Hacktivism Ethics

Topics: Ethics, Deontological ethics, Hacktivism Pages: 24 (7214 words) Published: July 4, 2012
A Practical Ethical Assessment of Hacktivism

Sergio Caltagirone
The University of Idaho


Hacktivism is the very recent adaptation of computer hacking by political activists to achieve their goals. It presents society with a new problem because of the current fear of cyber terrorism, and the difficulty of telling them apart. This work attempts to ethically assess hacktivism using the classical consequential and deontological theories as well as to address hacktivist claims of civil disobedience. In the end, the classical theories present may problems while attempting to translate them to the informational and virtual real. A new framework is developed so that it may be possible to tell the difference between ethical and unethical acts of hacktivism so that they are no longer dangerously confused with cyber terrorism.


It is very difficult to argue with the statement that ethics and morals are an important facet of our individual person as well as our collective society. Individuals as well as organizations, such as companies and governments, are faced with decisions that require an ethical analysis everyday. Because of the importance and regularity of these decisions, it is not surprising that philosophers have spent millennia attempting to formulate useful and consistent ethical theories.

However, even with the existence of some very successful theories, the theories cannot be static. They must be continually revised and updated (or new ones developed) so that we can act consistent with our morals in new situations. This becomes especially true when rapid changes occur to our environment such as the growth and ubiquity of information technology in the past decades. The technology we now use everyday has created wholly new ethical challenges that must be considered.

Several of these ethical challenges can be addressed using some of the well-developed classical theories, while others require an innovative treatment. One that has recently emerged is hacktivism; with its promise to move activism to the information frontier and into privately owned space, it presents a unique challenge because of the differences between hacktivism and classical activism. Additionally, the virtual information environment has many qualities not found in the physical environment where activism is usually practiced.

Because of these unique qualities of hacktivism, which will be described later in more detail, it requires a fresh and thorough assessment with regard to its ethical implications. Therefore, this paper will ask the necessary question: given an example of hacktivism, how can we assess whether it was ethical? This question is made even more significant in our current terrorism-centric security environment. How can we decide whether an act of alleged hacktivism was in fact an ethical protest or an act of cyberterrorism?

To accomplish this, the question will be developed in three parts. The first part will be to introduce hacktivism, with an emphasis on its unique qualities and actual examples. The second part will place hacktivism in the context of popular ethical theories. The third part will present a new framework with which we can assess the ethicalness of hacktivism.


The goal of the framework will be to present a list of criteria that an act of hacktivism must meet for it to be considered an ethical action. The framework will be said to be necessary, but not sufficient, to label an act ethical. Also, no claims will be made to the completeness of the framework; on the other hand, the framework should be adequate to provide an outline for most discussions.

The reason for this rather halfhearted faith in the framework is that because technology is changing so quickly, it could be easily found tomorrow that a new form of hacktivism has been developed which does not follow any previous forms. At that point, the framework presented here must...
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