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Hacktivism

Is ‘hacktivism’ a force for good … or chaos?

Ben Johnson and Danielle Stephens Apr 28, 2017
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“I am a proudly a hacker, and I get very irritated when hacker is used as a pejorative or to mean criminal activity, because I think hackerism represents our best,” Chester Wisniewski says.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

We’re taking a deeper look at “hacktivism”: how hackers use their digital toolkit to push for a social agenda. There are multiple definitions out in the ether for what hacktivism means. And the definition of “activist” often depends on perspective. One of the first well-known hacktivists from the group Cult of the Dead Cow, Oxblood Ruffin, defined hacktivism as “using technology to improve human rights. It also employs nonviolent tactics and is aligned with the original intent of the Internet, which is to keep things up and running.” We got our own primer on hacktivism from Chester Wisniewski, principal research scientist in the CTO office at Sophos. Below is an edited transcript of his conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson. 

Ben Johnson: All right. Hacktivism — this is a combination of hacking and activism, right? Can you define the term a little bit for us?

Chester Wisniewski: Yeah, I guess it’s sort of the the social activist arm of people with technical skills. I’ve always thought it was sort of a natural fit whether I agreed with the behavior or not simply on the grounds that you know it’s sort of a nonviolent action and people certainly can cause quite a lot of disruption using technology these days to move forward political and social movements.

Johnson: Is there a group that is known as one of the early groups that were sort of doing this?

Wisniewski: Yeah, I think probably the best-known group in the hacking community from the start was probably the Cult of the Dead Cow, which had its origins back in the 1980s, and they became more and more political as time evolved in the 1990s and started kind of looking at ways to use their control of electronics to further political messages or cause disruption.

Johnson: Can you talk a little bit more about that? Like what were the forms of hactivism that were taking place around that time?

Wisniewski: You know, there were political websites defaced against presidential candidates in different countries. There were, you know, instead of just breaking and going, “Ha ha, I’m smarter than you. I managed to hack your website.” Instead it was, “Down with President Joe,” or that type of thing over social issues. I don’t think it really became much of a movement per se where there was any kind of organization until, you know, the late 2000s, when the Anonymous movement sort of came forward.

Johnson: Do you still hack today? I mean, would you even sort of call it that? How would you define some of the stuff that you do today?

Wisniewski: Absolutely. In fact, I am proudly a hacker, and I get very irritated when hacker is used as a pejorative or to mean criminal activity, because I think hackerism represents our best. It represents energy and creativity and curiosity and the best parts of science and information sharing that I’ve ever experienced in my life. My best friends and the people I enjoy spending time with the most I would consider the best hackers I’ve ever met.

Johnson: Chester Wisniewski is principal research scientist at Sophos. Chester, thank you very much.

Wisniewski: Thanks, as always, Ben. 

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