On June 18, the Internet Archive hosted a reading and panel discussion in celebration of Joseph Menn's new book Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World.
As the evening's event began, an archived video of Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) interviews from 1996 played silently on a wall-mounted TV, featuring some of the very same original members who would be a part of that evening's panel. In addition to the strong turnout at the Internet Archive itself, those unable to attend in person were able to watch the event livestreamed on the Internet Archive's Youtube channel. Guests enjoyed light refreshments and mingled before moving into the main auditorium to be welcomed by Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. After sharing a brief history of the Internet Archive's mission, Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation Cindy Cohn took the stage as MC for the evening.
Cohn expressed the importance of remembering the "wacky, weird, and wild" history of Internet security, and acknowledged the cDc's contributions to improving the community before introducing Joseph Menn to the stage. Menn recounted the beginning of cDc and cybersecurity by highlighting notable hackers and their contributions throughout the years, including crediting the cDc with coining the term "hacktivism" by "using it at every interview they could at DEFCON to get it into the English language." Looking forward, he went on to express how "the rank-and-file in Silicon Valley now are the most important heirs of the cDc's tradition of critical moral thinking."
Following Menn, Cohn retook the stage and introduced the panel speakers: Chris Rioux AKA DilDog, Back Orifice 2000 author and Veracode founder; Window Snyder, cDc fellow traveler and former core security staffer at Microsoft, Apple, and now Square; and Michael "Misha" Kubecka AKA Omega, cDc's editor, media list curator and archivist. Each took turns sharing what had originally drawn them to the cDc and their individual reasons for staying.
After sharing, Cohn began to read questions from the audience, starting with a question for Window Snyder:
Question: If you could go back in time and change one thing to make the Internet more secure, where and when would you go, and what would you do?
Window Snyder: If we had taken what we knew back then and applied it to all the different systems that we were building at the time and also made it easy. Easy for the developers to take an existing API, an existing library, and use it to encrypt the security of those systems. Easy for the consumer to not have to go through a thousand steps to get full-volume encryption on their Windows device. If everyone is following the same steps, that's something we could automate. We didn't do that end of that work, and I don't think there was a lot of value given to that aspect of security, which is the part that makes it accessible to others—the democratization of security—until we had significant security problems already, had an ecosystem of malware built upon taking advantage of consumer information on these devices. There was an opportunity there and we missed it.
The panel continued to answer questions from the audience, and as the evening concluded, several excellent questions still remained. Rather than let these questions go unanswered, the speakers were able to follow up via email with some further insight:
Question: How do we, as individuals, cope with the commercialization of our digital identities? Practically, psychologically, spiritually?
Chris Rioux: Demand a constitutional right to privacy. You don't cope, you fight it. Demand laws that allow you to withdraw your identity from databases. Assert a legal right to manage your data and that withdrawing access to your data from corporations is your right. This includes derivative works, including your connected social graph. Corporations won't hand you these rights without you punching them in the face with the law.
Question: With the rapid growth of fake photos and video technology, do you think it is possible to still protect authenticity and anonymity in the media?
Chris Rioux: Yes. Digital signing of video can make fakes harder for the average person. The chips that are recording the video in your mobile devices and cameras can be using cryptography to digitally sign the media as unaltered. While this would prevent some forms of modification of the video, a technical solution that allowed a small amount of compositing and resizing/cropping while maintaining the digital signature is possible. Media outlets should insist on using only signed media where it can be proved where the origin of the video came from.
Question: Tell us about the name Cult of the Dead Cow?
Joseph Menn: Like many things in cDc, it was a bit of an inside joke—a reference to an abandoned slaughterhouse in Lubbock, Texas, which was where the founders lived. It was a creepy hangout for them. As teenagers on the early Internet, it seemed important to be a bit sinister. Otherwise, what would be the attraction?
Question: Do you see any contemporary groups/cons/etc. carrying on the cDc spirit?
Michael Kubecka: Germany's Chaos Computer Club (CCC) has long been a socially-conscious organization using its tech skills and wry sense of humor to highlight issues of surveillance and privacy. Telecomix's technical support of ordinary Egyptians during the Arab Spring to help them evade government censorship was laudatory. SecureDrop, developed by Aaron Swartz & Kevin Poulsen to facilitate secure communication between whistleblowers and journalists, will help bring sunshine to dark places. The good news is that hacktivism is no longer the exclusive domain of hackers and hacking groups. To name just two examples: Joshua Browder wrote a chatbot to automate the process of contesting parking tickets, saving ordinary people millions of dollars. Now that marijuana is legal in California, Los Angeles county and Code for America are using an algorithm to clear more than 50,000 pot convictions, restoring dignity and employability countless people.
The event ended with a final question from the audience: "What ways do you recommend I spread the word and get people to think about ethics?" In keeping with the cDc's history and focus on community, the speakers stressed building interpersonal relationships, practicing empathy, and focusing on public service. As Cohn brought the event to a close, she encouraged everyone to meet with others who care about ethics, the future, and having fun with technology, starting with the people already in the room.
For those able to attend in person or watch via the livestream, the event was an insightful look back into the not-so-distant past of cybersecurity. Much of the discussion demonstrated how the hacking community began as exclusive and inaccessible, growing to eventually encompass, and ultimately prioritize, today's average user. While the need for those willing to take on the increasing challenges surrounding technology is greater than ever before, the cDc's notoriously unconventional legacy continues to inspire us to rise up to face them, tongue firmly in cheek.