Depending on who's telling the story, propagators of today's cyber attacks are usually labelled either cybercriminals or hacktivists. It's easy to spot the difference in connotations here; the first is a nefarious, mysterious, generally bad term, while the second lends a more human, heroic, or at the very least admirably rebellious light to the attacks. A lot of hackers out lurking on the web really are black hat criminals and nihilists, looking to steal your credit card data or cause general interweb mayhem, but since its early days hacking has always been a morally ambiguous activity. Most early hackers were playful computer nerds -- interested in how systems worked and stimulated by the challenge of gaining access to places they shouldn't -- and many hackers today still fall into this group. But between the nefarious and the curious lies a growing gray area among the hacking community.
While technically still a form of cybercrime, hacktivism -- the breaching of digital security systems, usually accompanied by the breaking of anti-hacking laws, as a form of political protest -- is largely crime in the way that other forms of civil disobedience is a crime. Proponents of the activity claim that they're following the tradition of thinkers like Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr, only they're playing out their disobedience on today's most relevant political stage (the Internet). Of course, some actual participants in hacktivism shy away from allegations too pure intentions. Sure, they deface corporate websites with manifestos, track down and assail child porn rings, and leak sensitive information in the name of transparency, but hacktivists are also in it for the lulz (laughs, pranks), and sometimes even for free pr0n (porn). When asked why it chose to break into porn site Digital Playground, hacking group @Th3 Consortium (an affiliate of the Anonymous movement) tweeted: "We are pirates, what did you expect?" Still morally ambiguous, but increasingly used as a form of legitimate dissent, hacktivism is a burgeoning online activity.
If you want a quick rundown of the rise of and principles behind hacktivism, check out the infographic below, which comes to you graciously via Frugal Dad.
I enjoyed infographic's mention of the first overtly political attack, the "WANK Worm," by Australian hackers Electron and Phoenix. Launched in 1989 over the DECnet and affecting NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy, the worm was playful in nature, tricking employees into thinking their files were being deleted. The line "You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war," found under the worm's logo, is from the Midnight Oil song Blossom and Blood.
One thing that surprises me is the stats on the top 5 countries hackers reside in. First of all, should I be proud of the rebellious-to-criminal nature and technical prowess of my compatriots, who (according to this infographic) make up two-thirds of all hackers? Second, I'm surprised not to see Russia in the top 5, given the country's reputation as a hacker's haven. Finally, how do you get data like this? Is it based on reported crimes, tracing anonymous attacks back to their source, or the number of arrests? Moreover, does it count major attacks, every instance of computer fraud, or every script kiddie on the Web? Given the secretive nature of cyber attacks, I'd take these figures at best as approximations, and at worst with several grains of salt. And, of course, data about cybercrime is constantly in flux.
All told, this is a well-done infographic that gives you a concise and fairly accurate rundown of the state and nature of hacking -- and especially hacktivism -- today. Frugal Dad suggests that to "avoid getting caught in the crossfire of the virtual wars," you "stay alert online and report phishing scams and sites that compromise personal information." To that I'll add: keep your antivirus software up-to-date, think twice before downloading freeware and attachments, and minimize the amount of personal information you post to the Web.
Of course, if you really want to protect yourself, learn to code, run Linux, and trust no one.