Hacktivism is a portmanteau of hack and activism. It typically consists of manipulating a computer system for a politically or socially motivated purpose and often involves the nonviolent use of illegal or legally ambiguous digital tools and techniques. An individual who performs an act of hacktivism is said to be a hacktivist, and often seeks to accomplish what traditional activists achieve through physical protests. Hacktivists conduct their "protests" by bypassing censorship restrictions, shutting down online services, obtaining and distributing sensitive information, defacing websites, and generally circumventing online authorities and accepted practices. Whereas traditional activism was more location specific, hacktivism allows people to voice their social and political concerns to a larger audience. Far fewer people can do so much more to get a point across. Consider the number of people that would be affected if a popular website like YouTube were disabled for an hour compared to the audience a group of activists reach standing outside the capitol building for an entire day.

A flag conveying symbolism associated with Anonymous. The symbolism of the "suit without a head" represents leaderless organization and anonymity.[1]

Among the more famous hacktivists are members of a group known simply as Anonymous. Anonymous is a loose association of users, with somewhat of a hierarchy, that do not know each other’s real identities and act together in civil disobedience in the internet realm. They communicate in public online areas and use their collective knowledge and decisions to carry out acts they feel will further their collective agenda. A large number of high-profile hacktivism incidents have been carried out by members of Anonymous.

This article examines several of these incidents and considers the associated practical and ethical implications. Just as traditional protests range from peaceful to violent, acts of hacktivism range from legal free speech to distasteful vandalism and destruction. The cases that follow give a glimpse into the type of acts that fall under the umbrella of hacktivism.


Both hacking and activism, and thus hacktivism, are loaded words ripe for a variety of interpretation. Therefore it is preferable not to clinically define hacktivism but rather to describe the spirit of hacktivism.


Even among hacktivists that associate themselves with a particular group (e.g., Anonymous) there tends to be wide variance in the types of hacktivism performed. Some incidents reflect behavior that are generally condoned as acceptable civil disobedience while others reflect behavior most would consider immoral[3]. As a result, hacktivisim is a contentious subject with adamant supporters and strong critics. Some people view hacktivism as a new means of activism, others view it as cyberterrorism. Cyberterrorism is an activity that purely seeks destruction and disruption, while hacktivism seeks to convey a message to the public and/or support a particular side of a debate. Both use similar techniques and both typically run afoul of the law, but the ethical questions tend to be much more unclear. The following three cases demonstrate the ambiguity.

RedHack: Gezi Park ProtestsEdit

In December, 2012, an urban development plan was signed to reclaim Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park. The construction would replace the park with a shopping mall on the first floor and luxury apartments above.[4] Over the next few months, peaceful protesters began to organize against this development plan.[5] In May of 2013, protests escalated as a police riot force raided a protester encampment.[6] Within weeks, protests had spread across all of Turkey. Out of a population of 80 million people, it is estimated that 3.5 million Turkish people have taken an active part in almost 5,000 instances of social and political demonstrations related to the Gezi Park protests.[7] 11 people were killed and more than 8,000 were injured, many critically.[8]

Foreign countries and international organizations criticized the excessive use of force by Turkish police and the overall absence of government dialogue with protesters.[9][10] The excessive use of force also created internal tension in the AKP, the political party represented by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Starting early 2013, Erdoğan and AKP began losing public favor. Just after AKP spokesman denied rumors of tension within the party, AKP Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc began to speak out against Erdogan’s “hawkish defiance” to the Gezi Park protests.[11] Even with these comments coming from one of the founding members of the AKP, Erdoğan declared the police were performing an “epic of heroism” in putting down anti-government protesters. [12] Erdoğan was then accused of hiring “non-uniformed thugs armed with bats and cleavers” to attack protesters. [13] As protests continued to escalate, Erdoğan began to receive pleas to open investigations on the police force tactics used around protesters. Riot police started to fire tear gas cannons at the protesters.[14] One officer trained to fire these cannons reported “I have no information on tear gas canisters’ being lethal”.[15] On June 3, 22 year old Gezi protester Abdullah was struck in the head with a tear gas canister and died on June 4, 2013.[16] Initially, the cause of death was unclear.[17] The tear gas cannons were not supposed to be fired above an angle of 45 degrees and two police officers released testimonies that they did not shoot above 45 degrees. However according to forensic reports, the cause of death was in fact a blow to the head by a tear gas canister.[18]

In response, revolutionary socialist hacker group RedHack urged the AKP to end such police tactics and open an internal police investigation.[19] On September 11, 2013, after no response from the AKP, RedHack leaked internal Turkish Police officer records to the public.[20] These records revealed deployment information detailing which officers were present at certain posts for at least one hour the day of Abdullah’s death. The documents also specified which officers are using the Mass Incident Intervention Vehicle (TOMA) and scorpion anti-protest vehicles.[21] Using this data, local surveillance footage, and eyewitness reports, RedHack identified three officers, Mustafa Kızıltepe, Haji Ali Abdullah Demir, and Ahmet Bird, as the suspected killers of Abdullah Comert.[22][23]

After Abdullah’s death, his brother Zafer Comert, filed a complaint against Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan on grounds that Erdogan ordered the police intervention at the Gezi protests.[24] Deputy Prime Minister Arinc began to make public apologies for the use of “excessive violence” in the police force.[25] After pressure from Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül, the police were ordered to withdraw from Gezi park and allow the protesters to re-occupy the square.[26] One month after Abdullah’s death, the park reconstruction were dropped.[27] Today, the park is open to the public.

Edward Snowden: NSA LeakerEdit

In 2007 the NSA started a program known as PRISM, a data-collection program working in alliance with top United States Internet companies.[28] With PRISM, the NSA would collect information from a variety of digital traffic handled by these companies. The NSA claimed monitoring this traffic would lead to the capture of foreign threats to American security. Much of this traffic comes from foreign sources, but information from innocent Americans would be collected incidentally as well. Until 2013, the PRISM program remained top secret, known only to the companies involved and the NSA.

On June 7th, 2013, the Washington Post and the Guardian released articles with details about the confidential PRISM program. [29]The Washington Post and the Guardian received leaked documents from an anonymous source working for the NSA. Two days later, the anonymous leaker revealed his identity as Edward Snowden, an employee from Booz Allen Hamilton contracted for the NSA. Snowden claimed that his “sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them”.[30] Snowden felt responsible for the secret violations of privacy against them but supposedly done in their interest. Snowden was not afraid to reveal his identity. When coming forward, Snowden stated “allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest.”[31] He felt keeping his identity hidden would set a bad example and deter other potential whistleblowers from coming forward.

The revelation of the top secret program caused public outrage. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, stated the NSA program was “like the Stasi” [32] comparing the American intelligence agency to the East German secret police from East Germany during the Cold War era. For Merkel, the widespread nature of NSA surveillance is not unlike the practices of the Stasi secret police, who kept files on East German citizens to root out dissidents [33]. In addition, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, opened up a class action lawsuit against President Obama for the NSA’s massive collection of phone metadata records. Rand Paul argues that the NSA’s surveillance practices violate rights of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment.[34]

After leaking the information from Hong Kong, the United States filed a criminal complaint against Edward Snowden. The complaint charges Snowden with “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person” under the Espionage Act of 1917.[35] The United States saw the theft of such classified information, from an employee with a security clearance, equal to acts of espionage. Fearing extradition, Snowden fled Hong Kong. The Russian Federation offered Snowden political asylum, and Snowden took refuge in Moscow. Members of the Russian public and government admired Snowden’s leak. According to Ivan Melnikov, a Communist Party member of the Russian parliament, said Snowden was “like a balm to the hearts of all Russian patriots.” [36]The Russians admired Snowden’s courage in revealing the extent of what they saw as unreasonable government surveillance. As of April 28th 2015, Snowden is still in political asylum in Moscow.

SOHH: Hacktivism as Vandalism & CyberterrorismEdit

Anonymous has no regard for one’s material gains or how nannified a racial demographic is. Anonymous only exists to destroy. That lesson has been made abundantly clear to


In many cases, people express concerns about the unregulated power hacktivists exhibit. A disconcerting display of this power was made apparent during an attack of the popular hip hop forum and news site Support Online Hip Hop. In June 2008, was attacked by Anonymous. Members of the popular forum “Just Bugging Out” made comments which offended certain users. In retaliation, members of Anonymous flooded the forums of SOHH, essentially shutting them down because of massive traffic. A few days later, on June 23, 2008, Anonymous arranged a series of DDOS attacks against the website, annihilating 60% of the website's service capacity. On June 27, 2008, a final cross-site scripting attack was launched which resulted in the compromise of employee information and the defacement of’s main page. The website was littered with “images of Hitler, Nazi swastikas, images of slaves with nooses around their necks” and multiple ethnic slurs targeted at minority communities whose members regularly frequent the site.[37]

The website was heavily damaged in an attack clearly designed to humiliate and retaliate. Whether the attack was a simple prank or a definitive case of racism is unclear. However, this case does prove the point that since it is nearly impossible to track down and prosecute hacktivists, they are free from legal and moral restraints that many people live by.

Operation Egypt: Hacktivism as a Means of Bypassing CensorshipEdit

We aim to help people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time by being involved in the free exchange of information.

Google / Twitter

"Anonymous wants you to offer free access to uncensored media in your entire country. When you ignore this message, not only will we attack your government websites, Anonymous will also make sure that the international media sees the horrid reality you impose upon your people."


Hacktivism should not always be shed in an immoral light just because of it’s clandestine nature and questionable legality. The 2011 Egyptian Revolution is an excellent case of hacktivism for the “right” reasons. On January 25, 2011, protests broke out in Egypt, with demonstrators crying out for free elections, freedom of speech, economic stability, the end of police brutality, and the end of corruption within the government. In support of the Egyptian people’s right to free speech and in opposition to the government’s restriction of sites such as Twitter, Anonymous began Operation Egypt, a massive DDOS attack on major websites of the Egyptian government. This attack took most major government websites offline until President Mubarak stepped down.[38]

At the end of January 2011, the Egyptian government ordered the nation’s Internet service providers to shut down operation, effectively blacking out the country’s access to the Internet.[39] It is likely that these measures were taken to limit the communication between members of the opposition as well as to censor news from outside world. Google and Twitter responded to this outrageous disruption of information and communication by launching a service called speak2tweet. The service allows users to leave voicemails which are then tweeted, essentially bypassing the restrictions of the Egyptian government by allowing large-scale communication without Internet access. Google representatives laid out a carefully designed message to explain their actions without stepping on too many toes: “We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time.”[40] Here we see an example of two major, well-respected companies participating in a form of hacktivism.

WikiLeaks: The Grey AreaEdit

I do think that at the moment, WikiLeaks is the absolute most important project on the globe.

Jacob Appelbaum[41]

WikiLeaks is a non-profit organization that runs a website where anyone on the internet can anonymously publish documents and information. It is often used to distribute secret, classified governmental reports that were never designed for public access. WikiLeaks states that its "primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their governments and corporations."[42]

Wikileaks represents a type of “information hacktivism”, where instead of attacking other websites, it attacks information secrecy with the goal of forcing openness, governmental transparency, privacy, and political change. In December 2010, WikiLeaks began publishing large numbers of secret United State diplomatic cables and was came under intense pressure by US government to stop. Hacktivists operating with the group Anonymous declared support for WikiLeaks' right to free speech and began "Operation Avenge Assange" -- a pro-WikiLeaks hacktivism campaign to take down the opposition.

Julian Assange deifies everything we hold dear. The future of the internet hangs in the balance. We are Anonymous. We do not forgive; we do not forget. Expect us.


Anonymous organized a series of DDOS attacks against major companies, including Amazon, PayPal, Mastercard, in retaliation for their anti-WikiLeak behavior. A threat researcher at PandaLabs credited Anonymous for launching an attack which brought down the Swedish prosecutor's website when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested in London and refused bail in preparation for his extradition to Sweden.[44] The attacks received widespread media coverage and disabled many of the target's web presences for days.[45] Wikileaks has made it clear that Anonymous glorifies the concept of freedom. Whether it is freedom of speech, freedom of information, or freedom of action, hacktivists such as Anonymous will stop at nothing to maintain these "rights."


It is unclear whether RedHack or Edward Snowden meet the definition for professionals. Both Edward Snowden and RedHack committed crimes by stealing government information electronically. However, both acted against what they saw as injustices from their respective governments. Neither committed violent crimes, but leaked sensitive information. While Snowden later revealed his identity, RedHack and initially Snowden committed all of these crimes anonymously. Their use of anonymity and illegal or dubiously legal tactics make classifying RedHack and Edward Snowden as professionals difficult.

As the cases above demonstrate, hacktivism can refer to a very diverse set of acts of civil disobedience that are politically or socially motivated. Most hacktivism is illegal, but may or may not be immoral. The blessing and the curse of hacktivism is that it is easy to remain anonymous and untraceable -- it is often impossible to hold a particular individual accountable for their actions. As such, "peer pressure" and "societal acceptance" cease to be effective deterrents for irrational and unethical behavior. Some acts by self-proclaimed hacktivists fall squarely on one side of the line between hacktivism and cyberterrorism; many others depend on exactly where the line is drawn. The corresponding ethical issues are equally uncertain. One thing is for sure: hacktivists do not show any signs of quitting anytime soon.


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