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November 25

System Failure: On the Power & Potential of Hacking in Revolutionary Struggles

A look at the power and potential of hacking in relation to wider revolutionary movements and struggles.

There are a lot of misconceptions about hacking. One of the biggest is that you have to be some kind of prodigy to do it. Another is that this knowledge is obscure, inaccessible, or impossible to learn without reading boring 700 page technical books.  Another is that the era of big hacks is over; or coming to a close – none of which is true.

First off, this article is not coming from any definitive level of expertise and it is certainly not encouraging people to go out there and do something illegal or stupid for which they are unprepared. Instead, it hopes to combine a revolutionary political analysis of offensive hacking and encourage anti-state and anti-capitalist rebels to build analysis and concrete skills in computer/network security – in the hopes of growing the liberatory possibilities that these skills imply.

Secondly, movements must recognize the enormous, mostly untapped potential in Free Software (free as in freedom, not necessarily free of cost). Creation of software that furthers the cause of true freedom is immensely valuable. It has the potential to not just safe guard freedom, but actually expand it.  I’m hopeful that we can have FOSS (Free Open Source Software) alternatives overtaking Google, Facebook and other tech companies within the next 8 years or so. To hasten that process, please check out the search engines SearX and Disconnect and also Scuttlebutt (1) the last of which is a very interesting decentralized social media creation.

But while this creation has its place, this article is about how people have been cultivating the knowledge and skills necessary to carry out offensive campaigns. Hacking has never been easier or more accessible. Computer security is a skill pretty much anyone can learn. It can be learned on sites like YouTube, at junior colleges, universities, or online learning hubs like Lynda and Udemy. There are also more classes and forums for aspiring hackers to be found on the deep web.

To be clear, hacks, like prisoner resistance or shoplifting, are happening all the time. This is well understood in the industry. It is thought that most of these major hacks are tied to either state actors or organized crime, but it’s not always known. There are some attacks since the fall of Anonymous that have seemed to be political, but it’s difficult to know for sure.

2012 was the high point for autonomous, politically motivated hacking, at least in terms of visibility. One big weakness was that political hackers, especially Hector Monsegur, apparently had next to no legal security knowledge to supplement his computer security knowledge. When the FBI came knocking, he apparently took their threats at face value and folded faster than a paper airplane. His collaboration with the state later led to the capture of Jeremy Hammond, who is still locked up as of this writing. Had he found the courage to resist and stick to his principles, the revolutionary movement might be stronger today, and he probably would have ended up with a less severe sentence than he inflicted on Hammond by turning collaborator.

Other examples of hacking come not from revolutionary movements, but from criminal syndicates and even governments themselves. In a 2016 attack on Aramco, the Saudi oil company, the attackers at one point changed computer screens to the famous heart-wrenching image of the drowned 3-year-old boy Alan Kurdi. The goal of the attack had been to destroy an oil facility, which would have killed workers, but that failed. The attack still cost Aramco a lot of money, but not nearly as much as it could have. In fact, this was the second major recent attack against Aramco, and there is speculation that the Iranian state may be responsible.

In 2016, hackers in Bangladesh compromised the supposedly hyper-secure SWIFT system for international banking, making off with $81 million. This was actually another botched attack. If it had been fully successful, the take would have been in the billions.

For social movements, the possibilities of hacking are potentially very large, comparable to the anarchist expropriations of old or data heists such as those carried out by the ‘Committee To Investigate the FBI’ which helped expose COINTELPRO. Hacking has the potential not just to cripple a movement’s enemies, but also to expropriate money and information to strengthen worldwide anarchic insurgency. Diplomatic cables exposed by Wikileaks led directly to protests against Tunisia’s dictator, Ben Ali, which set off the Arab Spring, for instance.

The response of the state to past hacker attacks on the world capitalist order have been twofold. First, retribution. Hackers have been imprisoned, especially by the US. The UK, by comparison, has been much more lenient in allowing former political hackers to transition into comfy security jobs, working for the “good guys.”

This is the second response; co-optation. The skills necessary to hack are taught schools all over the world and online. There are even hacker conventions such as Defcon. Why then has something like Anonymous or LulzSec not returned to haunt the rulers of the world? If someone offered you $100,000 to stop whatever political organizing or activities you’re involved in, would you take it? Or, would you hesitate before saying no and sticking to your principles?

This question resembles how the once rebellious hacker culture has been brought to heel by the state. The most skilled people in computer security are all now employed comfortably by either private companies or the national security state itself. If you can’t beat them, join them, right?

If social movements and struggles want to see more hacks that will benefit such movements, then they need to embrace the need for hackers to attack the system, but doing so in an extremely ethical way. One approach could be to “radicalize” people with existing computer security knowledge, but this probably wouldn’t be very effective. What movements could accomplish, is starting to master hacking skills and then distributing these skills to as many people as possible. This could come about through anarchists networking with above-ground hacking groups in set areas (they exist in virtually every mid-to-large sized US city and in other cities across the world) and in the longer run, and by holding independent hacking workshops and tournaments. If anarchists want anti-authoritarian hacking to take place, then our movements need to learn the skills ourselves and help pass them on with both the technical and political understanding to others.

So where to learn? A big part of the hacker skill set is social engineering. This means the ability to have personal interactions that result in you gaining knowledge or access that authority dictates you should not have. This non-technological aspect may be a good starting place for some. Many prank calls and such on public figures are carried out using social engineering alone. Such as the recent example of Lindsey Graham.

Hacking may not be easy, but it’s easier now more than ever before, and most people can learn it just like you’d learn anything else. Perhaps you made it this far into the article and still can’t picture yourself hacking the system. Mass media shows us hackers as geniuses who already know how to do everything. They don’t visualize the process of learning. Nobody is born knowing this stuff, nor is there an age at which you’re “too old” to learn hacking and computer security.

We need to re-politicize hacking. In professional academic and online learning spaces, anyone attempting to break into a system is referred to as “the bad guys” by default. We should be entering and creating spaces where hacking is infused with anti-authoritarian politics and lessons from revolutionary his/herstory.

Some good ways to expand your skillset:

  • Anonymity / Security: PDF Zine and one of the best accessible anarchist resources on computer security out there. It’s all in layman’s terms and makes a great intro.  Print it. Read it.  Share it. 
  • Check out this CrimethInc. interview with revolutionary hacker Phineas Fisher.
  • Check out Hack This Zine.
  • Watch hacking videos on YouTube. Check out tutorials on TOR and computer network basics. Ideas include:
  1. Please Do Not Duplicate Attacking the Knox Box
  2. How Tor Users Got Caught
  • Go to community college. Depending on where you live, this may be an accessible option for learning about computer networks and security in a social environment. You may even meet some future accomplices, but BE CAREFUL. Don’t talk about your true feelings or intentions until you know people well, practice good ol’ fashioned human to human security culture. Academic computer security setting are counter-insurgent by default. Going there and saying you want to hack capitalism is a BAD idea.
  • Online courses. Udemy is probably the best.  Go to the IT security section and see how thinly they wrap their course language in the language of defensive hacking. The normal prices are a lot, but Udemy offers huge sales all the time, especially to new customers.  You can also expect the price for everything to drop to about $10 around new years, black Friday, cyber Monday, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.  You can also check the good ol’ pirate bay for some five finger discounts. Honestly just search “hacking” and “security” on the pirate bay and go to town.
  • Books. Check out Kevin Mitnick, especially his partial autobiography, Ghost in the Wires. There are a lot of books on both the humanities and technical aspects of hacking. If you don’t have a library card, get one, and use it to it’s fullest power. Don’t feel obligated to finish books you start, or even read chapters in order (especially in technical books).  Take what you need and leave the rest.
  • Podcasts. Check out the TorrentFreak podcast just for starters. It’s very beginner-friendly and big-picture. The politics are pretty much good, but they did have on an “anarcho”-capitalist before (gag, puke). But they have a lot of other really cool interviews about where technology and society is going. Security specific podcasts are worth checking out too, but they will be more technical and less beginner friendly.

To wrap up, hacking really does offer movements and struggles in revolt unparalleled and unprecedented power to take on authority and win, but people have to be smart about it and consider all the possible outcomes.

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