Cyber agitation uses computer or related systems to harass, distract, influence, intimidate or mislead a target or adversary. It is typically motivated by either political or ideological goals and uses means considered illegitimate by law, practice and/or custom.
Nihilist and anarchist hacker groups practice cyber agitation; for instance, the loosely connected “Anonymous” organization conducted several high profile cyber attacks in response to the imprisonment of WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange. In contrast to cyber crime and cyber espionage, which seek to steal or alter data, cyber agitation attempts to punish or influence the beliefs and behavior of a targeted actor. Data may be stolen or altered in the process, and large sums of money may be lost due to network shutdowns, but cyber agitation's aim is to harm or persuade.
The severity of cyber agitation can vary greatly. It can consist of little more than digital graffiti sprayed across an adversary's website in order to publicize a grievance to a wider audience. Such incidents pose an inconvenience but are typically less damaging than cyber crime or cyber espionage. More seriously, cyber agitation could sow mass confusion or undermine confidence in the effectiveness of important institutions such as national governments, multilateral organizations or financial institutions.
WikiLeaks's publication of 250,000 confidential U.S. government documents is an example of cyber agitation. While the original security breach was allegedly perpetrated by someone within the U.S. military, WikiLeaks' decision to publish the stolen documents was motivated by a political agenda bent on discrediting countries seen as practicing excessive secrecy. The revelations heightened political tension between the United States and its allies, and damaged the reputations of several American officials. The incident demonstrated the strategic threat posed by cyber agitation to a nation like the United States that must delicately cultivate international relationships in order to advance its wide-ranging global political interests.
Cyber agitation offers a powerful but unpredictable way for actors to shape international perceptions to suit their ends and discredit their adversaries. Both state and non-state actors can use these means, but to date cyber agitation has been conducted primarily by so-called "hacktivists," individuals who are loosely connected and hack computer systems and networks for political purposes. Since malware and automated attack tools are widely available on the Internet, hacktivists today do not need to possess advanced computer skills. All they need is the inclination to act.
Cyber terrorism, the use of cyber means to create fear or panic in a society, is a variant of cyber agitation. It may or may not result in physical destruction — the objective is ultimately psychological — but it is always perpetrated to accomplish a political, religious or ideological goal. To date, acts of cyber terrorism have remained largely unsophisticated, consisting of modest efforts like overloading ideological opponents with email messages, conducting distributed denial of service attacks or defacing websites. However, the U.S. government is increasingly concerned about the possibility of more advanced threats since cyberspace offers a natural safe haven for terrorists. The FBI has investigated individuals affiliated with or sympathetic to al Qaeda who have expressed interest in conducting cyber attacks against U.S. critical infrastructure and acquiring more sophisticated cyber capabilities from outside sources. The United States should anticipate that terrorist groups can and will find ways to employ cyber means in the future.
- America's Cyber Future: Security and Prosperity in the Information Age, at 18-19 (footnotes omitted).