Hacktivating America - Protest Week


BTR talks to hacking guru Rob Vincent about “hacktivism” and the negative image most people think of when hearing the word, pictured above. Photo by Adam Thomas.

Written By: Jennifer Smith

Jack Nelson walked into a South Carolina hospital in 1968 and introduced himself as “Nelson, with the Atlanta Bureau.” When hospital workers assumed the “bureau” meant F.B.I. and gave him access to private medical records, Nelson didn’t correct them.

Nelson was actually a journalist with the Atlanta bureau of The Los Angeles Times. He had “come to see the charts” of three African-American students at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg who had been shot and killed along with 27 others injured all by state troopers after protesting segregation in a local bowling alley. The records revealed that most of the students involved were shot in the back and in the soles of the feet, which meant the protestors were lying down or in retreat when fired upon, not charging at the authorities as had been previously reported.

This event would become known as the Orangeburg Massacre. Nelson may have circumvented hospital security to obtain information illegally, but in a climate where the police, media, and courts couldn’t be trusted to fully investigate the violence against these students, Nelson did something they all would not. He brought new, pertinent information to light.

If Nelson did the same thing today from behind a computer screen, he would be called a hacktivist.

It’s a term that lends itself to broad interpretation, but perhaps because of misconceptions around the word “hack” that the portmanteau necessarily carries negative connotations as well, something to the tune of “threat” or “stealing.”

The idea of obtaining information through legal or illegal means with the intent of revealing social injustice is nothing new. While Nelson could only publish his findings on paper in the name of journalism, hacktivists can freely share their ideas with an entire online community in an instant.

If you expand the definition to include using any digital tool to pursue political ends, virtually anybody could be considered a hacktivist, says Rob Vincent. The hacker is also a panelist/contributor for Off the Hook, a radio broadcast airing every Wednesday at 7 p.m. EST in New York City on WBA1 99.5 FM. On the Internet, Off the Hook is a broadcast of the website for 2600: The Hacker Quarterly, a hacking magazine that also stages hacking/technology meet-ups in NYC.

“A hack is basically using something in a way that serves what you want to accomplish, whether or not it’s designed for that,” says Vincent, “Facebook and Twitter were invented with a certain use in mind. Nobody programming Facebook or Twitter thought, ‘One day, Egypt will have a revolution because we have this.’”

“It’s basically like any other form of activism,” Vincent says. “You ask ten people why they’re there, and you get ten different answers. Everyone’s got the power to do this. Not everyone was willing over the past decade to go out to a protest, wave a sign around, risk getting arrested … and now people are given the tools to do this from home basically. It’s just become like any other tool. You can use it wisely or someone who doesn’t quite know what to do with it can use it and get in trouble, but the reasoning behind it I don’t think has changed much since the days of the hippies and Yippies.”

Besides the communication channels, such as social media networks and message boards where hacktivists congregate, a number of free resources exist on and offline to help people learn about hacktivism firsthand.

Hackthissite.org provides a “free, safe and legal training ground for hackers to test and expand their hacking skills.” There are programs, such as Tor, that make it more difficult to track your online activity and others that feature detailed guides for browsing anonymously. A number of publications exist, such as Hack In the Box Quarterly Magazine, to tune people in to hacker related news.

However, the aspiring hacktivist will find the most value in the community—and despite any connotations of hacktivism happening “underground,” hackers today confer and meet to connect with each other in decidedly less virtual ways.

Off the Hook host Eric Corley, who goes by the pen name Emmanuel Goldstein (a reference to George Orwell’s 1984), started the 2600 meetings in the ’80s because the Internet of the time was limited in its ability to get to know people. Everyone was just “text on a glowing screen,” according to Vincent.

Today, the 2600 meetings take place in New York City on the first Friday of each month. The meetings don’t typically have any particular agenda other than getting hacking enthusiasts in the same room, but the 2600-organized biennial HOPE conference (Hackers On Planet Earth, taking place July 13th-15th, 2012) touches on such broad subjects as encryption to social bots.

Vincent emphasizes the importance of hackers getting together and sharing information in order to counter the misinformation in mainstream culture regarding what hackers actually do. According to Vincent, the word “hacker” is thrown around in the news too often to describe any crime committed with a computer.

“The best we can do is get the information out there of what we are actually about,” Vincent says. “We’re basically keeping our community open to the world. Anyone who wants to come by and learn what we’re really all about can do so. Whether they like or hate it, at least they come by their opinion honestly.”