Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke was once a member of computer hacktivist group called Cult of the Dead Cow (CDC), Reuters reported Friday.
During his time as a member of the CDC — originators of the term “hacktivism” and one of the oldest hacker clubs in the U.S. — a teenage O’Rourke reportedly stole long-distance telephone service to get online, pirated computer games, and shared his thoughts under the name “Psychedelic Warlord.” Through all the baud modems, text files, and manifestos, one pivotal question comes to mind: What exactly is “hacktivism?”
A portmanteau of hacker and activism, hacktivism involves using technology to conduct activism-related behavior, usually to attract attention to an issue and bring about some form of political or social change.
Molly Sauter, author of The Coming Swarm: DDoS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet, says anyone can be be a hacktivist, regardless of their programming skills. “Hacktivist is a very general identity,” says Sauter. “It’s like ‘activist,’ anyone can say they’re a hacktivist.”
Many modern-day activism campaigns have a hacktivist component, and in many cases hacktivism is about attracting attention, much the same way groups like Greenpeace orchestrate headline-grabbing stunts in the real world to get bigger issues in the headlines.
One hacktivist group you’ve probably heard of: Anonymous, a loosely affiliated group of hackers and other internet users who have claimed responsibility for a wide range of actions, including denial-of-service attacks directed at Michigan’s state website in 2016 in reaction to the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Such denial-of-service attacks — which can disable a website by overloading it with fake traffic — are often used by groups like Anonymous, but others frown upon the tactic. In fact, Sauter says the CDC was strongly opposed to denial of service attacks, as the group believed in the concept of free-flowing information.
“People who identified as hackers in subsequent generations don’t have that hangup, and don’t believe it’s an inappropriate tactic,” says Sauter. “It really depends on what your understanding is of the online space, and your understanding of your own issues are. That creates the situation that lets you decide the appropriate set of tactics for your movement.” As with more traditional activism, each individual or group’s motivations are varied — which also means the methods used by one hacktivist group might be considered off the table for others.
Categorizing hacktivists is an exercise in overgeneralizing, and those who try often fail to properly acknowledge the motivations or intended outcomes of any one organization’s efforts. For instance: the CDC’s most infamous exploit, Back Orifice, could be considered either a malicious attack or a last ditch effort to patch a widespread problem. The exploit took advantage of a well-known flaw in Microsoft’s Windows 98 operating system that allowed attackers to take control of a computer running it. “So by creating a tool that automated the exploitation of this flaw, CDC put Microsoft in a position where they were forced to patch the system they didn’t want to patch,” Sauter says.
Was such a move good or bad? “It’s certainly disruptive,” Sauter says. “It’s like asking if a sit-in is a good tactic or an evil tactic. It is a tactic, and it can be used by a variety of people for a variety of ends.”
O’Rourke’s campaign did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.
It’s unclear whether O’Rourke’s time with the CDC will move the needle with voters. As Reuters reports, there is “no indication” the candidate “ever engaged in the edgiest sorts of hacking activity.” Other, more prominent CDC members have gone on to successful careers in mainstream fields. Former CDC member Peiter C. Zatko — also known as “Mudge” — went on to work for the U.S. Department of Defense and founded the Cyber Independent Testing Laboratory, funded by a DARPA grant. And while he may have been the perpetuator of relatively minor crimes like pirating games and making long-distance phone calls without paying, O’Rourke is already spinning his ties to the group as evidence that he understands technology issues at a time when those matters are front-and-center in the national debate.
“I understand the democratizing power of the internet, and how transformative it was for me personally, and how it leveraged the extraordinary intelligence of these people all over the country who were sharing ideas and techniques,” O’Rourke told Reuters.
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