Hackers Convention: Opposition To Mass Surveillance Grows

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24

New York, New York: Thousands of hackers, privacy activists and anti-spying advocates from across the country and the world assembled at the Hotel Pennsylvania across from Penn Station in New York City this weekend to co-conspire and hear from whistleblowers, including two generations of leakers—Daniel Ellsberg who gave us the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970’s and today’s well-known NSA fugitive, Edward Snowden, who will speak in a teleconference from his exile in Russia.

The conference, organized by the 20 year old “Hackers on Planet Earth” in partnership with the N.Y.-based 2600 magazine, is dubbed Hope X and will focus this year on dissent and fighting surveillance.

No doubt, it also attracts infiltrators, provocateurs and covert intelligence operatives from NSA and who knows how many other spy shops. The three-day event costs $150 at the door.  It has a delegates badge designed to look like a police shield.

The packed panels meet in rooms named after heroes of the hackeratti—The Manning room for US military hacker Chelsea, formerly Bradley Manning, now serving a 35 year sentence for making available sensitive government files; the Serpico room named after the legendary former NYPD detective Frank Serpico who blew the whistle on major police corruption in city in 1959, and the Olson room for another Frank, Frank Olson, who was either pushed or jumped from this same Conference hotel in 1953 when it was known as the Statler, a victim of CIA LSD experiments.

Here’s how the organizers describe hacking without being too specific or disclosing much about the impact they have.

“What is a hacker?

A hacker is someone who is curious and creative, and seeks to understand how things work, especially complicated systems. Many hackers use technology to perform their investigations, and enjoy sharing information about their findings with other people. Often, hackers are willing to exceed boundaries of expected behavior, to better understand systems they are interested in.”

Their website asks, “Will the conference be full of criminals?”

“No, the conference will be full of creative and caring people, sharing what they know. You are encouraged to attend, and to contribute your energies and ideas to help make it even better.

Will there be people at the conference who can teach me to hack?

Yes! Or, more accurately, they will help teach you to think with a hacker mindset. The conference will be a supportive learning environment where you can get hands-on experience with different hardware and software tools and their associated skill sets. There will be keynotes, tutorials, competitions, and hands-on classes. “

As the government is revealed to be engaged in mass surveillance, this largely young tech-savvy counter-culture discusses what they call “Sousveillance,” and Anti-Surveillance. “

One of the first panels showed online videos advocating the destruction of surveillance cameras and other exercises of what was called “watching.”  One video by an artist who calls himself “surveillance cameraman” goes into malls and videotapes people without their permission. They predictably get angry, and even try to assault him. He asks them why aren’t they also angry by all the surveillance in the stores they shop in.

On the eve of the conference, Edward Snowden, the world’s most famous and wanted whistleblower –who will remotely appear at the conference sat down for seven hours with the editor and a correspondent for England’s Guardian to issue a warning, urging,  ‘lawyers, journalists, doctors, accountants, priests and others with a duty to protect confidentiality to upgrade security in the wake of the spy surveillance revelations.”

Snowden said professionals were failing in their obligations to their clients, sources, patients and parishioners in what he described as a new and challenging world.

“What last year’s revelations showed us was irrefutable evidence that unencrypted communications on the Internet are no longer safe. Any communications should be encrypted by default,” he said.

Ironically, when it became clear that former intelligence professionals like Snowden were urging wider use of software like TOR to mask their communications, it was reported that the NSA is especially targeting Tor users and claims to have broken its algorithm. Snowden has earlier revealed that the NSA worked with computer manufacturers to soften their own encryption standards to allow them to more easily spy on online communications.

The Guardian reported, “The 31-year-old revealed that he works online late into the night; a solitary, digital existence not that dissimilar to his earlier life.

He said he was using part of that time to work on the new focus for his technical skills, designing encryption tools to help professionals such as journalists protect sources and data. He is negotiating foundation funding for the project, a contribution to addressing the problem of professions wanting to protect client or patient data, and in this case journalistic sources.

“An unfortunate side effect of the development of all these new surveillance technologies is that the work of journalism has become immeasurably harder than it ever has been in the past,” Snowden said.

“Journalists have to be particularly conscious about any sort of network signaling, any sort of connection, any sort of licence-plate reading device that they pass on their way to a meeting point, any place they use their credit card, any place they take their phone, any email contact they have with the source because that very first contact, before encrypted communications are established, is enough to give it all away.”

With Snowden calling for more domestic measures agencies like the NSA with a virtually unlimited budget, thousands of employees and tens of thousands of contractors is expanding its technical sophistication, and surveillance capacity, with the use of facial recognition software.

The hacker underground is fighting back with more counter-spying, making the world of the Spy V Spy game first imagined satirically in the pages of Mad Magazine more of an everyday reality.

Journalist Andy Greenberg of Wired Magazine, who is covering the conference, told me earlier about what amounts to a global cyber war pitting citizens against governments.

“If you go back to the 1990’s, there was an attempt by the government to control this piece of software called “PGP” which was the first freely available encryption software that was so strong, not even the government could break it,” he explained.

“And that attempt to regulate encryption, actually is what first graded this anti-surveillance, radically liberation movement called “the Cyberpunks.” But in many ways, the Cyber Punks are livelier, more powerful today than they ever have been before. And I think that Snowden’s revelations, as well as the Obama Administration’s general crackdown on whistleblowers has helped to inspire this new culture of trying to use encryption — this Cyberpunk movement, applying to use encryption to take power away from the government and give it to individuals.”

I intervened, noting, “it wasn’t just encryption which could be something that individuals do, it was also getting access to and leaking documents that other people wanted to keep secret…”

“Well,” he responded, “the Obama Administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other presidential administration in history combined. And I think what that has inspired is the sense that the traditional role of the media, and giving a voice to whistleblowers is no longer enough…they can’t properly protect them.

So, instead it’s kind of like the media and the hacker undergrounds…the Cyperpunks have combined forces. And the result is that the media is offering these leaking tools that…cryptographically anonymous tools, just as WikiLeaks did…WikiLeaks pioneered this method. Now, you see the mainstream media using these encryption tools to carve out a space where the surveillance state can’t spy on whistleblowers…giving them the kind of true anonymity that allows them to get the truth out.”

Also featured at the conference were several panels and workshops about how to use the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain documents from government agencies that are legally required to make some, but not all, available.

Many of the documents leaked by Edward Snowden would not have been released under this act because national security agencies are exempt from some provisions of this law as well as laws protecting whistleblowers.

But, often, the agencies do reveal information even when it is disseminated in a heavily blacked out or redacted manner.

Sometimes the information obtained seems absurd like a document detailing complaints with the food served at the CIA cafeteria, or another request, denied mostly by the White House, on whether the popular singer Beyoncé lip-synched the national anthem at a Presidential inauguration.

Other information is more important, like revealing the existence of a highly confidential archive, Room 7321, at FBI Headquarters used for storing especially sensitive information including a program called “snitch jacketing” in which the FBI selectively made up and disclosed false information to discredit activists by claiming they were working with the Agency.

One document released later revealed there was so many over stuffed filing cabinets in Room 7321 that they put the structural integrity of the whole the FBI headquarters building at risk.

You can learn more about how to file FOIA request, and see what has been obtained, at Muckrock.com. Other workshops at the conference offered classes in lock picking, recognizing back doors in software and how to soldering wires.

Many members of this young community relish their anonymity and spirit of anarchist individuality and lifestyle. That’s why, the conference most important function was to build a movement of solidarity with whistleblowers and organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation and the Government Accountability Project.

Thomas Drake, an NSA whistleblower who was the second American after Daniel Ellsberg to be accused of espionage under a 1917 law won applause for his call to resist government spying and attacks on freedom.

“I absolutely will not yield,” he told the attentive crowd that heard his story of losing his high level job at the NSA and facing a long prison sentence until his charges were dropped.

“We must defend our inalienable rights as Americans.”

The conference has two more days to run in the heart of New York City where hotel elevators include TV sets featuring news reports on Gaza and the mystery of who shot down a civilian airlines over the Ukraine.  The delegates at this conference also see the issues they are debating as life and death issues about the future of American democracy.

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Medichannel.org and blogs at Newdissector.net. He just finished a six part TV series on the American surveillance state. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org.


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