What is a Hacktivist?

Patrick Putman

Hacking is no longer just about breaking into a computer to steal money or data. Hackers have developed new methods of influencing policy and bringing about change. Especially with society’s heightened sense of political awareness. Subsequently, they are turning internet activism as a way of spreading their idealism. Simply put, a hacktivist is someone who uses hacking to bring about political and social change. The term “hacktivist” traces back to 1994, originating from the hacker group “Cult of the Dead Cow.”

Hacktivism started as a way for people to protest online to affect change. A hacktivist is motivated by civil disobedience and seeks to spread an ideology. In some cases, this ideology includes total anarchy. Still, hacktivists are typically not motivated by malicious intent. Hacktivists also steal money or data in an effort to spread their agenda. However, their motivation is more like that of Robin Hood. They seek to take from those who have and give freely to those who have not. They typically see themselves as vigilantes who use hacking to enact social justice and policy changes.

Hacktivists employ the same tools and tactics as typical hackers. For example, their tactics can range from spreading a message through simple website defacement or exploitation through the use of Doxing. They may even launch a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack to bring down entire networks. But unlike normal hackers, hacktivists do not always work alone. Hacktivists can also work as part of a coordinated group or organization. These groups can range in size from a few friends in a basement, to an entire decentralized network of hackers around the world.


One of the largest hacktivist groups in the world today, Anonymous is a far reaching organization of hackers around the globe. First appearing in 2008, Anonymous takes their name after the anonymity created by the internet and their desire to remain unknown. As a result, members of the group often do not even know one another outside the internet. Commonly known for launching coordinated attacks. These attacks can be against corporations, individuals and even government institutions and agencies. Their motive is to use hacking to bring about political or social change.

Most members prefer total anonymity. Therefore they do not publicly announce their participation within the group. However, some members can be distinguished by their use of the well known Guy Fawkes mask. This is usually an attempt to hide their identity in public.

There is no formal membership, hierarchy or structure to the group.  Members join Anonymous because the group represents and fights for what the hacktivist believes in. These “hacker ethics” as they are called, include unrestricted access to information and censorship. In addition, Anonymous also fights for human rights and freedom of speech. Many of its’ members are also digital pirates who believe that software and information should be freely distributed.


Developed in 2006 by Julian Assange, Wikileaks is a multi-national media platform. They are a self-described non-profit organization which publishes news leaks, censored and even classified information. This information can be related to corporate corruption and cover-ups. They also publish restricted information related to spying and even war crimes committed by governments agencies around the world.

Built as a whistle-blowing platform, Wikileaks is completely anonymous. Claiming to be an Open Source Intelligence agency, their sole purpose is to expose cover-ups, war crimes and even covert government activity to it’s readers over the internet. Wikileaks is essentially the largest doxing website on the internet today.

Wikileaks became famous in 2010 after publishing a series of leaks from US Army Intelligence Analyst Bradly Manning, who now identifies as Chelsea Manning. These leaks contained information and videos about airstrikes, diplomatic cables and various other classified information. As a result, the US Military claimed the leaks compromised national security and convicted Manning of espionage and fraud.

Hacking for Change – Case Study

Some hacktivists do have malicious intent. And in some cases, they are looking to change the outcome of an entire election. On March 19th, 2016, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta received an email masked as a Google Alert. Podesta eventually followed the instructions and reset his password using the email alert. However, the email was actually a phishing scam sent by Russian hacktivists. Podesta had unknowingly granting access to the servers when he reset his password. Having gained access, hackers were able to access sensitive information on the DNC servers. Three months later, Wikileaks was set to publish a collection of Clinton emails it had received from an anonymous source.

After releasing the emails, hacktivists then launched an influence campaign of misinformation aimed against the Clinton campaign. Designed to undermine public faith, with the intention of harming Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency. In October of 2016, a hacktivist group known as DCLeaks published another collection of emails from one of Clinton’s allies. It was later revealed that this group is actually a front for the Russian Military. Russian hacktivists had in fact attempted to influence the 2016 election.


Hacktivism is hacking for political and social change. Most hacktivists do so seeking to spread an ideology. Most fight against censorship and in favor of freedom of information. But there are those who do so for personal and or political gain. Some hacktivists spread their own ideology, but others do so collectively within a group such as Anonymous. These groups often employ the use of organizations such as Wikileaks to anonymously post information in favor of their ideas and beliefs.

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