Attacks against IS and leaked-out national secrets. And, perhaps, the password to your mail account. Hackers possess a kind of power that could stir up our lives, but they are rarely seen. Maybe they are sitting next to you at your lecture. Who are they?
“Hi! It’s been a while. How are you?”
“It sure has. Fine, thanks. You?”
“Fine. You know, I’m going to write this thing about the hacking culture, and I know that you’re…”
This is not the first call to end abruptly. During my quest for active students within the hacking culture, all communication has eventually resulted in nothing. Promises of anonymity and being able to talk in encrypted ways do not make any difference.
“I think the biggest problem is that they don’t see any point in commenting. There is a wide-spread perception saying that normal people can’t nor want to understand hackers’ operations. It’s sort of a nerd elitism,” says a friend of mine with connections within the hacking culture, who also came up short in his search.
But he promises to keep on nagging. At a later point, however, he calls back, saying it did not work out. His connections were not only not interested – they also suspected that the CIA had picked up their trail.
Maybe they are entitled to be paranoid. The hacking culture carries an important part all the way up to world-level politics, as it pertains to finding and distributing information. It is a culture established among and by young people. With an interest in hacking culture and network activities deeply rooted in the younger generation, there should be students at the university involved in this. But if so, who are they? What are they doing? What drives them?
I contact the political party, The Pirate Party, in Lund and to speak to the Party Chairman, Timmy Larsson, to find out more. He studies Computer Science at LTH, and describes himself as ‘interested’ in the hacking culture.
“If you’re one of us, a currently unknown hacker, whether you’re young or old, the main goal is to remain unknown. All known hackers are probably known by the NSA as well. The best strategy in these interesting times is to operate alone and to be unknown,” Timmy Larsson recites to me from the 2600: Hacker Quarterly Magazine, which he refers to as the hacker’s Bible.
The hacker’s rule number 1: You don’t talk about yourself being a hacker.
“As a hacker, there is a risk of getting exposed. You risk not being able to continue and losing your possibility to peacefully acquire information,” says Timmy Larsson.
The political legitimacy of The Pirate Party resides in their work involving personal integrity, freely accessible culture and copyright and patent limitations. But the party had a ho-hum campaign during last year’s elections, and they only managed to accumulate 0.4% of the votes. If it were up to students living at Kämnärsrätten or Delphi, however, the party would have been on the brink to entering Riksdagen.
“Young people today grew up with the question involving free access to information in a different way than previous generations. They are well-informed about the impact it has on society,” says Timmy Larsson.
The Internet is a supporting structure throughout our lives. Our money, our information and our communication capabilities are online. That is why, with the right technical skills, you might have a destructive trump card on your hand.
The hacking culture is mainly divided into two sections: Hackers and crackers. A hacker builds systems, while a cracker breaks them. One way to do this is exploiting security loop holes on websites or so called Trojan horses – software that pretends to be something else, but allowing the cracker to enter the infected computer.
The hacker group Anonymous has declared war against terrorist organization Islamic State, and has systematically begun to close websites linked to this organization by overloading their sites with traffic.
At the same time, Internet activist groups help out distributing information from cores of conflict – nationally as well as internationally. Meanwhile, other people hack celebrities’ mobile phones or hijack credit cards. Everybody is, in their own way, a part of the hacking culture.
Timmy Larsson says he has some connections within the hacking culture, which he believes would not mind ‘chatting a little’. But in that case, it would not be an easy-going conversation over a beer at Café Ariman, but using an encrypted chat line. However, when talking again after the weekend, he still has not heard anything, saying we will have to let that idea go.
It is easier, however, to find somebody who retired from being active within the hacking culture. So, I get on the train to Malmö to meet with Dan Egerstad. Sweden has an important role within the hacking culture, and Dan Egerstad has been one of the ring leaders. In 2007, he became known as “The Embassy Hacker” in media worldwide.
At that time, Dan Egerstad had gotten his hands on thousands of e-mails between embassies, governments, as well as research and defense institutes world wide. The e-mail conversations contained credentials of different people involved – the Irianian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Russian embassy in Stockholm.
Despite the e-mail content being classified, however, it had passed through Dan Egerstad’s very own server. He had planted a data traffic routing point in an anonymizing network to see how many mails were sent, and no encroachment in its usual form was required. He chose to publish 100 mails to shed light on a serious security risk.
“That’s when the axe fell,” says Dan Egerstad.
An early November morning outside his apartment, he met six civilian police officers from Swedish Securty Service. He was just on his way to move his incorrectly parked car, but instead, he was taken on a detour passing Malmö police station.
“I wasn’t really scared. If my actions would have turned out to be illegal, I guess I would have to do my time. What sentence can you give to a 22-year old computer nerd for a little mischief?”
A 22-year-old who, as a result of this, would be the world’s most noticed hacker. If he were able to stumble upon top-secret information on countries’ foreign affairs – what kind of power do people have who have clear intentions?
“It’s so simple. Theoretically, I could have been in my basement making more money than some of Sweden’s most famous bank robbers made – in one day,” says Dan Egerstad and continues:
“Of course it will appeal to criminals. Why plan violent deeds requiring resources and money, if you could make just as much with a 14-year-old in a basement?
It all started as a game involving a series of hijacked credit cards as a teen, but it ended with a three-year preliminary investigation. Finally, it was canceled – the evidence against him was not strong enough.
“You get the sensation of being invinceable when you beat the system. In reality, you’re not. You’re just a computer nerd that nobody likes. Feeling cool for a second permeates the entire hacking culture,” he says.
In his late teens, Dan Egerstad tried to study at the university, but was quick to put that effort down. Studying was not for him. The long nights in front of the computer screen was his lecture hall. Today, Dan Egerstad has retired from the hacking culture. At least, that is what he says. Now, he is involved in a couple of business organizations and helps his friends in his spare time with IT security once in a while.
“I don’t regret anything I did. I never would. But if I were to do it today, I would have done it differently. There was some excitement to it.
Before we part ways, he gives me the name of a guy in Stockholm who ‘should be able to help out’”. Dan Egerstad says it is a decent guy who has spoken to journalists about is hacking activities before. That is something he seems to have given up. He is not interested in talking to me.
Apparently, people active within the hacking culture are not very keen on making much noise – but at the same time, they possess a strong level of power. Marcin de Kaminiski is a former Lund University PhD student in Sociology of Law, and he has carried on research work on online norms and subcultures.
“You don’t longer need big social or financial assets to have power. Now, technical assets will do. The power shift that has taken place is very interesting,” he says.
However, the problems become clear when the power ends up in wrong hands.”
“Few people can cause extensive damage. But it also means that using it for something positive enables you to use it for something better. It’s about people’s own initial values,” he says.
Marcin de Kaminiski has also been in the line of fire. He is the co-founder of the Piratbyrån and Pirate Bay communities. But more importantly, he has been involved in Telecomix – the Internet activist cluster helping critics of the regime to distribute information during the Arab Spring, when Egypt’s Internet had been shut down. He believes that the Internet is an important channel attracting people who do not have a greater whole.
“Internet allows young people to feel empowered and capable of making changes. You want to feel like you are somebody – so it’s not strange that you use the means of power you believe are disposable to you,” he says.
But the means of power sometimes entails legal and moral violations.
“Hacking often takes place in the gray area between what is legal and illegal. People who are technically skilled also know how easy it is to secure digital trails or make mistakes that put security in jeopardy. That makes it difficult to communicate about this,” says Marcin de Kaminski.
Them being reluctant to talk also makes it difficult to find out who these people are. But the stereotyped image of a young, pale guy might not be very far from the truth after all. In my search for people within the hacking community, I am yet to encounter a female name.
“Traditionally, the hacking culture is white and male. There are a few exceptions, but it is a slow process. But there are very good female examples within the hacking culture. They are few, and they are often hidden in the generally male-dominated networks, says Marcin de Kaminski.,”
Whether the female hacker attends the university or not, Marcin de Kaminski is not able to tell. But he believes that there are people within the hacking community from all social segments.
So do I. Because I manage to get a hold of a guy who is a hacker and a former student. He sits in a cabin in the woods producing music – but at the same time, he has entertained himself for several years entering others’ computers and hijacking their web cams. Unfortunately, I cannot talk about what drives him or how his studies turned out – or anything at all. He is not interested in talking.
Dan Egerstad gravitated to the hacking culture due to the thrill and feeling of being invincible. But for journalist group Research Group , the driving force is completely different. They do not want to elevate themselves, but rather bring down others. Their members are far out on the left side on the political spectrum, and have spent the last decade mapping and denouncing right extremists – using the Internet as their primary tool. They are often categorized as members of the hacking culture, but they do not believe they belong there. Browsing through public documents and databases, they have several known instances of exposure under their belt.
Carl Tullgren is one of the group members. Until a year ago, he was a Lund University student. By then, he was in the final stage of his journalist studies, but he never graduated – an opportunity made of gold came in his way.
“I skipped the final project since it collided with the publishing of the Avpixlat scandal,” says Carl Tullgren.
After a year of linking usernames on racist news sites comment fields to mail accounts, Research Group managed to reveal several elected representatives of The Swedish Democrats in December 2013, who expressed serious racist opinions online. The operation was called Avixlat-avslöjandet (the Avpixlat exposure), and echoed loudly in the country.
“We delivered amazing material in the Avpixlat job. The Research Group’s tasks begin with an objective of making changes. Everybody is driven by shedding light on injustice,” he says.
Research Group orchestrated the Avpixlat exposure along with newspaper Expressen. That collaboration was not entirely uncontrversial. Several of the Research Group members have backgrounds of violence and a clear left-politics agenda.
Carl Tullgren has a lot going on right now. Along with newspaper Aftonbladet in February, Research Group revealed several people who had expressed racial comments on the Flashback community. Despite leaving his studies unfinished, he has managed to create a journalistic future, which everybody is not fortunate enough to have. Setting aside his course literature for the sake of his digging, is nothing that he regrets.
“I felt my work with Research Group would be more useful in the future than graduating. In hindsight, I think I was pretty much right on the money,” says Carl Tullgren
Research Group has stretched the boundaries of what investigative journalism can be – prompted by a political agenda and Internet assistance. Are they out of bounds or are they just on the verge of being so?
There are different opinions. However, a lot of times their methods are incompatible with what the journalist studies stipulate on press ethics.
“I don’t really know what I gained from my journalist studies. I guess I learned how to improve my writing. I might have improved my news assessment skills as well,” says Carl Tullgren.
He does not consider himself a hacker or Internet activist, but rather a new kind of investigative journalist.
“What we’re doing is journalism. We ask for public documents and put the puzzle together. The only thing that it entails is finding out what is going on. Dig, dig, dig,” he says.
Carl Tullgren uses the Internet a means of power in his political battles. Dan Egerstad used the Internet as a tool on his joyride. Marcin de Kaminski uses the Internet in his work for free communication in oppressive countries. Three different people, three different methods, and three different agendas – but using the same utility.
If there is a large student segment within the hacking community remains unanswered to me. But it is probably safe to say that you cannot study your way into a subculture. At least not this one. The students who are active within the hacking culture were attracted by something else than the academy. Maybe to learn and educate themselves, but perhaps also for fighting for their convictions. And wanting to do so in peace.
Text: Casper Danielsson
Translation: Maximilian Aleman-Tennell
First published at lundagard.se