The term “hacker” is frequently misunderstood, thanks to the images of cyber-criminals and Internet warfare perpetuated by the mainstream media and state agencies. The truth of the matter is that without hackers there would be no Internet. At the very least hackers may be the last line of defense preventing the Internet from suffering a quick, whimpering death. In recent years security minded tech-folk have been painted as paranoid at best and often equated with terrorism. This contemporary villainization of hackers has created a dangerous stew of ignorance and fear that keeps the majority of computer users blissfully ignoring the inner workings of state and corporate communication technology, never seeking out alternatives. However, I’ve recently discovered a light at the end of the tunnel.
There is a growing number of anarchist hackers who let their curiosities run wild with passion to teach and learn from like-minded, tech-oriented individuals. These people aren’t the demons they are frequently made out to be. They are professional, bright, kind and more than willing to share everything they know with hopes of learning more from anyone willing to play with them. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to participate in a gathering hosted by a group of such hackers and their friends. The “hackerspace” is known as Noisebridge and the gathering was called Hackmeet.
Located on the third floor, through a hole-in-the-wall in the middle of San Francisco, Noisebridge immediately became of my favorite places in the world and, upon entering, I knew that something special was about to happen there. Hackmeet is an unconference if there ever was one. The scheduled sessions (referred to as skill-shares and group discussions) didn’t resemble lectures in any way but rather open forums for discussion and learning. Each session was guided by well-versed and informed hackers who used handles like Squiggy, Evoltech and Moxie. Several of the workshops were lead by active members of the EFF who was also, appropriately, well-represented as a group.
While the focus of Hackmeet was not on Anarchism specifically, there was a table setup near the door selling social-anarchist centric literature which set the tone for the whole scene. The timing, in the midst of the growing Occupy protests, and given that Hackmeet was organized by activists, lead to many conversations that would most likely make federal agents more than a little nervous. Personally, I attended with an open mind toward learning as much as possible and hopefully having better conversations than were to be had at Defcon 19, which was a much larger conference and all around different experience. Noisebridge is a small space and was packed wall-to-wall with a little over one hundred people on the first day and noticeably less on the second. The best part was the brainstorming and dialog that seemed to happen constantly and effortlessly.
The range of topics focused on security and privacy with underpinnings of activism. Upon arriving, I was immediately shocked to learn that encrypted instant messaging is not only possible but also extremely easy to install. Tor was discussed at length and most topics that weren’t centered on the onion router network led to questions about implementations with Tor. Regarding activism specifically, there was a fascinating discussion about distributed operator offensive and defensive hacking techniques. This means setting up a communications network in the field, off the grid and the state/corporate Internet, capable of transferring media and intelligence to a remote location in a secure and timely manner. There was also discussion of communication network attack techniques with amazing implications that could lead to incarceration at a serious level. Security of HTTPS and building websites with the Drupal CMS and how to conduct distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks were also popular topics of discussion.
Not everything was specifically geared toward the obscenely tech-savvy audience though. An interesting forum about “How to win a war of narratives against the US government” was lead by a member of the EFF, where the crowd discussed reframing government topics. One such example is the renaming of the Stop Online Piracy Act to be the Internet Blacklist Bill. Another hot topic of this group discussion was the tactic of using a security versus security approach when discussing TSA airport searches instead of using a security versus privacy argument. The premise being that privacy will always lose in the minds of the general public. In the same vein, the importance of talking about hacking as security practice or curiosity instead of in the context of war or crime was also noted. Tying the whole event together, BeerNotBombs was present with tasty beers for donations and the wonderful people of Noisebridge prepared delicious vegan-friendly snacks and lunch on both days.
My personal exploration into local and online security garnered a massive boost in direction and motivation by attending Hackmeet and I look forward to the brainstorming and discussions that are still to come. There’s more information about Hackmeet available at the Hackbloc website with more details about specific discussions. Watch for upcoming articles that I’ll be posting with instructions to setup encrypted instant messaging, full disk encryption and implementation of what I’ve come to call “Comm Games” which I am very excited about.