HOPE X, which took place in New York this past weekend, is one of the premiere events of the hacker calendar. The Cryptosphere correspondent Douglas Lucas was there, presenting on a panel, schmoozing over sushi, sneaking into the press room, and … but that would be telling!
On my Thursday flight to the tenth Hackers on Planet Earth convention, half-asleep and writing my part for the Project PM panel, I wondered what this article—which I’m writing on the plane back—would report. Figured the weekend would be a thorny mix of “total surveillance NSA surveillance is a dire emergency wracking ruin on humanity RIGHT NOW” and passing out business cards.
The plane trip back, by the way, is enlivened by an email from an editor, asking why my latest article was doing so well on social media. Turned out WikiLeaks had tweeted the link. So, that was an auspicious sign.
Turns out my prediction was true enough for much of HOPE X, but I uncovered some other, less popular subjects, but right now now my problems may be more hyper-local than my spiritual disgust at the hacktivism/transparency community trying to solve a human rights crisis with Silicon Valley libertarianism.
To wit: The descent into La Guardia was choppy as always; my barf bag sloshed with puke. Flying home into Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is smoother every time, but let’s see if my lack of sleep fills this seat’s bag. Metaphors: they’re everywhere!
All went well the night before HOPE X began. Despite my exhaustion, I took care of preliminary tasks. Registered, obtaining a badge shaped like a police one—incongruously so, as HOPE attendees are reputed to be the most skilled pro-freedom hackers on the planet who aren’t in hiding or in prison.
Stocked my room’s fridge with coffee and water to save time, the icebox inside ready to stash phones for conversations. The walls of the fridge looked pretty puny, however, so one would have such talks in the bathroom with the door shut or some such. Finally, I completed two missions that are mandatory for any trip of mine to the Big Apple: eating pizza, and replacing my worn-out Strand Book Store T-shirts with new ones. Now I was good to stay in the hotel non-stop.
I woke to good news regarding my latest article for WhoWhatWhy, which explains how frequent Mexican military aircraft flights into U.S. territory reflect the counterinsurgency war on that border. The piece had been added to the top of WikiLeaks’ list of Stratfor releases. It involved intelligence documents pertinent to the Project PM panel, so it was particularly topical to the conference. Happy, I went to go do the thing rank-and-file attendees of conferences do: watch panels. But with a quick thumb to live-tweet and an angry tongue to ask questions.
First, “Barrett Brown and Anonymous: Persecution of Information Activists” with panelists Kevin Gallagher of Free Barrett Brown, Ahmed Ghappour of the jailed journalist’s defense team, and anthropology-technology professor Gabriella Coleman, known for her writings and appearances about Anonymous. I was there because one of the two topics I am most known for as a journo is covering Brown’s trial. Below, the video and my live report.
Second, “The Hacker Wars: A Conversation with NSA Whistleblower Thomas Drake.” He was charged in 2010 under the Espionage Act for basically being a pre-Edward Snowden Edward Snowden with sheer balls instead of a document trove. Vivien Weisman, the other panelist and creator of The Hacker Wars documentary, did a great job facilitating his justice-speaking and showed clips from her movie, which looked awesome. (Disclaimer: I appear as a Stratfor expert in The Hacker Wars and research for it.) Here’s the panel video and my live-tweets:
Once that panel concluded, the real fun began. Thomas Drake was disappeared down a corridor toward a secured area to take questions one-on-one with the press. Without having attended any social-engineering panels, I bypassed security—who probably wouldn’t have recognized The Cryptosphere as media since it’s so cutting-edge—and reached a kind of cubicle farm, one cube with him in it. While waiting for the only other journalist there to finish with the NSA whistleblower, I observed other reporters arrive. They, not seeing Drake, left for lunch. The first journalist exited the cube; I entered.
Since I’m undertaking the Barrett Brown-ish sort of journalism and activism that, once it scales, might amount to meaningful dissent or embarrass the authorities, I asked the once-hunted NSA whistleblower how to make my loved ones’ consent to being proximate to my activities more informed. In other words, how to tell them the risks are real. He basically told me how stressful such plights are for loved ones and encouraged me to continue the steps I’m already taking, such as getting legal advice and pre-emptively building a support network.
I then took a photo of Drake as an exclusive for this piece. You’ll notice the picture is missing—more on that below.
The next two panels I covered, after Drake, constituted duelling approaches to empowering people with digital connectivity. First was “Community Owned and Operated Cellular Networks in Rural Mexico,” representing an approach that sounded to me like anarchism or self-governance, which I favor. The program describes the somewhat overlooked panel as follows:
Why try to avoid them spying on us on their networks when we could just build our own? This is what the Rhizomatica project has done in rural Mexico, where they help to build and maintain community owned and operated GSM/cellular infrastructure. Come and hear about experiences in the field and how to deal with the technological, legal, social, and organizational aspects that come along with operating critical communications infrastructure from a community emancipation and autonomy perspective. If you enjoy freedom, community, and dismantling the corporations and governments that seek to monitor, control, and exploit us, then this presentation is for you.
The video and my live-report:
The last panel was on Dark Mail and represented, it seemed to me at the time, the Silicon Valley libertarian approach to empowering people re: digital connectivity. A digression to discuss Dark Mail is in order, given the controversy and that The Cryptosphere discusses, well, crypto/encryption.
The panel starred the clearly media-savvy Ladar Levison, who shut down his Lavabit service, encrypted email provider of choice for Edward Snowden, rather than cave to FBI demands that he turn over the encryption keys. Ladar explained Dark Mail as a way to broaden the use of NSA-stumping email crypto while still preserving convenience for both savvy and non-savvy users.
Ladar’s plan allows users to select among several options. One is to proxy email metadata, which, if it works, would be a great boon. I email co-workers with PGP (email crypto) all the time, but the From:, To:, Subject:, and attachment file name fields aren’t cloaked. Dark Mail would hide such metadata information from the US intelligence community.
Another part of his plan is to allow syncing across devices, which seems more dubious. Security and convenience are at odds, so ordinary users attempting to safeguard their private crypto keys while syncing across their phones, laptops, and whatever else sounds like a recipe for disaster. After all, even rooted CyanogenMod phones are easy targets for hacking.
Perhaps Ladar can pull it off. I don’t know his personal politics, but he’s from Dallas, and I’d far rather trust someone steeped in the right-leaning anti-government vibe of Texas than someone possessed of Silicon Valley neoliberalism or libertarianism. You can see the limitations of my assessing Ladar’s plan; I’m a journalist with technical understanding that may outpace other journos, but not enough to comprehend the nitty-gritty details. I tend to judge based off vibes and diffused impressions, which is a double-edged sword. Ladar does reportedly have an ace up his sleeve: his convicted hacker geek Stephen Watt, whose technical prowess earns trust from some hackers who have chops.
Meanwhile, though, more hardcore email-like projects such as Pond struggle for attention. They are only inconvenient long-term because the money or other help goes to the Silicon Valley types rather than to the hardcore folks who, were they supported, could teach people to learn to use more radical alternatives. Ladar and Watt’s panel seemed an overdone propaganda/marketing campaign designed to sell a somewhat skeptical HOPE X audience that 1) they’ve got the security-vs-convenience near-inverse relationship hacked and 2) that they’re not going to call Dark Mail “perfect security,” a promise which media reports appear to be bearing out. Below, a partial video—the full one isn’t up yet—and my slightly but rightfully paranoid live-tweets.
Following the panels (wish I’d seen this one), I did some important conversation-having, polite setting-aside of people’s pleas for me to tell them where “everybody” was for socializing (I didn’t know or much care), and crashed.
Awoke in my shoebox-sized room with one mission: my panel. I did all the eating and coffee- and water-drinking and flossing and shaving and hair-orchestration, then got back to editing what I’d say.
Our panel was titled “Project PM: Crowdsourcing Research of the Cyber-Intelligence Complex.” This pursuance was started by jailed journalist Barrett Brown, and its aim is to study the private contractors, firms like Raytheon, Palantir, HBGary, Stratfor, Booz Allen Hamilton, Mantech, etc., who now gobble up at least 70% of the U.S. intelligence budget. In short, while the big panels talked about the National Security Agency “house” as a single organization, we talked about the actual people in that entire gated community who are a good chunk of the ones actually performing the spying: private contractors. Such U.S.-based firms sell surveillance technology and security vulnerabilities to authoritarian regimes around the world, among other dirty deeds. It’s all about the profit motive. Rake in the dollars, human rights be damned.
You can watch the fruits of my hard work (2011 Texas Border Security Intelligence Products) and that of Kevin Gallagher (see re Project PM), Andrew Blake, Joe Fionda, and Lauren Pespisa (Transparency Toolkit). The mainstream media focused on the Ellsberg and Snowden glitz, but our panel was more underground, with technical difficulties at the start only adding to our vibe. The first video is the DVD version; the second, alternate angle video is a live capture thanks to @digitalfolklore.
Details are still coming in, but it seems our very anti-surveillance panel was surveilled, as one might expect. Excerpts of a report given to Project PM:
As you began showing your slides, a young-ish-looking woman in a blue dress set up a video camera and tripod on the screen, recording the slides and the slides alone. Next to her was a slightly chubby man wearing a T-shirt and a buzz-cut. Next to him was another (more well-built) guy with a greased-back, hipster-ish cut—they were speaking with each other and seemed like friends. In front of them, was a man they spoke with briefly, who was sitting (a few seats away) next to me in the front row. He had a striped T-shirt, and a not-quite-bald cut. He was taking detailed pictures from the front row of each speaker, with a high-quality camera with a telephoto lens. I never saw him in any press box throughout the event, and I actually never saw that particular individual anywhere else outside the conference. I noticed it was weird he was shooting with such a lens, and I was wondering what outlet he was with—but he did not have a press pass and didn’t seem like a journalist.
The group took a particular interest in the slides which featured the private intelligence corps names, taking a picture of it in addition to the video, and as you were describing your interaction with Stratfor (“Fuck you motherfucker,” a former Stratfor analyst muttered at you), they exchanged knowing looks and chuckled to themselves. This happened again when Lauren debuted her LinkedIn tool, noting that a great deal of these ‘secret’ projects can be parsed through public-facing sites. When Lauren was speaking about the motherlode of connections through LinkedIn, they also found it funny. Same with the “raghead” comment [regarding Stratfor VP Fred Burton’s racial slurs]. Furthermore, most journalists stick around to interview subjects or exchange information after an interesting panel. These folks split right after the end of the presentation; in fact, during the Q&A portion.
Here’s an audio report about our panel being surveilled:[audio http://wiki.project-pm.org/hopex/ppm_hopex_071914.mp3 ]
Following the panel—which we concluded with shout-outs to some of our political prisoners, Barrett Brown, Jeremy Hammond, w0rmer, the PayPal14, Chelsea Manning; we also had our mics cut—I stuck around for questions and then did some socializing, including sushi dinner, and important conversation-having.
“Flight attendants prepare for landing, please.” BRB. (God, I wish the kid bouncing in the seat next to me would shut the fuck up for once in her very young life.)
Hi, it’s tomorrow, I’m back and writing and yay, didn’t puke on the return flight! Small mercies.
Here’s how Sunday went.
My mission on that final day was to explore the “vendor” booths on the mezzanine level (“vendor” in scare quotes because some were nonprofits with little more than a donation jar). Didn’t get a chance to ride the Segways, but that afternoon did talk with people from the venerable Riseup Collective and people from the venerable Free Software Foundation of the Ladar-knocked, philosophical Richard M. Stallman. Bought some books, got some stickers—
Then it happened.
My battery had been in and out of my phone all weekend, facilitating in-person conversations and thwarting would-be eavesdroppers, but at that moment it happened to be in and I happened to look at it—
—only to see it taking screenshots furiously and fighting with a yes/no dialog window that, if I recall correctly, said something to the effect of, “Do you want to undo the fact that this phone is rooted?”
All these prompts and menus kept popping up like the hands of a monster climbing out to get me. The top left corner kept stating, over and over in white on black, something like:
“Screenshot taken.” “Screenshot taken.” “Screenshot taken.”
Shoved it in the face of the polite person behind the Free Software Foundation booth. Of all the people in the world, Stallman’s should be able to solve this problem. She nonchalantly agreed my phone was being hacked. As if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. Probably some hacker at the convention fucking around, she said, but then again, maybe not.
I ripped the battery out. She finished packing up. Later, she passed by and gave me a hug. Believe it or not, we were both too tired and busy to mention the hack.
My phone—the battery is still out—was running an old version of CyanogenMod, seven or nine, can’t remember, and I’m working on getting someone to write-block and image it so we can crowd-source forensics into it. In other words, perform a crowd-sourced, distributed autopsy on my now-dead device.
Trying to remember what porn is on my phone…
Douglas Lucas is a writer, journalist, researcher, and activist most known for covering jailed journalist Barrett Brown’s case and, as part of an investigative partnership with WikiLeaks, turning Stratfor emails into U.S.Mexico drug war articles. His work about national security matters, internet freedom, nightlife, and more has appeared at Vice, Salon, WhoWhatWhy, The Daily Dot, Nerve, and other venues. He studied philosophy and literature at TCU, graduating summa cum laude. He also enjoys writing fiction, mainly in the SF and fantasy genres. Twitter: @DouglasLucas. Email: DAL@riseup.net (PGP key available).
Featured image by Edward Dot GfxHands on Facebook