Cyberethics: When we are all hactivists at heart by Dan Lohrmann

Last time, I explained the growing cyber trend of hacking for a cause.

In Part 2, I’d like to start with two questions for you.

First, how would you finish this sentence: the Internet is…  That is, how would you briefly describe the Internet, or cyberspace, or the World Wide Web?

Here are some of the popular answers I’ve heard when speaking to “non-technical” people of all ages and diverse backgrounds:

  1. The Internet is the greatest invention since the printing press. Billions of users sending trillions times trillions of bits. It is now my new TV, my phone, and my must-have mobile device. Cloud computing lets me access information at anytime from anywhere on the earth with my smartphone. We’re heading for the Dick Tracy watch.

  2. The Internet is a wonderful tool. It is infrastructure like a digital superhighway, a great multi-purpose communication device, quick access to specific news and sports, and more. It enables all of my new technologies to work together; it’s like a glue that packages my weather and social networks sites like Facebook or Twitter.

  3. The Internet is fun—I can dream online. The Web offers global gaming and virtual worlds. I love Halo, World of Warcraft, Clash of Clans, and other games. My friends and I constantly find interesting and new things to do, and I’m never bored online. In virtual reality, I enter Second Life and travel to distant places without leaving my house. I can see things that I’ve only dreamed of where I live. I interact with exciting, fun people from around the world despite my tight budget.

  4. The Internet is how I learn. 21st century education is about distance learning. I do all my research online. I take classes in Arizona while sitting at home in Michigan. Or I just Google it. I multi-task.

  5. Cyberspace offers new commerce. I love shopping online. I buy stuff from Amazon or I can search for jobs online and find new career opportunities on the other side of the country that I only dreamed about a decade ago. I can even shop for jobs.

  6. The Internet is all about ministry. My church, or soup kitchen, or nonprofit group, or missions team does so much online, and we reach out to other cultures. We communicate with others on the front lines in Africa or Vanuatu over the Internet. Our fundraisers or calls-for-action can touch thousands of families globally and raise millions of dollars for the needy. We can tell amazing stories that people need to hear.

  7. The Internet enables e-Government. I can reserve a campground, renew my driver’s licenses or reserve a spot at a National Park campground online.

  8. Cyberspace feeds my cravings for real-time sports and even fantasy sports teams.

But others might say — Hold on a minute.

Is the Internet really only a force for good? What about Internet predators, child porn, plagiarism, identity theft, or other online crimes? Some are afraid of the Internet and online banking.

And some worry about “big brother” and predict that the book 1984 is coming true.  Perhaps these people would finish the sentence:

  1. The Internet is evil. I know people who are afraid of cyberspace, not because they can’t learn the technology or figure out how to use it, but because they fear the impact of being tempted, misled or even robbed online.

  2. The Internet forces information overload. Too much data coming at me all at once I don’t know what to listen to or who to trust anymore. The Web is really people connected by computers. But do I really know these people and are they being honest? Are they being paid to say that? What are their motives? Which blogs should I read and which ones should I ignore?

  3. Or the Internet takes up too much of my time. I can’t seem to turn it off or find work/life balance.

So how would I finish the sentence?

The Internet is an accelerator, like the gas pedal in your car. The World Wide Web is making almost everything go faster.

While radio and TV played this role in the 20th century, the Internet is swallowing both—offering podcasts and videos on demand. Messages that took months to deliver centuries ago can now be delivered instantly.

But in our brave new web, what is “viral” online today is often old news a week from now.

Like a gas pedal, the Internet is benign. Not a force for good or evil, but both good and evil now wage their battles online in the 21st century.

It is our newest battle front. Just as the printing press vastly expanded the spread of ideas through books and enabled the Renaissance and Reformation, the World Wide Web is creating a new e-Renaissance in numerous areas.

 As Americans, we worry about such hot topics as unemployment, wars overseas, rising levels of debt, local education and climate change. And yet, unless you’ve been the victim of cybercrime or published a book online, you probably haven’t thought very much about how cyberspace is impacting your life—in both positive and negative ways.

The Internet both defines and reflects the culture we live in.

Which leads me to my second question: Why should society care about cyberethics?

But before I answer that question, I want to provide a few basic definitions…

» Ethics are the rules or standards that govern conduct. How do I live my life and make my decisions?

Everyone has ethics. One of the best ways of thinking about ethics is to take a quick look at what you believe and then think about how you would react when those beliefs are challenged.

But to agree on ethics, we must agree on what is moral or the difference between right and wrong. So, if ethics is the study of behaviors and conduct and how what I believe affects how I live, then what is cyberethics?

In cyberspace, what’s allowed on your network? What do I actually do? Are your actions different online than offline?

I think this is a vital topic in the 21st century because the norm is to have different ethical standards or boundaries for online life. I frequently hear, “It doesn’t count the same” or “People do or say things online anonymously that they would never to face to face with someone in real life.”

Also: Who can I trust online and offline? Why are they trustworthy?

While many think cyberspace is separate or not as relevant, our online and offline lives are rapidly merging together as never before.

Hacktivism and you

A few more definitions. What is hactivism?  Also, who is a hacktivist?

According to TechTarget: Hacktivism is the act of hacking, or breaking into a computer system, for a politically or socially motivated purpose. The individual who performs an act of hacktivism is said to be a hacktivist.

Hacking can be a good thing or a bad thing. As discussed last time, there are “white hat” and “black hat” hackers, and plenty of data to show that hacktivism is a growing trend online.

I closed Part one by saying that the future of hacking into the Internet of Things (IoT) won’t just be about dollars or identity theft. A new world of hacking motives is starting to emerge - along with convenient, easy to use, tools for computer novices to do many dangerous things online.

(Note: See this chart to view detailed metrics documenting this growing social activism and hacking trend.)

Pulling this all together

So what is my point?

If we all have causes that we champion both online and offline, and we use the Internet for different purposes as described in the lists above, and new online opportunities are making more and more of us hacktivists - either at heart or in practice with new tools -  even if we are not as tech-savvy as we would like to be....

How can we start to get to workable solutions? Are there any meaningful answers in response?

At the start, I expressed my view that the Internet is like the accelerator in your car. If this is true, than cyberethics are the brakes.

Our brakes:

» Help us maneuver through tough online turns.

» Understand how to reach the desired destination safely.

A teacher asked a class, “Why do we have brakes on a car?” A bunch of children raised their hands. One person blurted out, “To slow down!” Someone else said, “To stop!”

The teacher paused, smiled and said quietly, “We need breaks so we can drive faster without crashing. Brakes allow us to arrive at our destination safely and in one piece.”

The same is true of cyberethics. We need effective cyber brakes when we go online. Cyberethics can inform and transform how we navigate through cyberspace.


Dan Lohrmann is the Chief Security Officer (CSO) and Chief Strategist for Security Mentor. He is an author, blogger, and global keynote speaker on security and technology topics. While serving in Michigan government, he was named SC Magazine CSO of the Year, Governing Magazine Public Official of the Year, and Computerworld Magazine Premier 100 IT Leader.

You can read more by Dan at: or on Twitter: @govcso

Dan Lohrmann's CSO blogs and articles can be found at:

You can follow Security Mentor on Twitter: @SecurityMentor

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