SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 171 September 2013

The politics of hacktivism

‘Hacktivists’ are in the news: Edward Snowden’s dramatic escape from the US to the trial of Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks to Anonymous. GEORGE MARTIN FELL BROWN reviews two recent books which attempt to analyse the rise of this virtual movement.

The world of computer hacking, once the domain of science fiction novels, has become increasingly prominent throughout society. WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning have become household names. After being adopted by the online activist group, Anonymous, the Guy Fawkes mask has become a symbol of struggle, seen in protests around the world. The recent scandal surrounding National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance and the attacks on whistleblower Edward Snowden have brought the subject of hacking further into the public eye.

In This Machine Kills Secrets, Andy Greenberg looks at the broad history of political hacking, or hacktivism, from its roots in the cypherpunk movement of the 1980s and 1990s to the current incarnations like WikiLeaks. In We Are Anonymous, Parmy Olson takes a more focused look at the development of Anonymous, and especially the rise and fall of the Anonymous splinter group LulzSec. Both books, written prior to the NSA surveillance scandal, are immensely readable and draw from extensive interviews to create a vivid picture of the hacktivist movement.

Olson and Greenberg are both writers for the business magazine Forbes. Neither could be considered left-wing, let alone socialist. Nonetheless, both authors provide valuable journalistic accounts. As such, both books are useful in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the hacktivist scene as well as the place of hacking in broader social struggles.

Greenberg presents his book as a history of the "ideal of the anonymous leaker". He portrays cryptography and anonymising software as a great equaliser, giving anyone the ability to challenge power. He documents the cypherpunk movement, inspired by the libertarian activist Tim May and his 1988 Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto. Greenberg credits the cypherpunks with developing the cryptography which led to WikiLeaks and, in particular, Bradley Manning’s Cablegate leaks, the biggest leaks in world history. He argues: "Cutting the data trail to a leak’s source was the crucial trick that emboldened ever-greater disclosures from whistle-blowers leading up to the Cablegate blowout".

The early cypherpunks were not populists however. May is revealed to be a right-wing, racist, Silicon Valley billionaire. Although his manifesto was written in the literary style of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, his political views came from the ultra-free-market novelist-philosopher, Ayn Rand.

Julian Assange came out of the cypherpunk movement but took it in a more genuinely populist direction. Through WikiLeaks, he has made common cause with many left-wing activists in the anti-war movement. Nonetheless, Assange identifies as a "free-market libertarian", and his ideology is centred on vague challenges to "secretive, unjust systems" in favour of "open, just systems".

In the time since the days of the early cypherpunks, working people have gained greater access to the internet, influencing the character of hacktivism. Most of the Anonymous hackers Olson interviews come from working-class backgrounds, and Anonymous and WikiLeaks have targeted big corporations like Amazon, PayPal, and Bank of America, alongside government institutions. At the same time, there has been a rise in cybercriminals, professional hackers who work for governments and corporations, and independent right-wing hacktivists.

While most of the contemporary hacktivists are vast improvements on the likes of May, the hacker milieu remains a bastion of political confusion, reflecting broader conditions. The rise of neoliberalism, the move to the right of the trade union leadership and other working-class organisations, and the collapse of Stalinism, have all fed into a driving back of socialist ideas and class consciousness. The reawakening resistance has taken many confused forms, of which the hacktivist movement is an example.

Anonymous made its first appearance in 2008 with the launch of a campaign against the Church of Scientology, a religious sect notorious for using intellectual property laws to crack down on its critics. What began as a prank soon developed into a political movement. They did not just launch hacker attacks on the church, they also held coordinated international protests against it. Similar tactics of hacking mixed with public demonstrations were employed on a larger scale in 2010 once the US and British governments started cracking down on WikiLeaks. This was key to establishing Anonymous as a broad political movement.

The year 2011 was one of global revolt, and Anonymous activists aligned themselves with the mass movements that were spreading across the globe. During the Arab spring, Anonymous launched digital attacks against the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. During the mass trade union-led movement in Wisconsin, USA, they launched an attack on Koch Industries, the multi-national corporation whose owners became notorious for funding the Republicans’ anti-union campaign. When the Occupy movement started, Anonymous did IT work for the various encampments and helped publicise instances of police brutality against the movement. While the cypherpunks and even WikiLeaks relied on lone individuals leaking data, Anonymous based itself on mass hacking.

A leaderless movement?

The biggest strength in Olson’s book is in revealing the reality behind the self-proclaimed leaderless movement. Organisation and leadership became increasingly necessary as protest campaigns developed but, due to Anonymous’ anti-leader, anti-structure ideology, this was often carried out behind closed doors by unelected and unaccountable leaders.

The differences between Anonymous’ ideology and reality are made clear in the ‘marblecake’ controversy. During the 2008 anti-Scientology protests, decisions were nominally made on public internet relay chat (IRC) channels. However, the main channel became too full of messages to effectively coordinate anything and the real organising was done by a small clique operating in another channel, called marblecake. This was specifically developed as a secret channel.

As the movement developed, scouts were sent out to look at for local organisers, as Olson explains: "The scout spent the next three days dropping in on an array of city-based chat rooms and looking for the organisational minds, anyone who seemed especially keen on the cause. He then started a private chat with each, asking if they had seen the first Message to Scientology video. ‘One of the guys who made that wants to talk to you’, he would tell them. Intrigued, and probably a little nervous, they would then be led into marblecake and told not to tell anyone about the channel".

The marblecake channel was completely secret and unaccountable to the rest of the movement. However, it also did crucial work in keeping the movement alive. Those on it helped coordinate the local protests, made press releases, and helped organise online. Eventually, other Anonymous activists discovered the marblecake channel and denounced them. After that, Anonymous dissolved into infighting for two years, before the arrests of Julian Assange and Bradley Manning revived the movement.

The marblecake incident highlights the limits of Anonymous’ claims to be a leaderless movement. Leadership is an organic part of any movement and cannot be willed out of existence – to try and do so merely results in the leadership taking informal, undemocratic and unaccountable forms. The marblecake channel was only one example of this dynamic. The claims of ‘mass hacking’ are also much exaggerated. Many people did participate in Anonymous hacking campaigns, but Olson reveals that a large number of the computers involved were infected by viruses and controlled remotely by a few tech-savvy activists.

Some of Anonymous’ most high-profile attacks were carried out by a small group of hackers, who later formed the spin-off group LulzSec. LulzSec went after many of the same targets as Anonymous, but operated as a tightly knit group closed to the public. While they asked the public for suggestions on whom to hack, all decisions were made by the seven hackers who made up the group, with no accountability. One of the hackers in LulzSec, Hector ‘Sabu’ Monsegur, was arrested and agreed to be an FBI informant. This eventually led to the arrest of all of the remaining members of LulzSec.

A series of internal disputes within WikiLeaks led to the formation of the splinter group OpenLeaks. In the process of this dispute, WikiLeaks itself became the victim of an anonymous leak revealing that Assange forced his fellow leakers to sign a non-disclosure agreement preventing them from publicly discussing WikiLeaks’ internal activities.

Despite the desires of many hacktivists, absence of structures does not prevent the formation of leadership. It does, however, prevent the democratic accountability necessary for a healthy social movement. Many activists have concerns about some of Anonymous’ operations, from the security of its free hacking software to the homophobic and racist comments that have appeared in its public statements, to the question of how to respond to the sexual assault charges against Assange.

These are all serious concerns that require genuine democratic discussion, but under Anonymous’ ‘leaderless’ structure, anyone who attempts to raise these concerns is instantly bombarded with abuse. Socialists recognise that leadership and structures are necessary and argue these should be democratically accountable, and organised to suit the goals and interests of the movement.

Challenging capitalism

While Olson points out many legitimate problems with Anonymous, some of her more moralistic criticisms betray the big-business milieu in which she operates at Forbes. When discussing a LulzSec attack on Rupert Murdoch’s News International in retaliation for the News of the World phone hacking scandal, she questions LulzSec’s outrage, pointing out that "the way to listen to someone else’s voice mail was well known".

The Murdoch press is one of the most reactionary and anti-democratic corporate media outlets in the world and, politically, no comparison can be made between them and a genuine activist group. However, on a purely technical level, Olson does have a point. While this does not justify Olson’s moralism, it does call into question the abstractions about ‘secretive, unjust systems’ and ‘open, just systems’ that guide Assange and other hacktivists. Greenberg acknowledges this when he writes: "The craft of cryptographic leaking that WikiLeaks brought to light seems like a paradox: a movement focused on divulging secrets depends on a technology invented to keep them".

Anonymising software like Tor is used by undercover police as well as whistle-blowers. Code breaking software can reveal corporate crimes to the public or it can reveal organisers of union drives to their bosses. Distributed denial of service (DDoS) campaigns to disrupt online services, such as websites, can be launched against businesses or governments, or they can be launched against left-wing activist groups. Digital technology can offer valuable tools for activists but, on the basis of capitalism, the digital playing field will remain structurally tilted in favour of the capitalists. Many hacktivists are from working-class backgrounds and support workers’ struggles. But there is a difference between supporting workers’ struggles and participating in them.

Hacking can be disruptive, but it does not have the same impact as strikes, sit-downs, and occupations. The state and the capitalist ruling class have enormous powers at their disposal to disrupt, persecute and defeat hacking efforts. Reliance on hacking is not a viable strategy for decisively defeating these powers. This is clearly illustrated by the financial problems currently plaguing WikiLeaks, detailed by Greenberg. In the wake of the 2010 mega-leaks and the ensuing government crackdown, financial institutions like PayPal and MasterCard blocked donations to the site, and Amazon stopped hosting the leaks.

When Anonymous launched its DDoS attacks against these institutions, it was supposed to bring them to their knees. But the scale of the attacks was trifling in comparison to the corporations’ vast wealth. The corporations were only mildly inconvenienced. WikiLeaks, however, is being starved of funding and is struggling to survive.

Hacktivism and mass action

In arguing for the democratising power of encryption technology, Greenberg contrasts Bradley Manning with the famous pre-internet whistle-blower, Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon papers in 1971. While Ellsberg put himself at great risk photocopying the papers by hand in public, Manning was able to discreetly download his files onto a fake Lady Gaga CD and send them to WikiLeaks safely, with mathematically secure encryption software.

This begs the question: why is Manning, with modern encryption software and ‘mathematically perfect anonymity’ at his disposal, in prison, while Ellsberg is a free man? Ultimately, Manning was not done in by faulty encryption, but by fellow hacker Adrian Lamo, to whom Manning confessed his secrets. Greenberg points out: "If not for his ill-fated conversation with Adrian Lamo, Manning’s high-tech leak would likely have gone unpunished. And if not for Nixon’s flubbed attacks on Ellsberg, the older man might still be in prison even four decades later".

Both books are littered with similar cases to Manning’s. Olson and Greenberg describe the lengths to which hackers go to avoid being caught. But personal slip-ups inevitably render all that work obsolete.

More significantly, however, unlike Manning, Ellsberg operated at a time of intense radicalisation in American politics. The Pentagon papers were leaked against the backdrop of mass movements of labour, the civil rights and women's liberation movements, and especially the movement against the Vietnam war. Socialist and revolutionary ideas were a powerful force among huge sections of working people around the world, including the US. These radicalising mass movements made the prosecution of Ellsberg politically impossible. In contrast, Manning’s mega-leaks appeared as the Iraq and Afghanistan anti-war movements were in decline.

Many hacktivists, such as Manning and Snowden, have been quite heroic in fighting the state and the ruling establishment. But a hacker working on behalf of the oppressed, even with the best of intentions, cannot alone overthrow society.

The basis of a new, socialist world must arise from the self-emancipation of the working class and the oppressed, through mass collective action. There is nothing wrong per se with the actions of Manning, Anonymous and others, and they can be useful auxiliary tactics within the framework of a strategy of building mass movements. But it is a fundamental mistake to see them as a substitute for the oppressed organising themselves, engaging in collective struggle, and consciously breaking their chains.

Anonymity, online and offline, can be very important under certain circumstances. In addition to whistle-blowers, activists operating under repressive regimes may need to hide their identities to carry out political work. Anonymity can also be necessary, for example, to avoid being fired while initiating a union drive.

Digital activism, anonymous whistleblowing, and encryption software can serve a purpose for activists and socialists. Ultimately, however, the anti-establishment and rebellious spirit of genuine hacktivists can only be effectively harnessed if they are part of a struggle to build mass movements of collective action by the working class that begin to embrace a socialist outlook.

We Are Anonymous: Inside the hacker world of LulzSec, Anonymous and the global cyber insurgency

By Parmy Olson

Published by William Heineman, 2013, £12.99

This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, cypherpunks, and hacktivists aim to free the world’s information

By Andy Greenberg

Published by Dutton Adult (USA), 2012

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