Hacktivism 101: A Brief History and Timeline of Notable Incidents

2011 was a big year for hacktivists, being the year that held the most hacktivist-related incidents in history. It was during this period that groups like Anonymous seemed invincible, and it was also then that its members went on to form LulzSec. The succeeding group was notorious for successfully breaking into a number of corporations and police servers, disabled government security sites, stole sensitive information such as credit card details, and defaced commercial websites.

From 2008 to 2012, Anonymous managed to execute a number of hacks, with effects that ranged from inconsequential to critical. One of their most infamous, dubbed “Operation Tunisia”, involved recruiting a number of Tunisian hackers to help take down eight government websites using DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service Attacks) attacks in support of Arab Spring movements in 2010.

What makes these activities different from usual hacking jobs is that they are not necessarily done for financial gain but rather to express opposition against Internet censorship and control. In addition to this, hacker groups aim to question, provoke, and challenge governments, organizations, and companies who go against their moral stance.

What is Hacktivism?

Besides hackers who are in it for profit, there are hackers who break into systems to point out security flaws, and there are those who want to bring attention to a cause. The latter however, typically come in the form of virtual political activists who have adapted their methods of dissent into digital platforms, an act known as hacktivism.

The word “hacktivism” was first coined in 1996 by "Omega", a member of the hacker collective Cult of the Dead Cow.

It is difficult to schematize the definition and evolution of hacktivism into trimmed, chronological periods. However, in popular culture, hacktivism is invariably described as the act of using legal and/or illegal digital tools in pursuit of political ends, free speech, and the favor of human rights. The primary weapons are Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) tools and vulnerability scanners, both of which can be easily found on the Internet in underground hacking forums and black markets, along with various other tools and guides.

Derived from combining the words "hack" and "activism", the term “hacktivism” was first coined in 1996 by Omega, a member of the hacker collective Cult of the Dead Cow. As mentioned above, hacktivism is mainly portrayed in society as the transposition of demonstrations, civil disobedience, and low-level information warfare into cyberspace. Hacktivists are the modern equivalent of political protesters, and the rise in hacktivist activity may be due in part to the growing importance of the Internet as a means of communication.

Notable Incidents

Apart from Anonymous’ infamous hacks in the past, other notable hacktivist incidents include  LulzSec’s attack against Fox.com, the Sony PlayStation Network, and the CIA where the group leaked several passwords, stole private user data, and took networks offline.

In 2012, political whistleblower site WikiLeaks reached its tipping point when the government condemned the site as it was used as means to declassify and leak confidential information between the U.S. state department and various representatives overseas. Subsequently, payment services like Amazon, PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard were pressured by the government to halt services in order to prevent supporters from financially donating to the organization. In response, Anonymous launched a series of DDoS attacks that immediately shut down the said services, causing massive company losses.

Brief historical breakdown on the rise of Hacktivism


  • Attack on Fine Gael website by Anonymous
  • Operation Tunisia: later recognized as the beginning of the Arab Spring
  • Operation Egypt: Egyptian government websites were hacked and shut down by Anonymous until President Hosni Mubarak stepped down
  • Operation HBGARY: HBGary Federal announced that the company had infiltrated the Anonymous group
  • Sony data breach: users personal information was stolen by LulzSec
  • Sony PlayStation Network hack: the gaming network was taken offline by LulzSec
  • Operation Syria: Syrian Defense Ministry website hacked by Anonymous
  • Operation DarkNet: Anonymous broke into 40 child pornography websites and published over 1500 names of users who frequented one of the sites


  • Operation Russia: unidentified hackers cracked emails of pro-Kremlin activists and officials
  • AntiSec Leak and CIA attack: Anonymous shut down CIA’s website for more than five hours
  • DDoS attacks by Muslim hacktivist group "Cyber Fighters of Izz-ad-din Al Qassam" targeted U.S. banks in retaliation after a Muslim film was posted on YouTube

In 2013, governments were able to clamp down on many hacktivist attacks, which reduced politically-motivated hacks around the globe. However, the bark and bite of these movements are far from over. Hacktivism is still considered a disrupting, if not downright dangerous and harmful, means of sending a message. Regardless of motivation, hacktivists remain as one of the most volatile threats to security, as evidenced in the Sony hack last December 2014 where the company’s internal documents, including those that contained information of senior executives, were leaked to the public by a hacker group who call themselves Guardians of Peace.

Learning from past incidents is a good way to prepare for possible hacktivist attacks. Over time, hacktivism has evolved into a powerful virtual weapon that can cause massive disturbances that can disrupt day-to-day operations. As such, companies and organizations must make sure to update all IT systems, operating systems, applications, and websites regularly. It also helps to collect and study anomalies in network activity to help mitigate threats. Additionally, apply appropriate technical controls and properly educate the staff to maintain a "human firewall." Looking forward, hacktivism is all too random to be able to predict a possible attack with great certainty—so it’s best to remain vigilant against this era’s cyber vigilantes.


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