Hacking for Freedom

I gave the following invited presentation at the Sheffield Doc/Fest film festival as part of a panel on the revolutions in the Middle East. The panel included organizers from Egypt’s Youth Movement, documentary filmmakers embedded with Libyan rebels, a director of programming at Al Jazeera English and others. I spoke about my work with Telecomix, a volunteer group of activists who have been keeping the Internet running in the Middle East in the face of government censorship. As always, I speak only for myself, but I think I’ve done a good job of capturing the spirit of the work we do. A transcript follows.

Hi, my name is Peter Fein, and I’ve been hacking for freedom. I use the word hack in it’s original sense, to mean a clever technical trick - using a system in a way its designer didn’t intend.

This video is from Tunisia - it appears to show a flamethrower being used to disperse protesters. What I find compelling here is not the violations of the Geneva Conventions, but the phones - people desperately trying to get word out, to show the world what’s happening. And that’s why information needs to be free, right there in grainy, glorious mobile video. If we cannot see, we cannot act.

I’m an agent with Telecomix an ad-hoc disorganization of Internauts who support free communication for everyone, regardless of political affiliation. Comprised of programmers, punks, politicians, pirates, and others, Telecomix believes in person-to-person communication - the original p2p.

I sometimes act as a liaison to Anonymous, opportunistically forging connections and collaborations in the service of common goals. On that note, let me go record and state I don’t DDOS, deface websites or crack passwords. And if the FBI or Scotland Yard is watching this, screw you.

Telecomix is yin to Anonymous’ yang. If Anonymous takes sites down, Telecomix keeps them up. What we have in common with each other, and with the protests on the ground, is that we are truly leaderless and possessed by a radical passion for freedom. We operate as a do-ocracy, a form of organization in which the people who get things done, get things done.

Here’s a little bit of what Telecomix did for Egypt. During the Jan 25 revolution, the Mubarak regime caused a nearly total blackout of Internet, cellular and SMS service.

While the Net was up, Telecomix provided tools such as TOR, VPNs and other encryption for safe communication. To restore access to censored sites, we built mirrors and proxies. Using the old school chat IRC, we served as a manual relay to Twitter, tweeting for Egyptians who were unable to do so themselves.

When the Net was down, we went low-tech. When countries block, we (d)evolve.Working with ISPs and individual users, we set up hundreds of dial-up modem lines. These numbers are now active for Syria as well. We recruited amateur radio operators from around the globe to help establish radio communication. Working with Anonymous, we sent comms and medical information, including treatments for tear gas, to every fax machine in Egypt that we could find. We also set up a reverse fax service for transmitting news out of the country. Using the network tool nmap, we scanned the entire Egyptian IP address space to find a few thousand machines that were still up. We then injected human-readable messages into their web server logs.

Future development projects include: intranet livecds using off-the-shelf commodity hardware to run a local Usenet message board, a wiki of street communication tactics, such as wheatpasting and sign making, and a howto for building two-way radios from re purposed consumer electronics.

We’ve been able to reuse much of this work in Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, and Wisconsin. Which was a good thing, because after working twenty hours a day for eight days on Egypt, I really need some sleep.

This is an exciting time to be a person who can use a computer. The cause of freedom calls all of us - not only programmers, but writers and artists, academics and filmmakers, philosophers and trolls. We have the power to make a real difference in the world - to help people achieve what they want for themselves. It’s been a long, long winter for freedom in the Middle East and the rest of the world, but we’re beginning to see signs of spring.

We are Telecomix. Join us.