While the traditional media and the United States government continue to fixate on the individual Julian Assange, a not so subtle cultural shift is taking root worldwide: Hacktivist culture is rapidly morphing from a small underground subculture into mainstream culture for a younger generation, not just in the United States, but worldwide. Julian Assange and WikiLeaks did not start this cultural movement, but they have served as a catalyst for its robust growth and worldwide propagation. And while the new generation of hacktivists has Wikileaks as its model, they also grew up in the era of George W. Bush's neo-imperialism and its attendant war against transparency. WikiLeaks is the answer to the age of W, and it has given rise to what I call Generation W.
Perhaps the surest sign of the mainstreaming of hacktivism was when 4chan underwent a metamorphosis from a group of kids trading anime and lolcat images and occasionally trolling for lulz into a potent political hacktivist movement, quite willing and able to take Mastercard and the Bank of America offline for refusing to process payments to WikiLeaks.
Of course, 4chan's "Operation Payback" was originally motivated by the draconian actions of lawyers trying to advance bogus copyright claims, but their basic underlying principle was the same hacktivist ethic motivating their defense of WikiLeaks: information wants to be free; it should not be hoarded by powerful nation states, nor should it be under the control of powerful commercial interests.
The 4chan actions that have received attention in the media have involved the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against Mastercard and Bank of America, but there have been smaller and much more telling episodes in which young people with 4chan backgrounds have created their own hacktivist operations and deployed them with impressive effect.
In one recent case, reported in my essay "Watching the Watchers: Power and Politics in Second Life" a group of Woodbury University students affiliated with 4Chan created a group called "The Wrong Hands" (as in "if this information should find its way into the wrong hands..."). They subsequently infiltrated an online vigilante group that was operating inside of the virtual world Second Life. The vigilante group (known as the JLU) was exposed as having an extensive surveillance operation in Second Life -- one that tracked individuals in the virtual world and kept files on those individuals. Indeed, their database contained 1,700 pages of information and misinformation on users, ranging from chat logs, to presumed real life information about Second Life users.
Once the Wrong Hands infiltrated the JLU, they leaked the contents of the JLU database, posting it in many locations online. Shockingly, the leaked evidence suggested that the JLU surveillance activities were being backed by employees of Linden Lab (the company that owns Second Life), and further that Linden Lab employees were providing the JLU with special technical capabilities that could facilitated their surveillance operation.
In a later development, The Wrong Hands exposed the shady past of the key programmers of a software company (Modular Systems), which was developing a viewer for Second Life (a viewer is the interface program that people use on their home computers to mediate their interactions with the virtual world). These programmers were exposed by the Wrong Hands as having backgrounds not only in writing malicious code, but also other activities that violated the terms of service -- in particular, theft of intellectual property. The Wrong Hands subsequently uncovered an even bigger surveillance/data mining operation conducted through the Modular Systems's viewer. The company, which had several former Linden Lab employees on staff, folded shortly after the exposé.
No one is saying that the operations exposed by the Wrong Hands were equivalent to the Afghan War documents or the State Department cables exposed by Wikileaks; the real moral is not the importance of the exposed information, but rather the fact that the Wikileaks operation could provide a model for a new generation of hacktivists. Wikileaks is teaching young people by example.
Assange may eventually be incarcerated or worse, but the genie is definitely out of the bottle at this point. There is no question but that hacktivist culture is now a worldwide phenomenon. The interesting question is not whether hacktivist culture will change our world. The interesting question now is what our world will look like after it is reshaped by hacktivist culture. Will corrupt businesses be exposed and put out of business? Will governments be forced to be more transparent? Will they collapse from the cost of expending energy on protecting their closed networks? Or will hacktivism lead to more secretive and insular governments? One thing is clear: things are not going to stay the same.