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Prediction Check In: How Hacktivism is Shaping Americans’ Confidence in Political Systems

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The number of hacktivism incidents — breaking into a computer network for political or social motivations — has declined in 2016, but their impact has mushroomed. In late 2015, we predicted hacktivism’s impact would escalate throughout 2016, and that has certainly proven to be true throughout the year.

Hacktivism accounted for just over 11 percent of all cyberattacks in 2016, according to the website Hackmageddon. Government entities remain the third most-favored targets of cyberattacks, and actions against political parties accounted for 12.5 percent of attacks, the site reported. Yet hacktivism has dominated headlines and news reports throughout the year, especially in the context of the presidential election.

While hacktivism may account for a relatively small portion of overall cybercrime, the very nature of the attack and the favored targets practically guarantee that a successful hack can quickly gain worldwide attention. That has certainly been the case with very high-profile political hacks that have occurred throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.

Although no one has yet definitively identified the source of hacks that leaked thousands of politically sensitive emails, their impact on the presidential campaign has been impossible to miss. The hacks have created a firestorm of political controversy for months. Creating turmoil and uncertainty in established systems is one of the main objectives of hacktivism.

The politically motivated hacks are emblematic of the evolution of hacktivism, which is now creating greater impact with fewer attacks.

In October, hacktivists briefly crashed the website of Newsweek after the news magazine published an article alleging Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s company violated the Cuban embargo. Wikileaks grabbed headlines by releasing thousands of pages of documents allegedly gleaned from the email of Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton.

Throughout the campaign, Trump made what many have interpreted as a call on the Russian government to hack his opponent’s email’s and Clinton had, in turn, accused Trump of soliciting hacktivism attacks against her campaign. Multiple security agencies said they believed Russia was behind hacks that violated the email servers of the Democratic National Committee.

Hacktivism has also continued to affect business, not just political parties. Also in October, a well-known DNS provider suffered a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack that took offline the websites of popular brands including Twitter, Neflix and Air BnB, to name a few.

When hacktivism hits a business or nonprofit organization, millions or billions of dollars may be at stake. But when the attacks target political parties or government systems, the impact can far exceed monetary devaluation. The apparent ease with which hacktivists target these establishments can undermine public faith in systems critical to our democracy.

Threatpost cites research by Pew Research and Digital Shadows that indicates this year’s spate of hacktivism attacks may not have had a far-reaching influence on people’s candidate choice, but has significantly eroded their confidence in our national security. Specifically, the site says, public confidence in the security and integrity of the nation’s voter systems has been affected by politically motivated hacktivism attacks.

The clear message of this year’s crop of hacktivism attacks is this: hacktivists are not only getting better at what they do, their attacks can cause damage that far surpasses monetary losses. Successful hacktivist attacks can undermine an individual’s public image and a nation’s trust in the systems it relies on for choosing its leaders.