Hacktivists Fail to Uphold a Proud Tradition of Protest

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A recent law enforcement sting corralled 25 alleged members of the Anonymous hacktivist group. As it turns out, the information fed to the FBI and other participating agencies came from within: Hector Xavier Monsegur (aka, ‘Sabu’) leader of the Anonymous offshoot LulzSec, had apparently been an FBI informant for months. It was not the first time that members of these hacktivist groups would be brought to justice, and it will certainly not be the last.

The significance of hacktivist groups on the infosecurity profession is profound. Several sessions at the recent RSA Conference in San Francisco were dedicated to Anonymous and the damaging effects hacktivist groups can have on an organization’s IT assets and reputation. In discussing Anonymous’ ‘activism’, Corero Network Security’s Neil Roiter told Infosecurity that although hacktivist organizations like Anonymous do engage in forms of protest, it’s important to keep in mind that many of their actions are illegal. “They may have a Robin Hood quality…but they hurt companies”, he noted.

I couldn’t agree more with this assessment. As entertaining as it may be to read the Twitter comments left behind by members of these hacktivist groups, its important to remember that there are victims of the crimes they perpetrate. Not to mention the time and expense that organizations must spend to defend and react.

I believe the term ‘hacktivist’ to be a bit of a misnomer. Activism is defined as “a doctrine or practice that emphasises direct vigorous action, especially in support of or opposing one side of a controversial issue”. It is the “direct” portion of this definition that I believe to be the most important aspect.

When Anonymous strikes, it does so – in its opinion – to highlight some perceived injustice. Yet, without aggressive IT forensic investigation, some of its more egregious violations would go unpunished because it largely remains cloaked by the internet’s complex veil.

The primary difference between organizations like Anonymous and LulzSec and their predecessors is that hacktivist groups maintain a bit of a yellow streak – hiding within the perceived anonymity of the internet, hesitating to put their own names behind their convictions. I hate to think where we would be as a civilization if brave people with contrarian political views did not stand up and take ownership of both their cause and their actions.

It’s nice to see that law enforcement is paying attention to these illicit endeavors – whether you agree with their politics or not. Some of the most famous protesters in history have been held accountable for their actions when they ran afoul of the status quo. It would be a travesty of democratic ethos if hacktivist groups were able to escape this same struggle.

Let me be clear: I find no problem whatsoever with the concept and execution of popular protest. I largely encourage it as part of the necessary nutrition that sustains the progressive evolution of our civilization. When a student once asked the American statesman and activist Fredrick Douglass what advice he would give to young people, Douglass’ reply was simple: “Agitate”. It is sound, timeless advice. I don’t believe, however, that Douglass would have told this same person to agitate by proxy.

Hacktivist groups are inherently ineffective agents of change because they, by their nature, lack both identity and accountability. All great movements have their leaders, but many – myself included – find it difficult to support a cause with neither tangible visionaries nor a conviction of purpose.

Can the views of hacktivist groups be viewed as extremist? Perhaps at times. Martin Luther King Jr. was an activist, and no stranger to law enforcement. He reminded us during a letter from a Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell that Martin Luther was an extremist, and so too were Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. The issue here is not one of extremist views, but one of accountability. King was arrested for protesting without the necessary permits, and he willingly acknowledged this transgression by acquiescing to his captors without resistance.

“One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty”, King wrote. We know that hacktivist groups often break the law – oftentimes for a greater political purpose. Where they fail, however, is in their willingness to take this same brave approach to activism. King reminded us that Luther was an extremist, but like the legend of Martin Luther, King had the courage to sign his name on his letter of protest. Even while sitting behind bars for a cause he believed to be just, King acknowledged that “Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber”.

If your cause is just, then history will judge it to be so. Hacktivist groups need to start honoring their convictions and stop hiding behind their masks.

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