In the digital age the most concerning thing is how easily accessible information is. At any given moment everything about our private life can be manipulated and used against us if perceived as some kind of threat. We claim the right to knowledge, freedom of speech, self expression, and justice and yet it seems that these common rights can be twisted and even blatantly taken away when it comes to the internet.
Even in North America where we get to choose our leaders and our lifestyles, the government still has access to all of our information and the ‘land of the free’ seems to be not so free after all.
In fact we are more shackled than ever. You can’t post a video on a website without being blocked for copyright infringement, you can’t have a conversation over the phone without it being potentially recorded by your own mobile device, and you can’t share something on social media that isn’t documented and subsequently becomes property of the social media site. So who do we turn to in this day and age? This is where the digital vigilantes come in, or better yet “hacktivists”.
The Origins of Hacktivism
Hacktivism is a term that dates back to 1996 and was first used by the hacker group The Cult of the Dead Cow. The merging of the words activism and hacker became a natural reference to those who performed computer hacking but with a political agenda for institutions such as governments, copyright protection agencies, and large corporations. Typical Hacktivist attacks include:
- DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service): where large government or corporate websites are littered with page requests until the site crashes
- Exposing highly classified information for the betterment of society
- Using the internet as a means to form protests or rallies
Perhaps the most well known Hacktivist group that has made a name for themselves over the past few years is Anonymous. Anonymous began on the message boards of the interactive website 4chan around 2003. Unofficially they were an online collective with no leader, membership or initiation. What started off being a series of highly organized pranks against extremist organizations like The Church of Scientology or The Westboro Baptist Church, eventually became public support towards social movements like WikiLeaks, Occupy Wall Street, whistleblowing cases like that of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning as well as local cases that were believed to be unjust.
Snowden and Secrecy
One of the most controversial whistleblowing cases is that of Edward Snowden. While employed at the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), Snowden leaked several classified documents to news outlets like The Guardian and The Washington Post detailing surveillance programs by the NSA (National Security Agency) on the general public as well as the collection of U.S and European telephone data.
A hero and whistleblower to many, Snowden was also labeled a traitor and was subsequently charged with theft of government property and espionage. After flying to Hong Kong to give a final interview and release the NSA documents, Snowden claimed “I don’t want to live in a world that does these sorts of things”. Following the controversy and after fleeing to Moscow, Snowden continued to receive anonymous death threats from the Pentagon and NSA.
Manning Comes Clean
A fellow whistleblower who also made headlines is Bradley Manning- an ex U.S Military soldier and intelligence analyst who released over 700,000 military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. Manning stated that he revealed the documents out of “love for his country and concern for the world”. He also stated that the U.S military needed to accept responsibility for the damage they caused to innocent civilians and that he would “gladly pay the price” in order for society to be free.
Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison with the eligibility of parole in less than 9 years. Many believe that he should be celebrated and rewarded and yet he has been imprisoned. According to Nathan Fuller a member of Bradley Manning’s support network, the sentence sends a message to future whistleblowers that if they disclose government secrets, they will also face the wrath of the U.S government.
Anonymous shows their support…and is targeted for it?
Following the coverage of Snowden and Manning, Anonymous released videos showing their support. In a video called “Operation Support Edward Snowden”, Anonymous makes several valid points regarding privacy and the violation of citizens by the NSA. How would we feel if someone broke into our house at night and stole personal information? It is the same offence in a digital sense, the only difference is that we were unaware of it until people like Snowden and Manning brought these issues to light.
Due to the threats against the U.S government, PayPal, Visa and MasterCard cut off donations to WikiLeaks which led to Anonymous’ “Operation Payback” where they launched cyber attacks against the websites for the persecution of Bradley Manning leading to temporary shutdowns. Incidentally, the documents leaked by Snowden revealed that Anonymous was the target of a cyber attack by British spies as retaliation for the attacks on PayPal, Visa and MasterCard.
Source: Anonymous Facebook page
Fighting Rape Culture
Anonymous continued to make headlines with their involvement in the Steubenville and Maryville rape cases. In Steubenville, Ohio, a high school girl was allegedly raped by 3 or 4 athletes from a high school football team. Two of the boys were arrested but several others were involved in the crime. These members were formerly unknown until a hacker from Anonymous was able to uncover and leak a video that was taken on the night of the crime which features several boys discussing the act callously and even joking about it. The most disheartening aspect of the case however was the level of sympathy garnered by the criminals as opposed to the victim where the football coach refused to bench the athletes. Anonymous continued to leak information on a potential cover-up where judges and prosecutors are closely tied to the town’s football culture. The town itself was quite divided over the case with several even blaming the victims.
A similar case happened to Daisy Coleman from Maryville, Missouri who was raped by a high school football player at a party. In the town square, hundreds gathered in a rally launched by Anonymous as well as a Facebook support group to call for justice. Most of the work that has been done regarding these cases has been to fighting rape culture– a culture where violence is so common that “people aren’t taught not to rape, they are taught not be raped”. The cultural phenomenon has garnered so much attention particularly because of the viral component in most of these cases.
We are Legion
As far as the potential of Anonymous, it is limitless. They have indeed proven that they are powerful and have a cause, and they can be anyone at anytime. They fight for free speech; they right to share knowledge and the blatant injustice that occurs in everyday society. Many people see them as disruptive and undermining the law. But in this day and age, maybe we need people who are willing to take the hit for the people who are unable to make their voices heard. Maybe it’s time we take the right to privacy and fair treatment into our own hands.
Perhaps the digital robin hoods are on the verge of true freedom after all.