Once that word just meant a cool 90s film starring a young Angelina Jolie and a young Jonny Lee Miller. Now, it can mean anything from faceless cyber revolutionaries to internet bullies to threats to national security.
Growing up, I thought hackers were a bunch of kids hanging out in a basement trolling authority or a collection of criminals, also hanging out in a basement, trying to use code to bring down civilization.
Now, we have “Hacktivism”.
It’s the idea that we can use social media (and hacking methods) for a good purpose. We can start revolutions against dictators or reveal the evil lurking in our hometown. Everyone with a wifi signal can potentially change the world.
The thing is, the more that we live our lives online, the more power that we not only will have to enact change for the better, but we’ll also have the power to cause ruin. And the more our real life worlds are intertwined with technology, the more the actions of hactivists could inadvertently cause destruction, mayhem, scandal and real life tragedy.
Recently, Gawker posted an article positing the theory that hackers could have been responsible for the recent Super Bowl blackout, meaning that it’s possible to take out a city’s power–or livelihood–with some lines of code or the click of a mouse button. Julian Assange’s work with “WikiLeaks” resulted in national security leaks for multiple world powers that placed lives in danger. On a community scale, Steubenville, OH was ripped apart when a buried gang rape case was given international attention not by local journalists or law enforcement, but by amateur bloggers and the efforts of hacktivist group, Anonymous. And the hackers themselves aren’t exempt from pain, embarrassment and tragedy. Julian Assange is currently facing multiple charges of rape–charges his supporters say are false and were only created to silence him–and Aaron Schwartz, co-founder of Reddit and Internet activist, was driven to commit suicide on the eve of a massive trial that was to be held against him for hacking into JSTOR.
Someone once told me that the internet is like the Wild West now. People are doing crazy things in pursuit of wealth and fortune. Communities pop up overnight on social media. Message boards are frequented and then abandoned like ghost towns. Hacktivists are kind of like the vigilantes who combed the Wild West looking for murderers to bring to justice on their own lawless terms.
The thing is, Julian Assange, Anonymous, and Aaron Schwartz weren’t necessarily motivated by some crazed spree of vengeance. Rather, it’s about a moral philosophy for them. They believe no information should be withheld from the general public. This applies to the behind-the-scenes dirty dealings of major governments, private confessions of rape or just scholarly essays.
A lot of people consider these hackers to be heroes because they agree with their philosophies. Certain ideas seem morally obvious. Citizens have a right to know if their governments are lying to them and cheating them. Rapists deserve to be brought to justice. Students have a right to scholarly information even if they can’t afford a massive tuition fee. Bigots deserve to be shamed. Evil should be rooted out from its dark hiding spots and forced into the light.
But these hackers are still considered criminals by most governments. Not only because they’ve hacked into–or attempted to hack into–sensitive government information, but they’ve also hacked into credit card companies and the personal files of private individuals and churches. And while they may have done these things in pursuit of justice, it still means that they are invading people’s personal privacy.
Because that’s what freedom from censorship is: no information is ever blocked.
But what does that mean? Should your personal finances be open to everyone’s viewing? Should everyone’s medical records be on display? Should your innermost thoughts, never published, but typed in some hidden computer file, be released to the universe? And should you be judged by the internet based on all this free and open information?
What information should be hidden and what should belong to the world?
The issue of hacktivism and privacy and anonymity on the internet is clearly too large and too nuanced to come to terms with in a single blog post. I mean, my friend, Cole Stryker, spends his time actively researching and writing books on the subject. I just futz around tumblr. I can’t honestly tell you how I feel about it because it’s such a complicated and ever-evolving issue.
I do think that it’s easy to praise hacktivists if you personally have benefited from their efforts and that it’s easy to malign them if their work has jeopardized your livelihood. It’s actually even easier to ignore them if they haven’t touched your life in any way whatsoever.
The thing is, we’re going to have to decide where to put hactivists soon. The Wild West was eventually won by traditional law. Will the internet be defined by laws, too? And if so, where do hackers wind up?
Are hacktivists going to be our heroes or our villains?
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