Computer hackers aren't an especially earnest bunch. After all, lulz (a corruption of the phrase "laugh out loud" and a reference to hackers' penchant for tomfoolery) was the primary objective of the hacker collective Anonymous before it graduated to more serious cyberoperations in the latter half of the 2000s. But if the hacking community likes to flaunt its glib side, it also has a rich history of political activism -- or "hacktivism" -- that has come to define it in the era of WikiLeaks. If there's one thing that unites hacktivists across multiple generations, it's dedication to the idea that information on the Internet should be free -- a first principle that has not infrequently put them at odds with corporations and governments the world over.
A culture of "hacking" springs up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the term is coined by members of the Tech Model Railroad Club as they play around with track circuitry. The original "hacks" are mostly harmless pranks and practical jokes perpetrated by students in early artificial intelligence labs. Hackers soon discover that toy whistles produce the right frequency for them to "phreak" Ma Bell's telephone system, allowing them to place long-distance calls for free. Among those who make names for themselves as "phone phreaks" are Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, the future founders of Apple.
Computers at NASA and the U.S. Energy Department are penetrated by an anti-nuclear "WANK" worm, which alters computers' log-in screens to "WORMS AGAINST NUCLEAR KILLERS … Your System Has Been Officially WANKed." The malware, believed to have originated in Australia, is the second major worm deployed in history, but the first with an explicitly political aim. (The genesis worm was released a year earlier by Robert Morris, a 23-year-old Cornell University graduate student, who said he wanted to approximate the size of the Internet but ended up running afoul of the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.)
A mostly British activist group known as the Zippies launches an "email bomb" and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack against British government websites to protest Prime Minister John Major's Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which outlawed outdoor raves featuring music with "a succession of repetitive beats." The attack, known as the "Intervasion of the UK," knocks out a number of government websites for more than a week. It is the first known use of DDoS -- which takes down a targeted website by overwhelming it with communication requests -- for political purposes.
"Omega," a member of the Texas-based computer-hacking group Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc), coins the word "hacktivism" in an email to the cDc listserv. Although somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the term aptly characterizes the group's increasingly political ethos. Founded in 1984 for the whimsical goal of "global domination through media saturation," cDc is by the mid-1990s an explicitly political organization, one that leverages technology to advance human rights and protect the free flow of information. In subsequent years, cDc members team up with a group of dissidents calling themselves the Hong Kong Blondes to hack the computer networks of Chinese government agencies and companies with poor human rights records in China.
Hacktivismo, an offshoot of cDc, issues a code of conduct for online civil disobedience that draws on the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This "Hacktivismo Declaration" affirms the right to "freedom of opinion and expression" and declares the hacker community's intent to develop technologies to challenge "state-sponsored censorship of the Internet." The declaration, which can be read as a disavowal of hacking techniques like DDoSing that interfere with free speech, largely falls by the wayside as the next generation of hacktivists increasingly seeks to take government and corporate websites offline.
Christopher Poole, 15, sets up the website 4chan.org from his suburban New York bedroom. The site garners attention primarily for its proliferation of humorous feline memes (LolCats) and gag hyperlinks (Rickrolls) to Rick Astley's insufferable 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up," but over time it attracts a global army of anonymous hackers, many of them politically minded, who exchange coding tips and eventually plot cyberops. What begins as a series of pranks carried out for idle amusement gradually evolves into systematized cyberwarfare or, as one Anonymous member puts it, "ultra-coordinated motherfuckery." Anonymous is born here.