In one scene from last year’s blockbuster film, Now You See Me, an arena full of citizens is delighted when the film’s four heroes publicly drain the bank account of a millionaire whose company denied their insurance claims following Hurricane Katrina. The money magically reappears in the victims’ bank accounts, right before their eyes.
While stories about that kind of digital Robin Hood behavior make for great entertainment, the reality of a new activity called hacktivism isn’t always as fun. Hacktivism, which is the term for using hacking skills—either through legal or illegal means—to enact some form of justice, has both its fans and its critics. One the one hand, much like in the film, a capable person is righting a wrong of some kind, helping others in a way that involves his unique skills and that others cannot do for themselves. But the flipside of the coin is that hacktivism often looks a lot like cyberbullying.
Well-known hacktivist organization Anonymous, along with off-shoot organizations that conduct similar activities, was instrumental in bringing to light the information in the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, gang rape of an incapacitated minor after school officials and townspeople apparently tried to cover up the incident. Anonymous’ hackers used information that the now-convicted perpetrators had shared on social media to uncover their true identities; Anonymous then reportedly threatened to reveal the identities and locations of everyone suspected of being involved if charges were not brought against the guilty parties.
This week, Anonymous followed through on its threat to reveal the identities of a number of Ku Klux Klan members who have threatened to use “lethal force” against protestors in Ferguson, Missouri; the hacker group infiltrated the server that houses the KKK’s website and took over its Twitter account, then posted the real names, addresses, phone numbers, and even relatives’ names of these individuals in various online locations.
The group, and others like it, has come under fire for its vigilante behavior. The perpetrators in the Steubenville case were juveniles and therefore entitled to the right to confidentiality, even if they were arrested and convicted, while the KKK has always shrouded itself in a measure of secrecy due to the inflammatory nature of its organization. Critics of the hacktivists’ behavior felt like the tactics were akin to emotional and criminal blackmail.
At the same time, supporters of the hacker group and the function of hacktivism as a whole were glad to see justice served, even if strategies like this had been employed. They see it as meting out justice in a way that the court system cannot, and have applauded the group’s efforts.
So who’s right? Do the ends really justify the means, or are citizens just relieved to see hackers using their powers for good instead of for cybercrimes like spying, identity theft, and financial data breaches? Law enforcement experts have actually considered hacktivism to be a form of cyberbullying, where online information is gleaned in order to torment or exact a behavior from the victim. At this time, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have investigated and even arrested Anonymous members for their activities.
One important takeaway for social media users is to remember that hacktivist groups take action based largely on social media content, basically, the stuff you choose to share. Through actions like doxing (sharing personally identifiable information about an individual) and hacking social media accounts, they’re able to inflict the most damage as they see a need. If you don’t want others taking issue with your content or infiltrating your accounts, watch what you choose to share, and make sure your accounts are secure.