From Our Book: Destructive Digital Activism

NOTE: We’ve posted a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next month we’ll be posting more brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Steven Murdoch of the University of Cambridge, is from a chapter on how digital activism can be used for destructive as well as constructive purposes. The section below presents a new taxonomy on the five types of destructive activism. He also blogs regularly at Light Blue Touchpaper.

…In this chapter, destructive digital activism is divided into five categories: blocking access; destroying and defacing virtual property; organizing malicious activity; misusing information; and attacking critical infrastructure. In each of these forms of destructive activism, the inherent capacities of the Internet are manipulated to cause harm either to persons or property. In the case of blocking access, particularly the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, the protocol by which information is requested from a website is misused to overwhelm the response capacity of the site’s server and prevent the site from responding to legitimate requests—in effect, shutting down the site. In the case of destroying and defacing property, the server on which the website is stored is again the target of the attack, though in this case the server—which is little more than a specialized computer—is hacked in order to gain access to and vandalize the site’s code.

In the case of organizing malicious activities, the infrastructure of the Internet is used to allow cooperation when more conventional means, such as meeting in person, are inconvenient or impossible. Anonymous discussion boards and encryption software help activists (who are acting in the public interest) in repressive countries to evade government surveillance; they may also be used to protect activist groups acting against the public interest, such as fascist political parties, from being regulated by the government. These technologies are, as stated earlier, value neutral and protect users regardless of motive or action.

In the opposite scenario, activists can forcibly “out” their adversaries by exposing and disseminating their personal information on the Internet. Here, the same network in which anonymous communication software operates so effectively is used to make available personal information and even misinformation. Anonymous communication software can be deployed because of the “end to end” architecture of the Internet. Within this structure, intelligence lies in the end devices, which can be rapidly upgraded with new functionality without waiting for the network to upgrade, too. This dramatically increases the speed at which new technologies can be developed, but also means that end devices are more complex and thus more vulnerable to attack. Not surprisingly, the intelligent devices at the edge of the network can be compromised by the introduction of malicious software or by hacking into the system from a remote location—two techniques for causing damage to critical infrastructure.

Just as the digital activists discussed in the rest of this book have co-opted the infrastructure of the Internet to fight injustice and defend human rights, the activists in this chapter use the same infrastructure to orchestrate attacks on individuals, institutions, and even countries. Often using software perfected by criminals, they bend the Internet to their own more sinister goals.

3 thoughts on “From Our Book: Destructive Digital Activism

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