An Anarchist Explains How Hackers Could Cause Global Chaos

Authored by Laura Sydell via NPR.org,

Artists and criminals are often the first to push the boundaries of technology. Barrett Brown is a criminal who has actually helped inspire art - the TV show Mr. Robot. Its protagonist is a hacktivist - a hacker who breaks into computer systems to promote a cause.

Brown was connected to Anonymous, a group that hacked a private security firm to reveal secrets. He is now out and living in a halfway house in Dallas.

He had spent years in a prison cell thinking about what he might do when he got out. And he says he is ready to change, so next time he gets involved in hacking a corporation he is able to inflict maximum damage.

"Certainly, I haven't gotten any less militant in the course of having these things done to me," Brown says.

Barrett Brown served time for being part of Anonymous, a group that hacked a private security firm to reveal secrets.

Courtesy of Barrett Brown

Since most hacktivists operate in the shadows, Brown offers the best look at these cyber-revolutionaries and their motivations.

The 36-year-old Brown was born in Dallas. His father was a wealthy real estate investor, until he was investigated by the FBI for fraud. Brown's father was never charged, but the family lost all its money and his parents divorced.

"It was something that I'm sure instilled in me the idea that there was a degree of arbitrary power out there that could come down at any time and disrupt your life, as it did to me when I was a child," Brown says.

He hates arbitrary power and always has. He is an anarchist who believes the U.S. government is fundamentally corrupt. And he says most Americans are too complacent to do anything about it.

"That's what ... in part brings me to contempt for the American citizenry," he says. "Obviously, I have no respect for the laws, for the government or for the voters."

Instead, he says, his own code of values drives him.

He became a radical intellectual — more interested in spreading revolutionary ideas than in protesting in the streets. But in 2006, Brown saw a potential outlet for his anarchist dreams — the hacktivist group Anonymous. It was leaderless, crowdsourced and militant.

Anonymous managed to organize a massive attack on Scientology, even taking down its website. Brown started covering Anonymous as a journalist but soon became deeply involved.

"I saw this as the very first ripples in something that would grow to be one of the great dynamics of the 21st century, that we would see more of this emergence [of] online warfare essentially against institutions including nation-states," he says.

For many years, Brown was a sort of unofficial spokesman for Anonymous, appearing in interviews dressed in a beige corduroy or navy blue jacket and dress shirt, a cigarette dangling from his hand. He looked more like a preppy than a revolutionary.

In 2011, the group began targeting companies that contracted with the U.S. government. One of them was Stratfor — a global intelligence firm. Emails released after an Anonymous hack included sensitive information on top-secret government missions like the killing of Osama bin Laden. The emails also show Dow Chemical hired Stratfor to spy on activists trying to get money for families who suffered during the Bhopal disaster.

Brown viewed this as a private corporate version of COINTELPRO — the FBI's effort in the 1960s to discredit activists like Martin Luther King Jr.

Brown created Project PM, an online chatroom where participants looked through thousands of hacked emails to find the most incriminating. One email contained thousands of credit card numbers — and stealing credit cards is a crime.

In September 2012, Brown was at home talking online with members of Project PM. "I heard a rustling at my door and I walked over to the door. I was holding a beer in my hand," he says. "[I] thought it was another friend of mine."

But when he opened the door there was a SWAT team equipped with shields and helmets. Brown says they were yelling, "Put your hands up buddy." Brown says they had him on the floor and put a boot on his back. The audio of the arrest was recorded by someone in the Project PM chatroom.

Brown faced up to 100 years in prison. His mother was charged with hiding his laptops.

Brown admits he went a bit off the rails. He posted a video on YouTube attacking an FBI agent.

"I was a former heroin addict," Brown says. "I was getting off Suboxone at the time, which is a synthetic opiate. And I was sort of suddenly feeling emotions again that have been kind of bottled, kept down a few months. I was very upset about my mother being threatened with indictment."

Still, Brown was a cause célèbre among certain activists and journalists. Many felt he was being put away for simply looking through hacked emails — something any journalist would do.

Brown eventually pleaded guilty to threatening a federal officer and to two other charges. The government imprisoned other members of Anonymous. The group kind of faded away, but its tactics did not.

During the 2016 election, Russian state-supported hackers used some of the same tools as Anonymous — hacking emails from the Democratic National Committee and posting them on WikiLeaks to embarrass Hillary Clinton.

I wondered, is there really any difference between a foreign agent trying to undermine our democracy and hacktivists like Anonymous? Is Brown a hero or a villain?

I turned to an unlikely expert to help me figure that out — Sam Esmail, the creator of the TV show Mr. Robot. "Their spirit is in activism," Esmail says. "Their spirit is in exposing these frauds and abuses by people in power. And that's just something on a human level I respect."

But Mr. Robot is hardly a glowing portrait of hacktivists. Its hero, Elliot, is a drug addict who can't access his own emotions. Sound familiar? Elliot leads a group called fsociety that takes down the world's largest corporation — erasing everyone's debt. Chaos erupts.

Mr. Robot actor Rami Malek (from left), writer/producer Sam Esmail and actor Christian Slater, at the Critics' Choice Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2016. "Their spirit's in exposing these frauds and abuses by people in power," Esmail says of hacktivists. "And that's just something on a human level I respect."

Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Esmail says he is looking at an age-old dilemma. "Do we commit a criminal act for something that we feel is just, even though the consequences could be great?" he says. "That's such a kind of loaded, huge, but very relevant question today."

Brown doesn't seem interested in examining the moral ambiguity of hacktivist crimes. But he says he is learning from past mistakes. Ultimately, Brown feels that Anonymous was disorganized and lacked leadership.

So he is designing a software program called Pursuance, which he says will take hacktivism into the future. It will be fully encrypted, anyone could use it to sort through a trove of hacked documents, and it could even be used to recruit a team of hackers.

Brown says when people tweet and post their opinions on social media it's just "slactivism." "The next great act of hacktivism, if it really is going to be great, it has to be an act of reaffirming the idea of civic duty," he says. He says he wants to provide a mechanism for people who do feel that sense of civic duty to really have impact.

Brown is ready to be a martyr for the cause if he has to be. He would even go back to prison.

"I want to be in a position to defeat my powerful adversaries in public," he says, "where everyone could admire the pluck in which I did it."

Brown is casting himself in a starring role in the new world. And in his mind Mr. Robot is no fantasy. It's what the future really looks like.

Comments

jefferson32 MusicIsYou Mon, 03/05/2018 - 03:26 Permalink

Brown eventually pleaded guilty to threatening a federal officer and to two other charges. The government imprisoned other members of Anonymous.

Translation: he snitched on other hacktivists, who got thrown away for life in a cage, and whom you'll never hear about on NPR. Brown is now in bed with the malevolent central planners, and is being introduced into his role of "leader of the resistance".

In reply to by MusicIsYou

GeoffreyT jefferson32 Mon, 03/05/2018 - 04:57 Permalink

No he didn't - for the simple reason that he knew almost none of the key personnel in either Anon or LulzSec.

It's not even clear which out of Sabu and Topiary snitched (one of them probably did: the dominant narrative is that it was Sabu, which means that if it was either of them it was probably Topiary).

Brown was not a 'hacker', any more than Ringo Starr was a 'musician'.

A better example: the guy on the 30mm in a Spooky or Stinger II is not 'Delta' or  'Ranger' or 'SEAL', even though his role might be mission-critical (he's 'canonically' part of AFSOC so it's a matter for debate, but he's not getting mud in his gear).

I don't want to diminish Brown's contribution in any way: organising publicity and writing tall tales of derring-do are essential parts of any nascent movement. Getting public traction (and countering FUD and journo-bullshit) is an important role that no hacker wants to do.

Movements like Anonymous rely on more than just guys who can identify and exploit vulnerabilities in badly-structured security ("pen-experts" or "penspurts"): they need PR, 'sales/journo'-type roles (and genuine hackers are shit-awful at public-facing roles: it took Assange five years to get even moderately comfortable at it).

The 'harder' phyles - gn0sis, baph0met, 8lgm and so forth - always have at least one polymath who can do non-pen roles (that said, they don't have, need or want a "public face"), but it's the sort of thing that a genuine 'hacker' finds extremely dreary. Would you rather hang out your laundry, or spend another ten minutes trying to find an unpatched vulnerability in the web backend of a firm that everyone hates?

All that said: the hacker ecosystem has a very long memory, and Brown knows that it's primed to wreak righteous vengeance on his behalf, in time. That's part of the reason he can be somewhat sanguine about what was done to him: it's easy to be magnanimous if you know, full well, that the people who shat on you are going to get squared up.

In reply to by jefferson32

drdolittle GeoffreyT Mon, 03/05/2018 - 09:46 Permalink

Yeah, maybe he snitched and maybe he didn't. He's a skinny white guy, prime candidate for being raped in prison. Even if he snitched and, he probs did or he wouldn't be as forward about getting revenge (and not getting murdered for it by the state), he probably has an axe to grind. I say he did snitch but will backstab the people fronting him as the face of hacktivism. Getting raped in prison would probably leave one unforgiving.

 

In reply to by GeoffreyT

khnum Mon, 03/05/2018 - 01:08 Permalink

Geoengineering has destroyed the biosphere mass death events in the animal and plant kingdom are happening world wide the future is going to be a little bit uglier than looking at fucking hand held devices and computers.They are not going to televise it but earth is dying.

jefferson32 MusicIsYou Mon, 03/05/2018 - 03:25 Permalink

Brown eventually pleaded guilty to threatening a federal officer and to two other charges. The government imprisoned other members of Anonymous.

Translation: he snitched on other hacktivists, who got thrown away for life in a cage, and whom you'll never hear about on NPR. Brown is now in bed with the malevolent central planners, and is being introduced into his role of "leader of the resistance".

In reply to by MusicIsYou

the artist Mon, 03/05/2018 - 01:36 Permalink

I am waiting for the CA DMV records to be hacked. Imagine a world where the name and address of every asshole driver out there was public knowledge. 

We just might get some civility. 

GeoffreyT the artist Mon, 03/05/2018 - 05:02 Permalink

There's no need to hack the DMV: anybody who wants the ID of the registered owner of a given vehicle, can obtain it for about $20 in almost any jurisdiction I've lived in (which includes the US, France, Australia, South Africa and Germany).

It's been that way for 30 years: all government departments are corrupt.

This is why nobody should ever trust government with their data: fact is, your entire DMV record can be access by the average public-facing DMV employee, who is objectively a high-school underperformer (on a par with, if not actually worse than, the average cop)... and for whom $20 makes a difference to their weekly nut.

In reply to by the artist

MusicIsYou Mon, 03/05/2018 - 01:40 Permalink

Earth doesn't need people, life flourished for millions of years on earth without people. And besides, animals are naturally smarter than people, I see deer that look both ways before crossing the highway, but people have to train their dumb kids to do that. And besides, God created the earth for Man, not people, there is a difference.

Nelbev Mon, 03/05/2018 - 01:47 Permalink

The major hacking is done by governments, plus they contract with companies like Microsoft to purposely leave built in hacking holes in everyone's operating system open to simple run of the mill individual hackers or viruses to exploit besides the public and private spying on you collecting data.  It is also the over-reliance on "smart" technology, say to run a nuclear power plant, stupid.

Waiting for those electric self driving cars hooked up to the internet which can be open to preemptive strike doctrine, NSA/CIA crash burn hole built in software some individual hackers could also exploit outside or hidden as a technological hitch destroyed at accident.

any_mouse Mon, 03/05/2018 - 01:48 Permalink

Was he paroled out? Talk like he is doing won't help his getting off parole status.

Something smells.

I could not take anymore of Eliot's narration. Dreary monotone. Ceased watching.

Hillarys Server Mon, 03/05/2018 - 01:55 Permalink

"During the 2016 election, Russian state-supported hackers used some of the same tools as Anonymous — hacking emails from the Democratic National Committee and posting them on WikiLeaks to embarrass Hillary Clinton"

I'm speechless.

This has literally knocked the wind and any attempt at a witty response out of me.

I stopped reading there just on principle. I don't want to soil my eyes, brain and heart.

Ain't nobody got time for that!

finnzero Mon, 03/05/2018 - 02:23 Permalink

Do anarchist really wish for fall of state? I mean, I have shotguns, rifles and plenty of bullets. What do they have, electric mixer?

They must be really self destructive.

finnzero Cry Baby Moe Mon, 03/05/2018 - 04:09 Permalink

Anarchism is ultimate libertarianism, at least from European perspective, the other end in the axle being authoritarianism. I've got couple of libertarian friends and seeing they dance the fine line between reasonable and anarchism is sometimes painful.

The ultimate problem with libertarianism is that it can never be achieved. When it seems to be achieved, you need to set rules (laws and regulations) to uphold it. This is way anarchism almost always results to fascism, communism or some other leftist, authoritarian rule. And this is why "liberal" anarchists act more fascist than fascist themselves.

In reply to by Cry Baby Moe

Cockoo Mon, 03/05/2018 - 02:44 Permalink

When Brown did it was against the law, when the corporations, google or government entities like NSA and others do it is OK with their backdoors...Brown is on mission.  DefCon 26 in Vegas, August 9-12 2018 some good times for white/black hats.

 

Hillarys Server peekster Mon, 03/05/2018 - 03:54 Permalink

Yes, they were hacked.

In the echo chamber parallel universe of the far left they were hacked.

And Trump is a mysogenist, there are too many white males in the world, the Syrian government gasses itself, the US is fighting ISIS, Obama brought us together, Michael Brown was on his way to medical school, there's a special place in hell for women who don't support women, zee is a pronoun, Oprah is a world leader, the Oscars are fun to watch, Obama deserves his Peace Prize, Michelle likes white people, their daughter "just says no" to a freshly rolled doobie, 50 year old men are actually three year old girls with diaper rash, Hillary doesn't eat p----, Wakanda created by two Hollywood Jews in a bagle shop is a real African nation state, Muhamaad Al'KillZaKufaar is a Swede, police shoot blacks at random like ducks that pop up at the circus, Shashanda Fr'Chkn Booboo de la KillWhiteé was turned down for a job because of the color of her skin, five year olds should be allowed to cut off their d---, you can tweet what I've written so far without getting your account suspended, Trump peed on Barry and Michael's bed, Putin videotaped it and Assad must go.

In reply to by peekster

amanfromMars Mon, 03/05/2018 - 03:47 Permalink

There will be those who believe Barrett Brown is "turned" and now works for interests keen on maintaining the status quo for systems supporting Uncle Sams/Military Industrial Complexes/Federal Reserve Type Fiat Paper Money Machines .... and discovering the More Adept Opposition in ACTive Competition for Remote Command and Virtualised Control of both the Future and Hearts and Minds.

Take care and beware out there in that Power .... IT is a Mined Mind Field ... and with AI, something else fundamentally different too. 

 

Planebill Mon, 03/05/2018 - 04:24 Permalink

He suffers from the ageless delusion that we all experience. It's all about him. His impression. His suffering. His pain. By self will run riot, he will share that pain. The message I must remind myself and Mr Brown needs to learn: It's not about you. It's never been about you. It never will be about you. Get over yourself. Unless you created your own life and the universe in which you live it can never be about you. Reality only sucks when you fail to grasp the basics.

cdog Mon, 03/05/2018 - 06:18 Permalink

From what I'm learning, philosophically Anarchism is the opposite of Globalism. This kid's got heart, he just doesn't really "get" the fight, and he's definitely not up on the Vault7 spoofing of IP addresses to make everything look Russian.

Globalists want us all to forget nation-states and answer to "post-national" overlords. You know, the guys that are doing such a mega good job now with their UN troops and NGOs and Foundations facilitating mass migrations. We're all supposed to embrace "cosmopolitanism," and "collectivism." The dark side of human nature, like penis-wielding misogynistic muslims, doesn't exist in their utopia. I call bullshit.

Anarchist are for decentralization, localism, individuals. Liberty, free will, self-determination baby! #MAGA #GreatAwakening

gdpetti Mon, 03/05/2018 - 11:11 Permalink

As Tor use on the 'black web' demonstrates, these so-called hackers are mostly working for the govt, which is why nothing has changed.... like the markets, the problems continue to grow... first they con you going up, next they con you going down.