Ethics of Hacktivism

Protest is a vital aspect of the development of our society. When people don’t agree with something which has been done or is proposed, people in countries like Australia, England and America, have the right to publicly oppose the issue. Protests created a lot of change particularly in the Vietnam War era and the counter culture movement of the 1960s and 1970s (Noyes, 2014). Without protest, we quite possibly wouldn’t have social change; living the exact same way for decades, even centuries.

As with almost anything else, protesting has developed over time, adopting new methods, reaching across multiple mediums and adapting to address new issues and appeal to different types of people. As protesting changed over time, a new form appeared to utilise computer systems and used a much more offensive approach to push political and social change agendas. Hacktivism is often defined as the subversive use of computer systems for politically or socially motivated purposes (Rouse, 2007; Techopedia, 2016; Webopedia, 2016).

Although the first ‘hacktivism’ style malware (the anti-nuclear “WANK” worm) was first used in late 1989 (McCormick, 2013), the term ‘hacktivism’ wasn’t coined until 1996. This term was first used in an email from Omega, a member of the computer hacking group Cult of the Dead Cow (Trend Micro, 2015).

Although this form of demonstration is more aggressive, it can be highly valuable for individuals or groups who may not be able to publicly protest or take action due to social or political oppression or persecution. It can also be used to provide support, hope or even fight on the behalf of the before mentioned oppressed or persecuted individuals. “Tools like Twitter and Facebook were the only way to engage and get their stories out, especially since local media was being blocked” said Terry Cutler (2014) a certified ethical hacker and the founder of Digital Locksmiths, Inc. speaking of previous hacktivist missions.

Common techniques used by hacktivists include “computer break-ins, including website defacement as well as worm and virus infections; and denial-of-service attacks (DoS) including website sit-ins and email bombings” (Thomas, 2001).

Ethical Hacktivism

The surface level ethics of hacktivism often involve the ethical testing of online security by hired professionals and freelance hobbyists, but the more complicated and debated aspects are the many other uses of hacktivism and so this is what will be mainly discussed within this website.

Rick Flakvinge, founder of the first Pirate Party of Sweden (political group), raises a highly valid point of the complexity of the issue:

First, what is considered ethical can have many layers: Is the penetration testing made within the organisation in order to promote better security practices, or is it penetration of a corrupt organisation to expose corruption? Both could easily be described as ‘ethical’ (Flakvinge, 2014).


The general concept of hacktivism isn’t defined by the need to involve “bad behaviour” or outright law breaking, and can be used to make a positive impact on the world in a justified and ethical way. “Ethical use” of hacktivism often depends on the user’s intentions. An example of hacktivism being used for good involved an incident where a notorious hacktivist, The Jester, helped with the identification and incarceration of several ‘script-kiddies’ (Hacking/programming culture slang for a younger, less experienced hacker who rejects the ethical principles often adopted by professionals and hacks maliciously for the fun of it) who disrupted the United Kingdom’s anti-terrorist hotline, possibly putting people in danger (Armstrong, 2014).

Hacktivism simply involves using rights (like the right to free speech) to effectively protest to a larger audience in a more effective way. It just builds on to the original concept of protest in modern ways and should be judged on ethics in a similar way to any other medium of protest.

Hacktivists claim that they are doing no more and no less than following in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., by attempting to bring about social change through non-violent means (Thomas, 2001).

Some hacktivist organisations or groups even have their own moral/ethical codes of behaviour which they stick to in order to operate in a more structured and ethical format (not just a free for all). For example, Anonymous, a well-known hacktivist group, adhere to a shared philosophy, known as the hacker ethic.

The Electrohippies, another hacktivism group, also holds their own code-of-conduct around distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. These attacks are only acceptable if they do not “disrupt the communications of an organisation on a general basis and focuses attention on a single issue, rather than the organisation as a whole. The instigators of the attack, furthermore, should provide information on both sides of the contested issue so that participants in the attack are well educated. Finally, all participants in the attack should provide their real names” (Thomas, 2001).

Determining Level of Ethics

Due to this inconsistency of adherence to standardised ethical guidelines, an overall standpoint of determining the appropriateness of actions taken by the end outcome is generally accepted. Sometimes unfavourable actions need to be completed in order to produce a positive outcome, and this is the ethical guideline that hacktivism generally employs.

It’s not the methods employed which are wrong, it’s what’s done with them: “Like most weapons, hacking can be used for good or bad, to defend freedom or attack it” (Davis, 2014). Arguably, anything could be deemed an unethical weapon: It just depends on how it’s used and what its motives and reasoning are.

Unethical Hacktivism

Arguably, whenever hacktivism has come under fire by the media, it has always had to do with the after effects of actions taken in the name of hacktivism. An example of this was with Stuxnet, a computer virus discovered in 2010 which has been called the ‘world’s first digital weapon’ (Lauder, 2016). It attacked the computer system of the machines used to enrich uranium in Iran and caused them to spin out of control. This could have caused the unnecessary loss of life and would be generally considered unethical.

Another example of unethical hacktivism is the use of Dox Drops (the practise of hackers stealing personal or private information of individuals and publishing it on the internet) by Anonymous in 2010 for Operation Payback. The aim of this operation was to get revenge on the CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for shutting down LimeWire (a peer to peer music piracy software). Following the Dox Drop, Anonymous instructed their followers to bombard the CEO as well as associated individuals with mail bombings (sending overwhelming amounts of emails), prank calls, fax bombings (faxing black paper) and similar techniques. Operation Payback was clearly unethical as it was a breach of individual privacy and served no purpose for pursuing a social or political agenda. It was pure revenge, and that fact in itself caused a major backlash against Anonymous.

Hacktivism in the name of revenge is never ethical, and as often agreed, isn’t the embodiment of true hacktivism due to it not being about protest or rebellion.

Some others believe that tactics like DoS attacks and mail bombings are denials of freedom of speech and therefore do not adhere to ethics defined by deontology. “The mail bombers need to know that vigilante censorship is just as unacceptable as government censorship” said Audrie Kraus (2001), Executive Director of NetAction.

The Electrohippies hacktivism group acknowledges that methods like DDoS attacks and web sit-ins violate the First Amendment, restricting the freedom of speech and freedom of association (Thomas, 2001).

Although this is said, these methods of hacktivism can be effective at letting others speak in the silence or making a powerful force (such as a corporation or governing body) receive a taste of their own medicine.


Hacktivism will always exist as it is a vital aspect of the development of protest in society: Hacktivists “symbolise a form of cyber-rebellion that is the digital manifestation of the spirit of revolution” (Freddie, 2011). Pierluigi Paganini said “We can arrest hackers and hacktivists that violate our networks and that disclose our data, but we cannot stop an ideology” (2014) and that is so very true; hacktivism is never going to stop, we should at least encourage ethical hacktivism to allow society to evolve socially and politically, but make practises which border on cyber-terrorism less common at the same time.

Hacktivism is incredibly effective and necessary, but due to it often involving drastic measures, should be the last option when all other methods of protest fail (Armstrong, 2014).

“The issues at the heart of hacktivism appear to be the same issues that are at the heart of activism and civil disobedience in the physical world” (Thomas, 2001). When determining the ethicality of hacktivism, as with any social and political change, it comes down to the long-standing question of whether the end justifies the means in true utilitarian ethical style.


Another essay from my senior year 🙂


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