This weekend Kevin Gosztola and I attended the HopeX (Hackers on Planet Earth) conference in New York.
We went in large part because Daniel Ellsberg, Jessalyn Raddack, Thomas Drake and Edward Snowden were all speaking at the event. But I have to give the conference high marks overall; the panels and talks were extremely well coordinated and really interesting. And surprisingly political.
The crowd on hand to see Snowden and Ellsberg was insane, to put it mildly. The conference had taken over the entire 18th floor of the Hotel Pennsylvania for the event, which took place in the main hall and was broadcast via closed circuit to all the other rooms.
The 18th floor was closed to further traffic due to overcrowding about an hour before the event began, and re-directed to the 6th floor. The 6th floor also quickly filled up, and the first floor and mezzanine became the overflow rooms. By the time the event actually started there were people spilling out onto the street trying to see what was happening.
The actual conversation between Snowden and Ellsberg was fascinating. The two had never spoken publicly before, although Ellsberg told me they had a 4 hour private conversation last week. Ellsberg gave Snowden credit for giving him “the best pubilcity I’ve had in 20 years” from people who used to want him in jail. He also managed to drop two expletives, one for people like John Kerry who said Snowden was no Daniel Ellsberg (“bullshit”); the other for Hillary Clinton who said that if Snowden came back to the US he’d be able to tell his story publicly in court (also “bullshit”).
A large percentage of the presentations at HopeX discussed the urgent need for encryption security that is easy to use, and one panelist said that it was an “epic fail” on the part of the tech community that a year had passed since the Snowden revelations and no reliable alternatives have been developed to clunky programs like GPG.
The call to arms really came from Snowden himself, however, who said during his talk that the people in this room had the ability to create technology which could make it safer for whistleblowers to come forward (while acknowledging that it will never be possible to be 100% safe). He said this was the task that he hoped to devote the rest of his life to.
He also expressed his belief that when governments discover their actions will become public it will “change the world.”
As for the rest of the conference, I went there thinking that 50% of the presentations would be extremely technical and go way over my head, but that didn’t happen. Among the programs that I attended:
- Barrett Brown and Anonymous: Persecution of Information Activists with Gabriella Coleman, Kevin Gallagher and Brown’s attorney Ahmed Ghappour.
- Community Owned and Operated Cellular Networks in Rural America with Peter Bloom and Maka Munoz
- Building an Open Source Cellular Network at Burning Man with Johnny Diggz and Willow Brugh
- Darkmail: A preview of the new encrypted email program being developed by Ladar Levinson (Lavabit) and Stephen Watt, which will attempt to encrypt metadata
- Unmasking a CIA Criminal, Alfreda Frances Bikowsky: A really fascinating presentation by Ray Nowosielski about a largely unknown figure inside the CIA who may have been responsible for epic screw-ups ranging from hoarding data about Al Quada prior to 9/11 to the distorting the truth of the efficacy of torture
- SecureDrop: A Wikileaks in Every Newsroom with William Budington, Garrett Robinson and Yan Zhu
- When You Are the Adversary: Discussion of the infosec needs of the 99% with Quinn Norton
- Biohacking and DIYbiology North of the 45th Parallel with Kevin Chen and Connor Dickie
- Codesigning Countersurveillance: Projects of the MIT Civic Media Codesign Studio which develops civic media projects with community-based organizations
Normally I probably wouldn’t got to that many presentations at a conference but by and large they were all really interesting and many dealt with subjects (like building open source cellular networks and biohacking) that I previously knew nothing about.
If I had any doubt before that the tech/hacker world was one of the most dynamic and invigorated political spaces, it was dispelled by the time I left.
While political parties and professional activists busy themselves trying to brand and market “the next big thing” that never seems to be anything more than the status quo with a new set of tires and a fresh coat of paint, there are people out there with the desire and the means to use technology to actually change things. It was really exciting to be among them.
Audio of the Snowden/Ellsberg talk can be found here