Yesterday, I’ve found my way to the Chaos Communication Congress 2011 in Berlin to take a look “Behind enemy lines” at a congress bringing together German and international hackers of all kind (note: most talks are on Youtube).
At first sight, such a meeting does not seem to be relevant for the political sphere, in particular not for the European sphere. So why care if you are not a programmer, a system administrator, or an engineer but a political scientist, an EU official or a political activist?
Maybe the most obvious talk for the audience of this blog platform to notice might be “Counterlobbying EU institutions” discussing the need for society to develop capacities and skills to influence EU politics and the strategies needed therefore.
Next, although in German, the talks on “Hacking Politics” and the one on purposefully blurry political language are actually quite complementary to the idea of “counterlobbying” – the former because it exemplifies how by understanding the dynamics of the interrelation between media and politics it is possible to disturb or even positively affect political processes through creative engineering, the latter because it disassembles political speech to prove how it disguises meaning or the lack thereof.
If you look into the political context of the EU, there’s actually quite a lot of need and potential for both. With a bit of creativity and planning, it should be totally possible to hack EU politics. Making use of (a) the complexity of the system which eases the “invention” of non-existing actors, documents or news (cf. the eurosceptic press) and (b) the slowness of the system which makes it quite predictable in the mid-term future and thus prone to well-planned hacks, one could really try to bring a little creative chaos to Brussels, Strasbourg, and Luxembourg.
With regard to purposefully blurry language (‘la langue de bois‘), EU institutions are actually masters, so ripping apart political speeches or documents – as I’ve done on this blog in the past – is almost a duty for anyone critically looking at EU politics anyway.
However, hacking politics, whether on the EU level or in any other context, needs a thorough understanding of how politics function, of the techniques to get to this understanding and of the technical and social tools needed to positively undermine bad practices.
The Chaos Communication Congresses program offered quite a bunch of further interesting talks with direct or indirect political relevance such as “A brief history of plutocracy“, talks on tools for anonymisation of ones writing style, on software that activists need for crisis response, on press freedom activism, on assistance for freedom of information requests, or on the more general question “Does Hacktivism matter?“. [Update:] Not to forget Cory Doctorow’s speech on the upcoming (political) war on general purpose computation.
All these talks show that technology such as tools for analysis of speech and data or new communication methods fundamentally change the way politics functions or can function. These changes raise a plethora of important questions, for activists, analysts and public officials:
Can you remain anonymous even if suppressive governments try everything to prevent you from hiding or from whistleblowing? Is it possible to report about atrocities in confusing and quickly changing situations with problematic infrastructure? How can we effectively empower citizens to control the state or other powerful players? And what if security companies supply dictators as well as democratically elected governments with technology to undermine free speech and open societies (see the keynote speech of the conference)?
Looking at the 28th Chaos Communication Congress it has become obvious that the debate on how new technology creates new positive as well as negative social and political dynamics has moved far beyond theory. The Congress is a demonstration that those who master the tools – hardware and software – are the ones who master or will soon master the political system. “Hackers” may appear to be a strange bunch of IT guys, but the skills that have come together over four days in Berlin are the skills that will decide political and social developments of the years to come.
In the light of these skills it is clear that unless political actors speed up and adapt, they will soon be overrun by those who have been quicker, who have been able to come up with the right combination of skills to influence and control communication and social dynamics.
The same is also true for political scientists: If they don’t start caring, they will also be left behind, still analysing political dynamics with a 19th century view and 20th century techniques while their study objects have already progressed so far into the first half of the 21st century that we loose sight of what actually relevant in the political system in the near future.
So yes, you can ignore the contents of the Chaos Communication Congress if you are an EU institution, a researcher or a political activist, but don’t be surprised if you will be hacked one day – not necessarily by breaking into your computer but by breaking into your old routines that will prove to be not adapted to the world around you.
PS.: Oh, but speaking of breaking into your computer: Do you have an HP printer connected to a network in your EU institution, your university or your NGO office? Maybe you want to update your firmware quickly because this 28c3 talk has shown how these printers can be severely hacked to even access your computers!