Limn 8: a social science journal issue devoted to hacking

Gabriella Coleman is the hacker anthropologist whose work on the free software movement, Anonymous and the Arab Spring, the politicization of hacking, and the true role of alt-right dank memes in the 2016 elections are critical reading for the 21st century.

Coleman teamed up with UCLA anthropologist Christopher M. Kelty to edit the 8th edition of the social science journal Limn, devoted to critical writing about "Hacks, Leaks, and Breaches."

The issue's provocative table of contents includes Matt Jones on "The Spy Who Pwned Me" ("How did we get to state-sponsored hacking?"); Renée Ridgway on "Who's hacking whom?" ("What can you do with a Tor exploit?"); an interview with Boing Boing favorite Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai "about the details of the DNC hacks, making sense of leaks, and being a journalist working on hackers today" and another interview with veteran security journalist Kim Zetter "about infrastructure hacking, the DNC hacks, the work of reporting on hackers"; Claudio ("nex") Guarnieri's "What Is To Be Hacked? ("why civil society isn't going to secure itself, and why it needs help from hackers"); Coleman on "The Public Interest Hack" ("How are hacking and leaking related?"); Ashley Gorham on "The Political Meaning of Hacktivism" ("the truth-telling zeal of WikiLeaks and the lulzy opinions of Anonymous") and a new treatment of my engineering ethics story Car Wars, about the true problems of designing lethal, body-swallowing high-speed computers that treat their passengers as their adversaries.

Here's a taste of Coleman and Kelty's preface to the issue:

For a long time now, those of us who study hacking and hackers have been arguing for more precision and better terminology—there are "genres" of hackers (Coleman and Golub 2008) as well as different historical periods, regional differences, specific and precise changes to the laws and technologies at stake, and larger political changes that implicate some hackers and not others. Hackers are frequently misunderstood precisely because we lack this precision in our public discourse and debate. But they aren't only misunderstood—sometimes the shifting meanings are a sign of significant technical and political change.

When media and public attention (and that of "hackers" as well) waxes and wanes; or when the meaning of hacking shifts to a different register, to a different definition, or to a different and distinct set of actors, it is a good sign that other elements of contemporary politics and culture are also changing. The shifting meaning of hacking, leaking and breaching seems to follow patterns, not unlike the phases of the moon: when the moon is waxing or waning different parts of it are visible. There is the dark side that we can never see, but then there are the parts that are lit up when it is full, or crescent, or gibbous. Definitions of hackers are kind of like these phases: in some periods the light is shining on the criminals and the spammers; in others, on the Free Software hackers, and in yet others on hacktivists like Anonymous. These groups never disappear completely, but they do slip into an obscurity generated by a lack of (or shift in) public discourse and interest or a momentary ebbing of certain kinds of activity (Kelty 2017).

But like the moon itself, the existence of hackers and the complex tools, techniques and infrastructure, doesn't often change substantially. Hacking exists: whether it is referred to as leaking or breaching; whether it involves state actors, criminals or anarchist activists; whether it seems to disrupt an election, protest a corporation or government, or steal funds; whether it is about making software in a different way, or breaking it in a new way, hacking is a here to stay, whether we want it or not, and we learn more about it, the more carefully we look at and study it. We have much to learn about how hackers and hacking operate—whether that refers to the actions of state actors, hacktivists, free software developers, hacker-entrepreneurs, hack-driven leakers and journalists, criminal extorters of bitcoin, or information security researchers in search of a safer internet. We ought to peer at hacking more closely, and with a lot more care. With any luck, this issue of Limn is a telescope for those interested in seeing what hacking looks like up close, in all its phases.

Issue Number Eight: Hacks, Leaks, and Breaches

[Limn/E. Gabriella Coleman and Christopher M. Kelty]