Earlier this week, members of the Hackers Next Door and Tech Learning Collective conference organizing team were interviewed for the This is America podcast produced by It’s Going Down, a digital community center for anarchist, anti-fascist, autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements. Featured on the podcast’s 97th episode alongside the NYC Anarchist Black Cross’s Project FANG, the Hackers Next Door conference interview segment touches on topics such as the suppression of queer, femme, and PoC representation in tech, resisting the school-to-corporation pipeline’s “learn to code (to get a job)” mentality, and building collective power beyond mere voter representation through actionable cybersecurity and IT education for local community projects.
Listen to the full This Is America podcast episode on the It’s Going Down website. Our interview segment starts approximately 39 minutes into the episode. We’ve also provided a truncated copy of the episode with a transcript republished below:
It’s Going Down: Welcome, to This Is America, November 27th, 2019.
In this episode, first we speak with someone from Project FANG about their project and current fundraising appeal, which seeks to provide direct support and material aid to earth and animal liberation, as well as Standing Rock prisoners.
We then speak with several participants in an upcoming radical digital security and privacy conference entitled, Hackers Next Door, which will take place in New York in December.
We then launch into a discussion about moving beyond simply “mobilizing” in an age of social media and also a continuing analysis of the Trump impeachment crisis.
All this and more, but first, let’s get to the news!
[FADE TO NEXT SEGMENT]
It’s Going Down: Can you introduce yourselves real quick?
Wirefall: Sure, my name is Wirefall.
Violet: You can call me Violet. We’re both from Tech Learning Collective and we’re organizing this Hackers Next Door conference in December.
IGD: Awesome! So, before we get started talking about the conference, tell us a little bit about how you got involved in tech circles, playing around with computers, how did that start?
Wirefall: Um, yeah! Do you want me to go first?
Violet: Go for it, you have a good story.
Wirefall: I actually have a non-technical background, in a way. I liked playing with computers and in particular making them do things that they weren’t necessarily designed to do, but I was kind of discouraged from exploring that further because the culture around that was so awful. So for the longest time, I shunned everything having to do with digital technology because, again, the people around it were so nasty to me. And then I met Violet and they had a completely different philosophy and a completely different approach to digital technologies, so I started learning a lot from them and it kind of just spiraled out of there ever since.
Violet: Yeah. It was partly out of the Tech Learning Collective because I was involved with TLC when the two of us met and I’d been doing cybersecurity trainings, and had kind of been into political circles and privacy rights and this sort of stuff by then for a number of years. So the ability to do something with tech that wasn’t like, “Oh, now I gotta go find a job and work for the fucking surveillance state,” or whatever it is that they’re doing, was appealing and for me it was just a continuation of the other political work that I was doing. I actually got into privacy rights advocacy in digital stuff because I was politically vocal and then I realized that as a target online, I was like, “Oh shit, I have to be serious about this,” and so that’s when I started learning about, y’know, cypherpunk-esque stuff.
IGD: How did you all come to the point of creating a conference. Like, why should there be a conference about political hacking?
Violet: Right! I mean, this is actually something that people in at least the tri-state area have been talking about doing for a little while, and it just hasn’t come together. So, we’ve been wanting to see—we as in Tech Learning Collective itself but y’know also the other groups that are doing this in the city. Tech Learning Collective is an Electronic Frontier Alliance member, there are a lot of other Electronic Frontier Alliance members, this is like an EFF grassroots coalition, and we basically realized that this was a conversation happening amongst EFA member groups and small, like, DSA chapters, and little sort of CryptoParty one-offs that have been going on in the New York and the tri-state area for a while, and it just hadn’t come together in any sort of bigger way. So it felt to us like, y’know, this was a really ripe opportunity. It was something that people already really wanted to do and all that was missing was some group that had the commitment and the space to do it in. And so, as Tech Learning Collective, we have a semi-permanent residency in the DUMBO neighborhood thanks to some really great people and relationships that we have with the Triangle Arts Association and so we were like, “Hey, y’know, we have space for this. It’s just a matter of doing it.” And so, a little earlier this year, we were like, y’know, let’s just fucking do it.
So we started sending out invitations to everyone who we respected and knew that was doing some similar work, and also one of the most exciting things about this conference is that it’s not just the sort of, like, y’know, for lack of a diplomatic way to put it, just the incestuous and nepotic circle. This is a conference to which we’ve invited actual people affected by things like facial recognition surveillance. We’ve invited the No New Jails folks, we’ve invited the Atlantic Plaza Towers Tenant Advocates in addition to the people who are sort of already well-known and established in the digital security and privacy rights worlds, like the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and the Tor Project, and the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, and Calyx Institute, I’m sure there’s someone else that I’m forgetting on this list.
Wirefall: Yeah, and I think that’s like a long list of these kind of major recognizable names, or I should say recognizable in that kind of circle. For me what’s really exciting about doing this conference in the way that we’re doing it is I’m much more interested in seeing what’s happening on a grassroots level and there are a lot of people here who are doing kind of guerrilla grassroots organizing around this topic and to get those people in the same room, based in the same city, as a lot of these larger names is an attempt in a certain way to even the playing field and kind of like bring some sobriety to the larger names and bring some more recognition and also power in a sense to the grassroots organizers.
Violet: And resources! Like actual resources.
Wirefall: That’s what I mean.
Violet: Yeah, like, it’s one thing to be donating money to these huge non-profits and it’s a whole other thing to see what people who are actually dealing with cameras in their fucking houses are doing to combat that shit from landlords and stuff. And that is an exciting thing. And having those two conversations, I think, not happening in opposition to each other but being recognized as fueling one another, is something that I don’t see in a lot of privacy rights advocacy. I guess I should say I don’t see enough of in privacy rights advocacy, and certainly not in a cybersecurity sector.
Violet: So putting that together, I think, is I think necessary and also just there needs to be more of that. Otherwise, you’re not going to get this sort of bottom-up approach to online privacy. You’re only going to get the legislative, y’know, “let’s have the government fucking fix things,” and that doesn’t work. We know that doesn’t work! That can not be all of the story. And so, putting that front-and-center—not to say that legislation isn’t useful, it obviously helps, but that happens only as a response to things that people in their local communities are actually doing day-to-day. So putting that together explicitly is exciting, it’s certainly, like I said, not been done enough, and I think it’s actually the thing that fuels both sides of this particular coin really well.
And y’know, the point is, how’d it started? Well, people just said that they needed that. And then we were like, let’s just fucking do it.
IGD: Let’s talk about the conference itself. When is it going to happen? Where is it going to be at? And also, what are the kinds of workshops and sessions that we should expect to see. I looked over the schedule and it looks really exciting.
Wirefall: Yeah, we’re really, really excited about it as well. So, it’s taking place on December 14th and 15th of this year , 11 AM to 10 PM for both days. So it’s a two-full day conference. And then we have different blocks that we’ve placed different speakers in. So, the first block of the first two days is called “Racist Policing Then and Now,” which I just mention that it’s the first block because I’ve been sort of joking about: it’s like people are going to come in, it’s like, “Good morning! Let’s talk about racist policing.” And I kind of like am a fan of that. We’re going to be talking about community initiatives, we’re going to be talking about fighting the surveillance state. People like Albert Fox Cahn from the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project are going to be there, some people are gonna talk about Tor and the quote-unquote “Dark Web,” so we’re going to have Isabela Bagueros, the Executive Director of the Tor Project is going to be there. And then of course, as I said before, I’m very excited to hear from the Tenant Advocates of the Atlantic Plaza Towers, which is a residential building in Brownsville, and they’ve been fighting their landlord on the implementation of facial recognition in their building for a year. So super excited about that. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Violet: Yeah, so, the whole conference is single-track, which is to say that there’s only one presentation happening at a time. It’s gonna be, as we’ve said, at our semi-permanent residency at Triangle Arts Association in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. So that’s basically just on the river accessible via the F train, or the A train I suppose. And it’s, um, gonna be that main presentation room, and a small hallway, and some maybe BoF (Birds of a Feather) sort of tracks, conversations for people to have if they get particularly inspired by one of the presentations.
And the reason we’re doing single-track is because, again, we wanna have that—I’m sure you’ve gone to conferences, right, and there’s a really big-name speaker and a really local advocacy group that not as many people know about, and everyone goes to see the big name speaker and the local advocacy group gets like five people in the room. Y’know, and that’s, we don’t want that to happen. So we’ve elongated the conference’s schedule. We actually had to add like two hours or four hours to the conference because we started getting so many people saying they would like to speak from our invitation list, and decided to go single-track so that you always had a thing that was happening.
And then as people said yes, as the people we were inviting were like, “Yeah, I’d love to speak,” and they responded to our invitations, the topic of the conference sort of formed around that. Obviously, it was skewed because, y’know, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Anarchist and Tech Learning Collective has a very political bent generally, but the fact that we ended up with, like, “Community Initiatives” as a single block, like “Fighting the Surveillance State” as a block, “Racist Policing Then and Now” as a block for our conversation is because the people who said yes, who we really wanted to see, this is what they’re doing. Black Movement Law Project will be talking about the evolution of the police from Pinkertons all the way to the Police State now. And so, it became clear that these are the topics that grassroots organizations in New York and the tri-state area are working on right now. Anti-surveillance is a big thing. It kind of molded itself around the speakers, which is kind of nice, I think. It made scheduling not that hard!
Wirefall: Yeah, that’s true!
IGD: One of the things I think that’s interesting is that we’re in a time where social movements right now are using technology now more than ever and it also seems like the stakes are higher in terms of just the threat of online surveillance by corporate actors or States, or people on the far-right. I still feel like there’s still a division between kind of, like, oh there are those nerds over there with their computers and like everybody else. Where there needs to kind of like, we need to find each other and be able to share skills. A lot of us really need to catch up in terms of just building online, electronic self-defense and learning a lot of tech skills. I think a lot of use so much technology all the time, and y’know, hopefully we’re all using things like Signal, and basic practices of self-defense, but I really feel like we need to catch up where the rest of the world is.
Violet: Yeah. I mean, yes. For what it’s worth, this is literally what Tech Learning Collective was founded on. TLC, Tech Learning Collective, is sort of the progenitor of this conference, if you will, and it was exactly that sentiment that started not just Tech Learning Collective, but then has guided the mission of TLC to do things like this conference in this way.
Y’know, we’re a small production, we don’t have huge numbers of donors or financiers or anything, so that’s part and parcel of what lets us do things like invite these hyperlocal groups and put front and center “Racist Policing Now and Then.” I mean when was the last time you saw a cybersecurity event, with real hacking demonstrations, y’know, offensive techniques—Anarcho-Tech NYC is going to be there doing actual hacking demos like phishing and ARP cache poisoning and stuff—right with a discussion about how cyberwarfare has also come to be part and parcel of class warfare. Y’know, in the conference’s sort of—when we were conceiving it, one of the things that was very clear was that today, most people in America at least seem to experience technology as a form of class oppression because it’s literally designed to do that from corporations. Like, that’s the point of it. You don’t put a surveillance camera in someone’s home if that person is rich. You only do that to people who are less wealthy. And that’s class warfare, point-blank.
So, yeah, my point being that TLC was designed specifically to help people who needed to catch up catch up. And not catch up to get a job, right? And this is, like, I think an important distinction. It wasn’t like—there’s this narrative of “get a good tech job, go into an office, and be comfortable, and that’ll get you out of poverty.” It’s bullshit, for so many reasons, but not least of which is that that doesn’t help your community. Y’know, now you’re literally working for Jeff Bezos or some other person building tools that are actively extracting time, effort, money, from local communities that need it. But that doesn’t mean that technology itself is the problem there. It means that the way that technology is being used is extractive and not valuable for the people who are actually living under oppressive regimes.
We can also use technology to help out, and I kind of want to get back to this point of Tech Learning Collective was founded by a bunch of radicals who basically got arrested and were like, “Shit, our phones are compromised, how do we figure this out?” So we started just teaching each other about exactly that thing back before the Trump election even, and then shortly thereafter Trump got elected, and what happened was that we started getting this inundated flood of like, what do we do now? Signal became suddenly a big deal, and then there was a bunch of Signal trainings, right? Like, get off txt, use Signal. So that was the beginning of the catching up. And it was very clear very early on that those of us who have been self-educating about this for a little while, those of us who have had a bit more experience such as myself could not meet the demand. It was just too many people having too many questions about too many things to work if it was all gonna be put on a small group of individuals.
So, that is where originally Anarcho-Tech NYC’s Train the Trainers project came from, from there Tech Learning Collective got formed specifically to address those needs. So Tech Learning Collective students are primarily people of marginalized communities, people of color, women, queer folks, femmes. Our pricing structure reflects that, y’know, the conference has a reduced price tier. Almost like, I don’t know if you’re familiar with queer parties often have two tiers. Y’know, cismen, and queers and femmes? We basically took that model and applied it to cybersecurity education. So if you come to a Tech Learning Collective workshop, one of the things you’ll notice is that our donation-based scale has two suggested tiers. One for queers and femmes and other folks who are marginalized from mainstream cybersecurity education, and everybody else. And that’s not like a wall, we’re not policing people’s gender identity when they walk in the room, but it’s a very strong signal that this what we’re about and this is what we’re for and this is why we exist. And it’s exactly to address that thing that you mentioned, where there’s this huge digital divide, a big gap, between who’s been able to take advantage of the better parts of technology, the way it can actually make our lives better, get us to be more efficient, have more individual power, and then actually build collective actions from that as opposed to just “get out the vote campaigns” and everyone else who’s now, y’know, working at fucking Palantir and building cyberweapons while telling themselves they’re stopping sex trafficking and patting themselves on the back or some shit like that.
So…. I realize that was a bit of rant, I apologize.
Wirefall: I was also just going to say, too, that you got really close to saying the thing that I like to say about the pricing tiers and things like that, sliding scale stuff, which is that it’s a banner, not a wall.
Wirefall: And it actually has been a really effective signal to tell other people that we are really serious about our politics and mostly also about our culture and what kind of culture we want to have when we’re teaching this kind of stuff. I think there’s two things that come to mind as we’re talking about this for me, one of which is that a lot of the training that’s out there is purely defensive and very surface, which is fine, because sometimes you just need a bandaid. Like, sometimes, you just need to do something now. But I think where TLC likes to come in is to try to drill down and to get deeper into these things so that the people who are interested in doing so can actually start to self-empower rather than just be constantly responding to a threat. And in that sense, we hope that, y’know, this tooling can be reappropriated for building autonomy, actually. And the culture thing is really important, like I said. I didn’t touch computers for the longest time because I hated the people that were around them, and it’s sort of this weird balance between, exactly what you were saying, like, “those nerds over there” or whatever. And especially on the Left, there’s a lot of technophobia because it’s this giant, aww, it’s this massive thing that’s everywhere and it’s scary and it’s always in the context of colonization, and it’s always like this. And it’s like, well, what if we could carve out our own path to these things. We could use them.
Violet: Yeah. I think that’s a really good point, actually. I just wanna double-down on what you were saying. Y’know, one of the unique things about Tech Learning Collective is that we actually have offensive classes. That’s not to say, well, it’s always for quote “educational purposes only,” but y’know, if you don’t know what a punch is, trying to show people how to defend against a punch is going to be very hard because you’ve never actually talked about the thing that you’re trying to defend against. So if you don’t show somebody how to throw a punch, it’s going to be very hard to teach them how to block one. And it’s the same thing in cybersecurity. If you don’t know how to steal a username and password, then you’re not really going to be as sensitized to when that is happening to you. So we show both sides. We will show phishing attacks, and we will show how to defend against those same attacks.
And this is exactly what, y’know, corporations do when they have internal Red Teams and pentests and this sort of stuff. They do that, too. Just because a corporation does it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. We should do it for different ends and we should do it with a better culture, but we still need to do it.
IGD: Past the conference, what kind of things do you hope to see to kind of get some of this stuff that we’ve been talking about in place?
Wirefall: For me there are a couple of things. This conference, it’s the first iteration. And for me I’m treating it like a little bit of a sapling that I’d like to see grow into a forest. And I think that that’s going to happen by creating these opportunities to build these relationships. And I really wanted to say to the people who come—I’m probably going to mention this at the opening remarks at some point—that, y’know, I think a lot of conferences in particular have this model where it’s like, “We’re all here together for this day,” or these two days, or this week or whatever it is, and then once it’s over you have to go back to your quote-unquote “real life” or whatever. And I want this to not be that. I want this to feed into, like, what our real lives actually already are.
Violet: Yeah, I think we have a benefit in that respect because we have so many local groups that are talking.
Violet: So it’s not like, y’know, people are gonna come over to DUMBO and then disperse across necessarily the entire globe again. The majority of people presentation, the majority of people who are coming are tri-state area locals. And that was intentional and it’s good because it means that, like, we can basically try to avoid con-drop by just keep doing this after the fact. Y’know, all these groups that we’ve invited, they have regular meetings many times a month, including TLC. Y’know, we have workshops almost every weekend. So, um, what I hope will come of this is that there will be this continuation.
And I will also say, y’know, especially to folks who don’t have a technical background, that’s okay. No one’s expecting anyone to come out of either this conference or a workshop or a CryptoParty or anything being some kind of, uh—
Wirefall: Leet superhacker!
Violet: Yeah! But in the same way that you wouldn’t expect to go to, like, a two-hour workshop about residential electrical wiring and then expect to be able to, like, wire a house.
Violet: It’s an absurd expectation because it’s a skill just like any other. And also, just like electricians, who by the way are an example of a profession that I think is wildly under appreciated in society as opposed to, say, bankers, who are wildly over appreciated, right? You don’t need every single person in your community to be the electrician, or the plumber, or the carpenter. You need those things, you need carpenters, you need plumbers, you need electricians, but you don’t need every single person in your community or group or campaign or movement or whatever to have the same skills. So, it’s not about making sure everyone can be a leet super hacker, it’s about making sure that there is enough of a foundation—like in the same way that you have unions of carpentry workers, or an electrician’s union or whatever, the reason you have that is because you have enough of them to sustain the thing that you’re doing in society, which in this case in this example I guess is wiring houses for electricity. Similarly, we need more people who do have some cybersecurity background, who do have system administration experience, who can be the sort of technical go-tos, and better yet, a lot of people from many different groups do want to be and are excited about being the person who people ask tech questions of, so Tech Learning Collective is intended to train those people. That’s our real front-runners.
Insofar as there is a, like, “those nerds over there” and everybody else dichotomy, then we want those nerds over there who are the nerds who are not just interested in optimizing database queries and making things super fast and cool and talking about crypto endlessly for hours, we want the people who are doing other shit who are also interested or excited, self-motivated, about something to do with computers and we want to train them so that when they go back to whatever campaign or advocacy effort that they are involved, they now have a far better baseline to both explain and train up the people that they’re working with. And also to learn on their own so that we can have more of these equivalents to electricians, if you will, in society generally, and in movements generally.
Tech Learning Collective would like to thank the It’s Going Down team for taking the time to highlight our efforts in support of revolutionary struggles and giving us the opportunity to speak about the Hackers Next Door conference.