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The revolution will not be firewalled: Gabriella Coleman on the ‘hacktivist’ underground

Computer hackers have been very busy this year.

On Monday, as Rupert Murdoch prepared to testify before parliament, computer wizards mocked him by planting a fake news story which claimed the media magnate had died. More seriously, earlier this month some hackers released a bunch of military data including thousands of email passwords. In recent months, the websites of the CIA, Sony, Visa, PBS and many others have all been tampered with by outsiders.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to hack is:  a) to write computer programs for enjoyment or b) to gain access to a computer illegally. Both definitions would apply to the hacking that’s been going on this year.

The most well-known hacker group is Anonymous, a group with roots in the anti-Scientology movement. Not only have they hacked Bank of America and released several of the company’s classified e-mails, they were also involved in taking down government websites in Tunisa and Egypt during the recent uprising in those countries. Anonymous is currently waging a campaign against the city of Orlando for arresting a group that’s been called Food Not Bombs, which has been feeding the homeless without a permit.

Other prominent hackers include LulzSec, which was behind the hackings at and The Sun, and Anti-Sec, short for anti-security, and it’s aimed at exposing security holes in the databases of large corporations.

To get a better idea of who these folks are, and to dig a little more deeply into the subculture, we talked to Gabriella Coleman, a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. She’s written about and dedicated a lot of time to ethnographic research on computer hackers, their culture and impact on society.



  • Gabriella Coleman

    Hi, this is Gabriella from the interview. Just a small clarification from the introduction: “Antisec” is an operation within Anonymous, not technically a group of hackers. They do do hacking as part of their operations but it is not a discrete group of hackers as it is an open operation in contrast to Lulzsec which is small and not open.

    Thanks for having me!

  • zoasterboy

    Hack the Gibson.

  • zoasterboy

    Hack the Gibson.

  • Jeff Bekcer

    sigh… Distributed Denial of Service is NOT hacking…. Making Botnets isn’t explicitly either…
    Hacking means breaking applications and finding bugs in applications and exploiting them.
    Gaining access doesn’t always involve exploits, you could hit them with a $5 wrench until they give the password… that isn’t hacking is it?

  • Getsumei No Michi

    We don’t care if there are some of us who divulge information about ourselves.. we only care if those people threatened others within Anonymous.

  • Bear

    This has to be the first time I’ve seen a somewhat decent article on hacking. You explained to less informed people what it means and explained motives, aka what most people don’t tell you. Thank you!

  • Gabriella Coleman

    I agree that one can be public about who you are and Anonymous be ok with it. But if your participation is seen to be based primarily on the desire to seek personal attention, this does ruffle features. But context does matter. 

  • Anonymous

    I agree with Professor Coleman that the hacktivists are a new breed of politically motivated technophiles. I don’t see this as a blip which can be rooted out and squashed, but more of an ongoing movement which will grow and morph over time:

  • zoasterboy

    In my opinion, non-predefined/creative system interaction, exploration, and creation is hacking. DDoS is a well understood technique that’s not inherently a hack, but if one came up with a really creative new way to achieve DDoS, i’d call it a hack.