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Hackvists crucial to enforcing accountability when no one else will: survey

ITEM: Over half of the world’s online users think that so-called “hacktivists” are criminals who should be stopped AND heroes who hold crooked companies and government agencies accountable for their actions.

A survey across 24 countries conducted by research company Ipsos and commissioned by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) found that close to two-thirds of online users think groups like Anomymous who hack into the servers of corporations and government agencies for various reasons (politics, social justice, whistleblowing, doxing, blackmail, etc) are lawbreakers who should be stopped.

However, just over half of respondents said that hacktivist groups “should step in when no one else will hold someone accountable.”

Some numbers from the CIGI press release:

  • Between 65% and 66% of respondents said hacktivists play an important role in keeping criminal organizations, foreign governments, domestic governments and large companies accountable
  • 43% claimed to have a positive view of hacktivist groups
  • 56% believe that hacktivists are a nuisance and provide no real value.

It’s an interesting finding, especially in light of the recent Mossack Fonseca leak demonstrating the extent to which the rich and powerful avoid paying taxes – a revelation that has not proven popular with taxpayers who are not rich and powerful. 

CIGI Research Fellow and cybersecurity expert Eric Jardine says the seemingly contradictory findings could be a case of disapproving the tactics but approving what these groups accomplish with them:

 “They seem to be apprehensive of their lack of recognizable organizational structure, and experience trepidation about their operation from the shadows of the Internet. At the same time, Internet users also deem the outcome of hacktivist operations in a more benign light, especially when they are holding institutionally powerful people to account.”

This has become particularly true in the wake of Edward Snowden’s exposure of the US National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs, with people worldwide more willing to trust new actors in holding governments to account, adds Fen Hampson, director of CIGI’s Global Security & Politics Program and co-director of the Global Commission on Internet Governance:

“What we see in these findings is concern about entrusting these tasks to those nesting behind the vales of hacktivism. Nonetheless, these findings most importantly demonstrate an undisputed appreciation for the power of the Internet as a tool for enhanced accountability and transparency.”

That’s a point that governments and companies should take to heart, especially as we plunge headlong into the era of big data and the digital economy. Put simply, transparency and openness matter to people, and so does accountability for malfeasance, negligence and incompetence.

In the digital economy, where digital personal data is routinely collected, correlated and sold in bulk, trust is a premium and a differentiator. It’s not enough that companies who collect data use it properly and securely – they also have to be held accountable when they don't. If governments can’t (or won't) hold companies (or themselves) accountable, hacktivists will.

Of course you could always just beef up your security measures. But history shows that only gets you so far. 

NOTE: The 2016 CIGI-Ipsos Global Survey on Internet Security and Trust, conducted from November 20 and December 4, 2015, covered over 24,000 users in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey and the United States.

One other finding of note: in countries that experience more frequent political transition, users were more likely to view hacktivists as playing an important role in government accountability.