The nature of political hacking represents a clear challenge to the legitimate use of political violence. It acts outside the traditional state infrastructures and mechanisms, and often against the state itself, which for many means that regardless of what good it brings it should be ethically discounted as an illegitimate actor threatening the social stability. Concerns over the ability of hackers to cause significant damage or harm to people’s lives and the critical infrastructure of the political community do have some merit. They are a highly closeted, elite and unknown quantity; their branding is menacing and for those on the outside there does not seem to be any means of controlling what they do. Indeed, the state has a long-held dominance as the only legitimate actor to use violence for good reason, including protecting people from harm, arbitrating disagreements and facilitating that the correct quantum of impact is being delivered to the correct people. However, this is becoming increasingly challenged, not least because the state and its representatives have shown themselves to be a direct threat to people’s vital interests. As such there can be an ethical space for political hacking when it acts to protect people from harm. In order to make this determination, however, there is a need for an explicit and systematic ethical framework that can recognize the ethical value of political hacking. One which helps guide the hacker community with clearer fundamental ethical principles, as well as how these principles can then be manifested in various mechanisms for guiding ethical behaviour, highlighting to the rest of the political community when to leave the hackers alone, and how this might work through real-world illustrative examples.
This chapter expands the debate from informational rights to look at non-cyber, non-information related threats, including when the state and its representatives fail to, first, provide and enact good laws equally and fairly, including the failure to apply fair processes, equal treatment, misapplying laws, and lacking the ability and political will to enforce the good laws; or second, when the state develops unjustifiably harmful laws, policies, procedures or institutional cultures. It will argue that in both instances, given the failure of the state and the subsequent threat these failures represent, hackers can use political violence to defend people from harm, though the type of response must be matched to the threat posed. This chapter will look at police brutality; the failure of due and fair process; the development of laws that seek to directly discriminate and foster hatred and violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community; and the locating and unmasking of online paedophiles.
Large, politically orientated hacker collectives such as Anonymous have targeted a range of actors over a diverse set of issues, all without a consistent set of ethical principles to guide or evaluate their activity. The challenge is that these actions by hackers necessarily use harmful or damaging actions on people or systems as a direct means of furthering their political goals, outside official systems sanctioned by the political community. But this does not inherently dismiss their actions as unjustified. Rather, it will be argued here that such actions can be justified when used to protect people from harm as a form of self-defence. To make this argument, this chapter will create an ethical framework based on the argument that people have a core set of vital interests that need to be protected, including maintaining one’s physical and psychological integrity, autonomy, liberty and privacy. This need for protection creates a right to self-defence, including the right to defend others when they are threatened; and when there are no other actors – whether it is due to a lack of ability, political will or because the state is the source of the threat – there to offer that protection then political hackers can fill the void. It will also argue that the right to be defended from harm is more important than waiting for state actors to offer the protection, and so just because hackers are outside the state does not automatically discount them as ethical actors.
Political hackers, like the infamous Anonymous collective, have demonstrated their willingness to use political violence to further their agendas. However, many of their causes – targeting terrorist groups, fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, and protecting people’s freedom of expression, autonomy and privacy – are intuitively good things to fight for.
This book will create a new framework that argues that when the state fails to protect people, hackers can intervene and evaluates the hacking based on the political or social circumstances. It highlights the space for hackers to operate as legitimate actors; guides hacker activity by detailing what actions are justified toward what end; outlines mechanisms to aid hackers in reaching ethically justified decisions; and directs the political community on how to react to these political hackers.
Applying this framework to the most pivotal hacking operations within the last two decades, including the Arab Spring, police brutality in the USA and the Nigerian and Ugandan governments’ announcements of homophobic legislation, it offers a unique contribution to conceptualising hacking as a contemporary political activity
The rise of the political-hacker phenomenon over the last two decades is something distinctive from instances of simple boasting, ransomware hijackers making money, or chaos creating malcontents. Part of this distinctiveness is both the political agenda these hackers have come to possess, as well as the necessary use of violence as part of them furthering their political end. Importantly, however, the form of this violence, level of negative impact inflicted and the type of targets chosen can all vary dramatically across operations, which can shape whether or not the hack can be justified. Therefore, this chapter will outline a spectrum of political violence, arguing that depending on what the target is, and how and to what extent it is negatively impacted, as well as the associated political context, the level of violence can vary. This will allow different hacks to be placed across a spectrum of political violence. This spectrum approach allows for the diverse set of hacking operations to be examined in greater depth, detailing the political objectives the hackers work towards, the methods used, and those who are impacted and in what ways. This will enable a better understanding of what politically motivated hacking looks like and how the highly varied actions used by hackers can compare and receive different justifications or denouncements according to the situation.
Over the last two decades, political hackers, like the infamous Anonymous collective, have demonstrated their digital power and a willingness to use that power for their own political agenda. As communications, data, finances, activities, businesses and personal information become increasingly digitized and realized through the Internet, the birth of the modern information nation means that states and individuals are significantly dependent on cyberspace to survive, something that has not escaped the attention of the hacking community. Indeed, hackers have proven that they can exert significant power over individuals, corporations and even states, illustrating their technical ability and desire to influence the world through cyber-attacks. During this time they have shut down government websites across the globe; hacked Amazon, PayPal and Mastercard, costing $5.5 million in damages; aided in the Arab Spring revolutions by enabling secure communication between revolutionaries; released private corporate information; and attacked media companies over anti-piracy. And most recently, they have declared war on the Russian Federation following the invasion of Ukraine, releasing military information and hijacking state-owned media (; ). However, in a world increasingly obsessed with superheroes and villains, what do hackers represent? On the one hand, political hackers have been criticized and automatically denounced for acting outside the state apparatus, taking the law into their own hands (; ; ; ; ). Their use of violence is seen as a tool to further their political ends, coupled with no direct means for controlling their activity, resulting in concerns that they represent a threat to society’s stability and the state’s monopoly on the use of violence.
This chapter will detail the underlying ethical arguments for leaks most broadly and how these, in turn, shape how both the retaliation hacks as well as penetrative information gathering hacks are to be judged. To help classify the discussion, those information leaks involving insiders using their privileged position to collect and then distribute information will be referred to as whistleblowing. In comparison, those instances where an outsider gains access to internal information and shares it widely, will be referred to as ‘doxxing’ (a neologism originating from a spelling alteration of the abbreviation ‘docs’, a shorter version of ‘documents’). This will include ‘institutional doxxing’ when referring to organizations or corporations having their internal documentation shared, and ‘individual doxxing’ when referring to a person’s personal information being shared. This chapter will set out the relevant ethical issues in order to then evaluate the most prominent case examples. It will argue that when a leak reveals sufficient wrongdoing or pertains to information where there is a right to know, often involving information of a political nature, and that the act of leaking does not cause direct harm to another, there are instances where both whistleblowing and doxxing can be justified.
It is not the aim of the ethical framework to inadvertently open the door to all private forms of political violence, nor is it to justify all hacking; the purpose is to highlight the space for hackers to operate as legitimate actors and to guide hacker activity by detailing what actions are justified toward what end. Following the detailing of the ethical framework in Chapters 1 and 2 and the application in Chapters 3, 4 and 5, there are two further tasks. One is to establish some critical mechanisms – both theoretical and practical – to stop abuse and to aid hackers in reaching ethically justified decisions. The second is to widen the perspective to examine what implications this work has on how society should respond and reconceptualize political hacking. This includes a reflection on how existing legal and social frameworks are reacting to political hacking most broadly in order to highlight how they can better reflect the central argument for an (un)ethical hacker, a reconceptualization of ‘security’, and the argument for a more open and engaged set of state actors.
This chapter will focus on operations whose purpose is concerned with political autonomy: that is, restoring, protecting or enabling the individual’s and social group’s ability to act with their autonomy intact and to use that autonomy to act as political beings. This includes operations whose objective is providing for people’s rights in expression, association, access to information and political engagement, and, importantly, how cyberspace has come to play a fundamental role in each of their realizations. Some of the most infamous examples of hacking operations in this area involve those carried out as part of the Arab Spring revolutions between 2010 and 2012, where Anonymous aided the emerging protest movements throughout the region by shutting down government websites through distributed-denial of services (DDoS) attacks, and helping dissidents circumvent online censorship by providing ‘online care packages’ that allowed anonymous online communication and access to information. This chapter argues for the pivotal role cyberspace has come to play in the realization of people’s vital interests in autonomy, privacy and liberty, and their ability to engage as political entities. It then details the role of hacker collectives such as Anonymous in the Arab Spring revolutions by facilitating the resistance movements’ ability to communicate and organize, as well as the hacker’s attacks against state infrastructure. It will argue that even given the damage and harm the hacker’s operations caused, restoring the widespread and significant loss of online rights can justify their intervention.