Hacking politics: civic struggles to politicize technologies
Despite the longstanding equating of hacking as infused with political significance, the scope and style of hackers’ engagement with institutionalized politics remains poorly understood. Based on face-to-face interviews, participant observations and media analysis over three years (2011-2014), this case study of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) – Europe’s largest and one of the world’s oldest hacker collectives – fills parts of this gap. It shows that hackers practice a wide range of insider and outsider tactics related to information and communication technologies and infrastructures (ICTI). The rationale is to examine hackers as actors that practice politics through, with and about ICTI and by doing so to deepen the understanding of contemporary civic engagements. By considering the CCC as a civic organization that emphatically engages with democratic constellations, it challenges common sense assumptions guiding understandings of the intersection of civic culture, technologies and institutionalized politics.
Considering transformations of civic engagement and politics, hackers might not necessarily be the first actors that come to mind.
“Hackers” is often used as a catch all term to describe almost any computer-related crime and tend to be portrayed as anti-social, possibly dangerous individuals, who attack systems, invade privacy and even threaten national security.
Governments’ and mainstream media’s obsession with the activities of particular groups – most prominently Anonymous and WikiLeaks – further reinforce this labeling. Founded in 1981 in Germany and with a membership figure of around 4500 the CCC stands in stark contrast to such stereotyping and criminalization. The Club is a heterogeneous collection of multi-socialized and multi-determined citizens that bring together knowledge, experience and skills related to the functioning and political consequences of ICTI. For over three decades its members have been engaging in the area of conflict between technological and social developments.
While the Club’s organizational structure is based on decentralized local groups, prominent spokespersons and long-term members ensure that the collective communicates its political aims (more or less) coherently beyond the circle of like-minded people. Accordingly the CCC acts as an organized civic collective or what can be referred to as a civil society organization. Ever since its establishment the Club does not only practice so-called hacktivism, but in fact engages in a plurality of political activities by acting through, with and about ICTI. In more concrete terms the tree attributes indicate the following practices.
First, the hackers are acting through ICTI. This denotes that similar to most political organizations nowadays the Club’s internal modes of organization and coordination starkly rely on mediated communication amongst its members. At the same time the CCC acts through ICTI by utilizing contemporary technologies in creative, explorative, playful or subversive ways. By reverse engineering a suspicious hard drive in October 2011, for example, the organization discovered that German government agencies were illegally using surveillance software.
Second, the CCC critically engages with ICTI by sustaining alternative communication infrastructures like The Onion Router (Tor) – client software enhancing online anonymity by directing Internet traffic through a global volunteer network of servers. In addition the CCC is running one of the most used Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) servers worldwide – an open technology, which powers a wide range of applications including instant messaging, multi-party chat, voice and video calls. It is important to note that “alternative” in this context should not be treated synonymously with “autonomy.”
As Chris Kelty puts it, ‘independence from power is not absolute; it is provisional and structured in response to the historically constituted layering of power and control within the infrastructures of computing and communication.’
Third, CCC members are acting about ICTI by articulating their knowledge, skills and experiences. On the one hand this is achieved by communicating to the general public via social and mainstream media channels. On the other hand the Club has increasingly direct interactions with relevant actors like judges and legislators. Given the growing relevance of media environments for political constellations mainstream media continue to be exceptionally significant for actors to publicly voice their concerns. Over recent years both the amount of media coverage as well as the frequency of access by CCC members to mainstream media has increased drastically. Besides writing articles and maintaining blogs for quality outlets CCC members are regular interview partner to various well-established media and act as sources to numerous news media. In 2013 alone, the Club’s spokesperson had 8973 requests by media representatives via email. Parallel to these media related practices, interactions with institutionalized politics continue to grow in quantity and quality. Over the past decade, the CCC has been requested as an official expert by the German constitutional court on five occasions – among others, related to the use of computerized voting machines. At the same time, the Club is advising all major political parties in Germany and two CCC members took part in the German parliament’s committee on “Internet and Digital Society.”
Acting with, through and about ICTI are interlocking arrangements that enable the CCC not only to question and supervise technological developments, but also to practice both ‘defensive’ and ‘offensive’ modes of engagement. On one hand, their engagements are directed inward to civil society by supporting emancipatory practices related to communicative infrastructures. On the other, their activities are directed outward to institutionalized politics. By doing so, the Chaos Computer Club politicizes issues that otherwise might be understood as solely technological and are part of defining the predominant conception of what is understood as political.
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