New hacktivism wave adds twist to cyber-security woes of govts, firms

WASHINGTON • At a time when US agencies and thousands of firms are fighting off hacking campaigns originating in Russia and China, a different kind of cyber threat is re-emerging: activist hackers with political agendas.

Three major hacks show the power of this new "hacktivism" wave - the exposure of AI-driven video surveillance being conducted by the start-up Verkada, a collection of Jan 6 riot videos from the right-wing social network Parler, and disclosure of the Myanmar military junta's high-tech surveillance apparatus.

The US government's response shows that officials regard the return of hacktivism with alarm. An indictment last week accused Swiss hacker Tillie Kottmann, 21, who took credit for the Verkada breach, of a broad conspiracy.

"Wrapping oneself in an allegedly altruistic motive does not remove the criminal stench from such intrusion, theft and fraud," Seattle-based Acting US Attorney Tessa Gorman said.

According to a US counter-intelligence strategy released a year ago, "ideologically motivated entities such as hacktivists, leaktivists, and public disclosure organisations," are now viewed as "significant threats", alongside five countries, three terrorist groups, and "transnational criminal organisations".

Earlier waves of hacktivism, notably by the amorphous collective known as Anonymous in the early 2010s, largely faded away under law enforcement pressure. But now a new generation of youthful hackers, many angry about how the cyber-security world operates and upset about the role of tech companies in spreading propaganda, are joining the fray.

Some former Anonymous members are back in the field, including hacker Aubrey Cottle who helped revive the group's Twitter presence last year in support of the Black Lives Matter protests.

The new-wave hacktivists also have a preferred place for putting materials they want to make public - Distributed Denial of Secrets, a transparency site that took up the mantle of WikiLeaks but with less geopolitical bias. The site's collective is led by American Emma Best, known for filing prolific freedom of information requests.

A friend of Ms Kottmann's known as "donk-enby", is another major figure in the hacktivism revival. Donk grew angry about conspiracy theories spread by QAnon followers on the social media app Parler that drove protests against Covid-19 health measures.

After the Jan 6 riots in the US Capitol, Donk shared links to the Web addresses of a million Parler video posts and asked Twitter followers to download them before rioters who filmed themselves in the building deleted the evidence.

One big change from the earlier era of hacktivisim is that hackers can now make money legally by reporting the security weaknesses they find to the companies involved, or taking jobs with cyber-security firms.

But some view so-called bug bounty programmes, and the hiring of hackers to break into systems to find weaknesses, as mechanisms for protecting companies who should be exposed.

"We're not going to hack and help secure anyone we think is doing something extremely unethical," said researcher John Jackson, who works with Mr Cottle.

"We're not going to hack surveillance companies and help them secure their infrastructure."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2021, with the headline New hacktivism wave adds twist to cyber-security woes of govts, firms. Subscribe