The Hacktivist

Calling himself an electronic Robin Hood, Jeremy Hammond used his computer savvy to attack a conservative group’s Web site. He called it an act of civil disobedience. The FBI called it theft.

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The first Chicago Hackmeeting convened in the back of an old flower shop in Pilsen last October. Flyers advertised it as an event for “free-wheeling free-information free-reproductionistas,” “activists that just want to share resources,” and “militant media makers.” This translated to a mostly male crowd of about 30 or so tech enthusiasts, anarchists, political activists, and Art Institute students, who lounged around on old couches. When conversation lulled, some hoodie-wearing geeks fiddled at their keyboards, playing an online form of Capture the Flag with friendly hackers at concurrent meetings in Barcelona and Santiago. 

A man wearing dreadlocks named Ben Buckley moderated the gathering. A member of the Chicago chapter of Free Geek, an organization that teaches people how to recycle and refurbish computers, Buckley asked each person there to announce his personal politics and address a question: “What is the relationship between the work we do with computers, and the work we do in the real world, smashing the system with direct action?” When it came time for a 22-year-old named Jeremy Hammond to talk, his blue eyes lit up. “All conflict comes from social inequality and those who use this to their advantage,” Hammond said, growing more impassioned with each word. Citing dependence on oil, overpopulation, and climate change as heralds of the end of comfy first-world capitalism, he continued: “Our civilization is facing a radical, imminent mass change. The alternative to the hierarchical power structure is based on mutual aid and group consensus. As hackers we can learn these systems, manipulate these systems, and shut down these systems if we need to.”

It wasn’t just bravado. Even those who had met Hammond only online knew he was one of the most notorious Chicago “hacktivists,” a loose term that refers to activists across the political spectrum who have taken their fight to the Internet. At the time, he likely was headed to federal prison for breaking into the Web site of a conservative group called Protest Warrior and stealing its members’ credit card numbers and other information. Instead of seeming chastised by the potential of jail, he appeared energized.

That evening, I caught up with Hammond in front of the flower shop. He bragged about a current scheme involving Kinko’s cards, which he had hacked so they would grant free copies. He fanned the cards in front of me as if he were performing a magic trick. Then he pulled from his pocket a San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit pass. “I can clone these so easily,” he boasted.

If the police had known that Hammond had spent the day teaching hacking to anyone who wanted to learn, they probably would have thrown him in jail, since, as part of his bail agreement five months before, he wasn’t supposed to go near computers. Not to mention that he was smoking joints, despite court-ordered drug tests while he awaited sentencing. But Hammond was the type who seemed to relish what he was facing. “I’ve wanted to play an electronic Robin Hood,” he said. “If you’re going to play this game, you’ve got to be willing to pay.”

The word “hacker” conjures up visions of geeky teenagers who steal identities and credit cards, who wield technical knowledge to sow mayhem and chaos. But in the computer world, a hack is simply a quick, intelligent solution to a technical problem. People who call themselves hackers may use their knowledge to cripple Web sites (“black hats") or protect them (“white hats"). What they all have in common is that they try to stretch the boundaries of what computers can do.

What, then, is a hacktivist? People who call themselves hacktivists have crippled the Web site of the World Trade Organization. Groups like Electronic Disturbance Theater have staged virtual sit-ins-when volunteers use FloodNet software to knock an opposition organization offline-to support the Zapatista movement in Mexico. In Chicago, anonymous hacktivists sent CTA cardholders a spoof e-mail addressed from then-CTA president Frank Kruesi, offering free fares and apologizing for future service cuts. Essentially, anything a traditional protester can do-from sit-ins, to graffiti, to general civil disobedience-can be done online.

But not all hacktivists agree with such tactics. “Hacktivism by our definition has certain rules,” says Oxblood Ruffin, a Munich-based member of one of the oldest hacker organizations, the Cult of the Dead Cow, which takes credit for coining the term “hacktivist.” “If you don’t follow those rules then you’re . . . often committing a crime.” Ruffin’s group writes software that lets dissidents communicate anonymously and gives them tools to circumvent the censoring of Web content by authoritarian regimes like those of China and Saudi Arabia. In his eyes, 21st-century hackers have a responsibility to safeguard the independence and openness of the Internet.

On the South Side of Chicago, a hacktivist named David Eads helped some 30 people at Stateway Gardens housing project build their own computers and introduced them to open-source software that they could freely copy. “The problem isn’t fundamentally access to technology,” says Eads, describing what differentiates hacktivism from more mainstream nonprofit efforts to cross the digital divide. “It has more to do with rights regarding software, copyright, intellectual property, globalization. And it’s attempting to be more connected to communities on a street level, a grassroots kind of model.”

Eads became interested in technology while studying at North Park University. He learned how to use the sophisticated operating system Linux and other free programs. But right now he studies new hacking techniques on “I am interested in using information technology as a form of civil disobedience,” he says. “Like when you sign an SBC contract, you’re not allowed to share your Internet with anybody. I bought a really nice package and share it with everyone in my building. I think at the Chicago level, hacktivism is more about that kind of stuff.”

By then, I already knew that the person  who started the popular was Jeremy Hammond. In Chicago, at least, all roads seemed to lead back to him.

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