Sunday, August 15, 2010


I am describing my mind and it's fixation with the WikiLeaks/Pfc Manning/Wired Magazine (via Kevin Poulson)/Adrian Lamo/Icelandic Law thing. I am like a person watching a car wreck. I cannot look away. I have not made up my mind on this but I am very intrigued. WikiLeaks may be a criminal enterprise, a heroic counterpoint to secrecy and big brother or we may be watching the evolution of journalism before our very eyes. 

Here is the story so far: Mr. Assange has assisted in the crafting of legislation that was recently passed in Iceland and which subsequently creates a "free press haven" which protects him (and other journalists) from search and seizure and incarceration. He stores his data there and elsewhere where data protection laws exists. He is mirrored by hundreds of other sites and distributes his data globally. Then he leaks 92,000 US military files from Afghanistan (Actually, 77,000 - he keeps some in reserve for Insurance). He shows the horrors of war while continuing to uncover the underhanded practices of individuals, groups, businesses, religions, governments. Private Manning appears to be the leaker and was turned in by Adrian Lamo, the barefoot hacker. The story breaks on the Wired Magazine "Threat Level" blog run by hacker Kevin Poulsen. We learn that Private Manning has a pretty high security clearance and is love with a drag queen from Cambridge, Mass. We have human rights groups joining the military in asking WikiLeaks to edit the documents to protect the people assisting the US Army in Afghanistan. Lastly, we now learn of a potential war within the WikiLeaks "organization" and a potential CyberWar with the US military

He described the original goal of Wikileaks and how it evolved and adapted over time recently at a Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism symposium. This symposium took place just prior to the passage of the law and thus prior to releasing the documents. 

This is a story revolves around hackers. There are hackers at the center, hackers at the news outlets, hackers whistle-blowing on the hacker whistle-blower. This story is crawling with them.

Rather than debate the moral and ethical issues or try and talk about the impact on the newly changing journalistic world or the case details I would like to discuss what the heck happened to those pesky kids inspired by the movie WarGames and Captain Crunch.

In the past 20 years or so hackers have been portrayed by the media consciousness as teenage nerds disillusioned with their place in the world. Kids who get bullied in school and fight back by hacking into NORAD or AT&T or whatever. They have been shown as dweebs and techno punks. I never thought that any of these images were very accurate. Stories about real hackers never seemed to jibe with the images of Hollywood or the mainstream news.

I have been to a few hacker conventions and know a few hackers myself (let us not have a semantic debate about the term - Hacker - that fight was lost awhile back in 1983 if not before. It has many meanings but ask someone on the street in Des Moines or Tulsa and they have a very particular image in mind. In this I omit those folks who steal grandmas credit cards or push child porn and their ilk).  The folks I have met and know are crafty and witty. They spurn convention. They want to know how things work without having someone do the work for them. They love pranks and hate injustice. Some are very vain and cruel. They want information to be free to all. Others are gregarious and kind. All of them have one thing on common, they are all very smart. You have to be smart in a subculture where "what you know" and "what you can do" are the means to establish your status. 

I do not think that the general hacker populace cares one bit how they are portrayed in the media regardless in the past 10 years or so many of them grew up. Those 13 year old kids who in 1983 watched David Lightman hack into WOPR are now 40 and they are doing things.

Originally, they started out in a predictable way. They continued to hack into systems they did not like. They started network sit-ins. They defaced the sites of organizations they didn't like. Then they really evolved.

They started coordinating efforts of anti-WTO protesters in Seattle in 2000 and protesters at the Democratic National convention in Denver in 2008. All groups were open as targets as long as the hackers thought they were making news or changing the public opinion.

Assange and his crew wanted to change the way the media and "just folks" got their information. He wanted to link up all these bloggers with too much time on their hands with original source material and let them get the news unfiltered and then voice their opinions. well, It didn't work out quite how he planned but is doing something. What this something is we will see in the coming months.

The Hacker ethos has finally hit the mainstream. Google (net neutrality issues aside) has sponsored with Yahoo, Microsoft and others some "Random Hacks of Charity" and defied the work of the Chinese government to expose opposition party chinese nationals. Bill Gates wants to make a difference with his charities and has convinced many billionaires to follow his lead. 

J0hnnyhax, otherwise known as Johnny Long, and some friends went to Africa and started Hackers for Charity with the goal of, "proving that hackers have amazing skills that can transform charitable organizations. We’re about stepping into the gap to feed and educate the world’s most vulnerable citizens. We are virtual, geographically diverse and different." He has done amazing work in Uganda setting up labs and user groups, computer education and training. Recently he has been despondent, however. His blog posts the following, 
"HFC has done little relative to our collective capability.
We can throw an 802.11 signal a world-record distance of 275km using junk hardware. We can rootkit Android before it’s released, hack GSM, hijack global DNS, pick every lock on the planet, beat international news agencies to the punch, and weed our way into previously untrodden shadows of the digital world. There is amazing skill in our community. We build robots just because we can, and tweak just about every technology on the planet to unbelievable ends. We are motivated and brilliant. We are self-organizing and ultra-productive when assaulting “impossible” projects. We break, bend, and then re-create the rules. But can we really, honestly do some good in the world? My answer used to be a resounding “YES!” Now, my answer is a much-too-passive “Maybe”.
Yes, with me and my family on the ground here in Uganda, some positive things have happened ( But is that work reflective of the power of our community? Hardly."

The rent for HFC just doubled in Uganda and Johnny despairs. 

The world is changing. Hackers are growing up. They are attempting to do what previous of generations of folks have tried time after time. They want the world to be fair. They want to contribute. they want to make a difference. It is a hard, long, twisting road and is uphill both ways. Giving up or giving in would be easy and just chugging along in the normal pay-earning life with all our normal problems of home, job, family and personal life seem to be enough to consume all our time. Where will this go?

Will HFC continue? Will Assange get arrested? Will Google divide the Internet into haves and have nots or will it refrain from being evil? I am entranced. I cannot look away. It is magic in the making.

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