Luke Robert Mason: You’re listening to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.
On this episode, I speak to human rights activist Maureen Webb and alleged hacker Lauri Love.
Hacking, originally, is a technical practice. It’s an ethos of technologists, but it’s increasingly becoming a metaphor for a new kind of social activism, which is all about distributed democracy, distributed power, distributed decision making.
Maureen Webb, excerpt from interview.
Maureen and Lauri shared their insights into the relationship between hacking and political activism, the dangers of government and private sector surveillance, and how hackers are rebuilding society by challenging the status quo.
This episode is an edited version of a recent live stream event. You can view the full unedited video of this conversation at Futures Podcast dot net.
Luke Robert Mason: Now hackers have a bad reputation. But hacking has become a vital practice in the new wave of activism, in which ordinary citizens work to reinvent democracy for a digital era. Hacking has been characterised as an artistic practice, as a practical tool, and sometimes even as a criminal activity. But regardless of the motivations, those doing the hacking are all too often misunderstood and misrepresented.
In her new book, Coding Democracy: How Hackers are Disrupting Power, Surveillance and Authoritarianism, author Maureen Webb argues passionately for our need to better understand the practices and the motives of hackers. It is a deep dive into their personality, their politics and the varied motivations behind their work. Lauri Love is a perfect example of the sort of hacker that Maureen profiles. Previously wanted by the United States for his alleged activities with the hacker collective Anonymous, Lauri has become a passionate advocate for the use of hacking as a form of activism. But to kick off this conversation I wanted to turn to you, Maureen. I want to ask you, what caused you to write this book on hacking?
Maureen Webb: Well, I’m a constitutional lawyer and a labour lawyer, a civil libertarian. And my first book was about the growth of mass surveillance after the events of 911. So I’d written a book called Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-911 World. After the Snowden leaks, my editor from City Lights suggested that I write a book about hackers—a subject which I knew little about. So I began this Odyssey, which literally I…I wrote this book over four years. I started at the Chaos Computer Club, the camp that they put on every four years, in 2015 in Germany. It was a real Odyssey. I travelled to Germany and then to Spain, where I interviewed a hacktivist group called Xnet. I went to Italy and talked to parliamentarians from the tʃiŋkwe ˈstelle movement, and I travelled to San Francisco and spoke with lawyers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and ended up in Boston speaking to academics at MIT and Harvard, who have really started to mainstream hacker ideas and hacker experiments.
Mason: Now your background is as a Labour lawyer. I just wondered why it was so important for you in writing this book that you immersed yourself into the lives of the hacking community. And also as a Labour lawyer—what sort of perspective did that give you on the hacking community?
Webb: Well, you know, this was really a project of journalism. I was reporting on the hacking movement and so it was important to go and see it for myself. It’s a very complex topic. it traverses many disciplines and many issues. I also think that if anything, the book hopefully fulfils the public service in describing some very wide and important issues in an accessible way. It’s really a narrative. It’s a narrative of my Odyssey as an every-person trying to understand the significance of hacking in the 21st century, and it also allows hackers themselves to speak with their own voices. The early feedback is that these are really marvellous people that I was able to speak to; very interesting voices that you’ll hear. As a Labour lawyer, I’m concerned with the sustainability of the digital economy that we’re seeing arise around us, the sustainability of this platform capitalism that’s destroying so many vectors of the economy. The idea of the end of work, which this pandemic recently has brought home in a very sobering way to people. That by the mid-century there we might have 50% unemployment just because of advances in technology, and how are we going to organise our societies around that? I am interested in the concerns of Occupy, the growing inequality in the world, the concentrations of wealth and power. Really, I came to see the hacking movement as it’s been developing in the last decade as a kind of new digital populism. Coming from the prairies, being a Canadian who for whom prairie populism invented our social safety net here, and universal healthcare brought that into our country—I’m not afraid of populism. It’s a very interesting time, this backlash against populism. You know, the threats to democracy, converging with the new challenges of the digital era.
Mason: At the core of the book, there’s this thesis, this idea that hackers are vital disruptors. Now often when we think about hacking, we think about these individuals, these hackers who are dangerous or nihilistic, but in the book you say that hackers are agents of positive chaos. So could you tell us a little bit more about that thesis?
Webb: You know, hacking has evolved enormously since the 1950s. Essentially, there’s a phenomenon that many people have been missing, which is the recent exponential growth of the progressive hacker scene around organisations like the Chaos Computer Club in Europe. When I speak of hackers as vital disruptors, yes—hackers have been engaged in a whole range of activities from the clearly dangerous and nihilistic to the highly altruistic and admirable. Along that range, there is a range of transgression and even criminality, but being a civil liberties activist myself, I understand the value of civil disobedience and the importance that it’s played throughout history in bringing about important changes in society. So in that sense, I do see that there’s value in that whole range of activity. Not clearly the purely malign and destructive, but the rest of that spectrum.
When I say that they’re vital disruptors, well it’s quite concrete. Where we have surveillance capitalism, where we have increasing social control through digital technology by states. The hackers have been fighting for encryption for civilians and privacy for citizens. Where we have had the growing disinformation wars that nearly overwhelmed our democratic elections. We have hackers fighting for truth and transparency, where there has been an increasing commercialisation of the internet, and sequestering and capturing of its potential by corporate gatekeepers. We have hackers fighting for net neutrality and decentralisation. Where we have proprietary closed code, and the emergence of digital rights management, which is infecting all of our computers and closing up creative content, preventing people from a huge shift of property rights to corporations away from individuals. We have hackers who are fighting for free software and an end to digital rights management. Where we have these platform monopolies that are killing local economies and sucking up vast amounts of capital and not using it in a constructive way, we have hackers fighting for alternatives that we could build a new economy around.
So very much in highly sophisticated ways. And in a very broad range of experiments. I think that hackers are going to be vital disruptors to the way that things are tending to go right now.
Mason: What’s so interesting about the book is how you give this almost complete history of hacking and the practice of hacking. You go all the way back to the 1950s, and you look at how the motivations of hackers have evolved over time. You start with the Steven Levy’s hacker ethic and go all the way through to the Hacker Way—the way in which hacking was co-opted by Silicon Valley and the hackaway became this way of doing things in corporations and companies like Facebook. Over that history, how have we seen public perception of hacking change?
Webb: The public averts to it in fits and starts as dramatic events happen and the perception morphs—has morphed several times over the decades. I start the history back in at MIT in the 1950s when the word hacker was coined, and young computer scientists were experimenting with the early mainframe computers. That was really the first wave of hackers.
The second wave of hackers were concerned with getting personal computers to the people. Out of that grew a lot of the early Silicon Valley companies, so that hacking and the hacker ethos was in the DNA of Silicon Valley from the beginning. You know, I guess the hacker ethos, broadly speaking, I would say it’s anyone who subscribes to the idea that systems deserve to be taken apart and examined, and studied and modified, and repurposed and their purposes interrogated. You know, that’s, broadly speaking, the hacker ethos.
In Europe, there was much more of an emphasis on the role of technology in society and a much more critical analysis of how digital technology would change society. Early digital rights pioneers like Wau Holland talked about the responsibility of hackers. His idea was that hackers should fight the negative tendencies of technology with humour and skill. He thought that the way things happened in the world was much less deterministic than we thought, much less linear. But in fact, he ascribed to sort of a chaos theory. That hackers could intervene as positive agents of positive chaos, to disrupt negative tendencies of technology.
Then in the 90s we had the cypherpunks, who in the United States were sort of high level guys in Silicon Valley, libertarians. But they started a list that many young hackers joined, including people like Julian Assange, and ultimately out of that in the early 2000s, I think that you had the growth of a much more progressive hacker scene, that has only been growing exponentially. So while maybe in the 80s, you had teenagers in the basements experimenting in ways that we’re not terribly politically informed, that’s really quite a small part of the hacking story. The hacking story now is really moving forward, almost in a way trying to conceive and bring the ideals of the Occupy movement into the digital era.
Mason: Your background, Maureen, is writing about security. There is a thread throughout this book that feels like you’re looking at hackers as the individuals who are able to challenge some of the dangers that both government and private sector surveillance poses for democracy. So I just wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about that tricky relationship between secrecy and transparency, and between openness and anonymity? How can these two things coexist in our politics and in the 21st century?
Webb: Well, I think that at sort of a larger, meta level. But what you see in the last decade is the convergence of the interests of large corporations with governments. As large corporations capture more and more profits from digital advances, and governments partner with them to achieve greater and greater social control, and then of course, the corruption that happens when politicians are captured by those special interests.
The hacker is like the shaman. They’re like the new shaman in society, right? They have achieved almost folkloric status for the reason that they are the savants in this world. The rest of us know nothing about code. We’re totally at the mercy of the code makers, and code is now ubiquitous in our lives. With the Internet of Things and smart cities, it’s going to be everywhere. Neither governments nor large corporations have an incentive to think responsibly about technology in society. It’s really been almost left to the hobbyist—to the hackers—many of whom are running their own technology consultancies or working in Silicon Valley in order to make a living. The conscience and the consciousness of the hacker is sort of threaded throughout that landscape.
Certainly, you know, as a lawyer, I can appreciate that even institutions need some sphere of transparency, and I think hackers would agree with that. We know that Julian Assange was harshly criticised for the redaction that he made on an early set of documents that he released. Then he was, I understand, falsely accused of not redacting another set when it really was the fault of The Guardian.
I do tell the story of one hacker, John Young of Cryptome, who it seems, seems to release everything. But there is this balance, and there’s a balance when it comes to law enforcement, you know, and issues of the dark web. There has to be some scope for law enforcement to investigate activities. But on the whole, I think what we see emerging is this new manifesto of the hacker movement, which is privacy for the weak, transparency for the powerful. It’s the powerful who should be accountable to the people, and in a democracy, the people are not accountable to their government, except in very defined ways and with rights of due process. No, it’s the rulers who are accountable to the governed. So that’s a very profound manifesto that has emerged recently. It’s an abstraction from the example of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, on the one hand, transparency through the powerful and the revelations of Edward Snowden on the other. Privacy for the weak.
Mason: In that case, I want to ask you a little bit more about the relationship between hacking and politics, because it felt from reading the book that one can’t exist without the other in the way hacking holds our political environment accountable. Does the political environment impact the motives and the methods that the hackers use? Or does the existence of hackers change the world in which political systems are structured? Do they have to coexist to hold democracy accountable?
Webb: You know, hacking is unavoidably a highly political activity. I heard a Spanish hacker and computer scientist say something really interesting to me. He said that hacking is between reform and revolution. He said reformers love hacking, because it introduces changes and reform, but it’s not full-on revolution. Revolutionaries love hacking, because they hope that the changes that they bring will trigger emergent properties, which will be revolutionary to the system. So hacking exists in this strange zone between the two.
I think that if you look at the history—just look at the history of the United States. It really invented the idea of popular sovereignty; it didn’t exist before. Democracies in Europe and in places like Canada were based on old ideas of monarchy, where a certain amount of power was given to the people through representatives, and so the head of state was still the monarch. But part of the state power was given to representatives of the people. In the United States, they innovated this idea of popular sovereignty, where actually, the theory was that the power is held by the people and it’s never given up by the people. The government is, in that sense, not a representative democracy but fully accountable to the people. This idea of popular sovereignty—I think it’s something that hackers are reviving. You’ll see, in a lot of hacker discussions and tracks, a sort of examination of the American Constitution, the ideas of that constitution and what popular sovereignty means in the digital age.
Two of the fundamental conditions for democracy and popular sovereignty are the right to privacy—autonomy for people in their private lives and thoughts—and transparency. The only remedy for corruption and the only way to hold the powerful accountable.
Mason: So in many ways, it feels like hackers are responsible and help to continue the ongoing experiment of politics. When it comes to the idea of hacking—and I want to jump to how we think about it today in the 21st century—it feels like we mentioned the word hacking, and it’s synonymous with the idea of WikiLeaks, and it’s synonymous with the idea of Julian Assange. It’s synonymous with the idea of Edward Snowden. I just wonder how these three individuals have come to define our understanding of hacking in the 21st century.
Webb: Yeah, those were two of the most momentous stories in the history of hacking—the short history of hacking. What Snowden brought to the world was that he really induced a collective epiphany among the ordinary person about the extent and danger of state and corporate surveillance. You know, obviously, a lot of journalism, a lot of stories were bubbling up since the war on terror, but it was really only with Snowden that it really came home in a visceral way to the ordinary person. That we were looking at the end of privacy. I think part of that was the idea that people kind of felt that, even if they might be watched, they still had the anonymity of the crowd, and they didn’t understand the degree to which their activities could be pinpointed in any time. That was the gift of Edward Snowden.
The contribution of Julian Assange…and I’ve heard hackers say that people like Assange and Richard Stallman—their intellectual influence is far greater than Larry Page, Bill Gates, any of these big Silicon Valley guys. What Assange really forced was this question of transparency and accountability in the modern age. If you look at the scope of what WikiLeaks has posted since the beginning of its operations—one might question the wisdom of some of their later activities—but they were really revolutionary in terms of what people can expect to know about what the powerful are doing. Both their own governments and the oligarchs that rule them. Really, I do think that Assange and Snowden are responsible for this. The force behind this new manifesto of privacy for the weak, transparency for the powerful, which many people—ordinary people with little connection to digital technology—would ascribe to. But I think that what’s needed is actually a whole new digital era civics. That people also need to understand the importance of net neutrality to their democracies, the importance of free software. They need to understand what this new digital economy is all about, so that these ideas—what I would call the organising principles of digital era civics—are as important to democracy, if people understood them, as the old enlightenment ideas of equality, fraternity and liberty were back in the 18th century.
Mason: I want to talk a little bit more about what that might actually look like, this idea of building out democracy into cyberspace. It feels like at least in the 21st century, hackers have moved away from the hacking specific systems towards almost building alternative systems. Challenging the monoliths of platform capitalism and trying to build the web that we deserve, and the web that we want. So in what way is net neutrality the heart of this, and how are hackers trying to achieve this? I mean, what are some of the new technologies they might be employing to build these alternative new systems?
Webb: Well, yeah. Net neutrality guarantees that everyone has access to the internet and can use it equally. It was the original structure of the internet as a decentralised interoperable system, but that has increasingly been attacked and modified by governments and corporations as they try to sequester or gatekeeper parts of the internet for their own interests. So yes, one of the major projects of the progressive hacker scene right now is to reinvent or recapture, or build out a new version of a decentralised, interoperable privacy-secure internet and web. Not an easy task, where politically or technically it’s actually very complex. There’s a group at the Chaos Computer Club that’s been working since at least 2015 on a new civilian internet to, you know…it’s sort of a race between good and bad actors. They’ve got DARPA, the defence agency. They’re the ones that created total surveillance infrastructures after the war on terror. On the one hand, they’ve contributed to the development of Tor, and right now they’re talking about rebuilding a new internet that will fix some of the flaws of the old one, because the old one didn’t. I think when it was built as an interoperable system, they weren’t really thinking of privacy concerns. But what the US defence department will build could be a lot less progressive than what the Chaos Computer Club might build.
Then even the European Union is jumping in with a new initiative for a new privacy-secure civilian internet. It’s a big societal project, and hacking groups like the Chaos Computer Club are actually being asked to advise various committees in the European Union that are working on that. Then Tim Berners-Lee also has a project called Solid, where he’s trying to reconfigure and rebuild the World Wide Web. There’s just a vast array of hacker experiments out there right now, that could fundamentally change the political economy as we know it. They’re using federated technology, the existing technology of the internet—but they’re also experimenting in peer-to-peer technology and blockchain. These are technologies in the early stages so it all looks a bit pie in the sky, but some of these experiments could really lead to profound changes in the political economy.
Mason: Now some of the things you’re mentioning feel very technical and feel very confusing to everyday users, everyday citizens and the general public at large. I just wonder two things really. One—how does the general public better engage with the ideas of security, privacy and data rights? And also, how does the general public become more empathetic towards hackers? I mean, often hackers work and they don’t truly understand the social consequences of their actions. They’re really doing it because of a fascination for technology. Sometimes the general public doesn’t understand that. They don’t fully understand their motivations. How do we, as individuals, better understand our data rights and also better understand hackers?
Webb: Well, I think there’s a huge onus on the public to get with the 21st century in terms of our civic understanding. I would put that on us. But you know, I think we do need a new digital era civics. We’ve got to understand why things like Cambridge Analytica, to the kind of piecework that Uber and other platform monopolies throw us, to how our monetary systems work. We’ve got to understand this new landscape the way that hackers understand it.
As for the technical…I was very interested in writing this book, to look at the interface between the user and the technology. So not just describing hacker tools and the concepts behind them and the ideas behind them, but actually trying to learn how to use them. One theme that runs throughout all of this work is usability. It’s very hard to create usable tools, and it’s very hard to create business models that can overtake the platform monopoly models. So I think for users, we’re kind of hopeless—but I don’t think that’s our fault. I do think that the technologists have to create things that are usable and appealing, but on the other hand, for citizens, it’s important that we start understanding the world the way that hackers do.
I think that there’s been a progression in the hacker movement. A lot of those early teenage hackers in the 1980s and early 90s that got into trouble with various exploits—they too have evolved. They are now quite sophisticated political thinkers and actors at the interface of technology and society.
Mason: Well, to help us better understand how hackers think the way they do, we’re lucky to have a well known British hacker join us on the Futures podcast today, and that hacker is Lauri Love. Now Lauri, I guess the first question I should probably ask you is, would you actually describe yourself as a hacker?
Lauri Love: So in order to answer that question, we have to unpick what is an unfortunate overloading or collision of the meanings in hacker. So I identify unreservedly and enthusiastically as a hacker, but in the sense that Maureen was putting across, as people who experiment with technology who push the boundaries, who live on the frontier, who use their imagination to re envision what is possible through the interface of technology, and humanity and society.
At the same time, a parallel meaning evolved—not entirely distinct because of the overlap of the means—but it became, in the eyes of society that wasn’t as interested in the imaginative and the creative but was interested in the transgressive element, there became this meaning of hacker as someone who is a criminal. Who uses those abilities to cross over a border of what is a defined engagement with a technological system, and either to cause some inadvertent decline corruption, or more recently to engage in what would be a traditional criminal activity through the means of technology. So I don’t define myself as a criminal hacker—despite some allegations in history with the US Department of Justice and some long ordeals pursuant to that.
We’ve kind of fought this semantic battle for a while—where we tried to get people to use the word ‘cracker’ rather than ‘hacker’ and it was an uphill struggle. So, we’ve had to live with the fact that we have this overload, this collision of meanings—and we just have to sort of explain the nuance where we can.
Mason: In what way, Lauri, do you see hacking as this positive force in the world?
Love: There is a necessity in society and in the world for the use of imagination to break through where things have become stuck in a rut. We see this in politics. There is a sort of tendency for the traditional people and systems that hold power—which is usually highly correlated with wealth and position within a social stratification—to have things work in a very easy way for them so that they can continue to accumulate their wealth and their power in the world. At the expense of people’s civil liberties, at the expense of freedom, and the ability to do things differently.
Hackers in the positive sense of a chaotic actor are able to disrupt that. So where the evolution of society has become staid and has become blocked, through hacking, you can puncture the equilibrium—to borrow a term from evolutionary biology. You can create a new kind of possibility that wasn’t in the previous rules by deciding to step out of the rule system onto a meta-level and to imagine a new game. I think that’s what hackers do at the very root.
Mason: What was it Lauri that sparked your personal interest in hacking? What led to your interest in groups such as CyberArmy and Anonymous?
Love: So I am a bit of a nerdy kind of guy. I am autistic, or Aspergic. So I had some issues—continue to have some issues—with socialisation in the traditional sense. Then we got the internet…or legitimately got the internet. I managed to obtain a modem and I ran some telephone cables under the carpet so I wouldn’t get in trouble with my parents. Suddenly, this whole new world opened up to me where I was able to use my-. Let’s just say I was a bit bored in school sometimes, so I had this latent intellectual capacity that the internet was able to enable me to use, and to cross over these borders and boundaries and these sort of arbitrary distinctions that limit you. Especially as a kind of precocious child, I was able to meet people that were like minded and not necessarily limited by geography, by language and by all of these other things that can pin us into a small locus of engagement in the world. I had this interest in maximising what I could do with my brain and imagination, and technology offered a way to do that.
To go back to changing the rules of the game, we had this old computer system called the NSX, and we had a lot of floppy disks that we copied when we were in Finland on a holiday. The first thing you do is you play the games, but then at some point, you realise that some of them are written in lines of code that you can look at. You mash your head against that for a few hundred hours, and then you realise that if you stop the game at a certain point, when you’ve just been eaten by the monster, and look at what the programme listing is doing, you can change those rules so that the monster can’t eat you, and you can get further in the game. That opened up a sense of great power. I guess the rest of my life has been the exploration and the elaboration of what it means to have that power and how to use it, hopefully, for the good of society.
Mason: I mean, at the core of that power is what you’ve called your neurodiversity. That’s really at the heart of how you think about technology—imaginatively think about technology. I just wonder if you could describe a little bit more about how that’s such a superpower in many ways.
Webb: Yeah, I mean you’ve used exactly the right word. Unfortunately, in history, people have been expected to fit in this nebulous concept of normal. Those who weren’t normal were considered to be abhorrent or to be broken in some way. You have this old turn of phrase of ‘trying to fit the square shapes through the round holes’—you know, that children’s toy. Recently, we’re just starting on this journey in society of really understanding and appreciating that we have complimentary types of human being. So we all have our own different superpowers, and the combination of all of them creates a kind of synergy where we are greater than the whole. If we were all exactly the same, then that lack of diversity would cause an ecological problem where if we’re faced with a new challenge without having that diversity of thinking and approaching the world, then we wouldn’t be able to respond to it and get past it. So we need not just the geeks and the nerds, but we need all of the people that are different and special in some way. So if we can start to look at it more as we have different superpowers, and of course, different challenges as well, but we can actually harness that diversity.
Mason: Now I want to look at the case that brought you onto the scene. So it was in October 2013, when really, your life changed. You were accused of hacking US Federal organisations, and I just wonder if you could tell us a little bit of that story, I guess—in your own words.
Love: Sure. I mean, it goes back to the wonderful but tragically short life of someone called Aaron Swartz, who Maureen will know about through the research he did on her book. He was a young technologist. He co-founded what became Reddit, but he also—at the age of 14—co authored one of the protocols RSS, which is still used to syndicate content on the web. Later on, the US government was attempting to bring in some rather oppressive legislation at the behest of the copyright cartel, Hollywood MPAA in the audio industry. This was to stop people sharing digital content—or to criminalise it further—giving more control to the government and forcing internet service providers to share information, ostensibly to stop malicious computer hacking. Aaron sort of led some campaigns that were eventually joined by the big tech giants, who blacked out their front pages, and those bad bits of legislation was stopped.
He was also tangentially involved in WikiLeaks in the transparency movement, free writing some software, which is still used today by major media outlets. It’s called SecureDrop now, to allow people to anonymously and safely upload source documents if they’re acting as whistleblowers or have some information.
He got into trouble for using MIT campus to download, en masse, large amounts of scientific journals from the online archive, which arguably should not have been a criminal offence—it was just merely exceeding the terms of service. But unfortunately the way the US legislation that defines criminal hacking allows the exceeding of the terms of service to become a felony. They wanted to make an example of him, unfortunately, similarly to how it was done with civil rights activists under the COINTELPRO program in the 70s.
It was deemed by certain people in power that if we make an example of Aaron Swartz, then it will stop other people from getting too uppity, shall we say, in agitating for digital rights and the freedom of the internet. So had this act of borrowing too many library books was leveraged into potentially 30 years in prison and millions of dollars of fines, and Aaron ended his own life—committed suicide by hanging. This has led to a lot of anger on the internet, which manifested in various ways. Some through reform activities in Congress and other means.
Another vein, another strand of the response was this activist campaign under the Anonymous branding where the intent was, through the use of some chaotic disruptions and some web defacement and the threat of the release of sensitive information, to provoke. Similarly, this reform of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and even more so the punitive sentencing leeway that prosecutors have to give defendants, effectively, a choice between a small amount of charges or charges being piled on and stacked on with various multipliers that judges can apply in sentencing. Here, you have what’s called a coercive plea bargaining system where 97% of federal criminal defendants—rather than go to trial—acquiesce to this offer you can’t refuse, and take the plea.
It was that impossible bind, that choice that did not allow a way out for Aaron—because of his principles—that resulted in him committing suicide. This was just an example of the massive brokenness of the US federal criminal justice system in general. So some things were hacked. As far as I know, nothing particularly malicious was done disruptively or destructively. But it was obviously a provocation against some very powerful people in the United States. In October 2013 I had the knock on the door and the National Crime Agency working with the FBI picked me up and rather than being charged in the UK, which is how it should have been done, the decision was made to try to extradite me to the United States.
Mason: Now, there was a particular set of circumstances that actually stopped that extradition. I just wonder if you could tell us the details of the case and why you were allowed to remain in the UK?
Love: Yeah, so a little bit of context. In history, the treaty between the UK and the USA is widely considered to be broken. It’s one sided. The United States almost always gets the person that they request under the extradition treaty. It was brought in after the events of 9⁄11, where the UK and US governments were in cahoots, shall we say, in some military adventurism as a response. Tony Blair’s government negotiated this treaty where the United States would not have to apply what’s called a prima facie case, which is just sufficient evidence that would ordinarily allow someone to be arrested, to be questioned and to have a search and seizure on them. So the result of this is—and it was a very Kafkaesque experience to go through—but under an extradition request from the United States, they can make any assertions that they like, and none of it has to be proven, none of it can be contested on an evidentiary basis. So we were only able to argue processes, effectively. So reasons for there not to be extradition that are explicitly outlined in law
I had the same solicitor as someone called Gary McKinnon had. He is another Aspgeric lad who did some exploratory hacking, shall we say, and was accused of hacking into NASA to find evidence of aliens and free energy technologies. His extradition was stopped under human rights grounds by the Home Secretary at the time, Theresa May, because it was deemed that because of his health conditions, and the particular harshness of US detention conditions, and their ability to respond to medical concerns, that there was a risk of him committing suicide.
After that case was stopped at the political level by the Home Secretary, they changed the law to take away the discretion of the Home Secretary to consider human rights, which is legally, jurisprudentially problematic in itself. But they asked about and they introduced this thing called the Forum Bar. The Forum Bar says that if it’s in the interest of justice for that to be a domestic prosecution, there should not be an extradition. So it’s a kind of inferior common sense bar against extradition, but nobody had been able to win under that legal argument until our case.
What was good from my point of view, as a reformist, shall we say, or somebody who wants to fix the system, is it gave us the ability to deduce a lot of evidence about exactly the same things that the hacktivist campaign was seeking to highlight, which is the coercive pre-bargaining, the disproportionate sentences—in my case, 99 years for a non violent act extraterritoriality—and most importantly, how bad the conditions are.
Unfortunately, we’re seeing that play out right now in Rikers where the virus is about to cause a blood bath and the conditions there are not able to address. So we lost in the first instance at Westminster Magistrates Court, where you’re expected to lose because the judges they’re particularly beholden to the special relationship, but we were able to win on appeal under the Forum Bar, but also a separate grounds which is that it would be unjust and oppressive for someone with my mental health backgrounds—which is one of depression, anxiety and my physical health complications—to be sent to the US. That was illuminated by the expert witnesses that we had to speak about those conditions and the things that, in my point of view, need desperately to be reformed in that system.
Mason: How do you think your case has changed the perception of hacking? Both the perception and the way it’s been legislated today
Love: It’s interesting, the weird paradox between the power system. The United States Department of Justice wanting to take me—somebody who has never visited the United States—and put me in jail effectively for the rest of my life, versus the public perception, which almost universally has been positive. I’ve never had anyone else, in person, try to give me a hard time for what I was accused of being involved in. It’s usually, “Let me shake your hand, let me buy you a drink. You’re a hero.” I think that exposes the fact that the way the criminal justice system and the way entrenched power structures are responding to hacking is massively at odds with the public’s imagination of what is done, where that is done, for a positive activist reason.
Most people in the public rightly decry and take a dim view of people using hacking skills and abilities to commit fraud or to scam your mother or grandmother, or someone else who is technologically unsavvy. But people look upon hacktivists as a kind of culture hero. We have to see this in the correct context of history. As Maureen was talking about disruption, the United States has a wonderful mythos of its values in terms of the revolution against the traditional European systems of democracy that were not truly representative. The people were not sovereign and the founding fathers created this wonderful constitution, this bill of rights. Unfortunately the reality is not always met with the ideal but that ideal is still very inspirational in the world today. These founding fathers who are lorded in American history were disruptors. They rebelled against the UK Crown. They did some things—the Boston Tea Party is a celebrated act of civil disobedience, and so when a disruptor is seen to be vilified or is seen to be heroic depends on how the history is written afterwards, and that depends on the success of that disruption.
Mason: You’ve been quoted as saying, “Security breaches are in many ways human rights defenders.” I just wonder what you meant by that?
Love: Let’s look at the case, again, of Edward Snowden. The world would not have been able to have this epiphany on the dangers of encroaching totalitarian surveillance systems had Edward Snowden not engaged in an act that was heavily not-encouraged by the people he was working for. That required massive personal risk on his behalf, and required him to breach the security protocols in NSA and in the private corporation that he was working for to get that information into the public. This again required people that were willing to publish that information, which is a massive act of courage and which unfortunately we need to continue fighting for, because I don’t know, today, if The Washington Times and The Guardian would actually publish those tranches, those caches of information anymore. With the vilification and the criminalisation of WikiLeaks in the ongoing attempt to extradite Julian Assange, we risk the chilling effects of the fear and of the consequences of putting that information into the public hands.
It really depends what is breached. If a private individual’s banking details are taken by people working for organised crime, then there’s obviously no civic positive effect of that. But to use another recent example—The Panama Papers—where the source for a massive act of collaborative journalism was a hacker that breached the email system of this law firm that was facilitating massive amounts of tax evasion by huge numbers of powerful and wealthy people. We need to consider that hackers are a kind of whistleblower, and we need to give them the same protections that we give to whistleblowers working within public bodies or organisations.
Mason: Now I’m not sure how much you can and you can’t tell us, Lauri, but apparently you’re now working as what’s commonly known as a white hack hacker. You might not be able to tell us what you’re working on, but apparently you worked on advising the NHS during some of the WannaCry scandal. I just wonder if you can tell us a little bit more about what it means to be a white hack hacker—if indeed you are or are not one—and I wonder if that form of hacking still provides you the same sort of satisfaction.
Love: Just to correct you there, it’s white hat, and it comes from the Western movies where the good gunslinger, the Sheriff, would wear the white hat, and the bad gunslinger, the cattle-rustlers and the criminals would wear the black hat. This is kind of this dichotomy of whether you’re working—and it’s not necessarily between good and bad, but it’s more about working within a system versus working out with the system in a more chaotic capacity. In reality, very few people are exclusively white hat or exclusively black hat. People tend to wear different hats at different times depending on what they’re up to. You’d be surprised how many people in the industry hone their skills not through legitimate means of learning them. They played around on the internet and considered it to be their playground, and had the benefit of never falling foul of law enforcement. Or if they did, they managed to not lose ten years in prison and get rehabilitated into making big bucks, keeping the world safe.
We need people to do this because we have a massive skills shortage, with the entire world economically, through the security of computer systems. The good example as you said is the NHS, and this WannaCry ransomware, or ostensibly ransomware. It turned out to be a state sponsored attack that claimed to be ransomware, but it crippled the computer systems of the National Health Service and many other organisations around the world. There was an inability for the computer security industry to respond fast enough, just because of institutional inertia.
I sort of helped organise an ad-hoc militia or a group of hobbyists who do work in the industry but who do this in their spare time, just to help get the information out. In a situation like that the faster you can get out the information and tell people how to respond to minimise their threat or to mitigate the risks if they had been breached, then the more damage can be avoided. It was the first real situation where people could die directly if that CAT scanner, that piece of medical equipment can’t be used, and somebody needs that machine to have the diagnosis or to have the treatment to survive. There could have been a direct loss of life as a result of this breach.
So, yes today I work as an Information Security Consultant, a Security Operations Engineer. Not because I’ve given up on my principles or sold out to the system but because A—I have bills to pay but B—most importantly, we need people to keep us safe. I don’t believe there isn’t necessarily a tension between these two capacities. What I do worry about is over-legitimation of hackers can suck out disability to act as dissenting agents. So I believe we have to have both. We have to have people being brought up and trained to work within the systems but we also need to maintain an aspect of the hacker ethos which is willing to question and is willing to say where it is potentially necessary, “I will step outside of what is considered acceptable behaviour to create the conditions to fix something that is broken.”
Mason: Maureen, I just want to turn to you again. I just wonder if you have any questions for Lauri?
Webb: I’d like to bounce a thesis off of you, Lauri. One thing that I heard from academics at MIT and Harvard that are embracing hacker themed projects and studying hacker politics: they’re very interested in systems theory. I guess at a simple level there’s the idea that you have positive and negative feedback in systems and that you need to be able to assimilate feedback to be able to crack systems. But another idea that was put to me was this idea of emergence. That change comes about not in necessarily the linear ways that we tend to think of—like I might think of as a civilitarian. If we could just convince enough people to use alternative hacker tools, we could get rid of Facebook, right? So the idea of a critical mass of people. But rather that change comes about—especially with technology—where there might be some small change in the micro that triggers emergent effects that change the macro system.
That gave me a new way of thinking about hackers and why they were so important, because if we don’t know how technology is going to evolve and something small could take us in a totally new direction, then we do need that experimentation at the edges. So, how do hackers think of systems? Because really, it’s systems that you’re dealing with. I mean, you were talking about giant computer systems just now, globalised computer systems.
Love: I guess there’s two aspects to that. One to do with the feedback—positive or negative feedback—but also the interrelation of the hacker and the system as it’s defined in a limited scope. A set of interacting components understood to interact in a limited, finite, prescribed way. There’s this notion of cybernetics which was this kind of weird, quirky science that emerged in the latter half of the last century, and is still ongoing but it’s never really broken through to the mainstream. It comes from this Greek word kubernḗtēs. That was the tiller, the person who controlled the rudder of a ship. They would ensure the ship sailed right by having a system where they’d look at a star or at a landmark and they would control the rudder in response to how that drifted on their line of sight. The ship, the rudder, and the human being and the thing off in the distance in the future were working together cohesively and collectively. The cybernetic concept is that we don’t just have these digital systems, these computer systems, but that they also have a complex relationship with the people that are involved. Not just the users that are using them in the ways that it was intended to be and that it was imagined to be but also the hackers coming in and disrupting that, and changing that. Sometimes taking it apart and putting it together differently.
So we have this idea in science of reductivism. That you can understand the behaviour of the whole from the behaviour of small components and how they work together deterministically. However, sometimes you cannot necessarily extrapolate from the small scale behaviour what will happen globally, because of the complexity of the interactions and so you have these emergent behaviours that cannot be foreseen or predicted, and sometimes this can be problematic. It can be chaotic in the negative way such as in the rise of ransomware.
But, it can also be productive and beneficial where something gets jammed or ossified or co-opted by the capitalistic encroachment of banality on the web, where this sort of quirky open creative system of something like GeoCities got converted now into this very controlled, regimented system in Facebook publishing. Where this can get stuck in the rut, that is now overcome by this emergent behaviour and that depends again on the complexity of the interaction. On there being some scope to interface with those systems creatively.
Mason: We have a question from artist, Sarah Selby, who’s asking, “Are you concerned about the impacts of privacy following what’s happening in response to COVID-19?” We’ve seen in the press that there’s been arguments for apps that track our movements to know who we’ve come into contact with. We’ve seen those sorts of apps be very effective in other parts of the world but they do raise a certain degree of privacy concern. Do you think there’s going to be an increase in surveillance in response to COVID-19? And if so, how do we respond to that as hackers?
Love: We’re in this weird situation now where, for the first time, really more than ever, there’s an alignment in the interests of people who do not want this virus to spread further and to result in more preventable deaths, and fantasies or the wet dreams of the surveillance state in terms of harnessing these devices that we have in our pockets, that track us wherever we go without our real, informed consent.
It’s a difficult one because yes—it’s very useful in terms of contact tracing. Once we get enough testing to determine if someone has been infected, who they might have infected by their contact. We know that the intelligence apparatus use these powers already but they’re generally a little bit circumspect about letting on. What we’ll probably see now, if it hasn’t already happened, is that the governments will say, “Yes, we’re now using your digital devices to follow you everywhere, so that we can help contain this pandemic.” That is a good thing, in its limited scope for that purpose. Unfortunately it breaches the Bulwark of the unthinkable, and so once something has been done for a legitimate purpose, the genie is out of the bottle and unfortunately the tendency is to broaden the use of these powers. It may be a lot harder to argue that this should not be done for some other purpose, once we have acquiesced to using it for this limited useful purpose.
Mason: Maureen, I just wonder your thoughts on what the impact of COVID-19 is going to be towards the way in which citizens are surveilled?
Webb: Yeah, I fear that it will open up a whole new era of mass surveillance and new technologies, If the events of 9⁄11 and the security industrial complex that grew after 9⁄11 are anything to go by, companies will find a way to make a lot of money. The risk will be fetishised and there will be function creep of the laws that are put in place, and the technologies that are put in place.
It’s tough, though, because obviously a global pandemic is a historic event. Public health is paramount. But I heard a really interesting critique in the last couple of days about how you get more cooperation, you get more effective outcomes when you rely on the collective goodness of people than when you impose authoritarian solutions that are punitive. So if you need people to cooperate in a global pandemic, you need an informed and collaborative population. Not an uninformed and coerced population. I think we need to be interrogating and questioning what they propose to bring in. I think it’s kind of laughable that we could have these technologies—apparently China has already been using these very intrusive technologies right since the beginning of this outbreak—and yet we don’t have effective testing. We don’t have the simplest effective testing, or even masks which are the most rudimentary technology. This whole model can’t produce masks for their healthcare workers and yet it could impose this huge apparatus of surveillance on us, and justify it with this narrative of risk.
When it came to anti-terrorism, they couldn’t even prove that the surveillance had been effective, that the NSA have even stopped a single terrorist plot with the massive amounts of surveillance that went on.
Mason: We have another question from YouTube which is one about education. It’s really about how we reframe the idea of hacking as a skill that we can look at and put in a positive light. When we’ve come to education, we’ve heard the idea of computational thinking, but we haven’t really heard the word hacking used. So I guess the question from Diana is, how do we reframe the word hacking as a skill, that puts it in a positive light so that we can do better education around its use?
Love: So I would consider hacking to be a new form of literacy and also a new form of physical fitness, in a way. If you’re physically fit then you’re nimble, you’re able to move quickly on your feet, you’re able to respond to a threat in a way that will minimise the risk of harm to yourself, and you’re also able to help others in a physical situation if you have something like self-defence skills.
Also, literacy enabled people to participate in political and civic systems in a way that they could not before. The advent of the printing press by Gutenberg massively opened up the possibilities for religions amongst the people who belonged to churches, to understand the different scriptures that they were supposedly believing in and deriving benefit from. We saw shortly after the printing press was invented the movement of pamphleteering that again opened up the power to people not working in the political parties to simply write a message out, to get it printed, and to have a massive effect on the political discourse of the countries they were in.
It’s the same with hacking. It’s a kind of literacy, a skillset that enables you not just to be a rule-taker, to use a phrase that we’re unfortunately overusing in the context of Brexit, but to be an rule-maker or a rule-changer. To be empowered, to engage in the dialectic of technology on an even footing with the people who design systems and impose those systems upon us. So I think it needs to be understood and explained, and evangelised in that way. In that this will empower you in the same way that being able to read and write empowers you. In the same way that being physically fit empowers you.
Webb: I see how it can very much be synonymous with the idea of distributed power. It’s people taking charge of things, taking things into their own hands when complex systems are not serving them. It’s about distributed power. It’s a very positive concept in that way. In some ways, this global pandemic is going to force us to unwind some of these global systems and develop more local community economics and systems, and supply chains.
Hacking, originally, is a technical practice. It’s an ethos of technologists but it’s increasingly becoming a metaphor for a new kind of social activism which is all about distributed democracy, distributed power, distributed decision making.
Love: I think it’s really important to highlight now that we’re at this historic moment as a result of this pandemic. Not just the immediate medical effects of people being incapacitated but the economic knock-on effect of having to have these lockdowns, and to have this…I don’t think I can go so far as to say controlled, but this mandated shutdown of economic activity. Just at a time when we have been expecting—the soothsayers and the prophets have been expecting there to be a massive breakdown anyway as a result of climate change. As a result of the limited imagination of people in power to respond to the changes in the world.
It seems horrible to say this on the backs of so many people dying horrifically, but there is a massive opportunity in this shutdown for space of possibility to be opened up. Where we can imagine the end of work or the replacement, the reimagination of work, and also a return to local distributed systems that will be more ecologically robust and sustainable in the face of the massive disruptions that can be caused by climate change, and also the breakdown in traditional politics that we’re seeing globally in the rise of authoritarianism.
We need the creativity of the mindset of hacking. We also need the ability to dream up systems where local organisational structures can take up the slack, where massively centralised structures are not able to keep up or will fail because of supply-line failures or other black swan consequences of this global crisis. We need to all start hacking in our local communities as soon as possible, and as enthusiastically as possible, so that we have some chance of coming out of this calamitous event stronger and more resilient.
Mason: I love that idea, Lauri, that it’s not just about hacking with computers, but it’s about hacking our communities and the systems that we have today, right now. I’m going to grab one more question, and it’s asking about blockchain technology, and whether it’s useful? Whether it’s a major hacktivism enabler?
Webb: I think when peer-to-peer technology is combined with blockchain. So peer-to-peer technology allows one to one exchange of value and also the creation of virtual super computers without centralised authority. But the problem with just peer-to-peer technology is that it doesn’t ensure trust, whereas blockchain added to peer-to-peer can guarantee trust, just by creating these numeric formulas which fit together like links in a chain. They’re like a record. It’s like a distributed ledger that one can rely on because it’s created with numeric links.
Once you get your head around that, you realise that they have the computer power and they have the trust mechanism to create huge ventures. You could create alternative stock exchanges. You could create alternative monetary systems. Bitcoin is an example—it’s a fairly flawed example—but it’s the prototype for blockchain technology.
Potentially, we could replace corrupt legacy institutions like the financialised economy and the flawed stock market with these new alternatives that could rival the old, rigged systems. Blockchain could help create electoral systems that are tamperproof. There are any number of imaginative things out there that people are starting to experiment with, envisioning blockchain. Though it’s a very new technology so it’s got to be taken with a grain of salt.
Love: Yeah, so this comes down to the power of cryptography. We could have talked about this a bit more if we’d had a bit more time to go into it but one of the things that cryptography enables is the ability to…it began with passing messages without having to trust the medium with which you passed them. So whether that’s the telegraph wire or the messenger or something like that. That’s the first foundation—that the author and the recipient can have this confidence that it’s not being eavesdropped along the way. But then these cryptographic technologies have evolved to reduce the need to trust intermediaries more generally. Rather than just in message passing but in free blockchain creating a history of transactions, so that there is a shared idea of what is real and that takes away the need to trust financial intermediaries like banks and the global financial system. That trust, unfortunately, was poorly placed and we had a massive failure because of the reckless gambling of people working within that system who thought that they could continue extracting value by distributing risk and distributing risk, and unfortunately that risk suddenly got called. A technical debt got called all at once and we’re still picking up the pieces. We can expect that to happen again as a consequence of this COVID-19 pandemic. All of the entrenched risk and centralisation of financial power is going to get called as a debt by reality. We might need to have systems to take up the slack when some of those centralised systems break down.
So blockchain, not just through finance but more generally through the ability to have a shared state and a shared reality that we can all trust. Not because we aren’t trusting in people to act honestly, but because we remove the requirement for people to act honestly, and the possibility for them to act dishonestly where the honesty is vouchsafe by the code itself, by the protocols and how they work. As Maureen said, we’re just at the very start of this. Some people consider it to be the fourth industrial revolution and this ties into distributed systems and peer-to-peer systems.
One of the things that I’ve imagined for a long time is what might save the world. It’s a big ongoing interest of mine. It’s local exchange trading schemes, so that we don’t have this one global reserve currency which is the United States petrodollar which is backed up—or is highly dependent on—the extraction of fossil fuels which we can no longer do if we want to have an environment to live in in the future. But it’s also backed up by the threat of military might and it gives disproportionate power to the United States to deflate its own currency and inflate its own currency. This causes all sorts of geo-political tensions.
Mason: Maureen, I had two final questions to wrap up this conversation. The first one was, in this day and age, does it feel like it’s become easier to hack human beings than it has to hack computers? Does the practice of captology and the actions of Cambridge Analytica prove that sometimes it’s just easier to use the current system and manipulate human beings rather than hack those technological systems?
Webb: Well I guess it depends who’s doing the hacking but I think the Cambridge Analytica story was a very dispiriting, sobering story about how easy it is to hack our people and our beliefs. All of us, now, are living in these bubbles of information and to that extent, I think we all have to become aware that we’re becoming more and more divided from each other, because we’re losing this shared knowledge or sources of information that allow us to come to consensus, because we’re sharing our assumptions. It really does matter how we gather knowledge and how we analyse it, and that we have some shared facts from which to come to our conclusions.
So, yeah. I think human beings are very easy to hack. But I think hackers are showing that systems also can be hacked. This century could hold some really big changes and good changes.
Mason: And if it is becoming easier to hack human beings, then I guess what can hackers do to hack back?
Love: So I would actually argue against the ‘becoming’ part of that thesis because it’s always been that humans are the weakest link. The canonical example is Kevin Mitnick, one of the most famous or infamous hackers. He was actually predominantly a social engineer, so he would call people up in the tech centre. He’d get the number by experimentally dialling lots of numbers or by reaching into the bins, and he’d put on a little accent and say, “Can you find this modem? Can you read out the number from the back of it? What’s the password to get into this?” and he’d convince them by preying on people’s natural social tendency to be trusting. If you hear the right jargon, if you’re put into a bit of tension and you’re convinced that something bad is going to happen if you don’t help, people will go along with that.
It remains the case today that you can get a lot further…for example in my job we do penetration tests and sometimes you can hack the systems but sometimes it’s a lot easier to hack the people that are in a position of trust within those systems. At the moment we have a difficulty with this because of the rise of disinformation. People no longer have as much trust in mainstream media—in the BBC or CNN—unfortunately, because they were lied to about the reasons that we went to war in the Middle East and various other things. So people are rightly suspicious, but that’s created a vacuum of trust which is exploited by some people in the alternative news system who are not necessarily acting out of good intentions, and more recently by nation states that are seeking to use the chaos of people not necessarily knowing what is true to spread conspiracy theories or to create chaos within the political systems through bots and trolls.
This has now been harnessed by Cambridge Analytica so that people who are within the political system are using these dirty tricks, paying for micro-targeted Facebook adverts that are based on dossiers of people from information that has been collected without their informed consent and that allows this psychographic profiling so that you know exactly the right things to say to certain demographics of people on Facebook. It allows such narrow targeting of adverts that it’s much more effective to throw campaign money into that, and it really raises the question of, do we have a working democracy where people are having such a distorted view of the political conversation, that they’re effectively being manipulated? It’s always been the case that politicians have sought to manipulate people—that’s what demagogue is, but it’s becoming so much more effective to do that at scale now that we really need to have a serious conversation.
I think the only real solution to that is—two things that we can do. One is to break up the centralised tech platforms that we’re so beholden to where we’re treated like cattle and livestock by Facebook and Twitter. We’re not the users, we’re the product, and that’s going terribly wrong. So we can break that up into a more federated system, where there’s more local autonomy and it’s harder to subvert them at scale. The other thing is literacy. We really need to rebuild the massive deficit in critical thinking faculties. We have not been encouraged and we have not been taught in schools to engage with assertions and information that’s presented to us critically. To try and verify things independently, to not just run from one authority, that we’ve lost trust in, to the next alternative authority that we then throw our trust into and we end up believing ridiculous things like 5G Towers causing viruses or flat Earth. I’m having to fight these people that I used to encourage to be critical and to be opposing the authority of the mainstream narrative, who have now gone so far down the rabbithole of believing their alternative sources that they’ve been manipulated. They’re now risking the containment measures that we need to fight the virus because they think it’s all a hoax or they’re worried about a mandatory vaccine because they’ve bought into these anti-vax concerns. That could risk our ability to recover from this crisis, so it’s very difficult, and it’s an uphill struggle to get people to engage in doubt and paranoia. Not just doing it more, but to do it right. To actually hone that skill, to be critical.
Mason: That in some way feels like what will be our greatest challenge for hackers to combat over the next, possibly five years. At this stage I want to thank both of you. You’ve been absolutely incredible guests. Thank you.
Webb: Thank you.
Love: Thanks very much Luke. Up the rebels, and free Julian.
Mason: Yes! Thank you guys.
Thank you to Maureen and Lauri for sharing their thoughts on the vital role hackers play in society.
You can also find out more by purchasing Maureen Webb’s new book, ‘Coding Democracy: How Hackers are Disrupting Power, Surveillance and Authoritarianism’—available now from the MIT Press.
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