HOPE-X: Hacker's of Planet Earth 2014
The HOPE-X Experience is something that cannot be easily described. I’ve always had a great interest as well as a great respect for the white-hat and grey-hat hacking that often goes unnoticed. It’s pretty obvious to say, but we are increasingly confronted with a scenario of power and control struggles in the current internet world, which is somewhat frightening.
One of the best sources of comfort and “hope” itself, has come from my experiences at the most recent Hackers of Planet Earth (HOPE) conference in NYC this past week. I had heard of conferences like this as well as others, such as CarolinaCON, Black Hat and Def Con from discussions at Freeside Atlanta and other sources like Security Now on the TWiT network.
My fascination with hacking, and humanitarian “Hackitivsts” has been a growing interest in my life. When I received a message from Mitch Altman on the Hackerspaces discussion list, back in January, I decided the time was as good as any. Attending this conference was something that I, like many of the conference attendings, had to put in for vacation time from my real job to attend.
Although I’ve wanted to discuss and share this experience, I was more encouraged to do so after seeing other accounts of people experiences. It’s intriguing to see how varied these accounts can be, as well as the different walks of life, whom attend. One thing I can say for sure, is that there was a definite feeling of compassion and camaraderie at this event, that was the most unexpected aspect of this whole weekend. I want to convey this experience as much of the high tech, as well as the high touch.
For starters, This year’s event was the 10th installation of the HOPE conference, and HOPE X was posterized with stencil faces of the various speakers, etc. It is a derivative of the PHONE X? artwork. It was a user submitted and was a hit. This coloration effect was used in the main lecture hall with side lights and stage lights. The theme of the conference was described as “Descent”. Descent from authority, conspiracy, control, and challenge to basic human rights. The phrase, “Watching the watchman” was mentioned on several of the panels and candid discussions throughout the conference.
This is a ticket which is simply awesome in itself. Once again, the main artwork is shown, front and center. It has a QR code, which I’ve used on many tickets at concerts, etc, but there is a specific encrypted hash as well. Scanning in was as simple as showing this image on a phone, and is uniquely linked. I’m told the hash was a backup in case the QR wasn’t working. Conference admission package included a nifty badge, designed to look like a law enforcement emblem. Also included was a free pair of Trip Glasses with sound inducing headphones. These are supposedly for meditation, but I believe the seizure warning kept most people away from them.
One of the earliest talks I was able to see, when I came back from my lecture at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine uptown, was a talk titled "Hacking the Patent System: The Vulnerabilities That Allow for Bad Patents and How to Stop Them". This was a very well balanced talk about the current ins and outs that are used, and often exploited, with the patent system by Charles Duan. During the Q&A, I had asked about navigating then academic world, whereby patents seem to be a pay wall, and often slow down the work that researchers, like myself, try to do. The conversation from this was somewhat helpful for me, as I was reminded that “I’m not alone”.
Next, it was my time to present my Lightning Talk. Mo Mmorsi, from the mailing list had requested the possible speakers submit a request. I followed the message and instructions listed on the wiki, and I was added to the time table. My talk was sandwiched between some of the most intriguing discussions about smaller projects and even bigger ideas. I definitely saw one individual give a talk on hacking and was then pulled out by security a few moments later. Absolutely unreal, given the context! Other speakers listed, spoke about topics ranging from open access large physics simulators, counter surveillance engineering, ketogenic diets, academic strategies, and wifi hackability.
Once again, the audience was comprised of a variety of people, who were all very accepting and supportive. Considering poor reputation that internet trolls seem to muster, I was repeatedly taken back by the number of compliments and gestures of encouragement were expressed by nearly everyone I met.
I was particularly taken with a very technical talk about a machine language called Gcode. This is the language of CNC and 3D printers, alike. Todd Fernandez absolutely blew my mind with his in depth understanding of how this works, as well as the machines that are forthcoming which combine many manufacturing techniques together. Our team could hope to have someone this talented and knowledgable about this technology, for our upcoming project with stem cell printing.
The next highly memorable talk titled "Postprivacy: a New Approach to Thinking about Life in the Digital Sphere", and was about the concept of privacy, by tante. What I enjoyed most about this lecture was the history and balance that was described. In concept, how can we expect the Government to ignore the temptation for spying when so many people on the internet cannot resist the temptation to pirate software and media. We both have guilt in this the modern web. One great example of privacy violation is something that most everyone is guilty of. Pictures.
Tante went on to explain that a harmless photograph of time square or the inside of a restaurant often contains other people who did not give their consent for the photograph. As you look through Facebook, flicker, or any of the other images found with a simple google search, one will see other people who did not agree to be seen. This could be in the inside of a bar, the crowd of an concert, or a political rally. The implications of this may seem harmless, but information is dangerous and one’s own identity is a personal expression that is supposed to be an opt-in decision that we all share a responsibility for.
Saturday was a landmark day that I will remember. It was the day that Dan Ellsburg and Edward Snowden gave their keynotes, together. A few interesting notes here, are that the HOPE NOC (Network Operation Center) had aggressively established a 10 Gigabit connection by negotiating and working with a variety of companies in NYC, like Cisco. They also used a number of nefarious means to maintain and integrate this network throughout Hotel Pennsylvania. This allowed simultaneous streams of the Snowden video to be readily available all over the world. Here at HOPE X we are talking about a group of people who are plenty capable of seeing this talk from their own smartphones in the comfort of a hotel room. Instead, the conference goers crammed into each of the available lecture halls until they overflowed. Next was the Hotel lobby, where a projector was setup and the stream was shown. People once again, huddled en mass to experience this together. This was once again, a moment of compassion and unity and for hackers, this might as well been the rapture itself.
For the rest of the world, the stream has been syndicated and shared quite a bit. It was the #1 stream on Livestream during the Snowden keynote and maintained a high popularity ranking during the entire conference. Livestream had selected this to be featured.
I also ventured into the venders bay and everything else cool on then second floor. It had a feeling of a live hackerspace, maker fair, and house party, all wrapped into one. Classes were taught by Mitch Altman himself to teach soldering. There was a lock picking village provided by the folks from TOOOL, as well as a number of other vendors there. Vendors sold educational material, hardware, and artwork.
Art instillations were also on display, and featured many statement pieces, working computer museum pieces of old machines from decades ago, as well as some demonstrations of wearable gadgetry and a 3D printed corset. At night, the second floor turned into a hangout where people played card games, RPG’s, and socialized, and continued picking locks. Without a doubt, beer and liquor were plentiful, but the most popular drink was Club Mate (non-alcoholic), and was sold some serious volume.
Other notable talks included Becky Stern, who spoke about “Disruptive Wearable Technology”. This was a very good discussion, which focused heavily on the maker culture and the idea of what “disruptive” means, in this space. In many occasions, she illustrated examples of technology which is desirable as well as empowering. These examples included a TV Be Gone which is integrated into a hoodie and activated by a hold of the zipper. She also showed a system which is work on the body of a female and would prevent invasive pat-downs and unwarranted touching trigger an audible alarm. This is something that women in restrictive areas of the world “empowered” and protected from sexual harassment and degradation. She also touched on the consumer health market and showed instances of various fitbit-like devices. She explained that there is an industry driven obsession with data, and our personal measures of identity should be separately and independently defined.
A last interesting talk was from Peter Eckersley from Privacy Badger. He spoke to the aspects of what makes Privacy Badger different from many other apps. Firstly, Privacy badger is fully supported by the Electronic Frontier’s Foundation, and is a free Gnu Public License. He also mentioned the improvements that have been made to Privacy Badger over the last several iterations. Before finishing, there were a number of websites demonstrated, such as Youtube.com, 4chan.com, and NSA.gov.
The final and closing remarks were made during the closing ceremonies. This included a number of thank you’s as well a variety of demonstrations. A lampoon lecture about hacker culture, as well as a formal procession for the original 2600 magazine machine that was used nearly 30 years ago. The HOPE NOC team had one of the more impressive explanations of their process to make HOPE possible. Backup plans and alternate means were a constant theme at this conference. Their montra was “Push More Bandwidth”, which is a show of strength in the seamless 10 gigabit connection they established, but also can be interpreted as a statement about spreading the message in hacktivism.
Afterwards, everyone stood up and helped break down the conference. Nearly half of a mile of cable and network wiring was dismantled by hundred of helping hands, in a few short minutes. The party on the second floor finished up and disorder was once again restored. It was a pretty impressive change of scenery. The next day, as I checked out of the hotel, I remember familiar faces from the conference, who were also leaving. It was interesting to see the physical transformation into regular work cloths and how seamless everyone slips right back into normal society all over again. Well, almost everyone. :-)