Public Figures & Anonymous Victims

Photography by Chris Devers licensed under the Creative Commons

The hacker/activist networks are currently consumed with one topic. Is Jacob Appelbaum a rapist? On this issue I have no information. I originally met Jake through the CULT OF THE DEAD COW (cDc) hacking collective of which I am a member. One of our guys brought him in because he appeared to be doing interesting work and has an oversized personality, something that could be said of many of our crew. From that point nothing happened. Normally our team members do something for the cDc. They write, make movies or music, code something, do anything. Jake did none of these.

He did, however, use our name to advance his career and gain entrance to circles that might have been closed to him. And that’s fine. Every once in a while we make a recruiting mistake. In our thirty-two year history we’ve had around fifty members. It’s like a revolving door of eliteness. People come and go, and it usually works out well. It’s common enough for people to retire from the cDc. They’ve finished a certain cycle, they’re too busy with work, or they just want a new network. But we’ve never had to throw anyone out until now.

The cDc published a statement about severing ties with Jacob Appelbaum, AKA ioerror. It was a difficult thing to do because we didn’t have any knowledge of the most serious allegations. But because we were able to gather enough information on instances of abusive behaviour, threats, and intimidation we chose to act. It wasn’t just the right thing to do. It was our responsibility. There’s been a lot of looking the other way in the hacker community when powerful people overstep the bounds, and that has to stop.

With any luck this will become a teachable moment.

As much as this is about Jacob Appelbaum it’s not about Jacob Appelbaum. It’s about our community and how it’s changing. In some ways the hacker community reminds me of white-only golf clubs in the 70s. They were mandated to change; then there was a lot of whinging about how the negroes were ruining our club. It’s not a lot different now. There are more women in the security community, it’s become a little more queer, and more socially aware. Just the kind of inclusion that is forcing change, and often that change is being resisted by beta types.

Part of the problem is that there are a lot of blurred lines in our world. It exists in varying contexts, from workplace to conventions to social gatherings. And after a while it becomes a sort of meta-environment, where it becomes difficult to distinguish exactly where one is. Add into this a fresh influx of women and a few cocktails, and some of the bros can start saying the wrong things, or worse, getting a bit handsy. This is not OK, and it’s something I’ve been guilty of myself.

Years ago I had a little too much to drink and said something inappropriate to a friend. She wasn’t having it and called me out. After I got over being embarrased I realised that she was right and apologised. It caused me to rethink how I dealt with women and hopefully improve my behaviour. But not everyone is as strong as my friend. This is not to say that most women are weak when it comes to confrontation; just that it’s difficult to speak up in certain environments. And when the behaviour is even more egregious — along the lines of intimidation or sexual violence — it can be very difficult.

The concept and practice of anonymity has become commonplace in the hacker/activist world. AFK it is standard operating procedure for victims of rape and sexual assault. The court shields their identity and the press are not permitted to print their names. No one has a problem with this. But when internet personalities are accused of being sexual predators, suddenly there’s a problem with anonymity. It’s all a big smear campaign; they’re too cowardly to go public. And the same people who villify law enforcement at every turn are the first to insist that the accusers go to the police. It’s not that simple.

Even if the hacker community didn’t have a problematic relationship with law enforcement, the stats don’t make things encouraging. Most rapes go unreported and the majority of court cases do not convict. There is something horribly wrong with this system. But this isn’t just a ‘women’ problem. For years I’ve heard stories of prominent figures in the hacker community using their status to seduce young boys, sometimes under questionable circumstances. Preying upon the vulnerable is an ungendered pathology.

Very often, but not always, the victims are younger and without social capital or resources. They’re hurt, embarrassed, and traumatised, and occasionally in some form of contact with their abuser. This is not an environment that encourages people to come forward. But there is a path towards healing. Friends are important to lean on, but more importantly gender-based violence counsellors are a first step. They can determine if sexual violence has occurred and prescribe next steps, whether those might include psychological counselling, or the possibility of approaching law enforcement. All of these choices are left to the victim, including anonymity.

Being anonymous allows people to talk online about traumatic experience in a safe way. This remedy is open to abuse but it’s more important that we allow it for all than worry that it might be misused by a few. Anonymous speech is a fundamental cornerstone of democracy, of being able to speak truth to power, which in our case means for the most vulnerable to be able to confront some of the most powerful hackers. It is only just.