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Should we be scared of hacktivists?

Marco Romagna is a PhD candidate who is currently researching hacktivism and hacktivists, online activists with hacking skills, a relatively new field of study. Romagna teaches at The Hague University of Applied Sciences working within the Centre of Expertise Cyber Security and is also connected to ISGA, the Leiden University Institute of Security and Global Affairs. Who are hacktivists and what can we do to deal with them? His research can help policy makers to understand the motivations of hacktivists.

During his master in Global Criminology in Utrecht, Marco Romagna came across the topic of hacktivism in a group assignment. He realized that the research had become outdated and needed further developments ‘I missed information on who the activists are,’ says Romagna, ‘so I decided to apply for PhD research grant and interview the people behind the actions.’ At this moment he has talked to fifteen hacktivists and is planning to speak to many more.

Illegal but justifiable?

The most well-known hacktivists are Anonymous, they are a large group that has attracted a lot of attention. Most hacktivist groups, however, are small. ‘Sometimes the demands of hacktivists are understandable, even though the methods are strictly unlawful,’ explains Romagna.  ‘Their actions are often in the grey area between legal and illegal. It is therefore important to know how to respond to their cyber-attacks.’

Motivation of hacktivists

Policy makers need to understand the people behind hacktivist actions. ‘From the conversations that I’ve had,’ explains Romagna, ‘I get the picture that hacktivists have political motives but also see hacking as a learning process, an investment in their own skills. Later some of them want to become security experts, or start a consultancy company.’ As a result, breaking the law is not the main objective. For example, Italian hacktivists broke into a website and called for more democracy in the government. ‘I believe that a strong reaction of the Italian government would only escalate the situation,’ says Romagna. ‘It would be much smarter to pay attention to the message and make them feel heard. In the future policy makers could consider hacktivism a more “acceptable” form of protest.’

Hackers outside Europe

There is also a difference between European hacktivists and those who live in countries where the rule of law has another meaning. In Europe it is pretty easy to know what is legal and what isn’t. ‘I talked to Pakistani hacktivists,’ says Romagna, ‘and they were much less afraid that the police would knock on their doors. Their political situation is very different from ours.’

More research

In the coming four years, Romagna will interview a few dozen more hacktivists, speak to policy makers and research other data sources to learn more about hacktivism. ‘I hope to defend my thesis in 2022,’ says Romagna, ‘and in the meantime, I am happy to help students or researchers, who want to know more.’ At this moment, he teaches at the The Hague University of Applied Sciences and there might be room for him to give some lectures at the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs in the future.

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