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 911, 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 911 and the secu­ri­ty indus­tri­al com­plex that grew after 911 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.

And, don’t for­get you can watch the full unedit­ed video of this con­ver­sa­tion at Futures Podcast dot net—where you can also find out about all of our live stream events

If you like what you’ve heard, then you can sub­scribe for our lat­est episode. Or fol­low us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram: @FUTURESPodcast.

More episodes, tran­scripts and show notes can be found at Futures Podcast dot net.

Thank you for lis­ten­ing to the Futures Podcast.

Further Reference

Episode page, with intro­duc­to­ry and pro­duc­tion notes. Transcript orig­i­nal­ly by Beth Colquhoun, repub­lished with per­mis­sion (mod­i­fied).

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