A Hack of a Year

Be the change you wish to see in the world -Gandhi

A look back at highlights of 2011. Pretty sure I’ve forgotten something, but that’s just as well. ;-)


The start of 2011 found me living in rural Washington state, mostly stuck at home 30 minutes from town. Naturally, I joined Anonymous. We organized protests in support of Wikileaks in 105 cities around the world in under a week.

On January 23rd, I found myself on Telecomix‘s IRC helping launch a ham radio operation to maintain contact with Egypt. I worked 20 hours per day for eight days trying to keep the Internet running, doing everything from acting as a human proxy to spamming fax machines with treatments for tear gas. Beer consumption averaged a six-pack per day during this time.

Travel: Boston


Lulz as Anonymous hacked HBGary and the Westboro Baptist Church. I tried to be helpful while keeping my nose clean (I don’t do illegal stuff, as my wife would kill me).

Travel: Seattle


I went public as a hacktivist at the Pycon programming conference with a short talk Hacking for Freedom and a two hour open space discussion. I also coded on Twiggy, a new logger for Python.

Travel: Atlanta


After a year of voluntary sabbatical, I landed a very shiny job with a Silicon Valley startup… and then quit after three weeks to focus on activism. My wife was not thrilled.

Travel: Philadelphia, San Francisco, Shenandoah Virginia


The only road to our house washed out in a 500 year flood, leaving us stranded without power or drinkable water for three days. The idea for Mirror Party, a distributed censorship resistant mirror network began to take shape around this time.

Travel: a couch in town while road was rebuilt


I participated in a panel on the Arab Spring at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival (ironic, as I don’t watch movies at all). Other panelists included two Youth Movement organizers from Tahrir - it was wonderful to put a face to the people Telecomix had helped, as well as make plans for the future.

I took advantage of the time in Europe to meet other Telecomix agents in Stockholm and Brussels. As a friend-to-friend network, these real-life interactions are essential for maintaining a healthy cluster. Also, they’re awesome, amazing people. The trip from Washington to Stockholm took about 22 hours door-to-door and completely changed my perspective on travel.

The month ended with the opening keynote at the Open Source Bridge conference in Portland. The talk went well in spite of a laptop that died 30 minutes before, no sleep, and a severely bruised elbow.

Travel: Stockholm, Brussels, Sheffield England, Portland


Telecomix began OpSyria to support peaceful activists in the face of a brutally repressive regime. We first found evidence of Western technology being used for censorship around this time. I learned a lot about nmap.

I also gave invited talk on Python code at the SciPy Conference

Travel: Seattle, Austin, Chicago


Before there was Occupy, there was OpBART, the little protest that could. I stepped away from Telecomix & the Middle East to focus on free speech at home. Taking inspiration from Egypt, San Francisco’s transit agency shut off cell service to prevent a protest, angering Anonymous. I did more interviews in two weeks than the rest of the year combined, including a TV appearance on Democracy Now!. I like to think OpBART helped laid the groundwork for Occupy, both in the public’s mind as well as forging collaborations between online and off. Due to a pre-planned trip to San Francisco, I even got to yell at buildings in real life, a nice reward for sixteen hour days of remote organizing.

I also delivered a brown bag talk Free as in People at Mozilla headquarters about writing software for communications emergencies.

Travel: Boston, Portland, San Francisco


I moved back home to Chicago, looked for work and generally took care of my personal life a little. It had to happen sometime, but I still managed to find a little time for activism, coding, and dressing up silly and protesting with Occupy Chicago.

Travel: Cross country drive from Washington to Chicago, New York


Telecomix released logs showing US-made Blue Coat hardware was being used to censor the Internet in Syria. As I seem to have a knack for explaining technical things to non-technical people, I helped guide reporters through the evidence, eventually resulting in an admission by the company and investigation by the Department of Commerce. Like OpBART & Occupy, I like to think out efforts helped raise awareness of surveillance and censorship, culminating in Wikileaks’ Spyfiles and the EU implementing export controls on this technology.

I gave an opening speech at ContactCon during which I destroyed a fax machine to demonstrate how easily communication can be severed. Several US-based Telecomix agents attended and we gave an introduction to online security, privacy and anonymity for activists. I went straight to a panel at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, while simultaneously agents in Stockholm presented at the Net4Change conference. It was an amazing feeling to represent the cluster during 72 hours of round-the-clock global discussion - a topical demonstration of the Internet’s potential to facilitate communication.

Travel: New York City, San Francisco


A last minute invite to the EU Transparency Hackathon at the European Parliament jump started a project to analyze the Blue Coat logs. I met several more Telecomix agents, as well as Tor Project participants, and totally failed to get enough sleep.

Travel: Brussels


I gave two days of lectures at the University for Peace to students from 30 countries. Day one covered the events of the year and new media strategy and tactics. Day two was a hands-on exercise in adhocracy (leaderless self-organizing). Though I didn’t make it to Costa Rica’s famous beaches, I did manage to go for a jungle hike, ending on top of a hill with views of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

After a year of living off savings to do hacktivism full-time, I finally landed a contract programming job.

Travel: Costa Rica, New Jersey, New York City, Boston

Looking Back, Looking Forward

This past year has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. After years of feeling politically frustrated and impotent, it was wonderful to apply my heart and head and hands directly in service of what I believe. I am honored by the friends I have made - those whose names I know, and those who remain anonymous; those whom I knew for only a few hours and those whom I will know for a lifetime. As we move into 2012 and face ever-greater threats to our freedom, I can only hope my actions inspire others to take up the cause.

There is no utopia to strive for - there is only now.