Hacking for the Greater Good

When we consider the term “Hacker” it typically sparks negative connotations surrounding selfish, invasive actions for personal gain. However, there are individuals who hack for global purpose, known as “Hactivists”.  An essay by Joel Nixon defines Hacktivism as the “use of technology to promote political ends, such as freedom of speech and the right to information.”  While they may violate the protection of data, Nixon states that the law should recognise hacktivists are seeking to benefit society, through the distribution of documents acknowledging government corruption. Nevertheless, the law should be stringent on citizens who seek personal gain or profit by attacking global sites and companies.

At present, hacktivists are using their abilities not only to advantage citizens but also to expose corporate nepotism and corruption. One key objective for hacktivists is to generate public availability of academic sources via universities and online libraries.

An example of this would be the case of Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), whose aim was to benefit others and not himself, which Nixon describes as ethical hacking. Swartz downloaded 4 million publicly funded JSTOR articles with the intention of distributing them freely among MIT students, resulting in fraudulent charges.

swartzImage source

One could argue that hacktivists, such as Swartz, who utilise their skills for a constructive purpose should not be convicted. On the other hand, some abuse their skills for unethical purposes. Hacktivist Barrett Brown, labelled spokesperson for hacking group Anonymous, was out to obtain political advantage by distributing credit card information of Stratfor operatives and threatening a federal officer. As a result, Brown was not charged with committing the hack, but for obstructing justice and transmitting stolen credit card information. Evidently, existing laws don’t specifically reprimand the action of hacking, but regulate the ownership and dissemination of illegally obtained contents. Thus it is important to note the disparity between ethical cases of hacktivism and online fraud.

Hacktivism is a significant issue as it is closely associated with two main rights within a democratic country – freedom of speech and right to information. People such as Aaron Swartz, who intended to expose corruption through the dissemination of data, can be considered activists who aim not to benefit themselves but to advantage others. A blog in the Washington Post states that Swartz also aimed to produce an understanding of the powerful influence the Internet can have in shaping popular culture. Swartz stood out from other hacktivists as he was identifiable – he existed inside and outside the system, striving to advance societal change.


2 thoughts on “Hacking for the Greater Good

  1. I really enjoyed how you positioned me as a reader. I found myself questioning the ulterior motives of hackers (Hacktivists esp.) that stray from the negative connotations of the word that the media often feeds us. Aaron Schwartz is a prime example of this phenomenon – Hacktivism is a growing trend that is causing more people to realise that it’s not your credit card details they’re after…they just want to share!

  2. When talking about the case of Barrett Brown and him leaking credit card information, I think the laws surrounding hacktivism are so hard to keep up with, due to the rapidly progressive nature of technology. Therefore finding an appropriate charge for what the government deems ‘hacking’ will be difficult. This can either be looked at as an advantage or disadvantage for hacktivists trying to evade the law.

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