Is the hacker community ready to save the world? From the evidence presented to its annual European congress last week the world certainly looks like it needs saving, but does the average cypherpunk really care about those outside its narrow, nerdy band of brothers?
Massive post 9/11 investment in the surveillance industry had lured a “surprising number” of friends to work on “the dark side, or at least in the twilight zone”. Then the more realistic approach was “to keep talking to those who had sold their souls”.
Seven years later and the congress is in Hamburg for its 29th iteration and its heroes and heroines are the insiders who didn’t sell, who blew the whistle on the globalising surveillance society.
Congress keynote speaker Jake Appelbaum eschewed talk of ‘dark sides’, black and white hats, good and bad. There were nuances, people had jobs to keep, families to protect, had many reasons to “look the other way”. But it was time, he said, to stop making excuses and take responsibility for the consequences of their work.
(The congress’s clever subtitle – That’s Not My Department – came from satirist Tom Lehrer’s skit on the ex-Nazi architect of the US space programme; “Don’t say that he’s hypocritical / Say rather that he’s apolitical / ‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down. / That’s Not My Department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”)
2005’s worst fears have come to pass. A multi-billion dollar global industry aspires to capture all the digital records of as many citizens it can reach – private and public data, tax returns, emails, web page visits, phone usage, shopping habits – bagging it and shaking it up to see if anything suspicious sticks.
A gargantuan server farm is being built by the US government in Utah to filter, profile and track it all in ever wider searches for ‘persons of interest’. That’s everyone, potentially, if you mix up personal data out of context, both private and public, where guilt by association is established by algorithm, not by law or constitutional right.
It’s no defence to argue that if you’ve done nothing, you’ve nothing to hide, whistleblower Thomas Drake told the congress. “In a secret surveillance state, you don’t get to define what’s wrong or what’s hidden, the government does, in secret.”
An open democracy of citizens cannot coexist alongside a secret, surveillance state, said Appelbaum. Constitutional rights protecting US citizens from warrantless wiretaps were being undermined, bulk data retention made dragnet surveillance and retroactive policing easy. Everyone was now a suspect. “Anonymity in itself is not enough,” he said. “Anonymity will buy you time, it will not buy everyone else justice.”
But does the hacker community have the will to buy justice for anyone else but itself? Or is it casting itself as an underground cypherpunk resistance group that leaves the rest of the world to its dystopian fate, a bad remake of an already bad sci-fi movie?
Julian Assange, writing in his must-read 2012 book, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, is pessimistic about the chances of the internet delivering a future of ‘self-knowledge, diversity, and networks of self-determination’. He predicts that only a “high-tech rebel elite” will be able to keep its freedoms.
Perhaps that’s why the hacker world seems so indifferent about winning friends and influencing people outside its own historically secretive brotherhood. Coincidentally, one such attempt, Cryptoparty, a promising bid to build bridges between hackers and citizens collapsed into acrimony in the midst of last week’s congress.
Even as Thomas Drake told the audience that “the world needed” more people like Cryptoparty’s inspirer, Australian web activist Asher Wolf, she was cutting her ties with the network, citing sexism and exclusion from a process that was was originally meant to be inclusive by definition.
“Unfortunately, the hacker community seems to flounder at making progress in the area of human relations,” Wolf blogged. “Inequality doesn’t just spring up without a context. And women don’t just opt out of hacking and hacker communities because of the tired rhetoric ‘maths and hacking is boys’ business’.”
The response? She had her website hacked, her blog censored and for good measure, abused on Twitter and her personal details posted online.
You don’t need to go over to the dark side to do harm either. Too many cypherpunks promote reliance on technology too inaccessible or unreliable for non-experts to use confidently or safely, especially if deployed in a non-inclusive or patronising manner without regard to social or political context.
Commentator Quinn Norton argues that the hacker community is poised to sit in a position of strange power without yet knowing what kind of ethics should accompany that position. “A nest of geeks whose real-world influence has grown out of all proportion in the last 30 years, these hackers, coders, and makers are struggling with the weird machine they have created in the heart of the world.”
So maybe we should cut them a break. But the hacker world’s occasional autistic spectrum rudeness, patronising elitism, intolerance of the untrained and its oafish attitude to women is not just stereotyping and the subject of popular comedy. It’s symptomatic of a wider condition that threatens its relevance.
Jérémie Zimmermann of online rights group La Quadrature du Net, along with Appelbaum and longtime Chaos Computer Club member Andy Mueller-Maguhn, is a contributor to Assange’s new book.
Assange is sceptical of the effectiveness of public political advocacy: “Given that it (the surveillance society) is designed to operate in secret, isn’t it true that it cannot be regulated with policy?”
Says Zimmermann: “It’s not about a political vanguard, it’s about channelling through the political system, this new ability that we all have between our hands to express ourselves, to share our thoughts, to participate in the sharing of knowledge without being a member of a political party, of a media company or whatever you needed as centralised structure in the past to be able to express yourself.”
In contrast Assange argues “that the only way to safeguard your right to communicate is to communicate privately”.
Allowing for his current circumstances and the punitive treatment of some his supporters, including Zimmermann and Appelbaum, you take his point, but I think he’s on the wrong path and Zimmermann on the right one.
The real disappointment will be if Planet Hacker fails to make good on its inspiration by communicating with the citizens it once promised to protect and serve.
We all need friends on the inside, on the dark side even, but isolation and underground resistance will only take you so far. Some members of the community are taking a lesson from the Arab Spring. Democratic activism is a participatory public activity, open to everyone and all, on and off the street or screen.
If cypherpunks truly want to achieve sustainable “societal and political change” they just have to get out more. Otherwise irrelevance will stagger through hacker dialogue forever like one of its beloved sci-fi references, the hackers themselves zombified, occasionally lurching out of the dark to feed off the unwary living, but easily outpaced as long as you can see them coming.