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Three ways of being a cyber hacktivist

Image of George Lucas JrGeorge R. Lucas, Jr (Naval Postgraduate School):“Three Ways of Being a Cyber Hacktivist"

With due apologies to the late J.L. Austin of Oxford University (“Three Ways of Spilling Ink”), I describe three categories of cyber activism (or “hacktivism”), in order of their increasingly problematic status in law and morality. The three are, in that order: transparency, whistle-blowing, and vigilantism. Using this categorical scheme, I examine the aims of WikiLeaks to provide transparency on government and organizational secret operations; the actions of U.S. Army Private Bradley (Chelsea) Manning and NSA Contractor Edward Snowden as putative “whistle-blowers”; and finally, the internet vigilante group “Anonymous.” The last clearly involves taking the law (or, in its absence, morality) into the group’s hands in unilaterally striking group-selected targets, ranging from the Syrian government engaged in massive human rights violations, to perfectly legitimate security and defense operations. That is, as in all instances of vigilantism, the vigilante’s judgment as to what or who constitutes a moral offense is deeply subjective, and often quite flawed. In all cases of whistle-blowing and vigilantism, the burden of proof is on those who deliberately violate fiduciary duties and contractual (legal) agreements, and finally the law itself, to demonstrate the moral appropriateness of their actions in terms of a Principle of Publicity (judicial, public, or peer review). The last criterion is the one most frequently ignored or failed by both vigilantes and would-be whistle-blowers. I will argue that both Manning and Snowden failed that test.


GEORGE R. LUCAS, JR., recently retired from the “Distinguished Chair in Ethics” in the Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy, is currently Professor of Ethics and Public Policy at the Graduate School of Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He has taught at Georgetown University, Emory University, Randolph-Macon College, the French Military Academy (Saint-Cyr), and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. His main areas of interest are applied moral philosophy and military ethics, and he has written on such topics as: irregular and hybrid warfare, cyber conflict, military and professional ethics, and ethical challenges of emerging military technologies.

 His most recent book is Anthropologists in Arms: The Ethics of Military Anthropology (AltaMira Press, 2009), and he has a commissioned work on military ethics in preparation for Oxford University Press, and is currently editing the Routledge Handbook on Military Ethics for publication in 2015. Other publications include:

“Industrial Challenges of Military Robotics,” Journal of Military Ethics (December 2011); “The Strategy of Graceful Decline,” Ethics & International Affairs (Summer 2011); “Postmodern War,” the introduction for a special issue of Journal of Military Ethics (2010) devoted to ethics and emerging military technologies.