For more than two centuries, Englishmen have burned an effigy of Guy Fawkes every year on Nov. 5 to commemorate the foiling of the Gunpowder plot to blow up Parliament in 1605. In the 21st century, Fawkes has been given a new lease on life by online activist groups who use photos of Guy Fawkes masks -- modeled after that worn by the hero of the science fiction movie “V for Vendetta” -- as their online avatars. These so-called hacktivists, who combine computer hacking with social, political and economic protest, have straddled the line between simple criminal behavior and legitimate political protest for years. But their success in launching a series of high-profile attacks on organizations as diverse as the FBI, CIA, MasterCard, the Vatican and U.S. federal contractors has captured the attention of government officials in ways that traditional political protests do not.
For hacktivists, 2011 marked a turning point in which they morphed from cutting-edge cyber street artists eager to stick it to the powerful into a national security threat, at least in the eyes of a growing number of security professionals. This characterization may not be fair, or even accurate, but the perception is understandable.
For many observers, the year in online activism started out quite differently, as the best-known hacktivist group, Anonymous, offered meaningful support to nascent democratic movements in the authoritarian Middle East. Hacktivists were eager and effective in providing technology, know-how and services to protesters seeking to evade or overcome authoritarian controls on cyberspace and free speech during the Arab Spring. When Tunisia, which had one of the world’s most aggressive online censorship regimes, cracked down on online activity in January 2011, Anonymous funneled news into the country and provided software to help protesters evade state censors and monitors. In Egypt, when the Mubarak government attempted to “unplug” cyberspace, “Anons” set up alternative Internet connections. Members of Telecomix, a less well-known group, began hacking Syrian government accounts to expose the extent of Western technology being used for domestic surveillance and censorship there, while warning Syrian activists about how their online activities were being monitored.