Hacking and Hacktivism - Tim Jordan

Hacking and Hacktivism – Tim Jordan

At a discussion panel at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference in 2014, I heard a Chaos Computer Club (CCC) activist Fukami state that what they were interested in doing in CCC was fixing the broken technologies that people are forced to rely on. Broken technologies because they take information without telling us, broken because they are back-doored and can allow people to be easily spied on, broken because they do not allow the person who owns them to do what they want with them; these are broken technologies from the point of view of the person using them and from the point of view of the hackers and hacktivists who know those broken technologies could be different.

This is an important understanding of the connections of hacking and hacktivism. It means that it is necessary to be able to crack open and break into current technologies because those technologies are broken in ways that are politically, culturally and personally important. The Chaos Computer Club recently celebrated its thirtieth birthday and is one of the most important (dis)organisations that address year on year and hands on the way that digital cultures are built on technologies that are deliberately broken by those who benefit from that breaking.

For example, if I buy a book and read it on an e-reader I must be careful. If I use, and this is one randomly chosen example of a proprietary platform, a Kindle or the Kindle App I am presented with what seems to be a virtual bookcase on which revolve my volumes. But if I think I have ‘bought a book’ then I am mistaken. The technology seems to sell me a book but it in fact rents it to me. Under most such systems I cannot transfer the book, if I lose or eliminate my account then I lose the books and if Kindle decide to remove my account then I lose the books. Such forms of rights management are deliberately embedded into many products which would have to be cracked in order to reverse them, and to give me the books I thought I had bought stored in e-format under my control.

The Snowden revelations demonstrate the extent to which wider platforms of the internet are broken; that is, they are broken if we expect to have privacy or even just to have control over our information. They are broken in a way that embeds profiling of everyone who uses an information device thereby creating a technology which sees us all as guilty until proven by the algorithms and sorting codes to not be a target and so to be innocent. The Snowden revelations make clear that not only are phones, tablets, software and so on broken, but the major platforms these things rely on, including one of the most fundamental of all in the internet, are being broken. Hacktivism is, in part, about fixing such broken technologies and hacking provides many necessary tools and ideas in this struggle.

There are other aspects of both hacking and hacktivism that seem less relevant to fixing the technologies that do not serve their owners. Hacktivism also provides a series of tactics that can be taken up by many different causes, such as the virtual sit-in. Hacktivism is not necessarily about internet activism and has roots in the wider alter-globalisation movement; for example in 1990s support for the Zapatista movement or more recent support for the Arab Spring. Hacking in its quest to unpick technologies and explore them often does not do this for the kinds of political reasons I have been discussing. There are now nation-state ‘crackers’ conducting cyber-espionage and cracking criminals. Both hacking and hacktivism are wider movements than the point at which they coincide.

But hacking and hacktivism do coincide and in important ways. They provide grass-roots built and populist movements that engage with information technologies and all the politics and cultures embedded in them. Hacking and hacktivism demonstrate there is not much point in talking about technologies without politics and culture and vice versa. Hacking and hacktivism become a key part of what we might think of as a kind of ‘civil society’ technological activism distinct from the corporate privatisation of life represented by the behemoths like Facebook or Google and from the invasive surveillance and control represented by the war on terror nation-states.

[Picture Credit: Phauly]

Tim Jordan is a Senior Lecturer at King’s College London, leading development of analysis of digital culture across two departments, Culture, Media and Creative Industries and Digital Humanities. Tim has been involved in analysis of the social and cultural meaning of the internet and cyberspace since the mid-1990s. He is currently working on a book for Pluto Press on the politics of information and on the idea of ‘being in the zone’ among surfers and computer programmers. His recent work has been about communication and the internet, published in Internet, Society, Culture; communicative practices before and after the internet (Bloomsbury 2013) and has previously published: Hacking: (Polity 2008), Cyberpower (Routledge 1999) and, with Paul Taylor, Hacktivism and Cyberwars (Routledge 2004).