5 Hacktivist Documentaries Worth Checking Out

December 9, 2014

Hacktivists with a noble cause

It seems like every week another story makes the news about hacker groups and skirmishes in a worldwide cyber war. These stories and acts of digital sabotage have a wide range of purposes and renditions, spanning across the board in political, social and corporate spheres.

One of the more serious attacks in recent months has come at the expense of Sony, with feature films and personal information on employees and celebrities being stolen from their files. The Guardians of Peace, a hacker group of unknown origins, has so far taken credit, though many believe the attacks have come from North Korea.

With an abstract battlefield of ones and zeroes, it’s becoming harder and harder to differentiate good guys and bad guys. Many individuals and groups are considered or identify themselves as hacktivists—hackers who use their skills in the name of social justice or for the greater good. Now more than ever has it become important for the public and the media to get familiar with the cyberscene and the major players involved, to better differentiate the various shades of gray this digital world exists in.

The following are five documentaries that cover some major hacktivist groups and individuals that have dominated the news. Feel free to add other relevant docs in the comments below.

1. Citizenfour

Citizenfour movie poster

Edward Snowden isn’t a traditional hacktivist but rather a controversial whistleblower that famously outted the NSA’s massive wire-tapping practices, possibly committing treason by doing so. On the run from his own country, Snowden has been trying to get his story out from nations who, for the time being, are protecting him, including Russia.

Produced by Steven Soderbergh and directed by Oscar nominee Laura Poitras, Citizenfour is a fascinating look at Snowden’s story with a much more personal perspective than most hacktivist documentaries. Poitras not only directed the film but was also one of the three original people Snowden came clean to, meeting in secret and going on record with his startling revelations. Citizenfour includes these actual recordings and tells the story of how—together with Snowden—this small group made history and risked their freedom to get the truth about America’s surveillance practices out to the public.

2. We Are Legion

We Are Legion movie poster

We Are Legion tells the story of one of the most famous hacktivist groups out there—Anonymous. Director Brian Knappenberger gives a biography of the international, decentralized network that has garnered headlines by attacking high-profile targets like the Church of Scientology, the Westboro Baptist Church, MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, and major government agencies, including those of the United States.

By documenting major events and hacks in the timeline of Anonymous, We Are Legion weaves a coherent story and supplies a context for one of the most prominent and mysterious organizations in the world of hacktivism, shining a light on some of the Internet’s darkest corners.

3. The Hacker Wars

The Hacker Wars movie poster

Vivien Lesnik Weisman’s The Hacker Wars gets to the heart of the hacktivism moment by exploring the motivations of hacktivists and the purpose they serve in the grand scheme of the sociopolitical world. Fast-paced and loud, the film reflects the youth and anarchic energy associated with the hacktivist movement, while also focusing on those who no longer hide in the shadows whether by choice, or most often, not. Getting the story from hacktivists who have been imprisoned or already are in prison or on their way, The Hacker Wars offers a unique perspective on the movement as well as the personal implications for those involved.

4. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz movie poster

Aaron Swartz was a computer programmer, writer, political organizer and hacktivist who, in addition to working on the development of Creative Commons, Reddit, Markdown, and the RSS feed format, constantly championed charitable and social causes. He was a leading figure in the movement against SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act. After he was arrested and convicted for illegally downloading a large number of academic journals from MIT, Swartz was found hanged in his apartment at age twenty-six.

The Internet’s Own Boy, a documentary by Brian Knappenberger, the director of We Are Legion, is a heavy, sometimes somber look at the life of Swartz, using home movies from his childhood and footage from his public life to tell his story. The documentary contains several interviews, including those of Swartz, and chronicles his accomplishments and the battles he fought as well as the controversial charges and allegations that led to his suicide.

5. We Steal Secrets

We Steal Secrets movie poster

Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney directed We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, a film centered on the hacktivist organization founded by Julian Assange. The documentary takes a wide-angle approach to its subject, starting with events in the 1980s and utilizing decades of background and history to detail the group known for collecting and distributing classified information from all corners of the world.

WikiLeaks and Assange came into the spotlight when American soldier Bradley Manning revealed damning footage of airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although avoiding treason charges and the death penalty, the soldier, now Chelsea Manning, was convicted and is currently serving her sentence in a maximum-security prison. Interviews with Assange and Manning from other sources are used in the film, revealing an organization as complicated as the hacktivist world it occupies.