Hacking and hacktivism

Authored by: Julia Rone

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Citizen Media

Print publication date:  October  2020
Online publication date:  October  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138665569
eBook ISBN: 9781315619811
Adobe ISBN:


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Since its early days as a subculture, hacking has experienced a series of deep transformations that can be defined as commercialization, criminalization and politicization. Hacking skills and ethics have been persistently professionalized and integrated in the process of production. This process of commercialization started with the early software companies and the Open Source movement in the 1990s and has culminated in today’s ‘hackatons’: sprint-like design events, where participants write code and build apps for the purpose of self-promotion. The criminalization of hacking reached its first peak in the 1990s, often dubbed the “golden age of cracking”, but criminal modes of hacking are still widespread. Finally, hacking has been increasingly politicized as a practice, and it is in this respect that it is particularly relevant to citizen media and social mobilizations. As the Zapatista movement and the alter-globalization protests unfolded in the late 1990s, activists adopted creative uses of technology to achieve political impact, thus giving rise to what has been termed ‘hacktivism’: a specific new blend of hacking and political activism. More recently, powerful actors such as Wikileaks and Anonymous have used hacking and the affordances of information technologies to challenge established powers. While Anonymous count on digital crowds of outsiders to disrupt critical infrastructures, Wikileaks relies on individual insiders to disseminate crucial information through secure technologies. At a time when state-sponsored hacking and surveillance have become common practice, new projects such as ‘Security Without Borders’ aim to offer secure technologies and to protect citizen activists and journalists in an increasingly monitored and dangerous environment. Moving from the fringes to the mainstream, hacking today is not only used by a variety of governments and corporations, but also remains a crucial bottom-up resource for securing free citizen participation and expression.

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