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EP. 38: What to Know About Hacktivism and Its Role in Global Conflict

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A specific type of cyber threat has made its way to the front of the conversation in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and experts say it could play an increasing role in global conflicts even beyond what’s happening in Ukraine.

Hacktivism, a combination of the words “hack” and “activism”, happens when individuals or groups break into a computer system in an act of civil disobedience that is socially or politically motivated, usually in an effort to promote change.

“Hacktivism really is kind of a cyber attack, or a cyber operation, driven by social rather than economics,” Marcus Fowler, senior vice president of strategic engagements and threats at Darktrace, explained on this episode of the Insuring Cyber Podcast.

The Georgetown Journal of International Affairs reported that hacktivism originally emerged sometime in the late 1980s, but it has taken the spotlight recently because of what’s going on in Ukraine. Unlike ethical hacking, which happens when companies hire hackers and give consent for them to break into a computer system to detect vulnerabilities, hacktivists don’t have permission to break into the systems they’re entering, making the activity illegal.  

Infosecurity Magazine reported in March that a range of individual hackers and hacktivist groups have been attracted to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, taking sides and targeting government agencies and organizations.

“Most prevalently was denial of service attacks, so defacing of websites or going after government websites,” Fowler said. “It would appear on both sides. We've seen it both in support of Ukraine, but also in support of Russia.”

Fowler added that because of greater digital dependency among companies and governments, this is only the beginning.

“It’s only increasing the vulnerability to hacktivist actions or hacktivist campaigns,” he said. “Yes they've been around for a while, but I think you're going to see an acceleration as we look towards the future in terms of potential hacktivist actions becoming made public or impacting businesses.”

The silver lining, he said, is that many of the same actions companies are already taking to protect themselves when it comes to cyber crime apply to threats resulting from hacktivism.

“It is good cyber hygiene. It is thinking about how to harden the attack paths within the businesses' network and understanding everything that's happening inside that network in order to defend,” he said. “I think that is the silver lining is that luckily these two or three years of ransomware campaigns … we've seen a prioritization and focus on cyber defense.”

Despite any efforts that are already in place, he warned companies to take extra caution as hacktivism and the impact it could cause is becoming even more relevant.

“It really only takes one hacktivist vigilante who happens to stumble across the right vulnerability within your environment or the right tool to be used against your company to have a significant amount of success that could disrupt business operations,” he said, adding that he believes hacktivism will play a greater role in global conflicts even beyond the current situation between Russia and Ukraine. “I think you'll see hacktivism continue to expand post Russia-Ukraine, and not only for conflicts in the future, but general social call to actions around cyber,” he said. “I think you will see it become an element much like we've watched warfare evolve into hybrid warfare where you have cyber and kinetic working in tandem. I think you're going to see hybrid activism, where you're going to see boots on the ground mesh potentially with cyber actions as well.”

Check out the rest of this episode to see what else Marcus had to say, and be sure to check back for new episodes of this podcast publishing every other Wednesday along with the Insuring Cyber newsletter. Thanks for listening.

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