A recent blogpost by PUSCII lamented the lack of moral fiber in Dutch hackerspaces. While well written, I do think their statements are not fair to all the people currently spending their free time to make the Dutch hackerspace community a vibrant and thriving part of society at large. The resulting mass-hysteria on twitter among German hackers gave me an uncomfortable feeling. My thoughts were torn between ‘if intolerance is leading, fuck the hackerscene’ and ‘there are some very good points being raised here’.
This blogpost attempts to capture some of my more prevalent thoughts. Note that this blogpost reflects my own personal opinions and obversations, and not those of the OHM2013 organisation as a whole, Fox-IT, any of the hackerspaces I mention in this post nor any other organisation, collective, club or assembly I am part of.
There is a theme in PUSCII’s blogpost that reverberates with my own thoughts. Hackerspaces come in many forms. I have visited maybe a hundred of hackerspaces in the past years in a handful of countries, and all are different. In fact, the definition of what constitutes a hackerspace is one that leads to a lot of email threads on the hackerspaces list, many blogposts with varied opinions on the subject, extensive IRC chats. No agreement has been reached.
Within The Netherlands, hackerspaces are a relatively new phenomena. Whereas ASCII and PUSCII may be seen as the earliest hackerspaces in our country, they have always had a more revolutionary perspective on the world. Much like many of the German hackerspaces, they are instruments of the revolution. Many hackerspaces in Germany, really CCC club houses, see it as their mission to provide the infrastructure to help in the greater cause. They have, for example, set up media labs to edit videos that educate the public. They organise ideological discussion meetings.
The current hackerspace movement in The Netherlands is a young one. Sparked by HAR2009, regional groups started to form new initiatives. Initially, these Dutch hackerspaces (when looking at the surface) were mostly places ‘playing with LEDs’. Yet, among those who set up and visit those hackerspaces are many who have the vision that hackerspaces (and in fact, hacker-community) are more than just playgrounds for technophiles.
When I started Revelation Space in The Hague, I had a vision of a hackerspace that would be more like the German CCC club houses. Places where people with a critical view of the world and an inquisitive take on developments surrounding technology, the state and the people gather to engage in (hack)tivism and generally make the world a better place. My ambitions were high, and initially Revelation Space was more of a place where people would just play with LED’s.
Recently though, as the space has matured, I see that activities such as I had envisioned originally, are becoming a part of the daily praxis at Revelation Space. For example, a number of members decided to set up a hotline for hackers, to anonymously report security incidents. They fill in a gap, in a bottom-up way, where our government is failing. The law still puts well-meaning and ethical hackers in a tough spot that discourages reporting issues with security of systems containing privacy sensitive information.
Not only are individual hackerspaces constantly evolving, the hackerspace movement as a whole is changing. More and more hackerspaces open their doors in The Netherlands. Among them are also those of a more reactionary nature, where the focus inherently is more on activism than on tinkering (but never exclusively either one of them). As the hackerspace culture in The Netherlands matures, we will likely see a better balance between pure techno-love and tinkering on the one hand and hard-core hacktivism on the other hand.
I feel sorry that there are people who have expressed they will no longer help out at OHM2013 or no longer visit OHM2013 because of a single sponsor. I don’t feel sorry for OHM2013: it will happen with or without them. And it will be awesome. There will be blinking leds, but there will also be many interesting people. Activists, idealists, pragmatists, all on one field. The sheer potential of useful encounters and discussions that move our thoughts beyond what we can get from experience in isolation alone is awe-inspiring.
Contrary to the German CCC, The Netherlands does not have a structure that allows hackers to organise and meet on a regular basis. The hackerspaces have a role in this, but by nature can not attract the thousands that flock together to the four-yearly hacker camps. And that underlines the importance of the events in the series of OHM2013. They have an important role within the Dutch hacker community.
And of course, there are always people who disagree with the choices made by the group of volunteers putting these conferences together. In 2005, a group of revolutionaries was of the opinion that a community event must be free for all, not something one would have to pay for. Sidestepping the morbid reality of having to pay for equipment to set up an in-promptu network for 3000 hackers, having to pay for tents to house 3000 hackers and those who speak to them, having to pay for showers and toilets to keep 3000 hackers from drowning in their own shit and puke, they set up ‘squat the hack’ and decided that contrary to all the other visitors they did not have to pay for that edition of the camp.
Even in 1989, the Galactic Hacker Party was accused by some more extermist squatters in Amsterdam of being a platform for ‘those evil corporate computer people with their capitalistic computer machines’ (mind you, computers were still something of an oddity back then).
In 2009, some people accused the HAR2009 organisation of being corporate sell-outs who only were in it for the money. Despite the fact that I personally, as one of the driving forces behind that edition, nearly went bankrupt because I chose to work on HAR2009 instead of doing paid work.
And now we have a group of people condemning the entire event based on rumours about a single sponsor. So be it. One cannot please everyone at the same time, yet having this conference is paramount to the further maturing of the Dutch hackerscene. Not only that, it gives the newer generations of hackers a chance to meet the older generations. And to meet the many passionate individuals who fight for their causes and ideals.
So, all in all, if you do decide not to come to OHM2013 because your leaders tell you it is considered bad form to do so, then that is your loss. You will miss out on a unique opportunity to educate others on your ideals and to be exposed to radical new ideas that may broaden your mind.
About a year ago I was contacted by Walter from Fox-IT. He saw my skills and my ideals and thought they would make a good match with those of Fox-IT. At first I was skeptical, but after the first few talks my opinion turned around.
Some now believe I have become a slave of the dark side. That is ok, for I know it is not the case. Working on ‘the inside’, I can see that among those people making up Fox-IT are also the same idealists that I am. There has always been a lot of debate about, for example, Replay (the so-called ‘wire-tapping’ software which is basically a pimped sort of wireshark without the capturing abilities). Not because of the software, but of the possible business decisions made at the time.
I would invite all the critics, those who click ‘retweet’ on tweets full of allegations, to come to OHM2013 and meet Fox-IT. Talk to the people who work there. You will find out they are not all that different from yourself.
As an example, recently someone brought up the subject of a ‘police trojan’ on the internal nerds mailing list. He had heard something about it, and thought Fox-IT could develop such a tool to aid in catching cyber-criminals. It made me feel warm and fuzzy inside to see the outspoken ‘NO we can not develop such software’ present in all the replies to that thread. My colleagues, like me, are intrinsically against such practices for all the same reasons that the criticasters are.
Heck, talking to Ronald Prins (CEO of the company, and for some the personification of evil on this world) you might even find out his opinions are much more balanced than the impression you might get when you let the media filter his statements for you. Note that I do not feel inclined to defend his opinions here or anywhere, as I myself sometimes vehemently disagree.
I have seen that the consciousness of Fox-IT is a very active and vocal one, and is formed by the moral fiber (to use an overloaded term) of those who work there. Even before the fefe-isation of this discussion, my colleagues expressed doubts and worries about Replay (sold in 2011 and no longer a product of Fox-IT). When the German community went into a dogmatic stance against OHM2013 because of the sponsorship, the discussion within Fox-IT naturally increased as well. I have spent many hours the last few days at my desk, in the hallways and the canteen. I am impressed by the insightful and intelligent remarks and questions.
Yes, Fox-IT develops tools that help the police catch bad guys. If you are radically against any form of authority, that might rub against your fur. I am not a big fan of the police and their more violent nature myself, having spent a fair amount inside police cells. I have walked in demonstrations where the police clubbed down demonstrators without provocation. But I have also been glad the police was around when a pretty fucked-up individual was about to attack me. Those two police officers might very well have prevented that I ended up bleeding to death on platform 12 of Amsterdam Central station.
So there are two sides to every story. And while some of you may think Fox-IT is engaged in activities that don’t jive with your morality, I believe (from observation and discussion) that this is not the case. Ronald Prins has a vocal opinion, but in expressing it he may not always act in accordance with the larger group of people that make up Fox-IT. Personally, when I disagree with his statements I will tell him (and in fact, he consults me and many others within Fox-IT on a regular basis). I do not see Fox-IT engage in activities that I am vehemently opposing: “state-sponsored malware”, making products to listen in on phone calls or internet traffic, prosecute hackers who are on the good side or otherwise participate in far-reaching violations of basic civil rights. If I would see such activities, I would have terminated my employment without further thought.
I am not one to make decisions based on popular opinion. That makes me a loner. I choose to work for Fox-IT, a company perceived by many of my peers to be at the wrong side of the sharp line dividing good and evil. It has led to intolerant and outward hostile reactions from some of them. Still, I am at peace with that decision. Even though people may not understand, I am where I need to be: in peace with myself, my decisions and my ideals. I wish everyone the same.