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Social Justice Hackers: Tech Patriots or Pretenders?

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Tech Patriots: The Rise of the Hacktivist

"Hacker" wasn't always a negative term, and even today it may not mean exactly what you think.

The term has a convoluted history, but its origins lie with some of the first computer programmers at MIT in the 1960s, who used it to describe anyone who played around with computers for the fun of it. The free software movement, as well as the internet itself, resulted in part from the ingenuity of those early MIT computer hackers.

The Many Definitions of "Hacker"

The definition of hacker, however, has developed and changed as fast as technology itself. Its exact definition is a controversial subject today, with many hackers defining it differently. Traditional hackers — that is, those who are computer enthusiasts or hobbyists — claim that those who exploit software vulnerabilities, regardless of their motives, should be known instead as "crackers" (as in "safecrackers"), not "hackers."

But the common use of the term today refers to anyone who seeks out and exploits weaknesses in computer systems, usually with criminal intent. Thanks to frequent media usage, when most of us hear the word "hacker," we think of tech-savvy "bad guys" out to steal our login credentials, credit card numbers, and very identities.

Rise of the Hacktivists

But not all modern hackers have profit as their motive. So-called "hacktivists" use technology for activism, to make political, ideological, religious, or other statements.

There are as many different types of hacktivists as there are definitions for what a "true hacker" is. Some, often considered "cyberterrorists," participate in DDoS and similar attacks to spread their messages, such as the Syrian Electronic Army did to The New York Times, Twitter, and Huffington Post in 2013.

Other hacktivists, like Hacktivismo, a group that believes that access to information is a basic human right, use their hacking skills not to attack or shut down websites, but to provide software tools that protect online privacy. And yet other groups, such as Anonymous, blur the lines between hacktivism and cyberterrorism, using DDoS attacks against their targets, supposedly for the greater good, though often just for the lulz.

Become a Hacktivist

Contrary to the media and popular belief, not all hackers are in it for money or personal gain: many are using their technical skills to fight for what they believe in, no matter what side they're on. Here's how.

The Rise of the Patriotic Hacker

Tech Patriots: The Rise of the Hacktivist

As technology changes, so do the people using and developing it. Although some hackers continue to hack for personal gain, others use their skills to benefit others.

The Age of the "Hacker"

  • The term "hacker" can refer to someone with or without criminal intent who accesses systems without authorization.
    • Most hackers stay anonymous, using handles or nicknames to roam the web.
    • Some hackers suggest that those with criminal intent should be called "crackers" or otherwise differentiated from those who are testing systems or making statements.
    • Hackers who see themselves as activists rather than hacking with criminal intent are sometimes called hacktivists.
  • Many criminal hackers look for material gain.
    • Companies tend to get hacked for customer information like credit card numbers, social security numbers, account passwords, and addresses.
      • In 2013, Target was hacked with over 40 million credit cards compromised, along with other companies like Neiman Marcus, Living Social, Evernote, and even government sites like Washington state's court site and one of the internal sites for the Federal Reserve.
      • In 2012, auto maker Honda, credit card companies American Express, MasterCard, and Visa, web giants Google, Facebook, Linkedin, and Yahoo were all hacked with customer data compromised.
    • Criminal hacking causes great financial loss.
      • About $70 million is lost annually due to data theft.
      • About $65.6 million is lost annually due to denial of service hacks.
      • Only about $27.3 million is lost annually due to viruses.
    • In 2013, cyber crime accounted for 47% of hacks, and hacktivism for 44%.
      • In 2011, more data was compromised by hacktivism than by cyber crime.
    • About 70% of hacks go unnoticed for 2-12 months.
    • Only about 50% of companies who are hacked report the incidents to authorities.
    • Some institutions are employing an "ethical hacking" method to test vulnerabilities in their systems from the perspective of hackers.

Feds Work to Fill the Cyber Skills Shortage

  • Estimated numbers for needed cyber experts working for the government range from 10,000 to 30,000, although only a few thousand have the cyber security skills needed.
  • The U.S. government started a massive recruiting program, nicknamed today's "Manhattan Project," to recruit and train up and coming cyber experts.
    • The program conducts camps and teen competitions.
    • Rewards include internships, scholarships, and even jobs in cybersecurity.
  • Universities also try to help fill the cyber skills gap.
    • The University of Maryland's cybersecurity program includes training in public policy, criminology, and even psychology.
  • Some argue that university training takes too long, and the gap needs to be filled as soon as possible, which is why they target hackers for recruitment.
    • Federal representatives even attend hacking conventions to recruit.
    • Because hackers are often skeptical of the government, some contractors with government work can also recruit hackers without the stigma of being a government employee.
  • Government jobs, although salaries are lower than the private sector, appeal to hackers with a sense of civic duty and patriotism.
  • The US military's unit Cyber Command is estimated to reach 4,000 new recruits by 2015, quadruple the number in 2013.

NSA Uses Hackers

  • The National Security Agency (NSA) allegedly uses ultra-secret hacking units to gain access to computers on a global scale.
    • They are reportedly called Tailored Access Operations.
    • TAO hackers are meant to access some of the toughest foreign targets to get vital data unavailable through other means.
    • The unit supposedly capitalizes on technological and social media vulnerabilities.
    • They ostensibly steal information and leave behind spy software in the systems.
    • The information is allegedly incredibly important intelligence for national security, including data on cyber attacks and counter-terrorism.
      • TAO hackers may have been responsible for malware that targeted Iran's nuclear program.
      • TAO supposedly has also been hacking systems in China for 15 years to gather intelligence on the Chinese government.
      • Intelligence collected by TAO, through mobile phones used by members of al-Qaeda and others, aided the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
    • The unit is reportedly located in NSA's headquarters and an old computer chip factory in Texas.
    • The number of hackers in TAO is estimated to be about 600.
    • Also the NSA reputedly uses companies to gather further surveillance.
      • Data brokers, such as Millennial Media, ostensibly gather personal information and share with the NSA, including habits for gaming and shopping online.
      • The "Bullrun" program supposedly uses software security companies to construct backdoors for surveillance access to computers.
      • "Bounty Hunters" like Vupen and Endgame are meant to capitalize on software flaws found in mobile devices and even Microsoft Office.

Is a growing sense of altruism penetrating the hacking world? As civic-minded hackers continue to spring up, the future may be even brighter for emerging technologies.


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KeriLynn Engel

About KeriLynn Engel

KeriLynn has worked as a freelance writer for various websites. She is an advocate for domestic abuse victims and has way too many hobbies.


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January 14, 2020

I recently met an IT technologist on a flight to Budapest. We had a conversation about the appeal of ethical hacking vs commercial hacking. It’s interesting to see the volume with which corporations snap up the most gifted geeks.

Considering the power-shift to digital and data, how do you all see the future of hacktivism? With books like “Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a rise in vigilante hackers from developing countries where information often precedes the majority of consumer comforts.