Hacktivism: A Force For Intervention?

“I fight for the users,” said Rinzler, the renowned skilled warrior from the film, Tron: Legacy. The same can be said about hacktivists, especially the individuals who labor to unmask and report online child predators.

Hacktivism can be summed up as a computer hacker activist whose goal is to promote a social or political cause. Taking action doesn’t only involve hacking, but also encompasses using their activities as a medium to spread awareness towards a cause. Moreso, it’s about fighting for the underdog and trying to use their skills to do what’s right.

Whenever governments abroad or powerful businesses go awry, or human rights have been transgressed and justice isn’t able to be facilitated, or even when wrongs are committed at any societal level and can not be amended by conventional means, hacktivists oftentimes are the last line of defense.

Fighting for the Users

The aim of the hacktivist is to fight for the users. With that being said, hacktivists exist because we all live in an imperfect world.

Large concerted online initiatives have been taking place for years towards this goal. Operations, such as #OPChildSafety, are strongly endorsed by many members connected to the group Anonymous. Other groups, such as 1337PedoHunters, GhostSec, and W1nterSec, have also stepped in to assist law enforcement by stopping the individuals behind crimes being committed against children.

This is one of many things happening behind the scenes on the internet. Things that never make headline news. Obviously, not all hacktivists are politically motivated. For decades, hackers, as well as everyday people, have taken to the internet in the hunt for prosecutable evidence in an effort to stop the spread of these infamous crimes. That's in addition to the spread of hate speech, cyberbullying, and incidents of stalking.

Whichever way you spin it, this special variety of hackers live and breathe cyber vigilantism, and exist as a mechanism for social justice that operates on behalf of the people. That’s the fundamental spirit of hacking-related activism, to say the least.

But because almost everything that is known about most hackers exists in a broad, general sense - which is either derived from media sources, or personal encounters with scammers, or from security incident responders and statistics - most public stories exist as second-hand accounts.

As with anything that’s cultural, not all hackers are alike, nor do all hackers share the same motives. After all, there is a fine line between criminals and concerned citizens with exemplary computer skills, where one camp is motivated by criminal enterprise, and the other camp aspires to serve the public interests.

While the machinations of scammers have certainly become an epidemic due to the public availability of hacking software and the prospect of making fast and easy money, not all hackers are driven by the lust for money, nor for secrets, or even driven by a strong wind of curiosity to locate vulnerable systems to break into.

For this reason, nothing fascinates me more than the war stories of hacktivists. This is because what they do isn’t motivated by financial gain, which sets them outside the scope of the typical high-tech financial crimes that commonly seize the headlines. One could say the stakes are higher for hacktivists because they have nothing tangible to gain from their undertakings.

A Hacktivists' Origin Story

“I've always been fascinated by political science. Especially international politics,” said Dream_Eat3r, a lone wolf hacktivist whose influences are figures such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Dream_Eat3r continued:

“I understand information warfare and the landscape the modern political world has taken form as. In conjunction with that, I am deeply concerned about the modern-day surveillance state.”

Because of Snowden and Assange, who really put a strong emphasis on the broad reach of surveillance state activities through their public disclosures, Dream_Eat3r became passionate about Operational Security (OPSEC) and implementing online anonymity. It resonated with him since he describes himself as being an extremely private introvert by nature.

Like most home-grown hackers, he is entirely self-taught. This is what gives advanced hackers an edge, which often places even professionals in the information security industry at a disadvantage. This is because many of the most experienced hackers cultivated advanced skillsets by investing an extraordinary amount of time with hands-on experiments, and at their own expense. If they broke it, it was a personal challenge to learn how to fix it.

These aren’t skills that can be learned by merely watching or attending security lectures, because at the root level of these skillsets is a mindset that is driven by a fierce passion to tinker with the framework of technology, to manipulate it, and bend it to their will.

In the 90s, Dream_Eat3r was exposed to technology growing up and had a tech-savvy grandfather who introduced him to the fascinating world of computers. This opened up the door for him to experiment with the Windows 95 operating system, playing with the icons and learning how to traverse the file system within the desktop environment, until his grandfather bought a Dell Latitude laptop around 1999.

This was a catalyst moment for him, which only added more fuel to his attraction to computers. Needless to say, at some point along the journey, everything converged, forming a hacker’s mindset and the drive to use his skillsets for good.

A Journey Through Dark Places

Because of the sensitive nature surrounding the activities of hackers, there necessitates a certain level of intrigue, due in part to needing to live a major aspect of the hackers’ life shrouded in secrecy. This gives birth to the need to live a double life by compartmentalizing one life from the other.

“As part of my OPSEC, I do not pursue a career in infosec. I don't want to publically be identified as a technical wizard,” he said. “This is in part because I moonlight as a vigilante. What got me into vigilantism was discovering the deep web back in 2014.”

For those outside the loop, the deep web is a part of the internet that can not be searched or accessed by any conventional means. It is a secret or hidden layer which requires users to use TOR software in order to access web content on encrypted networks. These are ripe for underground criminal actors to operate beneath the surface level of the web, commonly called the clearnet, where everything is transparent and publicly accessible.

“I draw the line when it comes to pedophilia and sexual abuse. To date, I've helped the FBI anonymously, and my tips have led to eight arrests,” he said, as he explained how thrilling it was to launch secret sting operations against individuals who were searching for young victims to sexually entice and distribute child exploitation media. Putting a stop to it was like a drug to him.

Being able to psychologically persuade a suspect dealing in child exploitation takes a lot of guts and patience. It depends heavily on being able to cut yourself off from reacting emotionally to the disturbing conversations that often must take place to extract the necessary information in order to identify the suspect. Therefore, it takes a solid grasp on social engineering, as well as maintaining OPSEC practices.

“But if I find that you are hurting people, manufacturing snuff films, or endangering animals and children, I guarantee you will be in my sights,” he adds, describing one particular case he worked where the suspect worked as a butcher. Dream_Eat3r further said:

“He would post videos of himself butchering and cutting up animals but in a very dramatic, stylized way. He would also make art out of the corpses of the animals. That in itself is whatever, but he was also harassing and threatening women with rape and murder on Instagram.”

One of the victims of the butcher reached out to Dream_Eat3r, asking for help. The hacker made short work of the individual after a successful phishing attack. He was able to gain access to all of his social media accounts, as well as the control panel of his personal website where he posted chat logs of himself threatening to kill people, including artwork he would make out of the cadavers and animal remains.

“I brought it completely offline and deleted it along with all of the logs,” he said, explaining his frustration with the police who would not do anything to stop the online threats. Because the art wasn’t technically illegal, Dream_Eat3r simply wanted to intervene by taking restricting access to the platforms the man used to threaten people. He said:

“I wouldn't support hurting him physically. But he was an extreme bully who got off on making people paranoid with threats of hurting them physically and psychologically. So I took away his platform.”

The situation necessitated a level of accountability and assurance that the person would refrain from engaging in these kinds of activities. So the hacker called him on the phone and explained that he would be watching all of his online activities. Some of the victims he terrified were girls as young as fourteen years old. This is what provoked him to act, especially when no one else would.

“So, that's when he took me seriously and I believe I scared him. I still monitor him and his place of work. He still works there, but from what I gather he no longer bothers people on social media,” he stated.

An article by

Jesse McGraw

Edited by

Ana Alexandre

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