Subcultures of the Internet: Covert (CISPA Update)

Since my previous post a week ago, a bill called the “Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act” (aka CISPA)  has been passed by the House of Representatives despite an enormous amount of opposition by the public, and will soon be voted on in the Senate.  This bill, intended to increase communication between the government and security agencies on the internet, contains vague language which threatens the entire Internet community.

For one, the entire culture of the Covert will be made illegal, because of their use of email encryption and secure networks such as TOR to hide their identity.  In addition, the government will be able, under CISPA, to monitor any and every online interaction without a warrant, and considering how much of my life is posted on the internet through Facebook alone, this fact is what scares me the most.

I encourage each and every one of you, even (and especially) if you currently do not think this concerns you, to read up on this legislation and decide for yourselves whether or not you can live with this stripping of our online privacy, and if not, contact your representatives about your opposition to this bill.  In the wake of the internet’s outburst over SOPA, it seems that people have lost the energy to fight the seemingly inevitable removal of their privacy and freedom.

I can’t say that I was surprised that this type of legislation has recently become more of an issue.  The use of the internet in Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring has resulted in governments realizing that the Internet has the potential to overwhelm their power.  SOPA and CISPA, along with the five or more other pending legislations, are the government’s attempt to curb this shift in power.  I personally hate to see progress halted for the sake of traditional power roles.

Subcultures of the Internet – The Covert

It is difficult addressing the culture of the Covert without calling up images from popular culture.  Anonymous, by far the most well-known of the hacktivists, is probably the first image that comes to many people’s heads, followed closely by the recent articles concerning the crackdown on child pornography.  Not surprisingly, many businesses and governments despise the covert, because their actions cannot be regulated.  As a result, it is difficult to find a place where they are portrayed in a positive light, without using radical resources.  Both there and “official” articles about them are biased accounts, highlighting a particular aspect of the culture.  To evaluate the entire culture would require admitting that, as an unregulated media, it is simultaneously the most useful and the most dangerous part of the internet.

There are many different names for the habitat of the Covert – the Darknet, the Deepnet, the Dark Fiber, the onion network – and each word has a slightly different definition.  The specifics of each of these do not matter much to me, at least for the moment.  In general, the Covert communicate with each other and share files secretly, making use of programs like those that hackers use to conceal their identities.  In fact, to be able to assure their security, many of them are programmers and hackers.

This entire topic is the source of a great amount of political debate.  In fact, CISPA, a legislation similar to (and as many claim, more dangerous to the online world than)  SOPA, is being voted on this week, and if it passes the Covert will be more vilified than ever.  These multiple attempts to put a legal censor on internet communication in America has fairly recently become prevalent, in response to the internet’s involvement in such movements as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

The Covert are the people who organized these events, who communicated with each other to organize revolution at the risk of being prosecuted by the powers they were protesting.  The Covert are shielded from their identity, and therefore have the freedom to speak their mind, to tell others about the oppression they have faced.  The Covert are the instigators of political change.  There are Covert in China, publishing posts and communications against the censors of their government, which would most likely execute them if they were caught.

I personally have never been to the Darknet, because I do not fully understand the legal consequences of it, but I have heard accounts of people who have.  The Darknet can generally be divided into two groups: the illegal and the anti legal.  The illegal include the child pornography websites, the black market sites people can visit to order drugs or prostitutes.  The anti legal include the protesters in oppressed countries, those who are crying out for freedoms the only way they safely can.  Who knows, America could eventually become one of those oppressed countries, if and when CISPA and the further restricting legislation which will surely follow is passed.  To pass legislation enabling the governments to fight the illegal will also empower them to silence the anti legals.

The bright side is that silencing the Covert is like taping a screen to prevent air from coming in.  No matter how much tape you put on, the air will always find its want through the screens.  It will just be more difficult for a time, until they adapt.

Subcultures of the Internet – Hackers

It’s easy to tell in a conversation when a person has not had much experience with the internet culture.  For one thing, when I talk to them about my research into hacking and cybercultures, they will ask me if I know any “hackers”.  Sure, these people may know how to use their email and Facebook, but besides using Google to search for “how to convert miles to kilometers” they know very little about navigating the internet, or about the people who control it.

Nobody on the internet ever refers to themselves or another person as a hacker; it just isn’t considered appropriate.  That isn’t to say that there is no such thing as a hacker.  On some level, every programmer has the ability to “hack”.  But the popular idea of the term hackers is grossly overused.  For example, when somebody claims that their Facebook page has been “hacked”, usually that means that they left their account open and somebody took advantage of a logged in account.  In reality, it is incorrect to say that any profile has been hacked, but rather compromised when a server was hacked, or when their desktop was hacked.

When I talk about the “hacker culture”, then, by that I mean a culture that is very similar in ways to that of computer programmers, though much more corrupt.  While the focus of the programmer culture is creation of software, programs, and systems, the focus of the hacking culture is on acquiring information and data, and using it to gain power.  Because of this, the hacking culture is very secretive, to protect its own secrets from those who could take advantage of them.

“Hactivists”, such as Anonymous, are prime examples of modern-day mainstream hackers, but their methods are unlike most of the hacker culture.  Hackers do not crave attention; in fact, the mark of a professional hacker is that nobody knows he exists.  This becomes problematic when attempting to join the hacker culture; how do you join a community which claims to consist of… nobody?  Even more problematic, how can you have presentations at hacking conventions such as Black Hat and DEFCON without a community that wants to make itself known to the public?

The answer lies in euphemisms.  DEFCON and Black Hat both consist of presentations and papers concerning the security of systems from the point of view of a system defender.  While there is the unspoken assumption that many of the people there are hackers themselves, and may use the convention as a way to learn methods to use in illegal or at least covert operations, present and future tenses are never used when discussing hacking.  This unique trait is the major thing which separates the hackers from the programmers.


Subcultures of the Internet – Programmers

Recently, I have ben trying to teach myself some coding languages.  I took a few weeks of C++ and used Matlab in high school, but the most I could do by the end of the year was create a few shapes or a graph, and maybe a button or two appear on the screen.  But because of the research I have been doing, I have realized how important it is that anybody who uses a computer understands at least a bit of what they are doing.

Programmers are a very special group of computer users.  Their entire career depends on the internet, and the computers used to access it.  Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is only a small part of a programmer’s life, but it is the major method by which their “products” – namely software – are spread.  Programmers know how the internet works.  Better than any of the casual computer users, who basically skim the surface of their computer’s capability, programmers delve into the coding and machinations of their computers, often building their own computer from parts (gamers do this as well) in order to optimize speed or performance.

The programmer culture is very logical and precise, because the computer languages are just as demanding.  Of all the other cultures, programmers are the only with their own unique language, or in reality plural languages.  Programmers use these languages to create programs which enable them to better utilize their computers, to get the most efficiency out of what they are trying to do.  There are jokes within the culture that a programmer would rather spend hours creating a program to organize a set of files than to spend fifteen minutes and organize them manually, because “next time, I can just run the program”

One specific examples pop into my head: when I think of programmers, I think of video game programmers, who create and modify computer games.  These programmers include many gamers, obviously, and the two groups are interdependent. For example, Minecraft, a computer game, was created by a programmer name Markus Persson, who calls himself Notch (It is extremely common, in many ways expected, for both the gamer and programmer culture, along with some others, to create a pseudonym which you then use any time you go online).  Notch created Minecraft on a whim, posting a video of a world-generation program he created on Youtube, and after a large amount of interest, developed his program into a game which today has one 25 million players.  He has a small staff still, and remains in close contact with his community, in what many would regard as the optimal position as a programmer.

Notch represents to me the typical programmer.  He created his program on a whim, and thrives on his creation.  Creation is a key trait which separates programmers from hackers.  The programming culture is constantly creating, whether they are editing and streamlining existing code or starting from scratch and creating a completely new program.  Programmers are often gamers, because of a shared obsession with computers and programs required in both cultures.