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Hacks and Hacktivism: Old School and New School

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Guest post by Duncan Greaves, Centre for Business in Society

Has journalism reached a tipping point?

Two recent information disclosure incidents have highlighted how we are living through a transition period. The traditional public interest investigative journalists (“the hacks”) are competing, or co-existing with technology-led, issue-driven groups (“the hacktivists”) to deliver news to our doorsteps and inboxes.

The stories in question are the resignation of Sam Allerdyce, the England football manager, who was alleged to have told undercover Daily Telegraph journalists that third party ownership rules could be avoided, in contravention of the FA rules. The journalists had asked for and filmed meetings with Allerdyce in a restaurant at which the alleged remarks that lost him the England job were made. The filming was made covertly and Allerdyce later complained of ‘entrapment’ on the part of the journalists.

The second story concerns the activities of the ‘Fancy Bears’ cyber-hackers. A hacking group with alleged links to Russia, who illegally obtained details of therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) from an extensive World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) database. The subsequent headlines ignited a debate in news channels about the usage of the TUEs by prominent athletes, many of them British.

The disclosures by the two sources differ in the areas including the methods used, the stated motivations and the dissemination of the reports. By almost all measures these reports belonged to different eras of news reporting, a collision of the 20th versus the 21st century: traditional sting vs cyber exposure; public interest vs revenge for the exclusion of Russian athletes from a major sporting event; print first vs online first.

However, these cases point to the increasing blurring of the boundaries of news reporting. Often ‘real’ investigative journalists are assisted by the use of digital technology in the form of recorders and cameras, they research digital news archives and file reports online at the same time as these reports go to press.

Hacktivists also carry out research on their intended targets, and will employ insider knowledge, social engineering techniques or stolen passwords to gain access to the databases that contain the information they wish to disclose.

In the case of the Mossack Fonseca data breach (aka the “Panama Papers”), an insider at the firm worked with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Their ultimate aim was the disclosure of over 11.5 million legal documents relating to offshore tax affairs. The disclosure was so large it took the journalists over a year to begin publishing reports in the media.

The flow of information online is such that ‘data journalism’ is becoming the norm for media outlets to prepare stories from. Journalism as a profession is starting to resemble the world of the hacktivists.

Conversely, there would be no publicity for the agenda of the hacktivist if they did not carry out real world information gathering and the leaked information was not picked up and disseminated by the mainstream press. The newspapers and media groups still have the ability to give ‘oxygen’ to the stories, or else to resign them to a low search engine ranking.

Digital technologies are changing the way in which information and knowledge are being researched, recorded and disseminated. Traditional investigative methods are being blended with hacktivism-driven data sources to provide content for news channels old and new. However, disclosed information also helps to provide the increased data that underpins the stories carried by news networks. The data-journalists presenting the story must now take into account the agenda and motivations of those who are providing that content.

Such a complex environment also suggests that, despite the fast-paced technology developments, sometimes the old journalistic methods can be just as effective at uncovering stories and revealing new information as the new, IT-driven approaches.

Duncan Greaves is conducting PhD research at CBiS on the topic of Business Resilience and Cybersecurity under the supervision of Dr Harjit Sekhon and Dr Alexeis Garcia-Perez.

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Coventry University