The recently released motion picture The Fifth Estate is the latest pop culture discourse on the controversial issue of “hacktivism.” Benedict Cumberbatch brings star power to the movie with his onscreen depiction of Julian Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks. The film is quite topical, given the recent alarming exposure of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the ongoing discourse surrounding Chelsea Manning. These issues have brought internet security to the forefront of public consciousness. Social media users are now debating the legitimacy of their online privacy settings — what if it isn’t only your friends perusing your pictures and life events, or laughing at that witty status update you just posted?
The problem might not be as discomforting here as it is in the United States, where the NSA has been spying on its citizens for over a decade and counting: with this program, the US government has been keeping tabs on the phone calls, geolocation information, and internet communications of its citizens.
The worst part of the program is that the public didn’t know anything about it until Edward Snowden, former NSA contractor and former CIA employee, leaked information about this surveillance. Through thousands of leaked documents, Snowden also revealed confidential information regarding European nations. Before this controversy, Assange made thousands upon thousands of confidential documents available to anyone with an internet connection. Assange and Snowden have been labeled as black-hat (or criminal) hacktivists by the government, and have been effecively exiled from the countries they “betrayed.”
From governments’ perspectives, hacktivism is a matter of national security. Supporters of the surveillance argue that the decisions made by a government are for the greater good of its people and that there are good intentions behind the surveillance.
Various hacktivists around the world argue that they are simply promoting human rights and ethical judgement by uncovering and exposing digital information. Detractors commonly reference dystopian works such as 1984 by George Orwell or V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. They claim that programs like the NSA represent blatant breaches of privacy reminiscent of the police states in these works.
The trailer for The Fifth Estate depicts an argument between Cumberbatch’s Assange and lesser-known WikiLeaks co-founder Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) about the ethics of releasing the Manning documents. “Lives are at stake!” yells Domscheit-Berg, upset about the danger posed to those named in the documents his partner plans to release. The argument is a dramatic representation of the debate that led to Domscheit-Berg’s split from WikiLeaks. (He later would go on to form his own organisation, OpenLeaks). Even hackivists are split about how best and most ethically deal with releases of confidential government information.
Too often online, the heart of the debate is the question of who — between the hackers and the government — is protecting citizens, and who is merely paranoid. But the debate is not nearly so simple. The internet matures and the debate complicates further, and there is unlikely to be a clear resolution anytime soon.