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Cover image for Hacktivism in the 2019 Political Landscape: An infosec consultant's response to Reuters' piece on Beto O'Rourke

Hacktivism in the 2019 Political Landscape: An infosec consultant's response to Reuters' piece on Beto O'Rourke

kuhnertdm profile image Derek Kuhnert ・6 min read

Earlier today, Reuters' special reports site "Reuters Investigates" published a report on Beto O'Rourke, a democratic presidential candidate from Texas. The report is sourced by interviews with O'Rourke and other members of a hacktivism community from the BBS days of the internet, of which O'Rourke was a part. It is also adapted from a forthcoming book: Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World.

I wanted to give my take on it as both an infosec consultant and an avid follower of the 2020 political cycle. For reference (and as a disclaimer of sorts), I'm a white man who considers myself a democrat, but I do not support the current wave of far-far-left candidates appearing recently, as I believe it's better to take small steps that have small benefits, rather than putting everything on the table immediately and achieving no benefit whatsoever. I also believe that Americans should be pushing to mitigate issues of gender and racial inequality that still persist today. Beto O'Rourke is a candidate that naturally appeals to me and is one of the candidates I am most likely to vote for in the upcoming primaries, along with Kamala Harris and Joe Biden.

Difficult to Pin Down

I want to start by saying that I don't consider this report a "hitpiece". The title of the report is rather clickbait-influenced, but it is for all intents and purposes true. Everything in the article is written with a view of "This underground community is really neat and weird", which makes sense given the title of the forthcoming book it comes from. It also makes several references to "Footloose" to push the idea of this really being an underground movement to do what they think is right.

This also seems to play very strongly into one of the defining aspects of the American political environment since Trump's presidential campaign: Different political extremes will see the same things, and use them as evidence that they are right. Most recently we are seeing this with the popularity of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose various stunts (intentional and unintentional, mild and severe) are being seen as immature by the right, but relatable by the left.

In this case, those on the right will see the actions outlined in this article as criminal activity that immediately disqualifies one from public service. The moderate left will likely see this as a non-issue and maybe even a positive, showing that O'Rourke had strong convictions to help the world, even as a misfit teenager. The progressive left will probably be split between the same ideas as the moderate left, and the idea that this makes O'Rourke less of a "pure" candidate than their favorite progressive.

The Dirt

The report actually seems to speak more about what the "Cult of the Dead Cow" community did, rather than what O'Rourke himself did. And that makes perfect sense, as the book this was adapted from is not about O'Rourke; it's about the community he was a part of. It seems that the report basically outlines three major points of activities that O'Rourke was involved in, that people may find problematic:

  • Stealing dial-up internet

  • Pirating video games

  • A series of (admittedly cringe-inducing) thinkpieces about the pitfalls of modern society and the benefits of anarchic activism

The first two were the ones that were actually illegal in any way, but the report describes how honestly they were not big deals. And I agree: If we can consider a candidate who stole electricity from his neighbors in his past (Source), we can consider a candidate who did the same for an internet connection in his past. And that's not even considering the various damning actions of the current president from his past, the most notable of which was his bragging about sexually assaulting women (Source). And he managed to actually win the election.

A strongly understated point in the report is that Beto O'Rourke did not engage in any black hat hacking or other cybersecurity-related crimes. His involvement in the community was limited to mainly the philosophical thinkpieces, and the desire to be in an underground community of those who had the same taboo ideas as he did.

And this now brings us to the ideas in question. There is no doubt that the "murder fantasy" is going to be what gets quoted on every news broadcast, and I totally understand why - It's really really weird. However, when you think about the mindset that leads to writing things like this, you can start to understand it. The idea of younger people getting hooked on ideas of anarchy isn't necessarily rare (see the increased praise of extreme communism in millenial/gen-z culture today, thinking like the "eat the rich" attitude), and although it is a little cringy and sometimes venturing into the realm of "disgusting", it actually does make sense when you realize this is a teenager realizing for the first time that there are some seriously messed up things in the world, and having a crisis over it. And in the case of O'Rourke, it seems to have mellowed out into a genuine desire to want to fix things within the system, instead of just going for all-out anarchy.

Hacktivism and the Cult of the Dead Cow

The community in question, when they were actually doing concrete security-related activities, were typically working within a mindset of "hacktivism", basically either trying to directly improve the state of global human rights, or to indirectly improve it through protest. Perhaps the most influential example of this was through the "Back Oriface" malware, which essentially was a trojan that let users remotely control the target machine. It was publically debuted at the DEF CON conference, and was essentially a gambit warning the world "Hey, you know all these 'personal computers' everyone's using nowadays? These can be very very easily used maliciously." The effect? A much stronger focus from Microsoft on the security of their PC OSs.

They also made tools specifically for the purpose of increased privacy and security on the web, such as the end-to-end encrypted IM system ScatterChat (In 2006 - Take that, Telegram!), and various other integrations of onion routing into consumer software, including web browsers.

So, what does this mean for O'Rourke? Well, considering he apparently wasn't involved in a lot of the actual black hat hacking work, not a lot. However, it does mean that he was involved with hacktivism, at least tangentially, and the idea that "hacking" isn't some spooky voo-doo concept that that is always bad, forever, no matter what. Beto O'Rourke could potentially be the catalyst to start to open some minds, in a government that very frequently just pushes aside the idea of hacking as "100% evil" and uses that as an excuse to drum up arbitrary numbers of charges against someone for one action (looking at what's going on with Marcus Hutchins right now).

But hey, maybe that's my love for the 1995 film "Hackers" talking.

Takeaways

Realistically, going forward I don't expect much actual good to come from the discovery of Beto O'Rourke's history with cDc. It's going to be far too easy for people to very quickly handwave away any serious discussion with a quick "hacking is against the law so he's a criminal". I guess the best case scenario would be the government starting to get some open minds about hacking, and a potential rework to existing cybersecurity law. The worse case scenario would be a reinforcement of existing prejudices, with this as ammo (i.e. "Look, this guy is a hacker, and look at the things he's writing about! And he's running for president!").

Personally, hearing about O'Rourke's involvement with cDc has made me more excited to see where his campaign goes, but honestly, "interest in cybersecurity" is pretty low on my list of important attribtues for a presidential candidate, with things like "likely to help fix the racism/sexism problems in the US" (Harris leading) and "likely to win the general" (Biden leading) being much more important. It would be really neat to see O'Rourke as a VP on the general ticket after an early concede, though. I feel like that would be a fantastic spot for him to start influencing the government in the realm of cybersecurity law, while also not being in the most important position in the free world.

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Derek Kuhnert

@kuhnertdm

Infosec consultant, speedrunner, music producer, cool dude

Discussion

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I appreciate your insight, and the amount of work in this. But I would definitely prefer to keep politics out of this website. Including gender politics, gun politics, racial politics. I find this to be a website, that makes me leave all of that, and dive into the community of developers. You could post this blog on Medium though, and I bet there would be no complaints. Don't get me wrong I am not brushing you out of here. Just voicing my look at this website.

 

I understand your take, but 1) everything we do in tech is deeply connected to the political world, 2) dev.to was (in my understanding) explicitly created to work toward inclusion of all sorts of people (ie the gender/racial parts you mention).

Regarding the original post and as a very general response:
"littlebylittleism" is what big corporations (tech and others) do to us on a daily basis. So much that we don't detect the change anymore and the more it goes the more we find ourselves entangled into irreversible change. The world (and us with it) is currently dying because of that littlebylittleism.

To counter that we need to take big steps forward and support people who struggle everywhere they do. Climate change/social justice are areas where tech has a role to play. We are not just writing lines of code that we don't have to take responsibility for.

Also, Beto lost to Cruz who lost to Trump. Seriously ? Like what I wrote a few weeks ago about Daringfireball, it's funny how some people in tech have the brains to create complex things but can't seem to be able to do the math when it comes to politics. Politics is like everything: it is a system of action and reactions and devs understand that. We have no excuse when we let our "gut" speak before our brains.

 

I disagree that everything in tech is political. Politics should stay out of tech. This would lead to a much more healthy and happy (and inclusive) environment for everyone.

I'm sorry if using the word "tech" made what I wrote unclear. What I mean is that everything in technology is political.

From R&D to applications to decisions on what should or should not be allowed. All our tools, from the components to the hardware to the software and to the interactions we have with all that, is decided and informed by politics.

We are just cogs in a system that goes way beyond what we type on our keyboards.

Now, what should be is a different story. And here again I'm not quite sure we mean the same thing. Politics, as the system that decides where society goes will always inform technology and it's up to us, as citizens, not as tech cogs, to push and pull in the direction that brings the best to the most. Which is sadly not happening at the moment, except, as far as software development is concerned, in the Free Software movement.

You have a point about the OSS movement. The place where we may have philosophical differences is technology's role in society. My personal opinion is that technology is only a tool, and that there is a tendency to conflate the tool with the user's actions. Individuals make choices, and using technology in an attempt to manipulate is what I consider the "dark side" of tech.

What's the difference between censoring someone's views and directly forcing people to behave a certain way?

As a thought experiment, if there were a technology that could directly control someone's mind, would it be morally different to do that in comparison with manipulating them using the tools we currently have?

Simply put, I don't think any radical view points should either corrupt software or be prevented from using it, and if you're stating the utilitarian fact that we must accept that extremists will try, then I agree with you and think it is a civic duty to keep software open and available to everyone.

I think it is important to not confuse open-source which is a development model, and free software, which is a political movement.

Also, I am not discussing here philosophical differences on the end user side. I am talking about deliberate funding/investment choices for research/infrastructure/services that shape the potential choices that we end up having, by creating what is possible and what is not.

You are correct in saying that technology is a tool, but it is a tool not for us, but for the actors that implement the tools. What we are allowed to do thanks to the tool is merely a side effect of what it was designed to accomplish.

An easy example: nuclear technology is a tool. It is a tools that shapes the power relations in the state apparatus and in the world energy and military market, and only way down the road, when the road is not a road any more but rather an unpaved back-alley, is is a tool that we use to such and such ends in the form of electricity, but really, considering what individuals do with that electricity, we can just as well consider that a barely noticeable side effect of the original tool's application, which is shaping power relations.

Nuclear power is s great example! What happened when physical laws were used to political means? We invented a bomb. What happened when the same scientists just did their job to do their part in society regardless of politics? We got a solution to fill every home in the world with electricity with very few polluting side effects (there are ways to avoid almost all risks with nuclear power, but this isn't the place). What happened when we made it political again? We kept burning coal for 30 years and stopped the progress of nuclear power because of fear mongering.

But the collective "we" that you use as a rhetorical tool is only that, a rhetorical tool.

No, I had a specific "we" in mind. I'm not trying to drive you to action, but if I were it would be the rhetorical we.

Does a government and the laws it makes not imply a we that makes an follows those rules?

I'd argue that there is never not a "we" unless you're so far on the fringes of society that you do not rely on the set of commonalities the rest do.

No, it doesn't because there are conflicting interests that create groups, or classes and so unless you are a high level government agent involved in energy policies, or in an executive position in an energy company, etc. calling yourself a "we" in that context is just rhetorical.

Good, so you admit it's pointless to be political because there is no need to associate interests we have as individuals with interests of the whole? Because your argument seems to be that I'm conflating my decisions with the high level government's decisions?

Given that, the only solution is to write broken software or apolitical software, as you are arguing that there is no "we" in our democratic beyond action/event level input from our votes. This means that simply being an apolitical cog in the wheel of society with no societal conscious is the only valuabe position one can aspire to?

On the other end, if your argument is that I'm not a nuclear scientist, so I shouldn't be talking about nuclear energy, then I would argue that no occupation knows what's best for all of society in relation to their field and that their motives should generally be considered antithetical to society as a whole as they, when acting in a group, will try to gain the largest share of resources possible for their group.

Basically: everything looks like a nail when you are a hammer.

Here is a summary of my points:
• Everything in tech is political
• There is no global "we" that makes decisions

Then you can identify groups and further their interests by, for ex. unionizing in tech/strengthening tech consumer groups/ etc.

Okay, not trying to beat a dead horse, but what is you reasoning that everything in tech is political? Do you think that, say carpentry, is always political or is it some unique trait in tech?

Do you mean the fact that sharing speech is political? Freedom of speech is a basic human right and by definition not political, even if someone politicizes it.

I agree there is no collective we beyond the we that is self imposed. By participating in society you impose some variant of "we" on yourself and the group you choose as your "we" in a specific context is the one that best suits that context. Any other explanation would be mentueua.

I answered your first question in my first reply to your comments. Please see above.

Regarding freedom of speech, it is defined as a basic human right because of a massive amount of political work in the 17th and 18th century. Before that it was not even on the radar.

 
 

The news that O'Rourke was in the CDC & therefore presumably knows how this whole "internet" thing works makes it all the stranger that his website doesn't say a single word about what he's running on. Nothing about issues, no policy proposals, just buy swag, get a job with the campaign, or donate. Not that the man's said that much more on the subject in the interviews I've read; when he isn't breaking pledges to reject oil industry money or voting to deregulate banks further, he comes off like a predictive text algorithm trained on a bunch of Obama platitudes (although unlike Obama, he won't even go so far as to label himself a progressive!).

O'Rourke's schtick seems to sell well to a rather narrow band of the professional class, but there's no ignoring that after thirty years of tepid incrementalism and bipartisan legislative compromise amounting to bupkis unless you like wars or paying through the nose for health insurance, the Democrats' base has moved well to the left. People are looking for big ideas and ambitious plans like a Green New Deal and universal Medicare, and if they're asked to settle for rhetoric about togetherness instead you're looking at another four years of wandering in the proverbial desert.