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29c3: Hacking Politics

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Every year at the end of December, computer hackers from all over the world gather in Germany - this time in Hamburg - for the Chaos Communication Congress, four days of talks, meetings and workshops.

With "Not my department," as the theme of the year - a tongue in cheek reminder that hackers should accept their responsibilities when it comes to politics and social justice - 29c3, short for 29th Chaos Communication Congress, reveals the growing influence of a certain type of hacker, one increasingly aware of its political role.

Boosted by the battle they have won against ACTA, inspired by initiatives such as WikiLeaks, hackers are here to fight against a society that uses technology to control its citizens and jeopardize their freedoms.

Jacob Appelbaum, developer at the Tor Project, a software system enabling online anonymity, gave the keynote opening speech, a call for political actions to the 3000 people who came to listen to him. "Everyone is by essence political and what people do is political. I am trying to incite people not to deny their political agency", says Jacob Appelbaum. He himself knows the price of political agency as a grand jury in the United States is currently investigating him for his affiliation with WikiLeaks.

Surveillance, protection of whistle-blowers, web neutrality, anonymity online, data retention, copyrights... Hackers are fighting more than one battle. Yet, according to Jérémie Zimmerman, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, an advocacy group defending the rights and freedoms of citizens on the Internet, there is a common parameter to those causes: the appreciation of technology.

"Those battles have to do with the relation between our society and technology. At the heart of this relation there is the question of understanding the technology and it all goes back to this fundamental issue: technology is neutral, therefore it can be used indistinctly to oppress or free the people," says Zimmerman.

"By exploiting a more or less artificial complexity, political powers and corporations are going to impose rules on us that will allow technology to control our communications and activities online always more. A key question arises: are we going to let technologies be used to control individuals or are we going to keep on playing with technology and divert it? A hacker is the one who will play around to find the answers."

At 29c3 hackers therefore explore the use of technology to transform their world. When not attending talks on topics such as defending freedoms online, surveillance in Russia and ethics in security research, hackers also meet in workspaces to discuss their projects.

Cryptography, open source software and web neutrality are talked about in every corner. For Jérémie Zimmerman, the last two are not something our society can do without. "The combination of a free and open Internet and open source software are the two essential prerequisites for a free society in a democratic and connected environment." And indeed many organisations emerged from this hacker ethics asserting the Internet as a tool toward building a better functioning democracy.

WikiLeaks thus became a platform for whistle-blowers willing to expose wrongdoings; the Electronic Frontier Foundation defends the rights of citizens on the Internet; the hacker collective Telecomix provided dial-up Internet connections to activists during the Arab Spring when the Internet was shut down by the regimes in power.

With or without a legal frame, those organisations and many others have undertaken to transform our society. "Compared to where we were five years ago it's incredible that we now have so much attention. Obviously ACTA is a symbolic example, but now journalists also start calling us on things such as Facebook and Instagram. Today when you talk about the Internet to members of the European Parliament they will reply. Five years ago, they would not have," says Zimmerman.

At 29c3 a few thousands hackers attended a panel talk featuring NSA whistle-blowers Thomas Drake and William Binney, as well as Jesselyn Radack, a former ethics adviser to the US department of Justice who went onto specializing in the defence of whistle-blowers, after she became one herself.

Admiring and respectful, they came to listen those whom they feel a duty to protect. "I think all hackers are whistle-blowers themselves", says Jesselyn Radack when asked about the ties that exist between hackers and whistle-blowers. "Hackers are exposing wrongdoings, actually WikiLeaks, for instance, has exposed not only wrongdoings but war crimes. A lot of people don't think of themselves as whistle-blowers, but as they expose wrongdoings the State decide to classify them as such. That's why hackers have realised the importance of protecting us."

The three whistle-blowers then left the stage of the main hall and stayed a few extra hours answering in the lounge questions from hackers hungry for their stories. Proof that whistle-blowers have well understood the power of those political activists 2.0.