Hacktivism is an amorphous movement that might now be hiding a range of darker motivations such as outright criminality and state-sponsored phishing, an analysis of the phenomenon by McAfee has suggested.

Hacktivism: Cyberspace has become the new medium for political voices, by François Paget, is long on description of its various strands but as unsure as most analyses of whose interests it might be serving.

Underneath the surface, there are a few clues worth paying attention to.

This open-minded analysis divides hacktivism into three camps; publicity seekers such as Anonymous, politically-motivated 'cyberwarriors' from countries such as Iran, China and Russia, and 'cyberoccupiers', the “real” activists who attempt to build more a concrete movement through co-operation.

As descriptions go, this one is comprehensive, right back to mentioning the 12 September 1981 formation of Berlin's famous Chaos Computer Club which marked the first stirrings of digital idealism.

As far as 2012 goes, McAfee's Paget isn't hugely convinced by Anonymous as being anything other than an umbrella that seems capable of spitting out the odd group of jokers such as LulzSec.

More significant are the cyber-dissidents from social discontents such as the Arab Spring but their existence has brought into play new and troubling forces of counter-action, particularly those with something to lose, principally governments.

The danger is perhaps of falling into the trap of taking hacktivism at face value; whatever its motivations one reason why it happens is simply because it can. Retribution is seen as unlikely, anonymity far easier than with non-Internet activity and publicity is guaranteed. Hacktivism is depressingly cheap.

Some would argue that the idealistic cost for campaigners – the dissident cyberoccupiers – is that the world gets too used to hacktivism. Yesterday's high-profile DDoS or annoying defacement becomes today's run-of-the-mill protest, like eggs thrown at Fortune 500 CEOs as they alight from SUVs at shareholder meetings with the cameras flashing.

Paget might disagree – the real danger is that hacktivism is hollowed out from within by those who want to exploit and subvert it. People don't stop listening so much as stop agreeing.

“[The] apparent randomness of purpose suggests that some individuals are perhaps playing a double game, hiding illegal activities under the cover of political hacktivism. White-hat hackers point out that the lack of ethics in many operations suggest that some hacktivists may be controlled by government secret services,” concludes Paget.

“If hacktivists remain unfocused and continue to accept anyone who signs on to act on their behalf,
we may be on the verge of a digital civil war. The entire hacktivist movement may fall victim to
an increase in criminalisation.”

Thoughtfully, Paget suggests that despite its random and illegal activities we don't write off the core ideals of a movement just yet. The danger, in fact, is that others hijack its name. Hacktivism might at its best be activism in digital form but it needs to mature rapidly or face being discredited - or worse.