Deepthi Ratnayake FHEA CITP MBCS, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, explores where all the hacktivists have gone and whether they will make a comeback for the climate.

The year 2021 marks a decade since ‘The year of the hacktivist’. As Dorothy Denning famously said, hacktivism is ‘the marriage of hacking and activism.’ Hacktivism was around for several decades before hacktivist groups like LulzSec and Anonymous dominated the headlines of the media and put security experts on high alert in 2011.

Power, resistance and hacktivism

In the context of cybersecurity, threat actors are defined by their personality, habits, motives, methods and dedication. Hacktivism often relates to free speech, human rights, freedom of information movements and other noble causes such as action against corruption, military and international conflicts, the human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems - or simply to point out security flaws.

Make no mistake, hacktivism is a cybercrime, though hacktivists and their supporters believe they are (and their profile is often defined as) people hacking a target for a noble cause during a crisis.

Teenage tantrums to information warfare

Cyber operations analogous to street protests and sit-ins emerged in the 1980s in the form of computer viruses and worms that spread messages of protest by groups of hacktivists (then labelled as tantruming teenagers, tech hobbyists or tech nerds with a political agenda).

The exponential development of powerful high-tech innovations and freeware in the turn of the century facilitated hacktivists’ global mobilisation of information warfare against their targets. Some popular tactics in recent years include website defacements, overwhelming networks with traffic to cause denial of service to their users and data leaks causing disruption, confusion, reputational and financial damage which gain publicity. However, reports indicate that hacktivism in the USA and Europe has declined majorly, due to aggressive cybercrime laws.

Did the heavy-handed laws reduce hacktivism to clicktivism?

Although, there have been a few high-profile disruptions in the recent years, such as the Clinton emails leak, Operation Icarus, the Amaq subscriber email list leak, Operation Death Eaters, the Black Lives Matter movement and Anonymous - who continue to be active - and a few other new groups springing up, hacktivism in general has been declining.

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The social networking boom empowered everyone to have a voice via the internet and allowed activists to conduct globally organised smart mobs, petitions, blogs, emails, social media campaigns, virtual sit-ins and, of course, to share information anonymously to authorities, media and social justice groups like investigative journalists.

Some argue that although digital activism achieves awareness building and mobilisation of people, the overall goal may not be the case in many instances, which is perhaps the reason for hacktivism to surface from time to time.

26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26)

COP26 is at the forefront of global concern. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) documents leaked to the BBC through Greenpeace UK’s team of investigative journalists revealed some nations lobbying to change UN recommendations for action.

Open sources report that protests are expected to be heightened on 6 November, the Global Day for Climate Justice, as thousands of protestors are expected to arrive from across the world. Some predict that hacktivists could target government organisations, local businesses and rail networks during the conference.

Alex Dowall, Detective Superintendent for Cyber Investigations at Police Scotland, said: ‘We know criminals will exploit any opportunity for their own gain and COP26 will be no different.’

Ideological-based attacks have been too random to be able to predict with great certainty. Some of the world’s most resourced security programs with excellent risk profiles proved that security threats cannot be ‘solved’, ‘prevented’ or ‘removed’ through technological or engineering approaches. These are testing times for those in security professions.

By the time this insight is published, the world will know if the hacktivists made a comeback motivated by climate change. However, should COP26 be a time to be focused on issues other than the environmental ones?

Recasting hacktivists

It is well known that suppression is counterproductive. This tightly interlinked world requires cooperation and a commitment to peaceful coexistence across species, cultures and generations. Governments and global communities should recast hacktivists as a geo-socially networked community of sensors, who can be creatively engaged with policy makers in solving emerging global threats.

About the author

Dr Deepthi Ratnayake FHEA CITP MBCS is an experienced lecturer with proven skills in cybersecurity research. LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/deepthiratnayake

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