Exploring Digital Culture

1. Hacktivism in My Words

Becoming a hacktivist through electronic civil disobedience

Sun 02 Nov 2014
Carmin Karasic 

What is Hacktivism

The word hacktivism is a combination of hack and activism, both of which are charged words. Activism is engaging in activities to influence change in the status quo. Although usually political or social, this change could also be economic, or environmental. The words hack, hacking, and hacker often have a negative connotation, and refer to breaking into a computer system or database. Hacktivism inherits an ‘opposition stance’ from activism. It also inherits a negative connotation from hack, implying that hacktivism is an illegal computer related activity.

I, however, disagree. Activism is not necessarily ‘anti the status quo’. Activism can be undertaken for the common good— for example community building. Hacking need not denote illegal activity. I argue that hack means to modify technology for a specific purpose. For me, hacktivism is a policy of modifying or creating technology to achieve a political or social goal. The goal may or may not be illegal, or an act of opposition. A particular act of hacking may or may not be illegal. Examples of both legal and illegal hacktivism exist, which proves hacktivism is not always illegal.

Deep Affinity for Code

In the late 1980s and early 1990s my peers and I enjoyed writing and modifying computer programs, to make them do something other than what the program was originally meant to do. For example, I repurposed commercial software to work in a completely different way, and have a different set of features than the manufacturer delivered. I did not realize it at the time, but that was political. I was taking somebody else’s product and giving it a broader application. The product no longer adhered to its intended use, therefore it was no longer the manufacturer’s product, nor in the manufacturer’s control. Since it was only for internal purposes, there was no way for the manufacturer to know that I hacked their product. I guess in this way, all programmers are, to an extent, hackers.

Conceptually I’ve been a hacktivist every since I was an artist, long before hacktivism was a word. My artistic goal has consistently been to use computer based and emerging technologies to increase social awareness through art activism. I believe it is a digital media artist’s responsibility to provoke a reevaluation of our existing systems through technology. My art investigates alternative views, new connections and undefined spaces between edges.

Hacktivism and the Zapatistas

In 1997, I became the computer technician, and a participating artist, in a unique exhibition called PORT Navigating Digital Culture, at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Port was important because it was a combination of Internet based visual art, art related webcasts, and multimedia performances, all streamed into the gallery from remote locations. Four large screens created a virtual ‘white box’ for presenting a series of scheduled artworks. I set up the live stream for several shows, one of which was a webcast performance called, “Rabinal Achi/ZapatistaPortAction”, by artists Ricardo Dominguez and Ron Rocco.

This webcast introduced me to the Zapatista rebellion. My sense of responsibility as an artist, lead me to admire the Zapatistas because they were the first group of indigenous people, that I heard of, who were actually using the internet to garner international support for their plight. I joined Dominguez’s email list and learned about the low intensity war against the Zapatistas. There I read about Italian activists who called on “netizens” to press the reload button several times to slow traffic to a Mexican server. I knew it would be more efficient to create a batch file to ping the server than to spend an hour manually reloading a webpage. So I wrote a simple little DOS batch file to ping the target server, and sent this code snippet to Dominguez. He posted it as the ‘MS DOS Ping Action’ on thing.net, where others picked it up and used it for early automated electronic civil disobedience. This little ping batch file didn’t seem political to me. It was just a matter of helping out some friends… “Oh, you need the code to do this? I can do that”.

Moved to Action

Just before Christmas 1997, Dominguez’s newsletter described the Acteal Massacre: 45 women and children had been killed during a prayer meeting by the Mexican paramilitary. They were massacred because the paramilitary thought that they were in solidarity with the Zapatistas. This really upset me. I immediately emailed Dominguez stating: “I want to do something. What can I do?” Dominguez suggested that I work with new media artist Brett Stalbaum to develop a webpage that performed automatic reloads. Stalbaum and I began collaborating on our virtual sit-in program, now known as the hacktivism artwork, FloodNet.

FloodNet was a simple website. Technically its automated features simply reloaded a webpage that we selected for the FloodNet action several times per minute, and spammed that webpage’s host server with search requests. FloodNet included Stalbaum’s java applet for the automatic reloads, purpose statements in English and in Spanish by Dominguez and then NYU PhD candidate Stefan Wray, my technical instructions, and an artistic hack for sending personal messages directly to the server hosting the targeted website.

The Electronic Disturbance Theater was quickly founded as the FloodNet team. Stalbaum and I were the geeks building and running FloodNet, while Dominguez and then NYU PhD candidate Stefan Wray were the spin-doctors promoting FloodNet to the media. We were not subversive, so we used our real names. Since our activities were not illegal at that time, we inhabited a grey zone. We didn’t call our work hacktivism either. We were actively experimenting with “electronic civil disobedience” inspired by Critical Art Ensemble’s book of the same name.

During a FloodNet action the website of an institution or symbol of neo-liberalism was targeted for a limited time on a particular day. A link to the FloodNet website was then posted in a widely spread public call to join our tactical strike. Participants followed the link, leaving their browser open automatically reloaded the target webpage every few seconds. The intent was to disrupt access to the targeted website by flooding the host server with requests for that website. In doing so, attention is drawn to a particular political issue, without hacking the website. Our FloodNet actions never caused servers to crash because we selected robust government and financial websites.

FloodNet as Protest, Discourse, and Performance Art

Hacktivism > DDOS attacks

FloodNet presented a new form of electronic protest. Our objective was two-fold: First disrupt access to a targeted web site by flooding the host server with requests, then use this symbolic gesture to bring media attention to the rebellion and indigenous rights at stake in Chiapas, Mexico. In doing so we demonstrated that the Zapatista had 1000’s of global supporters.

In addition to this, FloodNet brought code and social art together. We used Internet technologies to create a vehicle for synchronous global online demonstrations. Our virtual sit-ins relied on audience participation – they were performance art; a genre of conceptual art that existed well before FloodNet. We framed our actions as Acts and wrote the script, but needed 1000’s of participants to give the gesture meaning.

The first virtual sit-in took place on April 10, 1998, 10 AM until 4 PM CST. FloodNet Tactical Version 1.0 was showcased during an Electronic Civil Disobedience action against Mexican President Zedillo’s website. FloodNet initiated a java applet that sent an automated reload request several times per minute to Zedillo’s website homepage. Reports from participants and our observations confirmed that the more than 8,000 international participants in this first FloodNet action intermittently blocked access to the Zedillo site on that day.

The most artistic aspect of FloodNet was the personal messages that participants left on the target website’s host server. This was a creative hack of web search technology. Here’s how it worked: Whenever a web address cannot be resolved, an “HTTP Error 404 - File or directory not found” message is generated. Since the requested webpage cannot be loaded, an error webpage is returned to explain that the sought page cannot be found. In the past, these pages usually included the search text within a comment about the error. Our personal message tool allowed participants to search for anything they wanted at the targeted website. For example, if you searched for “human rights” at the Mexican Stock Exchange website, it’s host server would return a webpage stating something like, “Error 404 - human rights not found on this server.” This error would be logged on the Mexican Stock Exchange website’s host server. In this way we allowed participants to spam the server’s error log with messages like, “justice not found on this server”, “peace not found on this server”.

Hacktivism Heats-up

In the Spotlight

Similar to the Zapatistas, our spin-doctors were masters of international media attention. We had radio and TV coverage and interviews, documentaries, invitations to conferences, seminars, panels, and lectures. I already knew information was power, and that the ability to control computers equates to the ability to control information, which is therefore a powerful and important skill. Working with the Internet takes that power to a global level. FloodNet’s ability to amass the cooperation of 1000’s of people globally within a relatively tight timeframe demonstrated a phenomenal power at the fingertips of anyone with Internet access. Our ability to rally people in solidarity of our cause, prompted the US National Security Agency to invite us to one of their conferences. They were surprised to learn that we operated as a decentralized node, from three or four remote locations, without a ‘leader’, and that we all respected each other’s opinion equally.

They found it difficult to believe that our tactics and strategy could result in so many participants with so little effort on our part.

A variety of activist groups asked us set up FloodNet actions for them. In response, we created the Disturbance Developers Kit (DDK) and released it on Jan. 1, 1999. Many protest groups, such as anti-vivisectionists, “The Electro Hippies”, anti-weapons groups, prison rights activists, etc. used our DDK. I created a template for hacktivism with the FloodNet interface and DDK instructions:

How to set up an ECD action

What do you need?
1. your cyber-cell (visionary, journalist, software engineer, artist, lawyer)
2. technology skills & political data
3. world wide communication infrastructure (e-mail lists, information website, etc.)
4. Internet access via browser
5. host server administrator cooperation

The process (for example FloodNet)
1. select the ‘cause’
2. plan the electronic action (select the software application that meets your need / skill set / time frame)
3. send the call for participation
4. day of the ECD action (initialize the action, monitor the action, respond to e-mails/phone calls, respond to electronic countermeasures)
5. day after the ECD action (review participation, note pros & cons for future actions)

The founding members of EDT were hired as university faculty as a result of FloodNet fame. The artwork FloodNet began to be exhibited in international exhibitions. These exhibitions continue today, most recently in 2014 in the Museum of Arte Útil exhibition at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, NL and at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK, through Feb. 2015.

In the Crosshair

We faced criticism from the Dutch hacker community who believed FloodNet was simply inappropriate, because it was an inefficient “attack” on a website. “Why”, they asked “are you doing it in this ineffective way? Why don’t you just take the site down?”. We knew we could modify FloodNet to crash servers. However, this was not the point. Instead, our goal was to show many voices in solidarity, not the hacker prowess of one person’s code. Their second complaint was that we were blocking bandwidth by disrupting information flow, and information deserves to be flow freely. “You’re just getting in the way,” they stated. “Eating up cycles that other people could be using for a better purpose.” I have to concede to that, but as with any street protest, traffic is disrupted temporarily for what the demonstrators believe is a justifiable cause.

There were countermeasures taken against FloodNet as well. Programmers working for the Mexican government developed a countermeasure for the June 10 Flood Net target, Secretaria de Gobernacion’s web site. EDT believes the Mexican government was responsible for releasing a JavaScript that was launched whenever FloodNet was detected on their servers. For example, when a FloodNet participant was detected, the Mexican government’s JavaScript crashed the Flood Net user’s browser by continuously opening blank windows in the user’s browser.

US Pentagon programmers developed a similar countermeasure for the Sept 9th FloodNet performance. EDT believes the Pentagon released a java applet was designed to activate whenever FloodNet was detected on their servers. As with the Mexican countermeasure, multiple windows were opened in the FloodNet participant’s browser until their browser crashed.

Hacktivism changed me

Working online and with EDT changed me. My work with EDT freed me from the sexism and racism that I faced in my IT job. With a name like Carmin, without seeing me, one doesn’t know I’m a Black woman. My skills earned my respect and my peers did not question my gender or race. Very recently I found out that people assumed I was a young white male. Wrong- I was an ex-IT manager, suburban mom. Not a soccer mom, but a hacker mom. After one of my talks, a woman who walked with crutches came up to me and stated she could use FloodNet to organize protests for disabled people, because they would not have to go out into the streets to stage protests. Her comment helped me see that what I was doing in solidarity with the Zapatistas, actually had a much larger impact.

Perhaps the most important lesson was that for governments, the fear of the unknown is stronger than the fear of the known. FloodNet was merely a symbolic gesture, but it was treated as a serious threat. Not just by governments, but by the press as well. The first time I was interviewed for the New York Times, a man who wrote about technology called me to ask how FloodNet worked. After I explained exactly how it worked, his response was, “No, that’s not how I understand it to work”. I kindly reminded him, “I wrote FloodNet with Stalbaum, so I actually know how it works, regardless of what you’ve heard”. He ignored my comments and in his article sensationalized FloodNet as hacktivism designed to crash websites. The press made FloodNet much worse than it really was. The fact that hacktivism got most of the media attention showed me that the way we were protesting was more important (better served the spectacle) than what we were protesting. Even though in some ways the media spin trivialized our protests, we felt successful.

Hacktivism Augments Protest

Regardless of the popularity of a cause, a limited number of people participate physically in a protest due to various constraints:

How many people can fit in the event location?
How many people can physically get to the event?
How long can physical events last?
How many believe in the protest, but choose not to participate physically for various reasons?

People with disabilities often cannot join street actions, or are too few in number locally to create a successful protest for their cause.

Remove issues of space, time and accessibility, and the number of potential participants increases dramatically. Combining this numeric increase with the lower risk of potential retaliation and the minimal effort in electronic civil disobedience, it follows that protest would naturally progress from the streets to online.

However the visceral impact of street actions remains important. The most effective protests are hybrid actions that take place in the streets and strategically use the Internet. Consider the 1999 WTO coverage in Seattle, WA, USA where online and street actions were coordinated. People on the streets used wireless links to upload live video clips to websites, usurping the mainstream media coverage by the major national broadcast companies. The activists’ use of the media hype increased the protest’s impact by facilitating global participation, real-time support, and links to related articles and additional information.

Today various social media options provide platforms for activists. Although Facebook and Twitter may serve this purpose, they are unsuitable in terms of data protection and personal privacy rights. For example, Facebook owns anything posted in Facebook. That’s an inappropriate platform for organized political or social expression, even though in some cases it may be the best available option. Thus we lack a secure solution for widespread free information exchange. In my opinion, Social media in general needs to be re-structured to better support individual privacy and free communication.

Hacktivism Evolves

We change our environment to suit our needs. Activism is naturally reshaped by the vagaries of the information and communication technologies embedded in daily life. With so many tactical technologies readily available, hacktivism grew as a form of electronic activism. The biggest difference in hacktivism today vs. then is that when EDT did it, in the late 1990s, it was not popular. Making the tools available increased awareness that people actually have more power at their fingertips than perhaps they had realized. Hackers, activists and artists flocked to electronic civil disobedience. As in the early days of the World Wide Web, and even pre-internet, people are still hacking technology to effect change. The goal remains the same: hack the system to increase awareness in through activism.

Political Impact

Social media concepts such as The Long Tail, Network Effect, Crowd Sourcing, are fundamental in seeing the possibilities brought about by technology access and tech savvy populations. It is all about the widespread effect. Before the electronic connectivity of hacktivism, activism was localized. Even with events staged in multiple locations, people tended to work together physically, but as a loosely organized group, and the transfer of information was slow.

Organizations with political power had the advantage of organized groups and faster information distribution. Hacktivism takes advantage of the fact that information now spreads rapidly, often instantly. People can act en-mass from remote locations. Politically powerful organizations no longer have any advantage over the general public in terms of information distribution or organizing masses. I predict that the rapid exchange of ideas and the general shared unrest in many populations creates a perfect environment for hacktivists. The division of ‘left and right’ is dissolving. The resulting political impact is that more people will disrupt information and communication channels. Subtle, but effective actions will be widespread and uncontrollable.

For example:

After FloodNet there were many examples of effective hacktivist actions. One of the first was the Toywar, a legal battle in late 1999 between an American leading online toy retailer, eToys.com, and etoy.CORPORATION, a Swiss group of male and female online conceptual artists. Their domain name “etoy.com”, complained the toy retailer, confused consumers and caused complaints about the adult content at the etoy website. When the art group rejected an offer of $516,000 for their etoy brand, the toy retailer sued the artists, which initiated the Toywar. Nearly 2000 artists, activists, hackers, lawyers and others created avatars to join the etoy virtual army as ‘toy.soilders’. While the etoy army creatively hacked the system by strategically using online resources and media hype, a hacker launched a tactical weapon that spammed the toy store database with large orders that were canceled just before confirming the purchase. In two months the retailer’s stock plummeted and eToys.com went out of business. The charges were dropped, and the etoy army declared victory. A market value loss of 4.5 billion dollars makes the toywar the most expensive performance art in history. The Toywar made history because a global artists’ and hacktivists’ online intervention destroyed a US corporation and its US legal mandates.

In 2011 hacktivist prankster artists, the Yesmen handed out a dozen thrift-store suits and empty pizza boxes to volunteers for their Occupy Wall Street action called, “Brokers and Police for the Occupation”. Dressed as businessmen, they made sure the police heard them announce an ensuing criminal action. Police followed the men as they chanted Occupy Wall Street slogans, which attracted more police. As photographers gathered, the businessmen opened the pizza boxes, revealing the message “POLICE AND BROKERS FOR THE OCCUPATION.” The photos became viral proof that even the police had joined the Occupy movement.

Artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle created a Native American programming language, CREE++, calling to mind C++. As a hacktivist artwork, CREE++ encourages us to examine who creates the hardware and software we use. The lesson here is that our choices are limited by design. Behavior can be ‘controlled’ by the limitations of technologies. Thus autonomous and marginalized groups must create digital tools that meet their specific needs. Indonesian artist and engineer Andreas Siagian knows this. As a member of a DIY/DIWO citizen initiative for art, science and technology called lifepatch, he has invented a microscope from a reversed engineered webcam. This inexpensive hack allows communities with limited research resources to study science even if they cannot afford a microscope.

Hacktivism as seed for Discourse

Many hacktivist actions are not artworks at all, but, as an artist, most of the ones I know about are artworks. My contributions as a hacktivist, and those of the many artists such as L’Hirondelle and Siagian show that the hacker community is not limited to white males, nor is hacktivism criminal by nature. Seeing our work inspires others to say, “If they can do that, so can I.”

I design and facilitate socio-technological workshops to encourage people to use technology for self-empowerment. For example I do workshops that increases awareness and understanding of the many issues associated with hacktivism. A topical issue in the local news serves as a catalyst for critical discussion in the workshop. The goal is to use civil debate and informed opinions to proactively influence social change.

The workshop participants are randomly divided into three small groups, one of which is a group of hacktivists. These groups discuss hacktivism from specifically assigned perspectives, and then respond to a conceptual action created by the hacktivist group. Such discussions encourage empathy for the various perspectives and reactions, because the assigned societal roles stimulate informal civil debate.

The workshop I did in October 2013 at Goldsmiths College in London UK discussed and, through role play, reacted to the British secret service spying on British & German Internet traffic and sending the info to the US National Security Agency. Maybe this quote will give you an idea of how it went. This particular student has written me twice about how much she liked my workshop:

“Dear Carmin,

I’d like to say how much I enjoyed the session and workshop regarding hacktivism which you facilitated last week at Goldsmiths - it was so dynamic! I really appreciated your interactive approach and it led to some very interesting discussions within our group.”

At the end of the workshop, I asked people to revisit their definitions of hacktivism. In many cases hacktivism had been initially seen as criminal activity. Most people shifted their position, and left believing that hacktivism is indeed a viable approach for effecting social change.

I also do workshops on personal data, and on innovation, because in the history of civil disobedience, the word civil gets lost. Hacktivists are concerned with the civil use of code, data and use of technology to raise social issues. We want to have a civil and social conversation on these issues, but if you are labeled as criminal, you cannot. It is my hope that creating opportunities for discussion and participation concerning hacktivism will empower others.


As we augment our abilities via surgical implants, chemical adjustments, wearable extensions, etc. we become bionic beings. Such evolution simultaneously generates a data identity that exists in various databases and corresponds to each individual. Our personal information is used and abused in ways that are both known and unknown, whether we consent or not. It is important to challenge any notion of universal truths given the potential lack of data integrity. For this reason, it is of upmost importance to education all people in digital literacy skills. Hacktivism is only one of unlimited future options for the tech savvy.

Mara Vandorou Editorial: The Public Human Strategies of living in the transparent society
Stephanie de Smale 2. Tinkering with Life Strategies for 'literacy' in the age of biotechnology
Ben Borrow 3. The (in)convenient surveillance device The Mobile Phone as both Enabling Surveillance yet Empowering the Individual
Marina Turco 4. In the Shadow of the Matrix A strategic approach to the transparant society
Alexandra Woelfe 5. Surveillance of the state Connections to identity, autonomy and Foucault's notion of biopower
Dr David Barnard-Wills 6. Stanza An artist's engagement with surveillance, privacy, technology and control
Joeri Taelman 7. Biopolitics through the internet of bodies The act of looking back might sound appealing, but it might very well mean the disappearance of disappearance
Suze Krijnen 8. Waarom je online privacy kunt vergeten (Tenzij we als publiek onze verantwoordelijkheid nemen)
Hans de Zwart 9. Privacyrede 2014 Deze rede werd op 2 september 2014 uitgesproken voor SETUP en Studium Generale UU in de Senaatszaal van het Academiegebouw in Utrecht.
Nienke Huitenga 10. Mijn Digitale Schaduw Ooit ging het om je persoonsgegevens. Nu geven we iets veel waardevollers weg.