Gabriella Coleman - Anonymous Hackademic
Coleman is the world’s leading expert on Anonymous. Her book ‘Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy’ is the defining work on the topic, and her interest in hackers grew out of an interest in religious cultures and a discovery of open source software. She has some warnings about our world that is increasingly software based, some reassuring takes on how we should behave in response to that, and an understanding of what it means to have secrets these days.
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m the director of Music Tech Fest, and this is the MTF Podcast. As you know, MTF’s seen its fair share of hackathons, hacking, and hackers over the past eight years. We don’t tend to use the term quite so much these days, there’s just so much baggage associated with it. On the one hand, there are some people for whom the term is synonymous with online crime, cybersecurity breaches, and the illegal tapping of phones by tabloid newspapers, and on the other, there are the corporate events where young people with tech skills and great ideas are assembled in order to have their intellectual property harvested in exchange for a pizza and energy drinks fuelled sleepover.
These days, for clarity, we run what we call Labs, but that doesn’t mean that hacking has ceased to be interesting for us. The willingness to take something apart and put it back together in a new way, to repurpose, work around, use an item not according to its manufacturer’s instructions, code for justice, make to solve problems, invent to address challenges, and hack the system, whatever the system happens to be. But the public and critical discourse of hacking is something quite different, even though, to be fair, there’s probably still a little bit of overlap. But at the heart of all of that hacker discourse, the spectre of Anonymous looms large. The V mask, Guy Fawkes. The coordinated campaigns of political activism, online attacks on extremist groups, mass trolling. Effective, and, for its targets, often terrifyingly swift and devastating swarm behaviour.
And there’s one person who has made a career understanding Anonymous. Gabriella Coleman is an anthropologist, academic, and author whose work focusses on hacker culture and online activism, particularly Anonymous. She holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University in Montreal, she’s been called the world’s foremost scholar on Anonymous, and her 2014 book ‘Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous’ is pretty much the defining work on the topic, though she’s also the author of ‘Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking’ and the editor of ‘The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age’. From her home in Canada, this is hackademic Dr Gabriella Coleman. Enjoy.
Dubber Gabriella Coleman, thanks so much for joining us for the MTF Podcast today.
Gabriella It’s my pleasure to be here.
Dubber You are the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University. I have two questions about that. First one, ‘Wolfe’?
Gabriella Wolfe is the name of the donor. It’s not the [howls] wolf.
Dubber Okay, it’s got an E on the end.
Gabriella Yeah. I sometimes think of that wolf. So that’s where the name comes from.
Dubber And the other one is ‘literacy’. What is meant by ‘literacy’ in Scientific and Technological Literacy?
Gabriella Right. So the donor is someone who is a doctor, but he also spent a couple of years doing a lot of work in humanities and social sciences, and he felt like that was very complementary. He funded a number of chairs in the sciences, but he just felt like questions of science and technology are quite complicated, and it’s important for academics who work in this area to also reach out to the public and teach them about the ethics and politics of science and technology so we’re more aware, and we can make better choices, and so on and so forth. So that’s where the name came from.
Dubber Right. Because when I see ‘literacy’, I’m always reminded, somebody said to me once “When you see ‘literacy’, it’s not just the ability to read, it’s also the ability to write.”.
Gabriella That’s right. My position isn’t one that necessarily provides technical literacy in that way, but nevertheless… It’s a two-way street though, as well, because I think part of doing tech literacy is also to work with the technologies, and at McGill I’m lucky enough where I get to teach science and engineering students as well, and so they do actually have one type of tech literacy but maybe not the other side of tech literacy.
Dubber Sure. And you’re known for being the expert in Anonymous and hacking in general. Let’s start with “What’s a hacker and what’s a hack?”.
Gabriella What’s a hacker? Hacker is a very rich and contested term. Historically, the term came from MIT and the Tech Model Railroad Club. It was used by the engineers who were playing with a train system to make it work better, and the solution that they came up with was often clever and non-obvious. And so in some ways, the kernel of the definition is someone who often works with technology, though hacking doesn’t necessarily only have to go with technology, who’s curious about systems, wants to understand them, and wants to improve them, and is often willing to use non-traditional avenues to solve and improve technology. But that’s a core definition.
And then when you look at the practice of hacking sociologically, it pertains to many different technical communities, from people who write free and open-source software, that they believe that the underlying directions to software should be made available, to hackers who break into systems, sometimes for fun, but also to improve them, to those that write cryptography. So there’s very, very different types of technical communities who have their own histories and their own ethics, and many of them call themselves hackers, as well.
Dubber It is by definition transgressive, getting things to do things that they weren’t necessarily designed for?
Gabriella I think because you’re willing to either disobey tradition, norms, or laws, yes, inherently it’s transgressive. But it’s on a spectrum where certain hackers are unwilling to break the law but they’re certainly willing to break norms, traditions, and rules, and then there’s other hackers who are very much willing to go even further and break the law as well, sometimes in pursuit of justice and sometimes just in pursuit of technical knowledge.
Dubber Or of self-entertainment.
Gabriella Or self-entertainment, exactly. Or sometimes for all of them at once.
Dubber You’ve used the word trickster in a lot of your writing. Can you unpack that a little bit? What do you mean by the term, and what’s the baggage that comes along with that?
Gabriella Yeah. The second part’s important because there is a lot of baggage that comes with it. So a trickster figure is probably familiar to most just because trickster figures are common in many different societies and cultures around the world, from Coyote in Indigenous Native American societies to Loki in Nordic societies, and they’re figures who are willing to transgress boundaries. They tend to also be identified with an inability to filter speech, often willing to trap others, and in the process get trapped themselves into problems, and historically they tend to be identified with myth and stories. And the myth and stories around tricksters are valuable because they tend to offer moral lessons, both about the importance of transgressing boundaries but also the problems when you go too far in transgressing boundaries, as well. They’re a rich area of anthropological study. And I thought, and I still do think, that they apply extremely well to the field of hacking or Anonymous, and it’s, again, because of the willingness of hackers to transgress boundaries. And so I think that model fits well.
I think one of the big problems, and this gets to the baggage part, is that, in part because of the Disneyfication of the trickster figure, I think some people believe tricksters are always good, and that’s not necessarily the case. The point of the trickster is to make clear the moral stakes of transgressing boundaries, let’s just say. And then because of that clarity, you could say “Oh, this is good. This is helpful. No, this is bad. This goes too far.”. And, for example, Loki, I think, is a good example of a trickster who… He’s terrifying, and he’s a jerk, and he’s horrible. This is not necessarily someone to celebrate. Whereas Puck, on the other side, is a much lighter side of tricksterism that we can live with.
Dubber Much more fluffy.
Gabriella Exactly, and the world of hacking has both sides. And so I use the figure not simply to celebrate hacking but actually to show that this domain, like the trickster figure, provides an arena for us to rethink questions of boundaries and norms, not simply to blindly accept everything that comes from the world of hacking. But I don’t think I always explain that as clearly as I do now, and that was in part… When you write something, there’s reactions to it, and then you go “Oh, okay. I should have done this maybe slightly differently.”.
Dubber Sure. In these ancient morality stories do the tricksters tend to win? Or is that more complex too?
Gabriella It is more complex. They do win sometimes, but precisely because they sometimes lack impulse control they get trapped in their own traps. And this is, again, what’s so nice about applying that to the hacker world. If you look at Anonymous, the hackers who were willing to break the law, some got away with it, and others didn’t get away with it, and sometimes… What’s funny and ironic about them is that many of the hackers knew a lot about security, but sometimes they just couldn’t help themselves when they were involved in a hack and were too quick and didn’t think they were going to get caught, and they did. And so, again, both, whether it’s the trickster or the hacker, they sometimes win, but sometimes… It’s a very impulsive, experimental mode sometimes, tricksterism, and you fall into your own trap at times.
Dubber We seem to be talking about Anonymous in the past tense. Is that deliberate?
Gabriella They’re still around, and there is a little bit of a resurgence in recent times, in part because they collaborated and interfaced with the Korean pop fan Twitter scene, which was super interesting. But the apex and height of their activity certainly occurred in the past, I would say. And they were so prolific, especially the hackers, that the standard that was set up, especially in 2011 and 2012, was such that activity today seems minuscule in comparison to that period.
Dubber What did, or does, Anonymous want? Because we already seem to be pretty good for chaos.
Gabriella Anonymous is a multi-use name, so that’s a good place to start with trying to understand what they want. A multi-use name means that it’s a little bit like open-source. Anyone can take the name, and use it, and run with it, and do what they want with it, and make certain claims under it. Between 2010 and 2015, especially, there were consistent patterns around how the name was used, in part because of how it was used in 2011 by certain activists who got involved in the social movements of 2011. They tended to get involved with causes on the liberal/left spectrum, but they got involved in hundreds and hundreds of different causes all around the world, from fighting rape culture in the United States to fighting censorship in India.
So Anonymous doesn’t want anything universally, and you have to almost measure what they want and what they do by operation. And, again, even though there’s some consistency in terms of their style and what they tended to support, because it was a multi-use name there was a lot of variability around who, when, why, where, and that’s still the case today, as well.
Dubber Politically speaking, you said liberal/left, but is there a libertarian streak through this?
Gabriella I don’t see it as much with Anonymous. Certainly within other quarters of the hacker world it’s very, very strong.
Dubber Let’s say Randist.
Gabriella Okay, Randist. Yeah. Definitely not. Weirdly enough, Anonymous tended to get involved, in 2011 and 2012, with a lot of social justice issues. They were critical of government when there was an overreach of surveillance, and criticality around the government in that way, but if you looked at a lot of the people who were involved, they were pro universal healthcare or free education, the sort of things that a Randist libertarian wouldn’t be. So in that way, I wouldn’t tag them that way, but it’s a good and important question because I think, actually, the world of hacking has been overidentified with libertarianism. And we could talk about why that is, and it certainly exists, but I think that overidentification is not rooted in reality, especially when you take into account Europe, where you are, which is probably one of the most interesting places for the history of hacking.
Dubber In what way?
Gabriella The Chaos Computer Club, which is a really important hacker organisation founded in the 1980s. Has huge membership in Germany and attracts a huge number of people during their conferences, which happen once a year for the congress and every four years for the camp. It is probably one of the most important hacker organisations that always put politics front and centre to their work and identity. Yet, even though they’re so important, we know a lot less about them. There’s not major histories written about them. And, instead, the American version gets told, and parts of the American version are far more libertarian than the European one.
Now, what they all share is a commitment to civil liberties, fighting for privacy, ensuring that the government doesn’t censor organisations and journalists, whistleblowing. There’s a baseline of civil liberties that a lot of hackers share, but then gets overidentified with libertarianism. But if you ask most German hackers “Hey, should we get rid of affordable or free public education and healthcare?”, many of them would be like “Heck no.”. I think that’s important to keep on the table and keep in view.
Dubber For sure. There are some terms that it’s probably good to unpack a little bit, and I don’t want you to give a definition of anything, but of these things, what do we need to know about? 4chan, LulzSec, AntiSec, Cabin Cr3w. It does get deep and complex. What do we need to know?
Gabriella Oh, wow. Yeah. Okay, so those terms pertain back to the world of Anonymous. I think 4chan is important to know and understand what it is. 4chan is an anonymous imageboard, infamous in many ways.
Dubber What do you mean by ‘imageboard’?
Gabriella So an imageboard is like an old school message board except you have to start a thread with an image. And the imageboards also became famous, like 4chan, because they were one of the places that generated many internet memes, such as internet memes around cats, and that’s, in part, because of the fact that they were trafficking in images. So certainly they’re not the only place that generated meme culture, but one of the most important places.
And so 4chan is a board where people post anonymously, and if you go to the board, the username for each person is ‘anonymous’. The collective identity name Anonymous came from that imageboard, but it was used first for trolling and pranking. And trolling and pranking, a little bit like tricksterism, can be on a spectrum from light-hearted and funny to freaking terrifying. And then at a certain point, due to a lot of contingencies and other events, the name broke away from trolling and started to be used for activism. And over time Anonymous was less and less involved in board culture, as well. So its origins are there, but it grew apart. And then different types of actors and political cultures grew on 4chan and 8chan, and, in specific, post-2014 especially, members of the far-right, alt-right, were really present on those boards, became people on the boards, became involved in recruitment campaigns to try to ‘red pill’ people, which is a term to convert them to their ideology.
Dubber This is a Matrix reference.
Gabriella It’s a Matrix reference, exactly. To see the truth. When we take the red pill you see what’s true. And in the context of the far-right and the alt-right, it’s to see that things like feminism and multiculturalism are really forms of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. That’s their belief. So at different moments, different political cultures have grown from these imageboards.
Dubber So what’s the role of IRC as a technology in all this? It’s something that I used 25 years ago. I didn’t know that anybody still used it, but it seems to be important.
Gabriella Oh, it’s so important. I feel like you can’t understand anything about the hacker world, whether it’s free software or Anonymous, without looking at Internet Relay Chat. Which is still used, but now new platforms like Slack and Discord are what a younger generation are tending to use.
Dubber Similar thing, though, right?
Gabriella Very similar. It’s basically a place where there’s different rooms. People can log into the rooms and chat. The difference with Slack and Discord is that there’s a lot more bells and whistles on Slack and Discord. You could share emoticons and images, and Discord you have voice chat. I find it a little overwhelming. But they’re important because they provide a sense of place, like going to a café. If you visit a certain IRC chatroom enough, you feel like you’re going somewhere, and you get to really know the people. And it’s really good for conversations and organising things. What were you on IRC for?
Dubber Exactly that. This was ’95 to 2000. It was about “Who else is on this thing?”, and those conversations building from there. And they were very much about interests. I think I talked about music a lot, frankly. So IRC is where the organisation of Anonymous takes place, or took place?
Gabriella Took place, yeah, exactly. So 2010 onwards certain IRC servers were incredibly popular. One was called AnonOps. They had multiple rooms. Some were general rooms, like for reporters, or one called lounge where you can kick back and talk about fun stuff, and others were for operations, OpTunisia, OpOccupy, and that’s where people would come together, and strategize, and talk. And many of the rooms were public, and then the hackers were in private rooms because they were organising illegal activity, so it wasn’t like everyone could just be there.
Dubber Tell me about the masks, the Guy Fawkes thing. Is this life imitating art, V for Vendetta as the ground zero for this? What was the meaning of the mask?
Gabriella It’s such a great story. I’ve learned a lot about the mask. Okay, so, first of all, Anonymous is almost synonymous today with Guy Fawkes mask, but what’s fascinating is that they actually took on the mask somewhat accidentally, or it was due to a contingency. So one of the first truly earnest operations was against the Church of Scientology. Anonymous decided to organise street protests.
Dubber Just briefly, why?
Gabriella So there was a video that was released to the internet of Tom Cruise, and it was an internal recruitment video for the Church of Scientology. Have you ever seen that video?
Dubber I haven’t. I haven’t sought it out. I’ve known of its existence.
Gabriella Yeah. You have to watch it, it’s really funny. It’s just this incredible video of Tom Cruise basically saying “If you’re not a Scientologist you’re worthless, and only Scientologists can help other people.”. And so it was leaked to the internet by former Scientologists, and then Gawker and other publications published it, and then Scientology threatened to sue these publishers if they didn’t take it down. Anonymous at the time, which was a trolling chat, decided to troll the Church of Scientology, and they did so over days, sending pizzas to churches and prank calling them. And then former Scientologists who were critical of the Church reached out to Anonymous and was like “Hey, what you’re doing is great, but why don’t you do this earnestly? Don’t do it just for fun.”. And there was a big debate within these chatrooms, and then they decided “Okay, let’s try this.”.
And in part I think they just decided to do the street protest because people from 4chan wanted to meet each other, because it’s anonymous. But when they decided to protest in front of churches, from Melbourne, to London, to Montreal, one of the points of discussion was “Oh, wow. Scientology takes high definition photos of critics, and so we don’t want to be targeted. What do we do? Let’s mask ourselves.”, and then someone suggested the Guy Fawkes mask because it was easily available on the internet and Halloween stores.
And so on February 10th 2008, about 9,000 people show up around the world in front of Scientology churches, in about 127 cities, and they’re all wearing the mask. So all of a sudden, because of this need to self protect, this name Anonymous becomes identified with this symbol. And it looks like it’s life imitating art, but it’s a longer cycle because the art, V for Vendetta, the movie or the graphic novel, is really imitating life since Guy Fawkes was a historical figure. And he was fictionalised starting in the 1850s, actually. And what’s so interesting about that is the figure of Guy Fawkes was a terrorist figure in England. He was really frowned upon. But because of children’s books and novels in the 1850s, he started to be cast as a hero antihero, and then that transformation fully happens with V for Vendetta, the graphic novel and movie. And then when people start to take on the mask, it fully takes on a new set of associations.
Dubber Yeah, that’s interesting. And it’s interesting how, in a different way, masks have become more political and potent, within protests as well as the COVID thing, but in a very different way. Covering the face seems to be like an important thing to do in any political agitation setting.
Gabriella That’s right. If you look at Hong Kong, for example, a lot of face coverings there, both with Guy Fawkes masks and other coverings to protect themselves against the Chinese state. We’ve seen in many parts of the world, but especially the United States with Black Lives Matter protests, people were wearing the mask to protect themselves against the virus but also from surveillance. And I feel like it’s become a little bit more accepted in recent times because of these big protests, because the mask is a very ambivalent figure, both the Guy Fawkes mask and masking in general. Like the trickster, as well. It’s not straightforward. Some people are very scared by masks. “Well, aren’t you a bad actor? You’re masking yourself. Can’t you show who you are? You’re only morally good if you come attached with a true identity.”.
Dubber Right. Because otherwise, if you don’t have anything to hide…
Gabriella Exactly. I think anonymity is a very complex phenomenon, and it isn’t always good. But whether it’s Anonymous, or increased masking, or increased surveillance, some people are starting to see the value and importance of being able to be anonymous in different ways, online or in the streets.
Dubber I’ve got a few questions about the relationship between Anonymous and other things. One of them is WikiLeaks, one of them is QAnon. Is there a connection there, or is that just… Just happen to have some of the same letters in the name? And also the relationship between the hackers that you talk about and what goes on in these corporate hackathons. Are those things related in any particular way? But let’s start with WikiLeaks because I’m interested in that story and how that unpacks.
Gabriella Yeah. So, again, historically there was a very tight relation between Anonymous and WikiLeaks, in so far as… Well, first of all, they were very different. WikiLeaks was an organisation. You knew who was involved, Julian Assange. There was a cult of personality around WikiLeaks. Anonymous, on the other hand, was a horde, a mass. Anyone could join. There was not only no cult of personality, they were anti cult of personality. That was their core ethic. But they’re related in so far as it was just a period where lots of geeks and hackers were taking on the political sword, and in different ways, and believed in protest and information freedom.
And at a certain point, when WikiLeaks published all the diplomatic cables that Chelsea Manning provided, the American diplomatic cables which basically showed a lot of America’s dirty laundry to the world, the U.S. government got really, really upset and asked Mastercard, and Visa, and other financial services, and Amazon to pull the plug and not provide services for WikiLeaks anymore. And this was the moment that then Anonymous engage in a protest against that form of pre-emptive action that the government took, and then, all of a sudden, the two became associated at that moment. But then over time Julian Assange and WikiLeaks became more and more controversial, for various reasons.
Dubber Lost a little bit of its shine.
Gabriella Yeah. They weren’t always so good at protecting people’s privacy when leaking, Julian Assange had flirtations with the alt-right, and I would say a lot of people in Anonymous were quite critical and disappointed in that. And, certainly, I think some former members of Anonymous, and current members, do feel like Julian Assange is facing an unfair trial, for espionage in the United States, they’re trying to extradite him, and they’re very concerned about that, all the while knowing that WikiLeaks as an organisation and as a leaking platform had a lot of problems, as well.
Dubber Let’s talk about QAnon, because that one… I feel like I don’t understand anything.
Gabriella Yeah. QAnon also emerged from the boards, so there’s that relationship, but many things have emerged from the boards. So just because something was cultivated on anonymous imageboards, I think, in some people’s minds makes them similar because the origin point is similar, but actually I do find QAnon almost polar opposite of Anonymous, aside from the anonymity. A lot of people involved are anonymous, although some of the figures in QAnon are very public and well known, so they don’t have the same really hardcore ethic to anonymity. And also, Anonymous, even though they wore a mask and there were lots of mysteries, in some ways they followed very classical, liberal scripts around truth. They wanted to work with journalists to tell the truth. They wanted to stamp out conspiracy theories. That’s why they hated Scientology. They saw Scientology as this religion of conspiracy and false ideas, and that’s how many people in Anonymous see QAnon.
Dubber Right. QAnon are the Scientologists of this story now.
Gabriella Exactly, and Anonymous has gone after them a little bit and made fun of them. And, actually, QAnon doesn’t use the symbols, the Guy Fawkes mask or the headless suit man, and a lot of the accounts will have American flags. So by name and origin, similar, but in terms of focus and worldview, so different.
Dubber Right. Okay, hackathons.
Gabriella Hackathons. Yeah, I think what you point to there is something that I raised earlier, is that there’s very different communities of practice around hacking, where you can have anything from groups like LulzSec, which were affiliated with Anonymous, break into companies and governments for 50 days in a row, hack into these places, talk about hardcore and risky, to then feel-good hackathons. Which also, if you look at all hackathons, some of them are very different. Some are very politically oriented, or at least oriented towards civic issues, like “Let’s improve government.”, and then other hackathons are in the service of corporate capitalism, like a McDonald’s hackathon, and so they take on very, very different forms, especially based on where it’s happening. So Silicon Valley hackathons, many of them are very naïve and in the service of corporate goals, and they’re very, very different from a grassroots hackathon which might be oriented towards improving a privacy tool. And so, there, you just have to look at the hackathon, and just a good reminder that hackers organise themselves in rather different ways, from hardcore illegal to feel-good, all-day events, some of which are very naïve and others which are a little bit more pragmatic and a little less naïve.
Dubber Sure. One thing I’m really interested in, it seems like, and you can correct or clarify this, but it seems like politicians and political operatives have basically picked up these trickster tools and methods in terms of information and disinformation on social media and those sorts of things. Is that the derivation of what we’re seeing now in terms of political discourse?
Gabriella Yes. That’s a short answer. I’ll give you one specific example because there’s so many things going on, but one that really concretises what you’ve just raised. So one of the fascinating things and one of the legacies of Anonymous is that the hacker groups broke into companies, took emails, and published them online. Now, you would think that that has been around forever as a mode of whistleblowing or release of information. It’s very new, actually. Hackers were certainly, prior to the era of Anonymous, breaking into things. They would often take source code, software, even email, as trophies to share with each other or embarrass a group, but they weren’t using it at as a mode of “I’m going to release it to the world in the hope that journalists in the public will mine that information.”.
Anonymous completely were responsible for taking what’s existed here and there, packaging it into a format that you could emulate, and other hacktivists started to do it. Phineas Fisher is probably the most famous one, people should look up Phineas Fisher, but then government started to do it as well. And that’s what’s so fascinating, is that governments were also hacking each other with impunity, but they were doing it so quietly. And in part, I think, because of the very visibility of hacking and leaking, certain governments and their hacker groups started to do the same. North Korea…
Dubber These are state-operated hacker groups we’re talking about.
Gabriella Exactly. And they have different formats. Sometimes they’re literally in a government office, and other times it’s more like privateers. But Guardians of Peace from North Korea hacked into Sony, took their emails, and published them, and whether or not they literally were like “Oh, Anonymous inspired us.”, or it was just in the atmosphere now… I think it was more it was just in the atmosphere. We could see how hacktivists put forward certain tactics, and then nation states also follow in their footsteps in order to engage in disinformation campaigns or confusion.
Dubber Right, okay. So, on that, tell me about Stuxnet.
Gabriella Well, I actually don’t know a whole lot about it, so I’m a little bit reluctant to say much about it, but I’ll say a little bit about it and then recommend Kim Zetter’s book which covers it in detail.
Dubber Further reading always welcome.
Gabriella Exactly. But it is interesting in so far as it is considered to be a cyber weapon, I guess is the term. Sometimes that term is applied to things that really are not cyber weapons, but this, I think, probably fits. And so the Israelis and the American government collaborated to create a piece of malware that would infect a piece of equipment that was in Iran and connected to their nuclear reactors in order to disable them. Very technically clever and fascinating, and it gives a taste of what you can do with technology today, given that critical infrastructure of various kinds are interconnected. In this case it wasn’t connected to the internet, so the malware, I think, had to be transported, if I remember correctly, through a USB stick.
Dubber Like Will Smith in Independence Day, that sort of thing.
Gabriella Exactly. But the point being that since computers are attached to everything from your pacemaker to a nuclear reactor, with the right software, or malware, or intervention, you could cause a lot of damage on these systems, and I think Stuxnet really is a great example of that possibility.
Dubber On that basis, are you worried about things like driverless vehicles, IoT devices, smart homes?
Gabriella Very much, yeah. I think that they’re a bad idea at many different levels, from if your car is all software, do you have the right to repair it? Do you own certain things, or is the car company just going to be leasing parts of your car to you and you need to upgrade it? To the fact that the more software there is, the more hackable things are, even though security has improved a lot in many different domains. When everything is run on software, even when you have very, very good security, the nature of software and these systems make it such that there is always the potential for hacking. And so while, again, they might offer a lot of features and possibilities, I, personally, tend to like products and things with less software, or if it’s run with software you would still hope that things could run without the software as well. Driverless cars I don’t think are going to happen, actually.
Dubber On what basis?
Gabriella I think people who really follow this have smarter things to say, but while a lot of technical hurdles have been overcome, a lot of people say that it’s just too complex of a problem to really get to the point where we just have autonomous vehicles driving everywhere. Think about the sensors in bathrooms, they barely work. And I’m sure the technologies in cars are better, but I think it’s just going to be too glitchy outside of maybe some cases like truck driving on highways. That may work. Having everyone use autonomous vehicles is probably not that realistic.
Dubber But, yeah, bringing up hand dryers actually makes it quite a scary proposition.
Gabriella I know. And that’s the thing, I hate bathrooms where everything’s on a sensor and you just have a horrible experience from the beginning to the end. Your toilet flushes when you’re sitting on it, the water thing, it doesn’t turn on.
Dubber Which doesn’t result in multiple deaths. At least there’s that.
Dubber Should we resign ourselves to the idea that secrets are basically unprotectable now?
Gabriella It’s much, much harder, but I think it’s possible. I think there’s always going to be an ability to hold secrets because in part that’s a sociological issue, not simply a technical one. But there is always a possibility for more leaking, as well, today, but you can imagine those who want to hold secrets will change practices.
So I’ll give one example. Email has produced a lot of interesting information, whether it’s Enron, the energy company, their emails provided a lot of information about corruption, to the emails that WikiLeaks has published. I think it’ll happen slowly, but I think people are more aware of the danger of having emails leaked. So guess what? We’ll stop writing that information on email, and anything sensitive will be face to face, phone. So I think there’ll be a reconfiguration of this stuff, but certainly we do live in an era where sousveillance, the ability to watch the watchers, or leak information, is more common than ever before.
Dubber Right. So is that your recommendation of how we should now live, is just on the understanding that you’re basically being tracked?
Gabriella Right now, yeah. Absolutely. It’s a little depressing, but, on the other hand, then it gives you an ability to be like “Do I want to put that information online? Maybe I don’t, and that’s okay.”. So it’s not necessarily a state where you’re really, really being watched, you just have to be mindful of anything that is put somewhere tangible can eventually be made public.
Dubber Right. Here’s the thing I’m curious about, why you? What is it about this that draws you to it? Why are you the world expert on Anonymous? Where did that start from?
Gabriella Oh, man. It started with my interest in hackers. Because I was trained as a very traditional anthropologist, I was working in Guyana, South America, on religious healing, and two things happened. One thing was that I learned about the copyleft licence, which are the class of licences that free software developers use to free their information, and I was just floored. I was like “Wait a minute. A bunch of nerds, and engineers, and technical people made a legal mechanism to accomplish what they wanted accomplished politically?”. And at the time, I was following some legal battles over patents and HIV drugs in the Global South where these drugs were too expensive, and people were breaking the patents, and I was like “Wow, this is cool. This is a different way to treat music, and drugs, and information. We don’t need to use copyrights and patents.”. That was just blowing me away. It really was mind-blowing to me. So I just started to follow it and write papers on it, but I was not going to study hackers because that’s not what an anthropologist did, especially for their first project.
But guess what? I’m saying this because it relates to the moment, I got really sick for a year and I was at home. I had Lyme disease and I didn’t know I had Lyme disease. And so since I was stuck at home, I couldn’t take classes, I spent all my time on the internet, and I was learning more and more about free and open-source software. And by the time I got better, first of all, I was just too hooked, second, I was like “No, this matters culturally, ethically, politically.”. And even though I had lost a year, since I’d done so much research if I moved forward with it I didn’t lose the year. And so all those things came together, and I convinced my advisor that I should switch to hackers.
Dubber Is there any intersection whatsoever with religious healers going on here, or have you just walked away from one subject to another?
Gabriella Well, that’s what I think I enjoyed about the Anonymous project, at first, was when they went after the Church of Scientology. I was a religious studies major, and I was interested in issues around secularism, and tolerance, and religion, and some of those issues came back with that. And also, funnily enough, hackers are really into… You don’t find a lot of religious hackers. There are exceptions, but they tend to be atheists, sceptics. And yet, at another level, they’re very monastic, obsessive. There’s a certain type of religious fervour that you see in this world, as well. And very ritualistic. Extremely ritualistic. So what I loved about it was that, and this is something that anthropologists know well, that even in so-called secular society you have motifs of enchantment, and ritual, and a kind of religious experience that still lives. And that is completely true in the hacker domain, as well. So I think my background in religion helped me see those characteristics, that I maybe wouldn’t see otherwise.
Dubber So you can unpack the iconography and those sorts of things.
Dubber Have you embraced the term hackademic, or is that just something we should brush under the carpet?
Gabriella No. I do have a mailing list called Hackademia which brings together some academics who work on hackers, and I think that’s helpful because people tend to be in very different fields. And I do think there’s a scepticism sometimes when you work on hackers, too. It’s like “Well, aren’t there just a bunch of white males, and shouldn’t you just point your finger at how bad that is?”, and I’m like “Well, no.”. First of all, it’s more interesting and more complicated than that, and their politics around diversity and inclusion in the last ten years actually is sometimes more progressive than academic institutions. So I wanted to create a space where people working on hackers could share information, and exchange information, and get support, but I don’t call myself a hackademic, but maybe I should.
Dubber Right, okay. For further reading, give me one thing by you and one thing by somebody else that we should check out.
Gabriella Sure, okay. ‘Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy’ is a fun book, so maybe check that out. And it’s on the internet.
Dubber That’s your one.
Gabriella And, actually, the second thing I’m going to mention is a very hackery thing that I helped curate and edit, though a great majority of the authors are not me, but check out Hack_Curio. If you go to my website, www.gabriellacoleman.org, you’ll find a link to it, and it’s a hacker cabinet of video curiosities. It’s like an exhibit where we’ve compiled a lot of short videos from the hacker world, and each video is under a category, like privacy, free software, blockchain, hacktivism, and each video comes with a short entry about the video. And the point there both is to use hacker methodologies, like collaboration, and also to showcase the kind of diversity and variability of the hacker world in visual form because it’s so hard to represent hacking, sometimes, visually, and people have a lot of stereotypes about what it is. So this is a resource where you can spend time looking at videos and learn a little bit about hacking. We have over 50 entries and probably about 40 authors right now. Journalists, academics, and hackers, who’ve written for the website.
Dubber Fantastic. There’ve been some really interesting representations of hackers in cinema. What’s your favourite?
Gabriella Okay. My favourite is ‘Who Am I: No System Is Safe’, and it’s German film released by Sony, and I think it represents hacking both at a meta-level very accurately, I can’t tell you what I mean because then I would spoil the plot, but the other thing I love about it is that it’s got all these cool, actual historical references to hacking, from references to the Chaos Computer Club, to Kevin Poulsen, to LulzSec. And then the other two things that I love about it is that it represents chatting in a way that is just brilliant, it has a trickster motif in the movie, and, finally, instead of featuring a single hacker, it has four types of hackers, which I love. The programmer, the social engineer, the hardware hacker, and the security vulnerability person. Because hacking actually entails different communities of practice and different types of technical interventions, and it’s one of the first movies that really represents that. So everything about it, I think, is great. Go watch it. ‘Who Am I: No System Is Safe’.
Dubber Fantastic. Gabriella, it’s been really fascinating. Thanks so much for your time.
Gabriella Oh, my pleasure.
Dubber That’s Gabriella Coleman, and that’s the MTF Podcast. You can find Gabriella online at www.gabriellacoleman.org. Her Twitter account is @BiellaColeman. I’m Andrew Dubber, you can find me @dubber on Twitter. Music Tech Fest is @MusicTechFest pretty much everywhere. This week’s episode was edited by Jake Dubber, with music by Moon and airtone, and the MTF audio logo, as always, was created by Run Dreamer. Don’t forget to share, like, rate, and review because it really helps other people find the show, and because we’d really appreciate it and love to hear your thoughts. You have a great week, stay safe, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.