The politics of hacktivism

The world of computer hacking, once the domain of science fiction novels, has become an increasingly prominent force in society. WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning have become household names. Thanks to the hacktivist group Anonymous, the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta has become a symbol of struggle seen in protests around the world. The recent scandal surrounding NSA surveillance and the attacks on whistleblower Edward Snowden have brought the subject of hacking further into the public eye.

This raises many important questions for socialists and other activists. How, exactly, does hacking fit in with the global political struggles taking place? Does the development of hacktivism render previous forms of struggle obsolete? Is it just a passing fad? And how can hacktivism be best incorporated into the struggle for working-class liberation?

Recent developments within WikiLeaks, Anonymous, and the hacker community in general have inspired a string of books dealing with the subject of hacktivism. Among these are We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency by Parmy Olson and This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information by Andy Greenberg.

In This Machine Kills Secrets, Greenberg looks at the broad history of political hacking from its roots in the cypherpunk movement of the 1980s and 1990s to the current movements like WikiLeaks. In We Are Anonymous, 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 with the players involved 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 of their subjects. As such, socialists should find both books useful in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the hacktivist scene as well as the place of hacking in broader social struggles.

From Cypherpunks to WikiLeaks

Greenberg presents his book as a history of the “ideal of the anonymous leaker.” He portrays cryptography and anonymizing software as a great equalizer, giving the common person the ability to challenge power. He documents the cypherpunk movement of the ’80s and ’90s inspired by the libertarian activist Tim May and his 1988 “Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto.”

Meeting on the online Cypherpunk Mailing List, these early hacktivists wrote, exchanged, and perfected cryptography techniques – and often came into conflict with various governments as a result. Greenberg details different cryptography techniques, from public-key cryptography to PGP, or “Pretty Good Privacy,” to the “onion routing” used on the public anonymity website Tor. These techniques allegedly allow “mathematically perfect anonymity.”

All this culminated in WikiLeaks and, in particular, the Cablegate “mega-leaks.” Greenberg credits the cypherpunks with allowing a low-level grunt like Bradley Manning to release 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 whistleblowers leading up to the Cablegate blowout.”

Greenberg’s own descriptions of the early cypherpunks, however, speak against his populist interpretation of the movement. The godfather of the cypherpunk movement, Tim May, is revealed to be a right-wing, racist, Silicon Valley billionaire who unironically named his pet cat “Nietzsche.” Although his “Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto” was written in the literary style of Marx and Engels, his political views came from the arch-reactionary Ayn Rand, and he places far more faith in “emerging information markets” than the organized working class.

Julian Assange came out of the cypherpunk movement but took it in a more genuinely populist direction. Assange often mocked a leading libertarian activist, Jim Bell, on the Cypherpunk Mailing List and, through WikiLeaks, he has made common cause with many left-wing activists in the antiwar movement. However, Assange nonetheless identifies as a “free market libertarian,” and his ideology is centered around vague challenges to “secretive, unjust systems” in favor of “open, just systems.”

In the time since the days of the early cypherpunks, working people have gained greater access to the Internet, and the character of hacktivism has changed accordingly. 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. At the same time, there has been a rise in “black hat” cybercriminals, professional “white hat” hackers who work for governments and corporations, and independent right-wing counter-hacktivists.

While most of the contemporary hacktivists are vast improvements on the likes of Tim May, the hacker milieu nonetheless remains a bastion of political confusion. This reflects that the Internet developed during a period of historic weakness of the socialist, left, and working-class movements. In the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism, the rise of neoliberalism, and the move to the right of the union leadership and other working-class organizations, there has been an ideological assault on socialist ideas and a falling back of class consciousness. In recent years, there has been a rise in resistance to big business. Given the decline in class consciousness, that resistance has taken many confused forms, of which the hacktivist movement is an example.

Enter Anonymous

If political confusion is what you’re looking for, you need look no further than the early days of Anonymous. Olson chronicles how Anonymous developed, not from the cypherpunk movement, but from the 4chan anime forum. One of the Internet’s most trafficked imageboards, 4chan soon evolved beyond anime into a nihilist free-for-all full of Internet memes, pornography, and “ironic” homophobia. Hackers often used the 4chan board to carry out absurdist pranks. Other times, they engaged in less savory activity like cyberbullying and blackmail. Most of the time, they posted pictures of cats with humorous captions.

Anonymous made its first appearance in 2008 with the launch of the “Project Chanology” on 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 didn’t 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 U.S. and British governments started cracking down on WikiLeaks. This was key in establishing Anonymous as a broad political movement and not just a prank group or single-issue campaign.

The year 2011 was a year 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 Wisconsin uprising, they launched an attack on Koch Industries, the multi-national corporation whose owners, Charles and David Koch, became notorious for funding Scott Walker’s anti-union campaign. When the Occupy movement started, Anonymous did IT work for the various encampments and helped publicize instances of police brutality against the movement.

Politically, Anonymous moved in a much more serious direction while, organizationally, it maintained 4chan’s amorphous character. In addition to 4chan, Anonymous organizes through Internet Relay Chat (IRC) networks. IRC allows users to anonymously engage in real-time discussion. They can also create individual channels around particular topics using hashtags.

Olson explains that, if somebody wanted to organize a campaign, they would create a new IRC channel. They would then go to 4chan, “creating a new thread and spamming it with this message: ‘EVERYONE GET IN HERE.’ They’d also paste a link next to the message that took … users into their new IRC channel. Soon there could be scores, even a few hundred people, joining the chat room and listening to instructions or throwing out ideas.” As such, Anonymous operates as a hive without any central leadership.

This leaderlessness was also reflected in the character of the hacking that Anonymous would engage in. While the cypherpunks and even WikiLeaks relied on lone individuals leaking data, Anonymous based itself on mass hacking.

Their chief mode of attack was the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. In a DDoS attack, a mass of people will bombard a website with a barrage of hits, causing the site to shut down. It’s not as serious a form of hacking, but anybody can participate in such an attack simply by downloading the free software and following the instructions. Other, more tech-savvy, hackers could supplement the DDoS attacks with other, more traditional, hacking – bringing the intended target to its knees.

The crowning achievement of Anonymous’ mass hacking came when Aaron Barr, CEO of the “white hat” digital security firm HBGary Federal, announced that he had infiltrated Anonymous as part of an investigation into their activities. In response, Anonymous activists hacked into Barr’s personal computer, took over his Twitter account, and leaked 68,000 company emails.

These emails revealed that HBGary Federal had been working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to spy on and discredit prominent labor unions. All this helped establish Anonymous as a legitimate force of the powerless against the powerful. As their slogan went: “We are Anonymous! We are legion! Expect us!”

A Leaderless Movement?

The biggest strength in Olson’s book, however, is in revealing the reality behind the nominally “leaderless” movement. The leaderless character of the movement was often reflected in some of the more reactionary aspects of 4chan. Although Anonymous supports LGBT rights and many of its members are LGBT, internal debates were usually settled by different activists denouncing each other using variations on the word “fag,” such as “newfag,” “moralfag,” and “leaderfag.” This attitude was also reflected in their public statements, such as when they rewrote Aaron Barr’s homepage to say “CEO HBGary Federal. Cybersecurity and Information Operations specialist and RAGING HOMOGAY” and pasted the n-word on top of his photo.

Meanwhile, organization and leadership were increasingly necessary with the development of protest campaigns, but due to Anonymous’ “leaderless” and “structureless” politics, this often was carried out behind closed doors by unelected and unaccountable leaders.

The differences between expectation and reality are made clear in the “#marblecake” controversy. During the 2008 anti-Scientology protests, decisions were nominally made on the public IRC channel “#xenu.” However, the #xenu channel became too full of messages to effectively coordinate anything and the real organizing was done by a small clique operating in another IRC channel called #marblecake. The name #marblecake was chosen specifically so that it could remain secret. Olson describes how the channel was built by activist Gregg Housh. As the movement developed, Housh built #marblecake by sending scouts to look at the local protests:

“The scout spent the next three days dropping in on an array of city-based chat rooms and looking for the organizational 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. They helped coordinate the local protests, made press releases, and found new chat rooms when the old ones got clogged with too much traffic. Eventually, other Anonymous activists discovered the #marblecake channel and denounced them as “leaderfags.” After that, Anonymous dissolved in infighting for two years before the arrests of Julian Assange and Bradley Manning revived the movement.

The #marblecake incident highlights the limits to Anonymous’ status as a “leaderless” movement. Leadership is an organic part of any organization and can’t be willed out of existence. Denying leadership, as Anonymous does, doesn’t make leadership go away. It 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 revealed to be much exaggerated. Many people did download the free DDoS software and participated in Anonymous’ campaigns, but Olson reveals that a large number of the computers participating in the campaigns were “zombie computers” that had been infected by computer viruses and were controlled remotely by a few tech-savvy activists.

The HBGary Federal attack was also carried out by a small group of hackers. These hackers later formed the Anonymous spin-off group LulzSec, which forms the focus of the back half of Olson’s book. LulzSec went after many of the same targets as Anonymous and did so with the same puckish attitude, but they 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.

Greenberg is far more optimistic than Olson about the liberating power of hacking, but near the end of his book even he is forced to acknowledge a reality that differs from the idealized conception he promotes. This occurs when he discusses a series of internal disputes within WikiLeaks which led to the formation of the splinter group OpenLeaks. In the process of the 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, structurelessness doesn’t actually 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 their free hacking software to the homophobic comments that appear in their 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 messages denouncing them as “moralfags.”

Socialists recognize the reality of leadership and, rather than arguing for a “leaderless” movement, argue that leadership should be elected by the group as a whole. By electing a leadership, it becomes possible to hold the leadership accountable. Members could place demands on the leadership regarding tactics, messaging, and anything else that concerns them. If the leadership doesn’t act according to those desires, the membership could remove the leadership and replace them with a new one.

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. She often portrays Anonymous and LulzSec as being morally on the same level as their victims like Aaron Barr. After all, Barr as also engaged in politically motivated hacking. 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 across 4chan and other image boards.”

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 doesn’t justify Olson’s moralism, it does call into question the abstractions about “secretive, unjust systems” and “open, just systems” that guide Julian Assange and other hacktivists. Greenberg does acknowledge 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.”

A common slogan among Internet activists is, “Information wants to be free,” but overwhelming evidence suggests that information has no strong opinions regarding freedom. Anonymizing software like Tor is used by undercover police as well as whistleblowers. Codebreaking software can reveal corporate crimes to the public or it can reveal organizers of union drives to their bosses. DDoS campaigns can be launched against businesses and 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 favor of the capitalists. Most of the activists in Anonymous and LulzSec and some of the activists involved in WikiLeaks are from working-class backgrounds and support workers’ struggles, but there’s a difference between supporting workers’ struggles and participating in them.

Hacking can be disruptive, but it doesn’t 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 was 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, even with the “zombie computers,” the scale of the attacks was trifling in comparison to the corporations’ vast wealth. The corporations were only mildly inconvenienced. WikiLeaks, however, has been starved of funding and is currently struggling to survive.

Hacktivism and Mass Action

In arguing for the democratizing power of encryption technology, Greenberg contrasts Bradley Manning with the famous pre-Internet whistleblower 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 Bradley Manning, with modern encryption software and “mathematically perfect anonymity” at his disposal, in prison, while Daniel Ellsberg is a free man to this day?

Ultimately, Manning wasn’t done in by faulty encryption, but by fellow hacker Adrian Lamo, to whom Manning confessed his secrets. As 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.”

However, both books are littered with similar cases to Manning’s. Olson and Greenberg describe the lengths to which hackers go to avoid being caught, from basic cryptography to lying compulsively about their identities to, in the case of Julian Assange, storing illegal data inside a beehive and training the bees to sting anybody but him. But personal slip-ups inevitably render all that work obsolete.

Unlike Bradley Manning, Daniel Ellsberg operated at a time of intense radicalization in U.S. politics. The Pentagon Papers were leaked against the backdrop of mass movements of labor, the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, 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, and even in the U.S. These radicalizing mass movements made the prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg politically impossible. In contrast, Bradley Manning’s mega-leaks appeared as the Iraq and Afghanistan antiwar movements were in decline.

Many hacktivists, such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, have been quite heroic in fighting the state and the ruling establishment. But a lone hacker working on behalf of the oppressed, even with the best of intentions, cannot lead to a new society that is organized on a human basis.

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

Anonymity can be quite important under the right circumstances. In addition to whistleblowers, anti-government 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 begins to embrace a socialist outlook. That way, more than information will be free.