Hacking is a term that prompts intense emotions, as we’ve seen in recent years with the likes of Kevin MitnickEvgeniy Bogachev and Sabu. But one thing’s clear: hackers can draw attention to important issues like nobody’s business. And by exposing weaknesses in our current online systems, they often help the web both evolve and improve. Such focused activity is why cybersecurity expert Keren Elazari celebrates the power of the Internet to “rally the masses from keyboards to the streets.” In her TED Talk, she shows how hacktivists like Barnaby Jack and Khalil Shreateh highlighted vulnerabilities in ATMs and Facebook wall posts — not to exploit them, but to improve them.

A new case of hacktivism will play out this week in Brazil, as a group of Anonymous hackers has announced it’s planning a cyber attack against World Cup sponsors to protest the extravagance and high cost of the sporting event, which kicks off in São Paulo on Thursday.

“How many billions of dollars from public funds were spent to build and reform the stadiums that will host the Cup?” reads the manifesto explaining the planned attacks. “We can’t accept pacifically any more the violations on people’s basic rights practiced because of this event.”

The hackers already infiltrated the Brazilian Foreign Ministry’s networks and released 333 confidential emails. Future targets apparently include brands such as Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Emirates Airlines and Adidas.

What’s the goal? The attackers say they intend to reveal the underside of the World Cup, to “show to everyone how fake is and always was this Brazilian government and FIFA.” In a country struggling to provide basic services to many residents, massive anti-World Cup demonstrations and violence have rocked in the past year. Citizens across the country are frustrated with the stagnating economy, growing inequality and insufficient social services — all while the nation pours funds into World Cup infrastructure.

As Elazari might put it, the Brazilian hacktivists are wielding their power to access places and information the average person cannot, in order to shine a spotlight on inequality, violence and injustice in Brazil. It’s your traditional awareness campaign on steroids. It’s also a fascinating inversion of traditional activism. Hacking is often the catalyst for real-world behavior, but in this instance the hackers are jumping on board a movement that’s been playing out in the streets for the better part of a year. Increasingly, hacking on the web and protests in the street can work together to support each other. It’s a collaboration with fascinating potential.

Photo courtesy of Ben Tavener/Flickr.