Why it matters: Activist hacking, or hacktivism if you will, has been one of the most bitter epidemics to infest the internet. While heroic when used against ISIS, hacktivism has shifted from clear-cut just causes to attacks with strong political motives to attacks against a Children’s Hospital. But for better or for worse, new data suggests that Anonymous is dead and they’ve taken the whole hacktivism community with them -- for the time being.
IBM’s X-Force threat intelligence platform has revealed part of the data they’ve gathered on hacktivism since 2015, and what they’ve observed has been no small change: from a peak of 35 attacks in 2015, hacktivist attacks steadily declined to just two last year and none thus far in 2019. The decline is related to the attrition of Anonymous, the hacktivist group behind 45% of attacks in the last four years, who’ve dropped from eight attacks in 2015 to merely one last year. 2018 saw the lowest rates of hacktivism in a decade, and 2019 might follow the same trend.
The X-Force defined a hacktivist attack as any politically motivated, widely reported and damaging attack that can be attributed to a specific group, and in the last four years, they observed a total of 66. They’ve attributed the decline to two main factors; the fracturing of Anonymous and the bad taste it has left in the community’s mouth, and renewed pressure from law enforcement.
Anonymous, by design, have no leader, no control over their members, and no way to verify members. While united by various common goals from 2008 to 2015, including fights against pedophilia, censorship, and police brutality, divisive internal political opinions began separating the group during the 2016 election. Some members, it’s believed, wished to attack Hillary Clinton for her left-wing ideals, while others were distressed by Donald Trump’s anti-immigration and perceived racist policies. Several groups claiming to be Anonymous conducted brief attacks on both candidates.
Troubles escalated further when other hackers and even government authorized groups began masquerading as Anonymous, either for their own means or to tarnish Anonymous’ name. It’s unclear why, but Anonymous leadership was quite distressed. Attempts to remove “fake Anons” decreased the number of true Anonymous hackers, the X-Force believes. At the same time, self-proclaimed Anonymous member Martin Gottesfeld was arrested on suspicions he was behind DDoS attacks against children’s hospitals. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment last January.
The diminishing strength of Anonymous is believed to have caused their failure in various attacks, and the mediocrity behind others. DDoS attacks and hits against public websites were largely looked down upon by the hacktivist community, which is suspected of reducing the desire for further activity. Several data hacks against governments and companies ended up exposing more info on harmless civilians than bad actors, and that line of hacking was abandoned quickly.
Independent from Anonymous, many smaller and less professional hacktivist groups have been blocked by new security measures employed by governments and companies in the last two years, while others have lost members to arrests. Across the US, UK and Turkey at least 62 arrests have been made in the past four years, while X-Force suspects that many more have been made on the quiet. In some cases, governments have struck plea deals or convinced hackers to change sides on the quiet.
While many are proclaiming the death of hacktivism, X-Force believes that this will be just a brief respite. Scattered activities like attacks on Saudi newspapers and strikes against Ecuadorian government sites following the arrest of Julian Assange suggest renewed interest this year, and no one is letting their guard down.