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Hacktivism gets attention, but not much long-term change

Taylor Armerding | Dec. 3, 2012
Latest break-in at International Atomic Energy Agency highlights that the public still doesn't buy criminal acts in support of 'good causes'

This doesn't mean hacktivism never has any impact. As a Business Insider post on the hacktivist collective Anonymous noted, "Following allegations of vote rigging after the results of the June 2009 Iranian presidential election were announced, declaring Iran's incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the winner, thousands of Iranians participated in demonstrations."

"Anonymous, together with The Pirate Bay and various Iranian hackers, launched an Iranian Green Party Support site called Anonymous Iran. The site has drawn over 22,000 supporters worldwide and allows for information exchange between the world and Iran, despite attempts by the Iranian government to censor news about the riots on the Internet," the report said.

Wisniewski said one of the quieter impacts of hacktivism is intimidation that may have the beneficial effect of improving security. He said the Sony hacks woke people up. "I must have talked to 100 companies who were saying, 'What's preventing us from being the next Sony? 'We don't want to be on the front page.' That's the real impact I see -- but it's good that it has them thinking about security."

Murray adds: "Anonymous did a good job of bringing attention to some of the abuses of the Church of Scientology, but this was as much predicated on their real-world efforts as their online ones."

But, Murray and Wisniewski agree that most of the time, the public does not buy the claim that "hacktivists are not criminals."

"In the mind of the general public, hackers are criminals whether they're trying to be activists or not," Murray said. "One can rob banks and give the money to charity, but it doesn't mean that the public and law enforcement won't consider them bank robbers."

Another thing that tends to undermine general public support for hacktivists is that they frequently acknowledge that their exploits are "for the lulz," which generally means for personal enjoyment, but is also seen as craving attention.

Regardless of its long-term impact, or lack of it, nobody sees hacktivism declining. Murray said that major media coverage of hacktivist exploits, including the arrests and trials of those who are caught will make it more valuable to be a hacktivist. "These people are doing this to bring attention, and the media gives more attention to it as it becomes more prevalent," he said.

Jeremiah Grossman, founder and CTO of WhiteHat Security, said it is important to keep hacktivism in perspective. "Remember, while hacktivists are a concern, they are in no way the most pressing," he said. "Professional hackers, those who are purely in it for the money, or nation state-sponsored hackers, are far more dangerous to us all."


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