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What Is Hacktivism? Definition, Types, and More!

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Hacktivism, a hybrid of “hack” and “activism,” refers to breaking into secure computer systems for socially and politically motivated purposes.

Think of Edward Snowden or Julian Assange and how they exposed classified information that would’ve otherwise stayed buried.

Overall, hacktivism has good and bad results, which this article will explore.

So if you’re curious about how people like Snowden or entities like Wikileaks came to be, keep reading!

What Are the Main Types of Hacktivism?

The main types of hacktivism include:

1. Information Leaks

This is one of the most popular hacktivist tactics, and it involves exposing private information about an organization or individual.

The primary reason for information leaks is transparency. Taxpayers have every right to know what the government they fund is up to.

This is especially important when the same government gets involved with private corporations at the expense of the citizens and tries to hide it.

Example:

Wikileaks by Julian Assange that has been exposing classified information since 2006.

2. Doxing

Doxing involves influential hacktivist groups gathering information about an individual and publishing it online to the public. This typically results in the individual being harassed.

Doxing can be done by searching databases, hacking personal accounts, and collecting info from social media accounts.

Hacktivists have used doxing to target company execs, government officials, and military and law enforcement members who oppose their ideals.

Example:

Private information of thousands of US law enforcement members are constantly leaked as part of hacktivism to end things like police brutality.

3. Distributed Denial-Of-Service (DDoS) Attacks

DDoS attacks are deployed to cause massive disruption in regular data traffic in the targeted server. This is achieved by flooding the server with internet traffic, which overwhelms the infrastructure.

Hacktivist groups worldwide use this tactic to render any website unusable by other visitors, hurting the company or government agency they’re targeting until their demands are met.

Example:

The Anonymous group launched the OpUSA attack on American banks and government offices in 2013.

how ddos attack works infographic

4. Website Mirroring

This technique is used by hacktivists to counter censorship. Their main targets are governments, high-profile businesses, and institutions that try to bring down websites that expose information they don’t want the people to know.

Through website mirroring, hacktivists copy these websites and republish them with new URLs, repeating the process even when the mirror website is shut down again.

Example:

WikiLeaks is the most feared hacktivist entity by governments, and efforts are made everyday to block the website. To counter this, WikiLeaks has been creating mirror websites since 2010.

5. Website Defacement

Defacement attacks occur when hacktivists take over a government, corporation, or individual website and replace everything with their content. 

This content is usually political and social agendas, sometimes profanity or anything inappropriate aimed at causing embarrassment to the original owners as a way of standing up for free speech.

Example:

The Ashley Madison website for extramarital affairs was defaced by a hacktivist group called Impact Group who also leaked the identity of over 32 million members in a bid to get the website shut down.

6. Geobombing

Geobombing is another tactic used by hacktivists who share censored information. 

It helps reveal the exact location and time that a video, image, or social media post was made through geo-tagging.

This could, for example, help identify where a torture video of a prisoner was recorded, making it hard for the government or any group involved to lie about it.

Inversely, hacktivists who may feel like their life is in danger usually geo-tag the videos or images they take so they can be displayed on Google Earth.

Example:

Tunisian activist group, Nawaat.org used geobombing to link testimonies of human rights defenders and political prisoners to the Tunisian presidential residence via Google Earth.

7. Anonymous Blogging

Anonymous blogging involves political or social activists anonymously publishing damning information about influential individuals, organizations, or the government without their byline or anything that can be traced back to them. 

This limits the danger of anyone going after them once the information is out.

Example:

Eduwonkette was an anonymous blog that exposed the shady dealings of Michael Bloomberg, who used his role as the New York mayor for malpractices towards the education system in the state.

8. RECAP Attacks

RECAP is software used by hacktivists to obtain copies of sensitive papers that generally require payment to the United States Federal Court to access. 

This database contains government information only accessed by a few authorized personnel.

Using RECAP, a hacktivist organization can bypass all the payments and clearances to provide this sensitive information to the public since they believe it shouldn’t be hidden.

Example:

Some of the WikiLeaks exposes are believed to have used the RECAP software to gain access to hidden information.

What Are the Main Goals of Hacktivism?

While the goals of hacktivists can differ, most are driven by anti-establishment sentiments. Some notable goals shared by many hacktivists include:

  • Bypassing government censorship and providing citizens with ways to access information hidden behind firewalls.
  • Providing support for ground protests.
  • Defacing and/or taking down government websites that impede freedom of speech.
  • Showing citizens the importance of protecting their data with tools like VPNs, web proxies, or Tor networks.
  • Helping marginalized people like immigrants cross borders safely by providing information on where border patrols may be.
  • Disrupting corporate power and halting the financial sponsoring of terrorism.

Popular Hacktivism Groups

Countless hacktivism groups have taken part in major international incidents. 

Here are some of the most notable ones.

Anonymous

anonymous group

This group was formed in 2003 and has been involved in anti-cyber surveillance, anti-cyber censorship, and internet vigilantism. It’s a collective of hackers who mainly target government agencies, corporations, and even the Church of Scientology.

Founding Date 2003
Main Goals Internet activism and fighting censorship and surveillance
Popular Achievement In 2012, Anonymous shut down websites belonging to the Recording industry, Warner Bros, Universal Music Group, the White House, and Motion Picture Association in retaliation to the FBI closing MegaUpload.
Last Known Activities Claims they disabled prominent websites in Russia run by the government and affiliated corporations in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

Legion of Doom (LOD)

legion of doom group

The hacktivist group Legion of Doom has been around since the mid-80s before it disappeared and then resurfaced in 2015. It’s based in the United States and is affiliated with other hacktivist groups like Cult of the Dead Cow, Masters of Deception, and MindVox.

Founding Date 1984
Main Goals Hacking and gathering information on corporations and governments.
Popular Achievement Creating the first-ever social engineering hack called BBS, which disabled a system until a primary password was entered.
Last Known Activities Not much has been heard from LOD since most founders and members are either arrested or retired.

WikiLeaks

wikileaks

WikiLeaks is a document archive and disclosure website created by Julian Assange in 2006. WikiLeaks has been responsible for several high-profile leaks that led to Assange seeking asylum in different countries.

Founding Date 2006
Main Goals Archiving secret files and dossiers and disclosing them to the public.
Popular Achievement Leaking documents that detailed covert operations carried out by the CIA to perform electronic surveillance and cyber warfare. This included morbid details like how to disable smart machines.
Last Known Activities WikiLeaks continues to expose things to this day. Julian Assange is currently imprisoned in Belmarsh in the UK, with the United States trying to get him extradited to the US for prosecution.

Chaos Computer Club

chaos computer club

Popularly known as the CCC, this is the largest hacker group in Europe, with members exceeding 7,000 as of 2022. The group has been active for over three decades, headquartered in West Berlin.

It mostly focuses on exposing vulnerabilities in systems.

Founding Date 1981
Main Goals A white hat hacktivist group that tests for vulnerabilities in systems.
Popular Achievement Exposing the security flaws in Bildschirmtext, a German computer network, by manipulating it to debit money from a bank and transfer it to the bank in 1984. They returned the money the next day in front of the press.
Last Known Activities CCC doesn’t take part in illegal hacking but continues to expose flaws in systems for the benefit of the people.

Lulzsec

lulzsec

Lulzsec was only active for about a month when they hacked many high-profile targets, including Fox Broadcasting Company. Most of their attacks involved website defacing as a way of protesting against corporations.

The group was disbanded in June 2011, a month after its formation.

Founding Date May 2011
Main Goals Settling grudges with media companies they felt were part of spreading misinformation and impeding freedom of speech.
Popular Achievement Hacking and exposing user account credentials from the PlayStation Network in 2011. It also claimed to take down the CIA website, attacking Rupert Murdocho's enterprises.
Last Known Activities The group was disbanded in June 2011, and a number of the members were arrested.

Masters of Deception (MOD)

masters of deception

Masters of Deception was founded in the late 80s and was involved in hacking and phreaking. It was based in the United States and primarily targeted telecommunication companies. Most MOD attacks were fueled by the need to showcase their skills and demean other hackers.

Founding Date 1980s
Main Goals Hacking and phreaking telecommunication companies in the early days to showcase their hacking skills.
Popular Achievement Hacking of RBOC phone switches in the late 80s and many minicomputers and mainframe computers that were used to manage and administer telephone networks.
Last Known Activities The group was broken up in 1992 following the high-profile arrests of most of its members.

Lizard Squad

lizard squad

This black hat group was founded in 2014 by seven members. Their favorite attack type was DDoS, and their targets were gaming services. The group was briefly disbanded a few months after formation, then resumed operations, even participating in the famous Darkode hacking forums.

Founding Date 2014
Main Goals Hacking for amusement and exposing the vulnerabilities in multi-national gaming companies.
Popular Achievement Attacking League of Legends servers, the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, and even defacing the Machinima website.
Last Known Activities The group still exists but is no longer as potent as it used to be. Rumors say they hacked a gaming group that retaliated with much force, destroying the group significantly.

Effective Ways to Prevent Hacktivism Attacks

Although many hacktivist groups are good at what they do, there are still things individuals and organizations can do to prevent attacks. 

For example:

  1. Use a VPN. A virtual private network hides your traffic with solid encryption. It also hides your IP address, which is the most used route by hackers to get you. Always use a premium VPN with reliable security features like encryption, IP leak protection, and public WiFi protection.
  2. Avoid announcements about security protocols. Running press releases about improving your organization’s security is the most effective way to invite hackers to infiltrate your service. Keep the noise at a minimum and let your security do the talking.
  3. Conduct security audits. Never slack on security because hacktivists constantly advance their skills. Conduct regular security audits and update your security framework to keep up with the latest technologies.
  4. Create employee awareness. Most hacking events take advantage of employee carelessness. Thus, educating your employees on the proper security practices could help seal loopholes that hacktivists could use to get in.
Interesting Reads:

FAQ

A hacker breaks into a computer system for monetary gains, while a political or social ideology drives an activist. Most hacktivists do it for the collective good of everyone, while regular hackers do it for money, fame, and mischief.

Whether hacktivism is ethical depends on the side of the divide you stand on. 

Since hacktivists mainly work to correct what they feel are social injustices, the people they attack view them as unethical, while those that benefit from these attacks view them as ethical.

Wrapping Up

Understanding what hacktivism is could save you from a lot of pain. 

They may be a necessary evil, but it’s never pretty when you’re receiving their wrath. Read more on the different types of hackers to understand why cyber security is vital.