from the portrait-of-a-hacker-as-a-young-man dept
I am a professor at McGill University who writes and researches computer hackers and digital activism, with a particular focus on the development of Free and Open Source Software and the protest movement Anonymous. For research, I am often chained to the computer for long stretches of time.
When Wikileaks published collateral murder in April 2010, it felt more like I was strapped in for a crazy ride on a rickety, wooden roller coaster (last security inspection was sometime around when the Pentagon Papers were released). Wikileaks, as I used to joke, is the gift that keeps on giving. In the beginning it seemed as if every day there was a new story, a new dramatic twist. Even now the reverberations that Wikileaks set into motion are being felt. Leaking as activism, which has yielded many, many political dividends has kept the giving coming. It was almost as if Assange had been saying ominously from the beginning, “Winter is coming” as the summer of leaks turned into the season of Snowden. This week, the British rags twisted this sense of the gift into something altogether different when the head of the MI-5 declared Snowden and Assange "self-seeking twerps" who aided and fortified the enemy by giving them state secrets.
But news on technical specs and political ramifications of blanket NSA spying and other wrongdoings has been on the lighter side this week, with a few exceptions. I really enjoyed Kashmir Hill's riveting, and (as she describes, “highly hypothetical”) analysis on the potential role the NSA might have played in capturing the founder of the Silk Road, DPR. Another short but worthwhile piece covers why Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman defied the government's request to redact the names of the companies involved in Prism. His reasoning was simple: “if the harm that companies would experience would be reputational because the public doesn't like what is going on, that's the accountability journalists are supposed to be promoting,” but let the public decide.
There was no short supply of news on the legal prosecution of hackers, the politics of journalistic interactions and Hollywood representations of hackers, and finally art inspired by their actions.
The most interesting of the bunch are two short blog posts that were circulating this week on Twitter accounts I follow. One is by the journalist Uli Ries, which dispenses handy and forthright advice for hackers on how to best handle interviews with journalists since their motives and technical training may not align with theirs. It covers everything from the rather tough daily constraints journalists face to tips on how to prevent being misrepresented. Another is a great companion piece by the grugq who makes the case that media training is good opsec and also provides essential advice. Anyone (hacker or not) who gets interviewed by journalists and wants to a bit more control over the train of the conversation, really ought to spend five minutes reading them. There was also an interesting twitter conversation among a crew of hackers who deliberated whether a reputation system could work for publicizing and thus eventually minimizing shoddy journalistic work. What do you think, is this doable, desirable or would it backfire?
One person who felt wholly misrepresented by the press and activists was Chelsea Manning. In her first statement since her sentencing, she voiced her deep discontent with how she has been misconstrued as an anti-war pacifist instead of a transparency advocate. Since this circulated far and wide, I am pretty sure she set the record straight, at least for now.
Unfortunately Aaron Swartz—the Internet activist who tragically ended his life when facing a lengthy trial for simply downloading academic articles—could not speak up to defend himself, as Chelsea did, from what I felt was a rather unfair characterization by Hal Abelson, an MIT professor who chaired a committee to investigate MIT's role in the debacle. Abelson pretty much absolves MIT, then describes Swartz as “dangerously naive about the reality of exercising [his technical] power, to the extent that he destroyed himself.” The true naivety here was Abelson's. His failure to attribute any blame to the unfair, aggressive and excessive federal prosecution, instead characterizing it merely as “vigorous,” was as appalling as using a descriptive word that one should reserve for a workout.
Speaking of Computer Fraud and Abuse prosecution, 13 individuals were indicted for their alleged participation in some phase of Operation Payback, a slew of distributed denial of service campaigns coordinated by Anonymous between September and December 2010.
When alleged participants get indicted or arrested, they are also unmasked, and we get a rare glimpse behind the makeup of Anonymous (assuming they were involved, which is still, of course, an open question). As I have long insisted, Anonymous is more diverse than one might first imagine, which is the topic of this brief article. It showcases a 22 year old college student, a 28 year old security consultant, a former employee at Amazon, and even an Anon who can claim senior citizen benefits. There is nothing too earth shattering about this piece nor is it very detailed but it is important to shatter stereotypes about hackers and Anonymous (including the fact that many are not hackers) when we can. The general public tends to think a hacker as acne, autism and anger: pasty white, nerdy middle class teenagers.
Just taking the example of Lulzsec—the break-away hacker group who spent fifty nights and days together working together in secret chat rooms to coordinate their hacking spree, it was a pretty diverse crew. Among their ranks was a Puerto Rican from the hood; a young Iraqi immigrant who moved to London when he was
Incidentally, those 2 Irish students were also in court this week to pay the 5,000 Euro fine they were each fined back in July when they plead guilty to one count of hacking, which is also the first hacking case to be tried in Ireland. I was in the court room in July and was stunned at how sane it all went down, at least when compared to the US where punishments for hacking, even if not financially motivated, are almost always frighteningly harsh. The Irish judge was stern but rather kind and reasonable. She noted the only harm was embarrassment, gave them no prison time, and now that they have paid their fine, their criminal incident will be wiped from their records. Most of the British Lulzsec guys got stiffer sentences (most were also being sentenced for a much much wider swath of activity than the Irish defendants) but not one got a fine. Compare that to US where once do your time, you also need to live out another decade or more as an indentured servant as you pay off your astronomical 100,000-600,000 dollar fine .
In the United States money will also be made off the hacker's back as DreamWorks released their movie about Wikileaks, “The Fifth Estate” this week. Unsurprisingly, Assange is giving the movie a resounding thumbs down, and was critical of the film's poster for labeling Assange a traitor. Notably, Wikileaks failed to mention the other poster which goes by its side, where the label is “hero”. Also of note was Assange's letter to "Assange", or at least the actor who plays him, where he praises him in an effort to butter him up before he tells him he is being used as a tool. Assange also cringes at the terrible Australian accent.
I will reserve judgment about the film and accent until I see the it for myself but reviews are all over the map. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Assange, claims his portrayal is “empathetic” while other reviews paint a different story: “It portrays [Assange] as a visionary who is pathologically insensitive, a genius with a cruel wit whose single-minded ambition leads him to betray his partners and his sources. Just as Zuckerberg was cast as a pioneer of social media who is devoid of social skills, Assange comes across as a populist crusader with an allergy to actual people. As he admits with a smirk in the film, “I’ve heard people say I dangle on the autistic spectrum.” It is not that Assange's personality should not be up for artistic grabs, I just suspect he and his so-called dangling autism will come to stand in for the hacker personality writ large.
If Hollywood released a blockbuster film on Wikileaks this week, it is counterbalanced by Banksy's New York based release of the public exhibit “Crazy Horse and Collateral Murder,” featuring his signature bold artwork alongside audio from one of Wikileaks' first big releases: the chilling video of American soldiers gunning down unarmed civilians in Iraq—the gift Manning gave to the world. Whatever you might think of Banksy, it is refreshing for an artist to bracket the individuals (Manning and Assange) in favor of featuring the actions the hackers gifted to the world.
Speaking of really weird hacker representations and art juxtapositions.. next month is the premier of a ballet featuring the story of Lulzsec. I can't wait to see how a bunch of dudes, sitting at a computer, chatting on Internet Relay Chat, will be represented not only in dance but in leotards.
How are all these stories and artistic artifacts tied together? I am not sure they are. But while the hacker has long been part of the public life of politics, ideas, and art thanks to films like War Games, it seems like the game of painting a portrait of the hacker has changed in recent times. The hacker figure is crafted in increasingly complex ways by hackers themselves, by the press, by Hollywood, and independent artists of all stripes and kinds (and of course by anthropologists and many other academics). Given their growing presence in the political sphere, there no shortage of these competing representations. It is too early to declare one as dominating public perceptions. What we have now is an ever shifting montage of the hacker.
Meanwhile, in a dramatic series of photos, you can see how a seal escaped from a shark, and you need to see it to believe it. Somehow, in an inexplicable way, that connects all of these stories together.