Culture & Conversation

Hacker, Activist, or Trickster?



When the movie Hackers came out in 1995, I was transfixed. As depicted by Angelina Jolie (her first lead role in a major film) and Jonny Lee Miller, hacking seemed glamorous, yet brainy. Exclusive. Dangerous. Sexy. Important. Plus, I already owned a pair of rollerblades.

Hackers was pure, incredibly cheesy and wildly unrealistic eye candy, but to a 14 year old who taught herself to code HTML, it was seductive. A tech-savvy friend invited me into a secret internet relay chat (IRC) channel, a meeting place for a small circle of local hackers. (He immediately got flak for inviting a “girl” into the inner circle, I should point out.) But the “hacking” I was exposed to diverged sharply from the Hollywood version. It didn’t extend much beyond downloading pirated copies of graphics software. Needless to say, there was no rollerblading involved.

After years of misrepresentations in mainstream media, more accurate portrayals of hackers are slowly emerging. The TV show House of Cards, for example, consulted a real-life hacker from the group Anonymous for their hacktivist subplot. Noted hacker scholar Gabriella Coleman claims the depiction is accurate: “the figure is an actual composite character of three real people,” she said.

Coleman spoke at Blue Metropolis (2015) as part of a round-table discussion titled “From Anonymous to Edward Snowden: Hackers as Activists.” Joining her on stage were moderator Will Straw, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, and Thomas Geffroyd, who works at Ubisoft as brand content director for Watch Dogs, a video game with a hacker for a protagonist. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, Coleman researches, writes and teaches about computer hackers and digital activism. She holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill.

Her first task was to define a hacker: Hacking can manifest in many different ways. It’s not all hooded super criminals, she said, but a lively world made up of people who are passionate about technology. Some believe in sharing information and would do away with copyrights and patents—they write open source software. Others are more into security research. Then there are hackers like Julian Assange or the people involved in Anonymous who use their technical skills for the sake of political activity.

Coleman’s newest book is Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. The online collective known as Anonymous (devotees are called “Anons”) is difficult to pin down: Coleman called it a “shadowy protest ensemble.” Many of their political “ops” break the law. Most recently, the group “declared war” on jihadist websites and social media accounts, attempting to take them down in retaliation for the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Anonymous proved an incredibly difficult subject of anthropological study. “While there have been a few manifestations of Anonymous that have hit the streets—notably to protest the Church of Scientology—most manifestations of Anonymous really exist only online,” explained Coleman. Anthropologists typically live among their subjects of study. In this case, that meant living online. During the height of research, she spent about 5-6 hours a day, 7 days a week, following the conversations, talking to people, interviewing them, acting as a gopher between Anonymous and the journalistic world.

What might not be immediately obvious, especially for those who are only familiar with hacking as depicted by Hollywood, is the importance of humour in hacking culture. “Hackers joke all the time,” said Coleman. At hacker conferences, audience members interrupt speakers to tell a joke. They also embed jokes into their source code and documentation (in the industry this is known as an “Easter egg”). Anonymous, for their part, do things for the “lulz”—a “deviant style of humor and a quasi-mystical state of being,” as Coleman writes in her book. Humour is ubiquitous in the hacker world. “As an anthropologist, I both wanted to display it, and help explain it,” said Coleman.

This sense of humour merges with art and politics. “Hackers are craftspeople. They really do take pride and excellence in what they do. But they’re also crafty; they’re into trickery. So I like to say that hacking or hackers are where craft and craftiness intersect,” explained Coleman. There’s also “a very strong count-culture spirit,” added Geffroyd, who considers himself a hacker. He emphasized hackers’ passion for “repurposing without destroying the original intent.”

How does one become a hacker? Well, you don’t go to hacker school. Basically, you teach yourself. Sharing information is key. “The free flow of information is really core to the existence [of these] people,” said Geffroyd. “Anyone can become a hacker if [they are] curious enough, because all the knowledge is available.”

The discussion eventually came around to privacy. “How paranoid should we be?” asked Straw. Coleman’s response was sobering: six weeks after the Edward Snowden revelations, she ditched her cell phone. “I decided that I didn’t want to necessarily be tracked all the time,” she said. Despite this, she believes we should be less paranoid, because, thanks to Snowden and others, we now have a lot more information.

“Although I would like to have privacy for everybody, I’m actually most concerned about privacy for lawyers, activists, and journalists,” said Coleman. She spoke of how the GCHQ, the equivalent of the NSA in the UK, has been vacuuming up journalists’ email. “That, to me, is just completely unacceptable. Journalists are supposed to have total privacy, and complete privilege with their sources, independent of the state,” she said. “Journalists have that independence to form a critical barrier against the state. If the state is monitoring journalists, that’s a problem.”

The solution? Hackers are now in “turbo mode” when it comes to developing privacy tools. If journalists, lawyers, and activists start using those tools, we’ve won one small battle, suggested Coleman. Back in 2001 she only used encryption software for emails a couple of times a year, but now she’s now using it about four times a week. Without Snowden, she would still be interacting with journalists without these precautions.

So far, still no need for rollerblades.

Lesley Trites is Rover’s literary editor. She pays for all her graphics software.

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