Now with Stuff and Things!
A blog by Peter Fein.
The views expressed here do not represent my past, present or future employers, collectives, family, nation-state or houseplants. They are mine alone. Who's else would they be?
reflections on retiring from Anonymous
An episode in which I met arrested hacker & Antisec member Jeremy Hammond appears in the latest issue of Rolling Stone (PDF). Though Janet Reitman wonderfully explains a remarkable amount of background about Anonymous in her profile, I think this incident deserves a fuller treatment than she was able to provide.
I returned to Chicago in the fall of 2011, after a year in the desert of Washington state, tired but excited by my work as a full-time-and-them-some volunteer net activist. I’d spent August helping organize Anonymous’ OpBART in San Francisco, a campaign against a minor bureaucrat’s decision to shut down the transit agency’s cellular network to prevent a protest. Coming on the heels of Egypt’s Internet blackout, the multi-week Internet-meets-real-life protests captured national attention at a time when Occupy Wall Street was little more than a low-volume hashtag. I’d been the “namefag” for OpBART, doing dozen of media interviews (”fag” is Anonymous slang for “person”: someone who draws propaganda pictures is an “artfag”, a good writer is a “writefag”, etc.. A “namefag” is someone who uses their real name.). The necessities of moving and securing income kept me from doing much work on #OWS, but I was heartened to see others taking up the cause. I did attend a rally or two in Chicago; yelling at buildings in real life was a wonderful, invigorating contrast to 16 hour days of organizing from my remote Internet fortress, and it felt good to just be another protester.
I met Jeremy at Occupy Chicago during the last week of October (though I didn’t learn his name until much later). I’d dressed up for the occasion, reviving a costume & sign I’d first used in 2008, when I’d marched around downtown Chicago for hours by myself in protest of the TARP bank bailout (the yellow jacket is the uniform of floor traders; I found it at a thrift store).
When I arrived at Occupy dressed up to the nines (or down to the dollars, perhaps), I quickly got into conversation with Occupiers. I’m not shy about my participation in Anonymous, and I talked openly, hoping to forge connections between online and off. As I stood around chatting and sign waving, a young crust punk blurts out “Yeah, I’m in Lulzsec!” - literally the first words Jeremy said to me. I ignored him - there are a lot of crazies and wannabes in Anon, and I figured there was no way anyone actually in Lulzsec would have such terrible opsec (opsec or “operational security” is the art of keeping secrets - spycraft, basically. Needless to say, it does not involve confessing to major crimes on a public street.). The punk & I chatted about Anon, and net activism, and Occupy, and he gave me battered copies of a zine he had written (which I kept but didn’t read). Jeremy talked to an older activist friend about his time in prison and his difficulties on probation, and they listed off the comrades who were in or out of jail. My sense was this was someone who expected to go back - that you struggled against the man until you got busted, did your time, and picked it up again when you got out.
That Friday was Critical Mass - a global series of anarchic group bicycle rides that are part rolling party, part protest. CM has deeply influenced my politics - being the change we wish to see in the world is a lot more fun (and effective) than fighting for a future utopia that never arrives. The Mass holds a cheer vote at the start of the ride to decide on a route, but the hundreds of riders can be hijacked by just a few people at the front. Jeremy and I had decided to do exactly that - with the help of a few of his buddies, we led the ride towards Occupy in a show of support. A block away, our path was blocked by three bike cops and a police SUV, perhaps fearing the 40 Occupiers were about to become 1,000 Occupiers-with-bicycles. After a brief argument with the cops, Jeremy started chanting “Straight! Straight!”, a call that was taken up by his friends. Meanwhile, I tried to persuade the ride to simply go around and pass Occupy on the cross street - no one was having any part, so I went alone. I came up behind the cops and lifted my bike overhead in a Chicago holdup just as the police relented and the ride rolled through with Jeremy at the front. I still remember the look of shock and surprise in his big, young eyes.
Other than a few brief encounters with “burn” on Indymedia’s #occupychi IRC channel, I never saw him again.
I’d forgotten about Jeremy until March, when news of his arrest and Sabu’s betrayal broke. I absolutely believe Antisec was an FBI construct from day one, designed to scare the American public and win money and surveillance powers from a compliant Congress. Whether sup_g’s situation meets the absurdly high legal standard for an entrapment defense is besides the point - without a doubt he was lured and manipulated into a series of ideologically motivated hacks over a nine month period during which FBI Director Robert Mueller repeatedly testified about the looming cyber threat.
I know first-hand how effective this manipulation could be. Despite being well-known and quite vocal about my desire not to participate in illegal activities, I found myself in chats with Sabu in late February 2012, a few weeks before the arrests. In retrospect, it should have been obvious I was being set up, but exhausted from work on ACTA, I didn’t see it at the time. Fortunately the FBI shut down Sabu before I wound up ensnared in trouble I never sought. Jeremy, more ideological and hardened by time in prison, must have been drawn like a moth to the Antisec flame.
I’ll never know why Jeremy told me he was in Lulzsec. Maybe it was hard for him to see someone else get attention for a silly costume when he was risking so much by hacking. I’m a privileged rich kid from the suburbs, and I’ve never spent time in jail - ironically, the only time I’ve even been handcuffed was for dumpster diving. I have tremendous respect for people like sup_g and CC3 who are willing to put their freedom on the line for what they believe. But the price of their freedom is perfect secrecy - you absolutely cannot care about recognition and fight in the manner that they do.
The Brand Called Us
I’ve been called a “fame whore” for the press work and conferences I’ve done. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve never, not once, reached out to a press contact for personal coverage. To be honest, I’m mystified by the desire to be famous - I’m a private person, and the attention that comes with fame seems like a pain in the ass without any real benefits. I do have a knack for public speaking, and sometimes that’s what the situation calls for - but I’ve always seen these occasions as a chance to inspire others to get involved.
In 1997, Fast Company magazine published an incredibly popular article The Brand Called You. The piece was an homage to fame that proclaimed that success in the Internet era would come not from climbing the corporate hierarchy but by turning ourselves into personal brands and unabashedly marketing our successes. Whether this article set the tone for the next 15 years or simply captured an inevitable zeitgeist, I don’t know, but I remain as disgusted by it now as I was when I was 19.
I’ve been saying the same thing for years - that we are being royally fucked by the people in power, that our institutions have failed us. That we need to get off the couch and take charge of our destiny by living right now as if the better world we desire already exists, like Jeremy did. Unlike him, I believe what’s needed is not a revolution, but a rebuilding which will take the rest of our lives. But before I found Anonymous, no one listened. I’ve written things and done things that other Anons have told me I “have to put my name on”. No. As a Telecomix agent told me during the #Jan25 revolution: “Fuck credit”.
Four years ago, I promoted my TARP protest with printed fliers that said “Tell the Internet! Bring your Friends!”. No one came. I’ve found my Internet. I’ve found my friends. I’ve found The Brand Called Us.
We are all, forever and ever, Anonymous.
Peter Fein / n0pants
Be the change you wish to see in the world -Gandhi
A look back at highlights of 2011. Pretty sure I've forgotten something, but that's just as well. ;-)
The start of 2011 found me living in rural Washington state, mostly stuck at home 30 minutes from town. Naturally, I joined Anonymous. We organized protests in support of Wikileaks in 105 cities around the world in under a week.
On January 23rd, I found myself on Telecomix's IRC helping launch a ham radio operation to maintain contact with Egypt. I worked 20 hours per day for eight days trying to keep the Internet running, doing everything from acting as a human proxy to spamming fax machines with treatments for tear gas. Beer consumption averaged a six-pack per day during this time.
Lulz as Anonymous hacked HBGary and the Westboro Baptist Church. I tried to be helpful while keeping my nose clean (I don't do illegal stuff, as my wife would kill me).
After a year of voluntary sabbatical, I landed a very shiny job with a Silicon Valley startup... and then quit after three weeks to focus on activism. My wife was not thrilled.
Travel: Philadelphia, San Francisco, Shenandoah Virginia
The only road to our house washed out in a 500 year flood, leaving us stranded without power or drinkable water for three days. The idea for Mirror Party, a distributed censorship resistant mirror network began to take shape around this time.
Travel: a couch in town while road was rebuilt
I participated in a panel on the Arab Spring at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival (ironic, as I don't watch movies at all). Other panelists included two Youth Movement organizers from Tahrir - it was wonderful to put a face to the people Telecomix had helped, as well as make plans for the future.
I took advantage of the time in Europe to meet other Telecomix agents in Stockholm and Brussels. As a friend-to-friend network, these real-life interactions are essential for maintaining a healthy cluster. Also, they're awesome, amazing people. The trip from Washington to Stockholm took about 22 hours door-to-door and completely changed my perspective on travel.
Travel: Stockholm, Brussels, Sheffield England, Portland
Telecomix began OpSyria to support peaceful activists in the face of a brutally repressive regime. We first found evidence of Western technology being used for censorship around this time. I learned a lot about nmap.
Travel: Seattle, Austin, Chicago
Before there was Occupy, there was OpBART, the little protest that could. I stepped away from Telecomix & the Middle East to focus on free speech at home. Taking inspiration from Egypt, San Francisco's transit agency shut off cell service to prevent a protest, angering Anonymous. I did more interviews in two weeks than the rest of the year combined, including a TV appearance on Democracy Now!. I like to think OpBART helped laid the groundwork for Occupy, both in the public's mind as well as forging collaborations between online and off. Due to a pre-planned trip to San Francisco, I even got to yell at buildings in real life, a nice reward for sixteen hour days of remote organizing.
I also delivered a brown bag talk Free as in People at Mozilla headquarters about writing software for communications emergencies.
Travel: Boston, Portland, San Francisco
I moved back home to Chicago, looked for work and generally took care of my personal life a little. It had to happen sometime, but I still managed to find a little time for activism, coding, and dressing up silly and protesting with Occupy Chicago.
Travel: Cross country drive from Washington to Chicago, New York
Telecomix released logs showing US-made Blue Coat hardware was being used to censor the Internet in Syria. As I seem to have a knack for explaining technical things to non-technical people, I helped guide reporters through the evidence, eventually resulting in an admission by the company and investigation by the Department of Commerce. Like OpBART & Occupy, I like to think out efforts helped raise awareness of surveillance and censorship, culminating in Wikileaks' Spyfiles and the EU implementing export controls on this technology.
I gave an opening speech at ContactCon during which I destroyed a fax machine to demonstrate how easily communication can be severed. Several US-based Telecomix agents attended and we gave an introduction to online security, privacy and anonymity for activists. I went straight to a panel at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, while simultaneously agents in Stockholm presented at the Net4Change conference. It was an amazing feeling to represent the cluster during 72 hours of round-the-clock global discussion - a topical demonstration of the Internet's potential to facilitate communication.
Travel: New York City, San Francisco
A last minute invite to the EU Transparency Hackathon at the European Parliament jump started a project to analyze the Blue Coat logs. I met several more Telecomix agents, as well as Tor Project participants, and totally failed to get enough sleep.
I gave two days of lectures at the University for Peace to students from 30 countries. Day one covered the events of the year and new media strategy and tactics. Day two was a hands-on exercise in adhocracy (leaderless self-organizing). Though I didn't make it to Costa Rica's famous beaches, I did manage to go for a jungle hike, ending on top of a hill with views of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
After a year of living off savings to do hacktivism full-time, I finally landed a contract programming job.
Travel: Costa Rica, New Jersey, New York City, Boston
Looking Back, Looking Forward
This past year has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. After years of feeling politically frustrated and impotent, it was wonderful to apply my heart and head and hands directly in service of what I believe. I am honored by the friends I have made - those whose names I know, and those who remain anonymous; those whom I knew for only a few hours and those whom I will know for a lifetime. As we move into 2012 and face ever-greater threats to our freedom, I can only hope my actions inspire others to take up the cause.
There is no utopia to strive for - there is only now.
Well, that was a crazy week. I'm gonna go sit in the hot tub.
I did an interview about Telecomix, Anonymous and hacktivism in general this morning on Democracy Now!. Thanks to Amy Goodman and Biella Coleman for a great conversation. The show is archived - we start about 1/2 way in. And yes, I'm actually as tired as I look - drove three hours last night to Seattle, after a long day on OpBart.
To clarify: I am not a spokesperson for either Telecomix or Anonymous. We quite simply don't have those. rly, no leaders? ya rly
I gave the opening keynote at Open Source Bridge 2011 about my work as a hacktivist with Telecomix, supporting free communication in Egypt, the Middle East and the rest of the world. The keynote was not as polished as some of my previous talks due to three failed hard drives, a flood, a bashed elbow and a laptop that died 30 minutes before I went on. But I'm still quite proud of the result - sometimes timeliness matters most.
I'm not going to provide a full transcript, as I've been a little busy trying to keep the Internet functioning in Syria, which has majorly upgraded its censorship and wiretap capabilities in recent days. A brief summary of each section and a few choice quotes follow. Opensource.com has a summary as well. Find more on my YouTube channel.
Part 1 - Meet Telecomix
I use the word hack in its original sense, using a system in a way its designer didn't intend.
We believe that free speech is the basis of a free society. Every person who has an opinion deserves to have that opinion heard. The ability to share ideas is the foundation of effective democracy. We can have the vote, we can elect whoever we want, we can donate wherever we want - but unless we're able to talk to one another and work out whatever we collectively want to do, those things don't matter.
Part 2 - The Internet Under Attack
A discussion of recent attacks on the free and open Internet in the US, Europe and the rest of the world. An insider's look at the groups that have been fighting back, including LulzSec and Anonymous.
New communications technologies have always been a threat to people and institutions in power. Governments have responded with repression and restriction. The Internet is young; we forget it's only been 15 years since most of us had access. Other technologies, such as the printing press and amateur radio, took 100 years, or 30 years to get clamped down.
Antisec has declared war on all governments. They're gonna DDOS sites, they're gonna crack sites, they're gonna leak things.
The Internet didn't cause the protest in Egypt, it didn't cause the protests in the Middle East, but it is facilitating them and making them possible.
Part 3 - Get Disorganized
Meet disorganizations: the ad-hoc, leaderless groups shaping the future of the Internet and society. How can hundreds of people work together effectively, not only without any centralized authority, but without even agreeing on why? Also, bicycles.
Doocracy: People just show up and they just do. That is the highest organizational principle. You can come up with whatever structures and whatever ways of working that you want, but at the end of the day what matters is what you get done.
How I got through this talk without saying "autonomous zones" is beyond me.
Part 4 - What Have You Done?
An allegory contrasting a speech by Lawrence Lessig with the actions of the Piratbyrån. What can we learn about the fight for freedom from a group of long-haired Swedish twenty-somethings who succeeded where the Electronic Frontier Foundation failed?
If you can't fight for your freedom you don't deserve it. But you've done nothing. - Lawrence Lessig Social welfare begins at 100 megabit. - Piratbyrån
If we want the Internet to be a tool for social justice or freedom, it needs to be more than just an echo chamber. If the only outlet we have is online, we're shouting in vain.
The government and corporations are not going to make this world better for us. We cannot keep relying on someone else to fix it for us. We need to start doing this ourselves.