People who write about cyber-conflict often talk of hacktivists and other civilian volunteers who contribute in various ways to a cause. Might the tools and techniques of cybercrime enable its practitioners to be effective auxiliaries in a real conflict? Might they fall foul of the laws of war, and become unlawful combatants?
We have now measured hacktivism in two wars – in Ukraine and Gaza – and found that its effects appear to be minor and transient in both cases.
In the case of Ukraine, hackers supporting Ukraine attacked Russian websites after the invasion, followed by Russian hackers returning the compliment. The tools they use, such as web defacement and DDoS, can be measured reasonably well using resources we have developed at the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre. The effects were largely trivial, expressing solidarity and sympathy rather than making any persistent contribution to the conflict. Their interest in the conflict dropped off rapidly.
In Gaza, we see the same pattern. After Hamas attacked Israel and Israel declared war, there was a surge of attacks that peaked after a few days, with most targets being strategically unimportant. In both cases, discussion on underground cybercrime forums tailed off after a week. The main difference is that the hacktivism against Israel is one-sided; supporters of Palestine have attacked Israeli websites, but the number of attacks on Palestinian websites has been trivial.