political hackers

What does political hacking look like in the US?

With the fall election fervor at full volume, we looked at a quieter way people influence elections—hacktivism. Using 2017 FBI crime reports, we discovered the states where hacktivism may play a role in the 2018 elections.

What is hacktivism?

Hacktivism is hacking for the sake of activism. It involves someone illegally accessing digital information for a political or social cause.

Political activism is nothing new, but taking it online via covert tactics changes the game. The hacktivist community claims to rally around fighting online censorship. But some question the validity of that motive when hacktivists block or knock out websites.

Whether you view hacktivists as dangerous enemies of the state or as digital Robin Hoods, stealing information from the powerful and distributing it to the masses, the truth is that hacktivism can sway public opinion. And because influencing public opinion comes down to how many people you can convince, hacktivists tend to target states with higher populations.

States with the Most Political Hacking Incidents in 2017

Six states had more than 5 reported hacktivist cases in 2017, but 16 states had none.

With 28 political hacking incidents, California had the most incidents by far in the US. It had twice as many as New York (14), the runner-up state.

These numbers may seem low, but part of what makes hacktivism so appealing to hackers—and scary for those being hacked—is that just one instance can have huge consequences.

According to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, hackers with ties to Russia used Twitter bots to artificially spread the hashtags #TakeAKnee and #BoycottNFL to sow further division among Americans in September 2017. The result? Both hashtags skyrocketed. Appearances of #TakeAKnee went from less than 50 to more than 770,000 in one day, and appearances of #BoycottNFL reached a single-day high of 214,000.

States with more federal representatives tend to experience more hacktivism.

Hacktivism’s huge potential for influencing public opinion helps explains why the states in the chart above were targeted. Swaying people’s perceptions in these states is more likely to affect policy changes because most of them have more representatives than other states.

Six of the 10 states with the most representatives were also among the top 10 for hacktivism incidents.

By targeting states with more congresspeople, hacktivists theoretically have a better chance of getting the politicians they want into the federal government.

States with larger legislatures experience more hacktivism.

Using the number of hacktivism incidents from the 2017 FBI report and adjusting for the number of state legislators, we can get the number of hacktivist incidents per legislator.

Eight of the 10 states with the largest legislatures were also among the top 10 for hacktivism incidents.

If these numbers hold true for 2018, we have a good guess as to which states hacktivists may be apt to target.

The following states are the most likely to be hacked in 2018:

The larger the legislature, the more people a state needs to elect. This means more opportunities for hacktivists to exert their influence, which leads to more hacktivist activity in general.

What role will hacktivists play in the 2018 elections?

Unfortunately, hackers have already attacked the 2018 midterm elections.

According to the Houston Chronicle, cyber attackers have already used phishing scams (baiting people into giving away information) on at least three campaigns. Five national security officials have warned of election interference and the Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, described the potential of Russian meddling in the midterm elections as “one keyboard click away.”

While this sounds scary, it’s also nothing new. Hacktivism has been around since the early days of the internet.

A Brief History of Political Hacking

1996—The word “hacktivism” is coined by Omega, a member of the hacking group Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc).

1998Electronic Disturbance Theater, a group of online political performance artists, hack the Pentagon, the Mexican government, and the German stock exchange to protest the clampdown on the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

2001—A branch of cDc, Hacktivisimo, announces the hacktivist community’s dedication to combat “state-sponsored censorship of the internet” in the Hacktivisimo Declaration.

2003Fifteen-year-old Christopher Poole uses a computer in his bedroom to create 4chan.org, the eventual birthplace of the notorious hacktivist group Anonymous.

2011—Hacktivist group LulzSec’s releases private information from Senate.gov just to show it can.

2011Servers at the NSA, the Pentagon, NASA, the Department of Defense, and other military departments are infiltrated. A hacker called sl1nk claims credit and releases formerly secured information as proof.

2012— Anonymous claims credit for infiltrating and taking down the CIA website.

2014— In what the FBI and Secret Service said was “among the most sophisticated attacks ever launched against US government systems,” someone hacks the White House computer system. The FBI begins publishing numbers of hacktivism incidents in its annual reports.

2016— Information leaked from Democratic National Committee emails conspiring against potential presidential candidate Bernie Sanders are published on WikiLeaks.

What can you do about hacktivism in your state?

The best thing you can do to help limit the negative effects of political hacking is vote. The higher the voter turnout, the harder it is for a single hacking incident to affect the outcome of an election.

Election day is Tuesday, November 6th. Get registered and get to the polls.