Hacking, Cracking, and Hacktivism: the many dimensions of hacker practice

This week, we bring you a special post from a friend of the SMRT Boler Research team, Yelena Gyulkhandanyan, University of Toronto.

Hacking, Cracking, and Hacktivism: the many dimensions of hacker practice

To refer to someone as a hacker often implies that they engage in illicit acts of tapping into secret databases, stealing information, and threatening network security. Law enforcement and security agencies guard against hacker attacks. To them, hackers stand for disobedience, anarchy, and challenge to the status quo order (Nissenbaum, 2004).

More recently, online hacker groups such as Anonymous have been gaining attention for targeted collective action in support of various social causes. From protesting the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) to investigating the Church of Scientology, hackers are increasingly emerging from the virtual world and making their presence felt. They are all over the world, act individually, but are connected through webs of social networks and interactions. Academics are struggling to find ways to interpret this emerging phenomenon and understand how it is changing the concept of citizen action and civil disobedience. Perhaps the answers to these inquiries are just as complex and ever-changing as its subjects and this post will not tackle this challenge. Nonetheless, to better position our understanding of what hacking has come to represent, we must look at where it came from and the environment and forces that helped shape its meaning. This analysis takes us to the early days of hacking in the technology labs of MIT and the subsequent Open Source Movement.

The Genesis 

The roots of the hacker identity can be traced back to the Tech Model Railroad Club in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the late 1950s. The club members initially began using computers to improve the design of their model railroads. The computers soon turned into a separate obsession for the students, who shifted much of their focus to constructing and programming MIT’s early mainframes. These efforts were in complete agreement with the university authorities. Simultaneously, other hubs of hacker activity spread in other academic institutions and circles, such as Carnegie-Mellon and Stanford, expanding into nearby locales of Cambridge, Palo Alto, and Berkeley (Levy, 1984).

These hackers had the ability to create and debug code with incredible speed. They aided in the development of hardware and software for various functionalities as well as invented many original algorithms and applications. A lot of these were included in new generations of computers. The new developments served to enhance the recreational potential of computing and IT, such as digitized music, gaming, and virtual reality. They also upgraded practical capabilities—for instance, the control of robots. “Hacking” acquired the meaning of finding creative solutions to problems. These solutions often drew outside the realm of conventional theory-driven approaches to programming and involved a mentality of looking outside the box. There was a certain honour tied to being a hacker that came with respect from one’s peers (Nissenbaum, 2004).

The ideology associated with the hacker identity came to be informally known as the “hacker ethic”. In Hackers and the Contested Ontology of Cyberspace, Helen Nissenbaum provides an articulate description of the principles embedded in the hacker ethic:

“Commitment to total and free access to computers and information, belief in the immense powers of computers to improve people’s lives and create art and beauty, mistrust of centralized authority, a disdain for obstacles erected against free access to computing, and an insistence that hackers be evaluated by no other criteria than technical virtuosity and accomplishment (by hacking alone and not ‘bogus’ criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position). In other words, the culture of hacking incorporated political and moral values as well as technical ends.” (Nissenbaum, 2004: 3)

Up until the mid-1980s there was never a single organization or agency that could be attributed to hackers as a group nor was there any formal entry or initiation to being a hacker. Hackers were scattered across the digital terrain connected by loose networks of peer association (Nissenbaum, 2004). However the significance of free access to information embedded in the hacker ethic led to many hackers becoming involved in the open source movement (Taylor, 2005).

The Free and Open Source Software Movement

Between the 1960s and 1970s, software programming was primarily done by scientists and engineers in both academic and corporate environments. These early programmers openly exchanged and modified software. However by the 80s, software programming became increasingly appropriated by the private sector. The open source movement was a reaction to the commodification of information technology (Carillo, Okoli, 2009).

In 1984, Richard Stallman established the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to challenge the encroachment of copyrights and patents in the software industry. The foundation was based on the principles Stallman, himself a hacker, had acquired among the MIT hackers, in particular: the sharing of scientific knowledge; cooperation; and pedagogy (Coleman, Golub, 2008). He set out to create a free alternative to UNIX, a popular operating system that was becoming inaccessible to many due to the high licensing fees. Stallman created a free version of UNIX that he called GNU (which stands for Gnu’s not Unix). The GNU operates under the GNU General Public License (GPL) which introduced the concept of the “copyleft”. The license guarantees:

  1. The right to access the source code which enables the computer programmer to understand the way the software functions and be able to modify it.
  2. The right to alter the source code
  3.  The right to use the program for any purpose
  4. The right to the distribution of the software both in its original and modified form
  5. The right of all users to be aware of their open source rights (Carillo, Okoli, 2009)

Furthermore, while everyone is entitled to the outlined rights, no one is permitted to disallow the ongoing distribution of the software. In particular, no one is allowed to use the modified software for proprietary means (Stallman, 1985). This ensured that the software remained in the public domain and was safeguarded against exploitation for corporate profit even while the sale of copies of the program was permitted (Benkler, 2011). Stallman made the comparison of free software to free speech, not free beer, which implies that it can be written, rewritten, used, and reused by anyone as many times as they like (Benkler, 2011). The principles vested in the FSF were elaborated by Stallman in the GNU Manifesto. The manifesto also became a call to other software programmers to join the FSF efforts. In it Stallman states:

“I consider that the Golden Rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement.”

In 1991 Linux Torvalds initiated the Linux Project. Torvalds distributed a source code he was working on as a hobby over a mailing list. The action sparked the first mass-scale, long-distance collaborative software platform. The project combined a free UNIX kernel with the GNU software to create the GNU/Linux operating system (Coleman, Golub, 2008). The software was released under the GPL (Carillo, Okoli, 2009). By the end of the 1990s, the free software movement spread to become a cross-continental network of collaborators working together on thousands of projects (Coleman, 2008).

In 1998 many software developers within the free software movement became keen on mainstreaming their software and making it more attractive for investors (Coleman 2008). They conceived the concept of open source software (OSS), which included all of the previous licensing criteria and the aim of making information accessible, but differed from free software by being less ideological. Bruce Perens and Eric Raymond advocated for this change, stating that the movement required a more business-oriented approach. According to proponents of OSS, the concept of free software came across as too radical and anti-corporate which could detract investment (Carillo, Okoli, 2009).

As it was intended, OSS experienced a mass adoption by corporations that spend millions of dollars on the development and promotion of OSS (Coleman, 2008). These corporations include Netscape that created Mozilla and made the Mozilla Firefox 1.0 web browser available to the world, and IBM which announced in 2000 that it was going to invest a billion dollars into free software (Benkler, 2011). The Apache, another OSS project that began in 1995, became the most used web server in the world (Carillo, Okoli, 2009).

In 2002 the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) conducted a survey of OSS community members that use SourceForge.net, the biggest Open Source development website in the world. The study that included 526 users was presented at the Linux World meeting that took place in New York City. All study participants identified themselves as hackers. The study had the following key findings: participants specified that they were highly creative with their current OSS projects; having fun (43%), enhancing skills (43%); support for the OSS community (34%); and user needs (30%) were listed as top motivators for participation—desire to challenge corporate software companies was not mentioned as a chief influence; the survey participants came from 35 different countries; on average, participants spent at least 10 hours a week on OSS programming; 56% of the participants were IT professionals, others being students and academics (PR Newswire, 2002).

Hackers and Crackers

According to Eric Raymond a self-identified hacker and a prominent spokesperson for the open source movement, a hacker is an individual that is interested in discovering the functions of programmable systems and who programs well at a fast pace. The term “cracker” is reserved for the malevolent individual that threatens online security (Raymond, 1997). Nonetheless, this distinction does not seem to exist outside hacker circles and those that are aware of their culture.

Select hackers that committed criminal acts by penetrating into sources of sensitive information caused the increasing defacement of what it means to be a hacker (Papadimitriou, 2006). Hackers acquired a bad reputation. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 and the subsequent Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 enforced stringent measures and punishments to deal with such actions. The 1980s involved a series of sting operations which resulted in the arrest of notorious hackers and Phreaks (hackers that infiltrate  telecommunication systems). Some of these individuals include Kevin Mitnick, Robert Morris, and Craig Neidorf (Nissenbaum, 2004).


The 1990s saw the beginning of hacktivism, which incorporates acts of hacking with a political position or social stance (Taylor, 2005). “Hacktivism” comes from combining “hacking” with “activism” (Papadimitriou, 2006). Just as other activists, hacktivists aim to spread their message within society. Their tactics include virtual sit-ins, protest websites, mail bombings, and the virtual vandalism of websites (e-graffiti) (Auty, 2004).

The Hacktivismo group that formed out the Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) hacker group in 1999 is one of the earliest instances of hacktivism (Papadimitriou, 2006). The group was organized by Oxblood Ruffin, a member of the cDc, to advocate for information rights (Ruffin, 2013). The Hacktivismo Declaration states, “People have a right to reasonable access of otherwise lawfully published information. If our leaders aren’t prepared to defend the Internet, we are” (Hacktivismo, 2001). The declaration relies on Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which states that: “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The declaration maintains that, “denying access to information could lead to spiritual, intellectual, and economic decline, the promotion of xenophobia and destabilization of international order” (Hacktivismo, 2001).

While Hacktivismo concerns with issues of internet censorship and access to information, hacktivists do not solely deal with ICT related issues. The online support garnered by the Zapatista movement in Mexico is a striking example of deliberate and coordinated political action by hackers. The movement began on a grassroots level when the Chiapas peasants and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) engaged in a protest against the increasing marginalization of the Chiapas indigenous community and the exploitation of their land. The Zapatista campaign used the internet to spread their message through websites, email lists, online petitions, and discussion forums. The online outreach effectively gained the support of international human rights activists and groups (Lunat, 2008). One of these was the Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT), which is a group of cyber activists and artists that engage in the practice of electronic civil disobedience. EDT describes its work as being at “the intersections of radical politics, recombinant and performance art, and computer software design” (Wray, 1998).

In 1998, the EDT organized multiple web sit-ins in support of the Zapatistas using Flood Net, a URL based software created by EDT (Wray, 1998). After being downloaded, Flood Net connects the browser to a predetermined website and automatically activates the browser’s reload button every seven seconds. When thousands of people use Flood Net in the same day targeting the same website, they effectively block it (Taylor, 2005). EDT’s targets were the Mexican President Zedillo’s web site, five web sites belonging to Mexico City’s financial institutions, and the Clinton White House web site (Wray, 1998). Online based tactics and activism on the ground succeeded in challenging state authority by creating international pressure over the Mexican government to democratize and recognize the rights of its indigenous population (Lunat, 2008). What came to be known as the Zapatista effect, demonstrated the potential of virtual public spheres to affect change in the physical public sphere, contributing to the concept of the Global Civil Society (Amoore and Langley 2004; Goodhart 2005).

One of the most recent and talked about examples of hacktivism pertains to Anonymous, an online group that describe itself as, “a decentralized network of individuals focused on promoting access to information, free speech, and transparency.” (Anonymous Analytics). Operating on an international level, Anonymous has no centralized leadership or agency. The group made a shift to political activism in 2008 when it initiated a protest against the Church of Scientology (Sengupta, 2008). The protest was sparked by the Church’s forceful attempts to take down the infamous Tom Cruise Scientology video from the internet. Members of Anonymous went on to conduct an investigation of the Church of Scientology, uncovering allegations of abuse and human rights violations (Anonymous, 2011). Since then Anonymous has engaged in multinational campaigns including taking part in the Occupy movement, Arab Spring, and activism against Internet censorship (Sengupta, 2008).

With the digitization of sensitive government and corporate information, hacktivism is a perceived threat much like hacking (Sengupta, 2012). However, as opposed to being compared to cracking, hacktivism can be viewed as an embracement of the fundamental principles of the hacker ethic, concerned with the reappropriation and reengineering of technology in support of the original message of access to information content and resources (Taylor, 2005).

The Zapatista movement has demonstrated that online activism can facilitate participatory democracy by democratizing channels of communication and political activism (Auty, 2004).  Hacktivism is an effective tool of civil society activism, having the ability to spread awareness and call for mass action against political and social injustice; leading to positive political change and social empowerment.


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