Hacktivism From A Criminal Justice Perspective

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From trolling to activismIn 2008, the first signs of so-called ‘hacktivism’ started showing following ‘Project Chanology’, which included actions against the Scientology Church. In retaliation of the Church blocking propaganda videos Anonymous members tried to spread, Anonymous launched DDoS attacks against Scientology websites, prank-called the hot-line and ordered dozens of unpaid pizzas (Coleman, 2013). Aggressive lawsuits were issued by Scientology to members who had participated in the DDoS attacks and the FBI launched a federal investigation, leading to severe convictions.

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After Project Chanology, the movement took a firmer political and moral stance, charging at corporate, governmental and religious interests. But with this more serious ideology, members faced a split in their movement. The so-called ‘Moralfags’ were interested in using Anonymous as a tool to reach their idealistic goals by means of legal methods, whilst others were more interested in the nihilistic features of Anonymous, such as trolling and causing chaos, often by illegal means. This clash of ideology led to the existence of so-called ‘Ops’ (operations), in which momentarily leaders initiate threads in which they try to convince others of the need to take action against certain institutions (Goode, 2015). As such, Anonymous has been described as fluid (Coleman, 2011). Flipping the coin; ideology or nihilism?When things started to get more serious and political, members of Anonymous had to pick a side. Their choices can be explained by unravelling the legal consciousness of the movement. From the start of Project Chanology, the legal consciousness of Anonymous can be defined as ‘Against the Law’. In this category, law is perceived as “unable to effectively resolve disputes, recognize truth or respond to injustice” (Ewick and Silbey, 1998, 196). During Project Chanology, Anonymous took matters in their own hands, trying to unmask the Scientology Church.

Members used far reaching methods such as the DDoS attacks, but maintained a high ‘prank’ level, using humor to achieve their means. Since the ideological rift within Anonymous, the legal consciousness has been divided. Parts of the movement, especially certain splinter groups, clearly maintain other objectives than the ‘Moralfags’. The legal consciousness of the splinter groups can be defined as an ‘Under the Law’ approach. Under the Law activists state that the law is part of an illegitimate and unjust social system, which they challenge by deliberate lawbreaking and initiating symbolic actions against the established order (Fritsvold, 2009). This approach is clear in the hack of hundreds of Sony PlayStation accounts in 2011, which in hindsight can be attributed to the splinter group LulzSec. After the hack, the group purposefully shared personal information of Sony users with the worldwide web which forced Sony to shut down the network, leading to significant financial losses. They could have made their (ideological) point by using less far-reaching techniques but chose to go further, victimizing thousands of people and causing general chaos and havoc. But are they a criminal organization?Several of Anonymous’ members have been convicted of criminal offences, for hacking and DDoS attacks. Furthermore, the group excels in the use of modern technology and targets weak spots in the (cyber)protection of large institutions, which matches the mindset of criminal organizations (Mullins, 2009). Silke (2008) notes that although there is no single ‘profile’ for criminals, young males are often associated with criminal groups. This seems to be in accordance with the demographic background of several of the convicted members of Anonymous.

Nevertheless, the biggest difference between Anonymous and a criminal organization is the presence of idealistic goals and the absence of financial gain (Mullins, 2009). Also, criminal organizations normally want to stay way clear of the public radar, but Anonymous has been able to very successfully receive media attention by seeking publicity before and after successful actions, of which they claim authorship even they weren’t responsible (Dobusch and Schoeneborn, 2015). It’s safe to say that certain members can be labelled as criminals; but bearing in mind the fluid character of the movement, in my opinion it does not seem that Anonymous can be branded as such. Even though Anonymous displays itself as a unanimous group, it’s hard to pinpoint the definite aims and ideology of the movement. Who knows where they will go next? One thing is sure; they don’t forgive, they don’t forget, and we’ll be expecting to hear more from them.

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