletin: Volume XXI, Number 3. (July 2011). Print: Journal.
xxv Bachmann, Michael, and Jay Corzine. "Insights Into The Hacking Underground.” The Future Challenges of Cybercrime. Volume 5: Proceedings of the Futures Working Group (2008). Quantico,VA. Print: conference publication.
xxvi Devenot, Neşe, interview by Emma Stamm, 11 Aug. 2014.
xxviii Rich, Nathaniel. “The American Wikileaks Hacker.” Rolling Stone Magazine, 1 Dec. 2010. Web. Accessed 27 Jan. 2015. http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/meet-the-american-hacker-behind-wikileaks-20101201
xxxi "Barrett Brown Sentenced to 63 Months for 'Merely Linking To Hacked Material.'" The Guardian. 22 Jan. 2015. Web. 11 Feb. 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jan/22/barrett-brown-trial-warns-dangerous-precedent-hacking-sentencing
xxxii O’Brien, Kelly J. “How Hacking Confusion Threatens Tech Reporters:” Columbia Journalism Review, 26 Jan. 2015. Web. Accessed 27 Jan. 2015. http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/barrett_brown_hacking_tech.php
xxxiii Humphreys, Adrian. “Matt DeHart, Former American Soldier Claiming He Was Tortured By U.S., Loses Bid for Asylum In Canada.” National Post, 11 Feb. 2015. Web. Accessed 14 Feb. 2015. http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/matt-dehart-former-american-soldier-claiming-he-was-tortured-by-u-s-loses-bid-for-asylum-in-canada
xxxiv Schwartz, John. "Internet Activist, a Creator of RSS, Is Dead at 26, Apparently A Suicide." The New York Times, 12 Jan. 2013. Web. Accessed 6 Jan. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/technology/aaron-swartz-internet-activist-dies-at-26.html
xxxvi Swartz, Aaron. "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto." Pastebin, July 2008. Web. Accessed 9 Dec. 2014. https://archive.org/stream/GuerillaOpenAccessManifesto/Goamjuly2008_djvu.txt
xxxvii Lessig, Lauren. “Why They Mattered: Aaron Swartz.” Politico Magazine, 22 Dec. 2013. Web. 9 Dec. 2014. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2013/12/aaron-swartz-obituary-101418.html#.VaK9PflViko
xxxix “Prying Eyes: Inside The NSA’s War On Internet Security.” Spiegel Online, 28 Dec. 2014. Web. Accessed 3 Jan. 2015. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/inside-the-nsa-s-war-on-internet-security-a-1010361.html
xlii Dubs, Jamie. “Anonymous.” Know Your Meme, N.d. Web. 3 Jan. 2015. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/subcultures/anonymous
xliii Wall, David S. "The Devil Drives a Lada: The Social Construction of Hackers as the Cybercriminal." The Construction of Crime., C. Gregoriou ed., London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 18.
xlvi Chen, Adrian. “The Truth About Anonymous’s Activism.” The Nation, 11 Nov. 2014. Web. Accessed 17 Feb. 2015. http://www.thenation.com/article/truth-about-anonymouss-activism/
xlvii V for Vendetta. Dir. James McTeigue. (Burbank, CA. Warner Bros, 2005). DVD.
xlviii Chen, Adrian. “The Truth About Anonymous’s Activism.” The Nation, 11 Nov. 2014. Web. Accessed 17 Feb. 2015. http://www.thenation.com/article/truth-about-anonymouss-activism/
xlix Coleman, E. Gabriella. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2014, 36.
li Raincoaster. $670 Billion Served: An Interview with Redhack Hacktivist Collective. Cryptosphere, 20 Nov. 2014. Web. Accessed 14 Feb. 2014. http://thecryptosphere.com/2014/11/20/670-billion-served-an-interview-with-redhack-hacktivist-collective/
liii Raincoaster. $670 Billion Served: An Interview with Redhack Hacktivist Collective. Cryptosphere, 20 Nov. 2014. Web. Accessed 14 Feb. 2014. http://thecryptosphere.com/2014/11/20/670-billion-served-an-interview-with-redhack-hacktivist-collective/
lv "Turkey Denies Hackers Wrote Off Electricity Bill Debts." Hurriyet Daily News, 14 Nov. 2014. Web. Accessed 6 Jan. 2015. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-denies-hackers-wrote-off-electricity-bill-debts.aspx?pageID=238&nID=74358&NewsCatID=341
lviii Raincoaster. $670 Billion Served: An Interview with Redhack Hacktivist Collective. Cryptosphere. 20 Nov. 2014. Web. 14 Feb. 2014. http://thecryptosphere.com/2014/11/20/670-billion-served-an-interview-with-redhack-hacktivist-collective/
lx Larsson, Stieg, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. New York, Vintage, 2011.
lxi Hackers. Dir. Iain Softley. (Beverly Hills, CA. United Artists, 1995). DVD.
lxiii “Women In STEM” Whitehouse.gov, 2013 February. Web. Accessed 9 Dec. 2014. https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/women
lxv FBI Exposes The Terrifying Face of ‘Anonymous.’” The Smoking Gun. 19 July 2011. Web. Accessed 9 Dec. 2014.
lxvi “Internet User Demographics.” Pew Research Center. January 2014. Web. Accessed 11 February 2015. http://www.pewinternet.org/data-trend/internet-use/latest-stats/
lxvii Terdiman, Daniel. "Twitterverse working to confuse Iranian censors." CNET, 16 June 2009. Web. Accessed 26 Feb. 2015. http://www.cnet.com/news/twitterverse-working-to-confuse-iranian-censors/
lxviii Brunton, Finn and Helen Nissenbaum. “Vernacular Resistance to Data Collection and Analysis: A Political Theory of Obfuscation.” First Monday, Volume 5-2, Number 11. (May 2011). Web: Online Journal. N.d. Accessed 29 June 2015. http://firstmonday.org/article/view/3493/2955