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Give a Hacker a Break

Xbox. vs. Wikileaks

by JOHN GRANT

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

-Opening line in William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”

I recently took a tour of Best Buy to see what’s going on in the world of consumer electronics. Technology was on my mind. I had just been reading up on computer hacking and was getting to know a website called 2600.

It was all because of the latest WikiLeaks revelations and some email conversations I’d been having with fellow anti-war veterans about Bradley Manning. the young army intelligence specialist arrested and now imprisoned in Virginia for allegedly releasing the computerized trove of secrets. Some of my antiwar vet allies were finding it difficult to support Manning.

I agree with Daniel Ellsberg that Bradley Manning is an American hero who needs to be supported and defended. His private life is irrelevant. The same goes for the Australian founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange.

Whether or not the WikiLeaks revelations put anyone in danger is also irrelevant. It’s a red herring. Those who chose to go to war over other options and those who keep the wars going instead of ending them are the ones putting our soldiers and local Iraqis and Afghans in danger.

Removing our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan may be a complicated and somewhat ignoble task, but who’s to blame for the carnage when we’re occupying a place is a no-brainer.

Our military occupations rely on a steady stream of kids fueled to serve, many of them working class kids with dim prospects for college and careers in the current high-unemployment climate. The dismal economy is good for recruitment.

Thanks to propaganda, a massive public relations effort and poor analytical coverage of the wars, the military looks good to many kids. It’s sold as a right of passage to manhood – now also to womanhood. You will face danger and your own mortality. You’ll be part of a team. Once you’re in, all worries about finding a job will evaporate. And the military does all your thinking for you.

Answering the Call Of Duty and “going loud”

As I walked around the cacophony that is a Best Buy store, I thought of American youth and the absolutely mad marketing assault of sensation and seduction they are asked to maneuver through. Seen from the vantage point of my upbringing in the 1950s, it’s a virtual science fiction world come true. Computers and cyberspace are the terrain of this world.

The new version of Call Of Duty called Black Ops was being promoted and you could buy it now and pick it up November 9 when it is released. The video promo was incredibly violent and never stopped moving from one explosion to the next. Helicopters were swooping in and out everywhere.

Then there’s Medal Of Honor, an Xbox game that features a special ops warrior who looked to me more like a Hell’s Angel biker than the clean-cut guys in John Wayne’s movie version of The Green Berets. The Special Ops fantasy look has changed.

“Fight today’s war,” the Xbox version said. “Battle your way through using the overwhelming force of a large mobilized military and the surgical precision of Tier One operations.”

On the website for Medal Of Honor a macho-voice speaks over the swooping choppers and thundering explosions.

“This is the unknown elite, hunting in silence – until it’s time to go loud. This is force multiplied. Relentless. Exacting. Precise. A new breed of warrior for a new breed of warfare. This is Tier One.”

You have to be 17-years-old to buy into “Tier one.” But once you’re home anybody can play.

We are told real special operations warriors consulted on the game. It features an interview with one such warrior consultant who, of course, must remain anonymous “for security reasons,” which make it all the more exciting and real. The man’s voice is altered and sounds very strange.

He actually says he likes to lead people who are “troubled” and “trouble makers,” because he wants to “lead someone who needs leadership.” It sounded to me like a flat-out call for screwed-up, violent kids. Pick up a Medal Of Honor Tier One Edition today and realize your purpose in life.

“There are no utopias,” the consultant says in his strange, voice-altered basso. “And there are evil people in the world who need to be dealt with handily,”

Without putting too fine a point on it, what this high-tech video game seems to be doing is exercising kids’ adrenaline system with fantasy killing and mayhem that is given a legitimate and patriotic gloss because it takes place in Afghanistan.

The Army even uses this kind of game itself, as it did in the experimental Army Experience Center in a mall in northeast Philadelphia, the subject of numerous demonstrations before it was closed down.

It’s a natural progression from these video games to the highly computerized military system that now features drones piloted by former teen computer-game geeks. Start out blasting fictional video people and today’s military will make it a short trip to blasting video people who happen to be real, thousands of miles away.

Cyberspace cowboys looking for adventure

Leafing through the 900 page book The Best Of 2600: A Hacker Odyssey, you quickly get a glimmer of what the hacker world of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange is all about.

The website 2600 was begun in 1984 by, among others, Emmanuel Goldstein, a pseudonym taken from George Orwell’s 1984. Goldstein’s real name is Eric Gordon Corley.

The number 2600 is the frequency in hertz that, when sounded over a phone line, would give one access to long distance lines in order to “hack” into them and make free calls. It seems that a free whistle contained in Captain Crunch cereal boxes back in the1980s made this precise 2600 hertz tone and magically opened up the phone lines for free calls.

From those roots a movement grew.

With the appearance of the internet in the 80s, Goldstein writes, smart kids everywhere discovered that their keyboards could give them entrée into cyberspace, a term coined by William Gibson in his 1984 sci-fi classic, Neuromancer, for the world accessible through a computer portal.

Then consider that the internet was virtually invented and developed by the military in the 1960s and 70s as something called ARPANET or Advanced Research Projects Agency Network.

In 1963, J.C.R. Licklider wrote of an “intergalactic computer network.” He was under contract with the Defense Department and was head of the Behavioral Sciences and Command and Control programs in ARPANET. By 1971, email was operating, then file downloads, and so on. The internet’s original purpose was apparently for defense contractors to share information easily.

Kids everywhere launched themselves into cyberspace and, in many cases, outwitted the adults. By the 1980s, hackers were being investigated by the FBI. One young hacker told his tale to 2600 in 1984.

In his room at home, he had successfully hacked into a major corporation’s mainframe and was able to change the numbers on checks and do all sorts of mischief. He became “a cult figure" amongst his friends. It was “cool at first” when the FBI came and knocked on his door. It took his parents a while to figure out what the heck he had been doing.

Then the FBI turned the screws on his friends and his friends gave him up.

“I found out that most people value friendship less than their own safety,” he wrote. He became a pariah in the neighborhood and a criminal in the newspapers. Two friends who stuck with him kept him “from jumping off a building.” He got out of the hacking business.

“Were we to have started publishing in 2008 rather than in 1984,” 2600 founder Goldstein says, “we likely would have been quickly branded as potential terrorists before being able to establish a foothold in our culture that enabled us to be seen as a revealing and even necessary voice. … Today, we continue to exist in no small way because we have existed for nearly a quarter century.”

Though there was Orwell’s 1984, back in the year 1984, Goldstein says, no one could have predicted the climate we now live in, noted for ever-present surveillance systems, the wide monitoring of suspicious behavior, forms of searches, hi-tech scans and drug tests.

“What we believed in, what we stood for, what we fought against – it transcended the political scene, global events, the technology of the day. We talked about freedom: Freedom to explore, to be an individual, to spread information through whatever means were available.”

Corporations and the government piled on the demonization.

“Those who wanted us put out of their misery were people with a lot of power,” Goldstein says.

This is how 2600 described Julian Assange, who, before the US military began hunting for him, had been scheduled to speak at a 2600 meeting in New York in July:

“Over the years and particularly within the past couple of weeks, Julian has demonstrated some of the key values of those in the hacker and journalist community who strive to get real information out of the hands of bureaucracy and cover-ups and share it with the rest of the world, all the while protecting the sources.”

Give a hacker a break

We need to re-evaluate the demonized image of hackers. We need to realize that while they may be destructive at times, they can also provide a valuable service not unlike a forest fire that can revitalize the forest and encourage new growth.

The US military entered into both its current wars at the behest of an administration that took dishonesty and flat-out lying to new heights, as it increased the levels of surveillance and secrecy. The current Obama administration has done little or nothing to change this.

“The whole war is on the internet!” a young army intelligence analyst who served in Iraq recently told me with an amazed chuckle. Every unit has laptops in their Humvees to make reports on every action undertaken. There’s nose video cameras on all gunships. Everything is on computer and it’s sent around over the internet, which of course the military first devised.

The incredibly arrogant logjam of secrecy that keeps the American people from knowing the details of the wars being fought in their name needs to be cracked open, or else the wars will continue no matter how cruelly absurd they become.

The computer interface for kids becoming adults that is found in Medal Of Honor Tier One Edition and Call Of Duty: Black Ops needs a counter. That counter is WikiLeaks, the Elite Force in the hacker world.

So let’s give hackers like Bradley Manning and Julian Assange a break. Sure, they’re human with flaws. But so are we all.

They’re sticking their necks way out for us. We need to support them.

JOHN GRANT is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run online alternative newspaper.