When you picture a modern day activist, who do you imagine?
Is it a long-haired hippie with love beads and tribal tattoos? A social justice warrior holding an “Occupy Wall Street” sign, eager to pick a fight with any modern ideology that strikes their fancy?
How about your geeky, yet computer-savvy next door neighbor?
Yes, in the digital age, nearly anybody with the right set of tech skills can be a hero to the weak and downtrodden. And plenty of hungry hackers do just that—leveraging their exceptional technological abilities to manipulate, harass, and intimidate any party that they see fit. The lack of transparency of online activity makes these “hacktivists” notoriously difficult to track, yet one group has gained considerable fame for its coordination, effectiveness, and unforgiving nature: the grassroots group of Internet militants known as “Anonymous.”
We Are Anonymous
Starting as a disparate group of activists and bored hackers on the popular online image board 4chan, the users who would eventually form the group Anonymous would often unite under the banner of a common cause and create mayhem around their target. In 2008, the group gained notoriety for the hacktivism initiative known as “Project Chanology;” a coordinated series of hacking attempts and protests against the Church of Scientology.
More recently, Anonymous targeted the Twitter accounts of the international terrorist group ISIS by releasing a “how-to” guide for hacking Twitter profiles and a pledge to “wipe ISIS from the face of the Internet.” Within a day, the Internet group claimed that 20,000 Twitter accounts tied to ISIS had been taken down. Other targets have included everyone from the Westboro Baptist Church to credit card companies, and even military organizations.
Friend or Foe?
The subject of Internet hacktivism creates debate on the legal boundaries of online crime, the morality of cyber justice, and the nature of online privacy.
The idea of a cyber crusader, admittedly, has some dramatic flair—individuals striking back against terrorist groups and greedy corporations by any means available. It brings to mind iconic comic book crusaders like Batman; individuals willing to take a stand against injustice.
However, not everybody sees these hackers as heroes to be admired. Though it’s hard to argue against hacktivism ideologies when they strike against known terror groups and those who seem to genuinely deserve a kick in the pants, many governmental bodies and police organizations are quick to point out that cybercrime is still crime.
Many innocent people get caught in the crossfire when tech-savvy vigilantes have free reign over the Internet, and Anonymous is known to choose its targets on a whim.
While the presence of these Internet vigilantes may provide peace of mind to those wanting to strike digital blows against corruption, there is no outside regulation on the actions of anonymous users. Most members of hacktivist groups operate with proxies to ensure their anonymity, even in the face of legal scrutiny. This creates a lack of accountability to any civilized body—and raises serious questions when large-scale operations reveal valuable and sensitive information.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to say whether Internet activists groups like Anonymous are truly friend or foe. They give a voice to the unheard and fight against evil…but as they’re the ones who decide what’s evil, their actions must not be romanticized and should be assessed for what they are. We’re all activists, one way or another. Some of us just take it a little further than others.