Though the phrase “hacker” has been popularized over the last twenty years largely due to corporate data breaches and pop-culture references, most people outside the security community are unaware that the term does not accurately describe all types of cyber adversaries. There are different classes of hackers, most often differentiated by skill level and motivations for placing attacks. A more correct label for identifying Internet activists performing malicious actions such as those associated with the WikiLeaks movement is “hacktivists”.
Hacktivists are hackers specifically motivated to attack technological systems or organizations as a result of differing viewpoints on social or political issues (US Army, 2005, p. 37). Though most hacktivist driven cyber-attacks take form through digital vandalism or simple webpage defacement, more extreme incidents have involved large-scale distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks knocking target organizations offline for extended periods of time. One of the most popular and well-developed hacktivist organizations is called “Anonymous”.
Anonymous was recently popularized in the mainstream media after it placed several DDoS attacks on Egyptian government resources after the nation’s leaders blocked Twitter access to pro-democracy protestors back in January (Wagenseil, 2011). The hacktivists of Anonymous also defended Wikileaks by attacking organizations such as MasterCard and PayPal after the financial institutions prohibited monetary contributions from the public to the revolutionary wiki site. (Mills, 2011). More recently, Anonymous has set its sights on the Iranian government through “Operation Iran”. The effort is currently targeting critical Iranian resources with DDoS attacks as a result of the social injustices the Iranian citizens have endured over the last several years at the hands of their anti-democratic government (Mills, 2011).
When compared to the traditional hacker, hacktivists are extremely similar. Both types of adversary use similar toolkits and attack mechanisms in order to subvert their opponent’s technological systems. Additionally, both hackers and hacktivists prefer to keep their true identities hidden from the public, doing most of their work under aliases or monikers. The primary difference between hackers and hacktivists is the motivation for targeting opponents and placing attacks. Traditional hackers are often motivated by earning fame or money for placing successful attacks on highly visible organizations or systems. Hacktivists are not fueled by money or fame, but rather aim to conquer parties responsible for inflicting social injustices upon a given community, or at revealing hidden “truths” to the global community.
As previously mentioned, MasterCard and PayPal were both targeted by the hacktivist organization Anonymous during “Operation Payback”. Both organization’s websites were targeted with DDoS attacks as a result of preventing WikiLeaks...