Hacking, ethics, inner conflict: Are we on the brink of a Hacktivism revival?

Was the cyber attack on JBS Meatworks inevitable, because their primary business is something that many feel is unethical?

The whole JBS Meatworks ransomware attack caused some inner conflict for me.

Firstly I’m an ethical hacker and I don’t believe that ransomware attacks are ethical. I’ve spent a lot of my time defending organisations against these types of attacks. Secondly I’m a vegan who is against slaughtering animals for human consumption.

What happens when ransomware halts animals from being killed for human consumption? How do I feel about that? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I won’t lie, my initial gut reaction to the news of the JBS Meatworks ransomware attack was joy. It warms my heart that the power of hacking can yield an individual the ability to cause significant positive change in the world, especially disrupting an operation that slaughters tens of thousands of animals every single day.

Reading further, I wasn’t so happy about it. Legality aside, this was not an ethical attack. It was clearly financially motivated, many of the employees of JBS Meatworks did not get paid on time, there were probably casual staff who lost income and the animal slaughter will probably continue in a week or so anyway.

This got me thinking though… what if the attack’s sole purpose was to halt the slaughter of animals, not to make money? Would I consider that to be ethical? Or to abstract it further, and eliminate my own personal beliefs:

Is it ethical to utilise illegal hacking techniques to disrupt the operations of an organisation that profits primarily from something which is unethical?

It’s a tough question, right? Firstly the word “ethical” is purely subjective. Secondly, there are varying degrees of ethicalness. So while this question is good to think about, there is no definitive answer.

What really matters is people’s opinions on these topics, because those beliefs are what end up being translated into actions in the real world. So how do we measure people’s opinions?

Getting some answers

If you want to gather opinions, Twitter polls are a terrible idea. But that’s exactly where I turned. I love Twitter polls, but they’re not exactly the epitome of scholarly research. Most of the Twitter polls I’m about to show you only allow binary answers. Due to this, they don’t allow the opportunity to fully explore the complexities of the topics. Regardless, the results are super interesting and they do give an insight into the initial gut instinct of my Twitter followers (who are primarily hackers).

First of all, I asked if it is ethical to launch a ransomware attack against an organisation that primarily makes money from something unethical. I was surprised to see that 56% of voters said yes.

Another quandary. Is it ethical to launch a ransomware attack against an organisation that primarily makes money from something unethical?
— hakluke (@hakluke) June 3, 2021

Next, I asked a very similar question, but this time I changed it to a DDoS attack instead of a ransomware attack. The main difference is that the attacker would gain nothing from a DDoS attack. It is an attack designed to purely disrupt operations, unlike a ransomware attack which is more likely to be financially motivated. About 61% of voters feel that this type of attack is ethical, provided that the organisation they are attacking is (subjectively) unethical.

Got another one for y'all:
Is it ethical to launch a DDoS attack against an organisation that primarily makes money from something unethical?
Unlike a ransomware attack, the attacker gains nothing from it, they are purely disrupting unethical operations.
— hakluke (@hakluke) June 3, 2021

Relating this back to the JBS Meatworks attack, I asked my followers whether killing thousands of animals per day for human consumption is ethical:

I'm super interested to see the results of this one too.
Killing thousands of animals per day for human consumption is…
— hakluke (@hakluke) June 3, 2021

About 53% of respondents said that it is ethical, leaving 47% of respondents believing that killing animals for human consumption is unethical.

Then I asked whether the respondent would actively attack an organisation that consistently partakes in actions that they feel are unethical.

Okay one more ethical question:
Would you actively attack an organisation that consistently partakes in actions that you feel are unethical?
— hakluke (@hakluke) June 3, 2021

In this poll, I also added a “see results” button, because I only wanted people to respond if they had a particularly strong opinion one way or the other. The results are staggering.

31% of respondents felt strongly enough about this question to respond “yes”. In other words, almost one third of respondents would actively attack an organisation that consistently partakes in actions that they feel are unethical.

When you combine these two outcomes…

  • ~31% or more of the respondents would personally, actively attack an organisation that they feel is unethical
  • ~47% of the respondents feel that killing animals for human consumption is unethical

It is easy to see that organisations who supply meat are likely to be attacked because there is quite a large cross-section of hackers who would be willing to disrupt resources of these plants, whether there is money to be gained or not.

This doesn’t stop at animal agriculture though, nearly a third of these hackers are willing to attack any organisation that they deem to be unethical. That’s a pretty crazy thought, and it begs the question:

If there was no financial motivation to attack JBS Meatworks, would it still have happened eventually, simply because their primary business is something that many feel is unethical?

And the answer is…. maybe? The polls seem to suggest that this is the case, but It’s hard to say. There’s a big difference between answering a couple of polls on Twitter and actually attacking an organisation. And just to make things even more grey – JBS meats recently released a plant-based meat alternative range, and also bought Vivera, a company that sells plant-based protein. So yeah… I dunno… *confused stare* It’s interesting to think about though.

Hacktivism revival?

For a while now – the whole “hacktivism” scene seems to have been pretty stagnant. The “Anonymous” movement has mostly fizzled out, although it did pop its head up briefly in support of the BLM movement. Other than that, there really has not been much going on.

The responses to these polls tell me that there is still an underlying thirst within hackers to drive (subjectively) positive change in the world, and they certainly have the power to do so. It seems that it is only a matter of time before a new group of vigilante hackers join forces again to wreak havoc against organisations that they feel are unethical.

In these cases, the behaviour of the attackers is far less predictable than your run-of-the-mill ransomware attack because the motivation runs deeper than money, and is far more complex.

Whether you’re for or against it – it’s something worth thinking about, especially if you are involved with an organisation that partakes in activities that are ethically questionable.