New Age Protests and Threats

Hacktivism and Cyberwarfare


Courtesy/ Christiaan Colen

Todd Kleiboer, Web Editor

Aside from the worry over the potential hacking of Clinton’s private server or the hacking of the DNC, the threat of hacking reaches farther in the public life than many want to guess. Cyberattacks from China and Russia in an attempt to effect change have made some anxious about the security of national data.

On the other hand, hacking may be also used a form of free speech in this modern age of information, and this cyber activism has been named ‘hacktivism’. However, there is a fine line between hacktivism and criminal activity when national security is breached.

“The whole hacktivism movement started from the notion of the freedom aspect, and then when it started to impact political cores, that took a different life of its own,” Dr. David Oualaalou, political science professor and former Washington international security analyst, said. “It’s one of those situations that no one has the right answer to.”

In 2013, well-known hacktivist group Anonymous filed a petition calling for distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to be recognized as a valid form of protest. They argued that these attacks the virtual counterpart to sit-ins as DDoS attacks disrupt a webpage’s service by overwhelming it with thousands of users reloading the page to crash the server. The petition failed, but Anonymous continued.

In a journal article dealing with hacktivism, Dr. Xiang Li writes that in comparison to traditional forms of protesting, “hacktivists claim similar motivations,…are motivated to execute cyberattacks during times likely to attract the most attention,…[and] exploit attention directed at the target’s property to gain publicity.”

Whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is the most famous person demonstrating the fine line between free speech and crime when he leaked the NSA’s data collection and monitoring. Vilified by some and lauded by others, the attitude toward him and the entire issue is ambivalent.

“I ask my students about it, how do they see it? Do you see Edward Snowden as a hero, or do you see him as a traitor?” Dr. Oualaalou said. “At the same time, when you are dealing with classified information of the government, you don’t have the right to just expose that. The same approach could apply to a hacker, especially a hacker inside the government like the case of Edward Snowden.”

When hacktivism goes awry and turns into hostile cyberwarfare, the U.S. government does have precautions in place to protect its own highly sensitive information. A hacker usually only breaks into the mainframe, the area of low-level, non-classified information, of the government entity like what happened to the Pentagon a few years ago or simply defaces the webpage with minimum access.

“There are layers of security in the system,” Dr. Oualaalou reassured. “The government will set up the sensitive information on a separate server altogether that has nothing to do with what you or I can access. The government, I am certain, is taking the necessary precautions to protect that information. Our national security depends on that information.”

With foreign cyber threats from Russia, China, and North Korea looming over the United States, it may be difficult to see the ‘non-actor states’ such as Anonymous, but both these non-actor and sovereign states pose a tangible threat to U.S. cyber security. Sovereign states at times even have entire departments devoted to waging cyberwarfare such as China’s Ministry of State Security or North Korea’s Bureau 121.

“I worry more about non-actor states than I worry about sovereign states,” Dr. Oualaalou asserted. “And why? Because a non-actor state doesn’t have borders. It can be from anywhere. And who are you going to target? Can you target Anonymous? We don’t know. For countries, once we have the proof that that particular cyberattack came from that particular location, then we would be able to retaliate.”

Looking to the future, cyber security becomes more and more vital to national security as the technological age progresses, and President-Elect Trump will have his hands full in dealing with these international and domestic issues of hacking.

“I’m hoping that President-Elect Trump will set a taskforce of individuals in this field to make that our infrastructure is protected,” Dr. Oualaaloud said. “Because if that fails into the wrong hands, that would be very problematic.”

Li, Xiang. “Hacktivism and the First Amendment: Drawing the Line Between Cyber Protests and Crime.” Harvard Journal of Law & Technology