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March 30, 2023

Eco-hacktivism should be taking the world by storm. What happened?

For years, cybersecurity researchers warned that the next great wave of hacktivism will try to save the planet. Only a committed few have joined the movement.

By Greg Noone and Claudia Glover

The particulates seeped silently into the river, carried by the current down the hill toward Lake Izabela, Guatemala. The local fishermen were the first to notice. Deformed fish began to fill their nets, harbingers of a vast incarnadine bloom that would later appear upon the surface of the lake. Local Mayan communities accused a foreign-owned nickel mine of polluting the ecosystem with heavy metals. The Guatemalan government shut the operation down but, after a consultation with the townsfolk nearby, the mine reopened. Only after an eco-hacktivist collective named Guacamaya leaked terabytes of documentation from the mine’s owners did it emerge that this apparent public relations coup was, in fact, a sham. 

The group sees itself as acting in the best tradition of anti-colonialist movements across Latin America. “We use technology as one of the many tools of those who have been resisting since the time when black women drew maps to freedom on their braids, since stone symbols were placed and they drew on the crosses that they forced us to kiss,” a spokesperson told Tech Monitor. Like traditional Incan bird jars, a computer and a smart eye for software vulnerabilities are tools enough to befuddle your opponent – and mete out a little social justice in the bargain.

Only, it’s not happening as much as one might think. Even as the impacts of climate change become more obvious, eco-hacktivism has not wrought nearly as much chaos upon multinational oil companies as that meted upon the Russian state by pro-Ukraine keyboard warriors. Indeed, most hackers don’t seem to be all that bothered in using their skills to save the planet, apart from a smattering of environmental activists in Europe and, of course, Guacamaya (“If you know of any more examples, we’d be very interested in hearing about them,” the group’s spokesperson asked Tech Monitor.)

This isn’t especially surprising to Dr Vasileios Karagiannopoulos. If you’d asked the associate professor in cybercrime at the University of Portsmouth two years ago what he thought the next great cause for hacktivism would be, his answer probably would have been climate justice. Since then, though, political causes of seemingly greater urgency have emerged: first Ukraine’s fight for its independence, and then the struggle of Iranian citizens to break free from their regime’s theocratic dogma. Melting ice caps have struggled for airtime against these and other crises. And, despite the passion of hackers like Guacamaya, there hasn’t yet been the kind of breach containing sufficient drama and impact to capture the imagination of Western news organisations – or, at least, their short attention spans.

“They’ll be more interested in reporting on a story like the Colonial Pipeline [breach],” he says, “which impacted the entire US eastern seaboard, or the Solarwinds hack that impacted hundreds of thousands of organisations across the globe, rather than an environmental data leak.”

Cybersecurity analysts predicted eco-hacktivism would capture the hearts and minds of politically motivated hackers. So far, though, the movement has largely been confined to a smattering of groups. (Photo by Holli / Shutterstock)

Eco-hacktivism’s bid to save the planet

Might that still happen? If you’ve read anything by Andreas Malm, a wave of eco-hacktivism seems inevitable. A lecturer at Lund University in Sweden, Malm first attained infamy with his endorsement of radical climate action in his sedately titled debut tome, ‘How To Blow Up A Pipeline’. While Malm has form for advocating the pursuit of radical means for environmental ends – see, for example, his 2020 pamphlet endorsing war communism – his work is but one expression of an increasing sense of frustration in academia and among the general public at government emissions boilerplate that’s seen so many individuals surf Tube trains and glue themselves to the public highway.

It’s partly within this left-wing paradigm that Guacamaya sits, the group seeing its work as a necessary act of resistance against corporate misdeeds and neo-colonialism. The capacity for hacktivism to awaken the political consciousness of people across Latin America is both the motivation for the group’s engineering new breaches and a benchmark of their effectiveness. Such actions, explains Guacamaya’s spokesperson, continue “the defence of the territories, a task left by our ancestors and which remains the only option of life in the face of death imposed by a predatory capitalist system.”

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In that sense, eco-hacktivism is but one strand among many in Guacamaya’s campaign for broader social justice in Latin America, one that’s also seen it hack and breach the servers of the Chilean, Mexican and Peruvian militaries. Indeed, for Karagiannopoulos, such activities are reminiscent of some of the earliest acts of hacktivism in the 1990s, such as when the Electronic Disturbance Theatre began organising some of the first DDoS attacks in support of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. “The peasants there were displaced,” recalls Karagiannopoulos, something activists blamed on faceless corporations and the recently concluded NAFTA agreement. “There was an environmental element or protection of heritage and land element in those protests.”

Contrast that, then, with the more muted stance toward hacktivism in Europe and North America. While there have been sporadic acts of digital protest – including the Decocidio collective defacement of the European Climate Exchange’s website in 2010, or when thousands of Belgian citizens were encouraged by another group to SMS-bomb their ministers to encourage them to pay closer attention to environmental issues – most protest movements have abstained from illegal online activities.

Open for Future is one such group. “What we try to do is to provide a strategy, a communicative strategy, to activists,” says *Francesco, one of its spokespersons. Rather than breach corporate and private environmental malefactors, the group pursues what it calls ‘ethical hacktivism’: using digital tools and expertise to more effectively advertise and organise environmental protest.

eco-hacktivism, environmental protest
Most Western environmental protest groups have, for now, stuck to street protests over and above hacktivist activities. (Photo by Karl Nesh / Shutterstock)

Bubbling fury

In that sense, there does not seem to be a great amount of overlap between those individuals equipped with the hacking skills necessary to breach a database and the environmental activists who might have cause to do so. Sometimes the two sides are pitted against each other. In 2015, more than 1,400 officials at UN climate talks in Paris were doxxed by members of Anonymous in retaliation for the arrest of several anarchist protesters by French police (the record of the movement on the climate is mixed; five years later, the group announced it was targeting oil sands companies in Canada.) In 2020, meanwhile, it emerged that Dark Basin, a hacking-for-hire group based in India, had been commissioned to breach the systems of 20 non-profit organisations protesting against ExxonMobil (the oil company was not accused of hiring the group.)

The failure of eco-hacktivism to effervesce from the bubbling discontent of climate activists may also be down to the variable impact of climate change and pollution from region to region. For Guacamaya, the dangers posed by the actions of extractive capitalism pose a clear and present danger to the lives of countless rural communities. In Europe and North America, however, the power of national institutions to respond to and restrain such excesses is stronger, and the impacts of climate change (arguably) more abstract. Put another way, why risk prison by exposing the secret files of your common variety oil giant when you can raise awareness of climate change more effectively by causing a temporary nuisance of yourself on the public highway?

Francesco agrees. “We’re not focused on creating damage in a way that is against the law,” he says. That may change for other activists, however, as the impacts of climate change are more keenly felt in many more parts of the world, argues Karagiannopoulos. “I really believe that, as environmental issues become more pressing and campaigns by environmental groups become more common and intensify offline… we are going to see more hacktivist action in this area,” he says.

At least one prominent protest group is interested in the theory of eco-hacktivism, if not yet the practice. “Hacktivism is simply digital non-violent direct action,” a spokesperson from Extinction Rebellion (XR) told Tech Monitor. “Where XR disrupts the physical spaces of roads and industry offices, hackers are disrupting the digital space. All of these non-violent acts contribute to the positive change XR is working towards.”

For now, street protests remain the group’s focus. “We don’t have any hackers organising with us currently that we know of,” said the spokesperson. “But if there’s any out there who are interested in collaborating, then we’d be very interested in hearing from them!”

*Some names have been altered at the request of the interviewees

Read more: Start-ups are using AI to help businesses weather the next climate catastrophe

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