Are We Heading Towards Virtual Secession?

Over the last few years, friction between the federal government and hacker groups have been highly visible: whether it was the revelations from Wikileaks, the rise of Anonymous and its connections to the Occupy movement, the death of Aaron Swartz, or the more recent revelations by Edward Snowden, the rise of outlaw behavior as a new form of politics has been putting the tolerance for internet freedoms to the test.

Amid these controversies, there’s always been DEF CON, an annual convention where journalists, security researchers, hackers, and government officials sat side by side, discussing in open and frank dialogue about electronic security. At last year’s event, attended by around 15,000 people, the program included an odd mix of discussions about digital lock-picking, tutorials on how to hack WiFi routers or Android devices, and presentations by the likes of Apple’s manager of platform security Dallas De Atley and NSA Chief Keith Alexander. General Alexander worked hard on trying to recruit some of the attendees to join the NSA’s efforts and asking attendees to help secure America’s electronic infrastructures. In a question and answer session after his keynote speech, he was repeatedly asked and denied rumors that the NSA was spying on Americans, revelations that have since been questioned due to the release of internal NSA documents by consultant Edward Snowden.

But this year, things might be different. In a blog post on the conference site this week, DEF CON founder Jeff Moss (known in hacker circles as “The Dark Tangent”) asked for “the feds” to not attend this year. The post, entitled “Feds, we need some time apart” said:

For over two decades DEF CON has been an open nexus of hacker culture, a place where seasoned pros, hackers, academics, and feds can meet, share ideas and party on neutral territory. Our community operates in the spirit of openness, verified trust, and mutual respect.

When it comes to sharing and socializing with feds, recent revelations have made many in the community uncomfortable about this relationship. Therefore, I think it would be best for everyone involved if the feds call a “time-out” and not attend DEF CON this year.

This will give everybody time to think about how we got here, and what comes next.

The Dark Tangent

This marks the first time in the conference’s 20+ year history that anyone is asked to keep away and highlights a substantial cooling in relationships between the hacker community on the government.

In December 2012, journalist Barrett Brown, who has been close the the Anonymous hacker collective, was arrested for sharing a web link to a repository of hacked information.

Earlier this year, internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide, leading some to blame government prosecutorial efforts in a case he had been arrested for as the reason for his suicide. In the wake of that incident, increased calls for reform of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) have been made, with many worried that the law’s ambiguity would lead to unfair prosecutions. In June, Aaron’s Law was presented in the US congress to enact some of those reforms.

Meanwhile, June 2013 also marked the start of United States vs. Bradley Manning, a case involving the leak of classified US documents to Wikileaks, reigniting discussions of that issue and of the role of organizations like Wikileaks. Whether such organizations are good or bad for democracy is a controversial issue; Parties on one side argue that such organizations are no different than traditional publishers like the New York Times, equating Bradley Manning’s role to that of Daniel Ellsberg and Wikileaks’ to that of the New York Times. On the other side, Wikileaks and Manning are seen as government traitors out to undermine the United States.

More recently, former NSA and CIA consultant Edward Snowden provided leaked documents to The Guardian and the Washington Post, showcasing a series of different mass surveillance programs undertaken by the NSA, the FBI and a number of other governmental organization in the US and among its allies. The programs may have included data on American citizens, in direct contradiction of the assertion Alexander made when question by last year’s DEF CON audience.

So the series of event appears to have increasingly frayed relationships between the hacker community and the government and the question now is what happens next. And the person at the center of this new controversy is actually straddling the line between the two groups: Moss is not only the organizer of the DEF CON conference but is also a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, where he advises Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on federal policies related to hacking. He’s also the Chief Security Officer for ICANN, a non-profit organization managing internet related matters on behalf of the US government.

Meanwhile, other hacker conferences are taking a different approach. Black Hat, a hacker conference set in Las Vegas only days before DEF CON, has invited General Alexander to deliver its opening keynote.

What we could be witnessing here is a splintering of the hacker community, with some portion increasingly distrusting and distancing themselves the government and others believing that relationship with the government are important. Who wins that split could have wider repercussions in the future as it may either improve trust and transparency from all parties or increase mistrust and the potential for more violent clashes down the line.

The internet and other networks have increasingly become global battlegrounds between different nation-states and many conflicts have arisen out of existing battles (for example, the middle east has seen its share of hacking of Israeli and Arabic computers by each sides.) However, to date, we have not witnessed a civil war in the online world yet. However, as tensions continue to flare between the US government and the US hacking community, we are starting to see different groups align themselves at different end of the spectrum: on one side, we may see some elements increase their opposition to government, which would result in some potential hacking attacks from within; on the other, we may see some elements try to reinforce ties with government, fighting back against those who may attack US online properties.

Will this mean we will see virtual secession? Will this escalate into an all out online fight? At the current time, it is unclear the direction such a conflict could take but one thing that is clear is that the recent patterns are highlighting a difficult road to reconciliation. It is a road, however, that needs to be taken as the alternative would be a return to the bad old days of hackers vs. feds, when mutual distrust lead to increasing levels of tension and bungled attempts at preventing online crime. In a world where the threat to our electronic infrastructures is real, mutual trust and respect between hackers and the government is an asset to be  valued, one that could help the country better defend itself against real enemies.

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