Marketing and Analytics Editor Shuprima Guha on the documents recently brought to light by hacker group Anonymous and whether its members should be considered criminals or activists.
Something we can all agree on is that the last few days have been a train wreck. With a rapidly escalating, racially motivated conflict looming over America, many online protestors have popped up to show their support. Most notably, the Hacktivist group “Anonymous” showed their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement by hacking police radios, taking down the Minneapolis police website, and bringing attention to documents exposing Donald Trump for his potential involvement with Jeffery Epstein’s death; all in the span of 24 hours.
Can't call the national guard in cyberspace. City of Minneapolis systems brought down in solidarity with the American spring.
— Anonymous (@YourAnonCentral) May 31, 2020
While the hacker groups continuing to work around the world have varying ideologies — from attacking servers containing private information to hacking and releasing government secrets to the public — there’s no doubt about the fact that their power remains unmatched. In fact, in light of the ongoing pandemic, it is the safest way to create change; You can do it from the safety of your own home whilst maintaining anonymity. Recently, Anonymous returned with a message for the Minneapolis Police Department. Every time they sent a message to a government, secrets stored so securely on the Internet that the average person cannot access them have been revealed. There is a thin line between Cybercrime and Hacktivism, and Anonymous is on the fence.
According to the document “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, extolled by hackers around the globe, Cyberspace and governments were never meant to interact. Anonymous is an ardent believer of this, which makes it rather difficult to establish whether they release sensitive documents for public benefit and to hold people accountable, or simply to further their main goal of making sure all information is open source. There’s no way to tell with certainty if Anonymous specifically brought notice to the Epstein document at a time when the people in America are beginning to hold Donald Trump accountable for George Floyd’s death. If it weren’t for the riots, would Anonymous have brought attention to the documents now — or would they have waited?
However one chooses to interpret this action, these documents re-emerged at an excellent time and will undoubtedly put more pressure on the US government as the threat to their cybersecurity increases. Anonymous is not a single person, it’s people from around the world — the government cannot know how many people they are up against.
Governments are more likely to take action quickly if there’s an imminent risk to their security. For people who look at more traditional models to try to measure activism, hacktivism can be considered a legitimate technique for several reasons. By exposing state secrets, it catalyses social change. It holds governments accountable, even if as a by-product of a broader goal to make everything open source. Not only that, members of Anonymous have taken to the streets from time to time, their actions in cyberspace spilling over into the real world.
This leads to a Robin Hood-like situation. Of course, Anonymous is breaking the law by hacking into Internet databases, but at the same time, they do it for the benefit of the people. Who should one side with in such a situation? We should keep in mind that hackers don’t believe in the same laws as governments. They fight against the so-called “Vector Class”, referring to people who consider themselves authorities of the Internet. The goal of hacktivist groups is to reveal as much information as they can to the public eye, with social justice just a happy coincidence that happens along the way. Therefore, we may be wrong in saying that Anonymous engages in cybercrime, as they follow a different set of beliefs than those of government authorities. It is also important to understand that several laws relating to cybercrime were created in a time when the Internet wasn’t prevalent, and are rather outdated now.
By improving accessibility to documents, hackers keep those involved in politics on their toes, which is essential in any activist movement. They make the so-called “backstage” of politics accessible to outsiders. This spillover from cyberspace can be seen in their historic support of major social movements. During the Arab Springs movements in Tunisia, hacktivist groups used their powers to ensure people in Tunisia had Internet access at a time when it was being cut off by the government. In bridging the information divide between people and governments, hacker groups assume activist roles — whether they claim to or not.