What is Hactivism?

By Xavier DeVore '23

Hacktivism, or using cyber attacks as a means for political or social activism, has now been
prominent for over 25 years. Hacktivist groups are stateless actors, often without a centralized
form of leadership, who use cyber war to advance causes that they deem to be morally right,
such as defending democracy or criticizing exploitative companies.

Hacktivist groups often target states. Some of these efforts, mainly in times of peace, have had an
enormous impact, leading to more transparent governing. However, in times of war between
states, hacktivism has the potential to cause more damage than it intends to. We have seen the
hacktivist group “Anonymous” impact Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, including using
DDoS attacks to shut down state websites and hack into Russian state television to spread news
of the war to the Russian people. I will observe hacktivism in wartime and offer three scenarios
in which hacktivist efforts could lead to serious negative outcomes in a war between two states.
First, impulsive, decentralized attacks by hacktivist groups add a degree of unpredictability that
may have negative consequences upon the strategy of a warring state. In 2016, the Ukrainian
government established a “National Cybersecurity Strategy “ to work to counter cyber attacks,
specifically after multiple unprovoked attacks by the Russian government. The government
continues to work closely with other governments to craft cyber strategy that can aid them in the
best way possible. Some hacktivist individuals have joined Ukraine’s cybersecurity network, but
many independent hacktivist groups have separately declared cyberwar against the Russian
government. These groups operate entirely on their own, forcing the more organized Ukrainian
cyberwar efforts to adapt their strategy to the attacks that hacktivist groups deem appropriate,
rather than more carefully craft long-term strategy.

Second, damaging cyber attacks by non-state actors during wartime could lead to escalation in a
conflict. This could happen for two reasons:

  1. Cyber Attack Tracing: Writer Scott Ikeda suggests that if a state targeted by a hacktivist
    traces the location of that hacktivist to an enemy state, they may escalate a conflict with
    that state. Their justification would be that the enemy state is harboring actors that are
    directly harming them. In a conflict that the enemy state does not want to escalate,
    intentional acts by the state still may not prevent escalation due to hacktivist attacks. As
    previously established, hacktivist groups are currently targeting Russia. If Russia traced
    hacktivist attacks to a specific state they wanted to escalate with, they could theoretically
    use that information to justify aggression towards that state.
  2. Misattribution: if a state mistakenly attributes a cyber attack to an enemy state, but it’s
    actually an attack from a hacktivist group, they could escalate conflict with the enemy
    state.

Third, if civilians are harmed by hacktivist attacks, there are fewer internationally agreed upon
consequences for hacktivists than there are for states, as hacktivists are non-state actors. States
have international laws surrounding war, and are confined to a physical area marked by borders.
Hacktivist groups, on the other hand, do not have state status and are generally physically spread
out. This makes it challenging to hold an entire hacktivist group accountable for harming
civilians. In Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world has seen Russian citizens protesting the
violent actions of their government. States opposed to Russia’s invasion have made their intent
not to harm Russian civilians clear. Errant hacktivists with nothing to lose do not face significant
pressure or consequences to do the same, so attacks they undertake have the potential to harm the
livelihood of not only the Russian state, but also Russian citizens.

Hacktivism is a bold, relatively new form of activism that can be a deeply impactful force of
good. However, impulsive, unplanned hacktivist attacks during times of conflict have the
potential to intensify damage inflicted by the conflict.

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