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30 Years of Political Hacking

The Chaos Computer Club, the celebrated and influential German hacker collective, turns 30 this autumn. OWNI meets Andy Müller-Maguhn, CCC board member and long-time spokesman, to discuss the challenges and successes of the last three decades.

by Sabine Blanc and Ophelia Noor On November 8, 2011

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Andy Müller-Maguhn at the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin, November 2011

Andy Müller-Maguhn at the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin, November 2011

Since September 1981, the Chaos Computer Club has been bringing together hackers, those passionate enthusiasts of hacking, re-purposing, and information technology. The small group started in Hamburg and moved to Berlin before branching out around Germany and abroad, becoming the first organization of its kind in Europe. Now they have managed to achieve real political influence in the area of digital freedoms and the protection of privacy.

Andy Müller-Maguhn is one of the old guard, having joined in 1985 at the age of 14. A board member and long time spokesman, today Andy juggles several activities: journalism (at Buggedplanet), consulting (IT and communications) and running his own telephone communications encryption company. Talkative, affable, funny and surprisingly sharp, in person he quickly makes you forget about his imposing nerd physique.

The interview took place at the CCC premises in Berlin over a bottle of Club-Mate, the highly caffeinated beverage of choice amongst hackers. It’s an eccentric space overrun by objects reclaimed from the street, the kind that usually abound in hackerspaces: old arcade consoles, a mysterious airport bulletin board, promotional stickers, antediluvian sofas and, of course, cables galore. It all forms a perfect contrast to the bourgeois district of Mitte within which it’s situated.

The CCC has just turned 30. When it began, could you have imagined it would become what it has today?

The CCC was established informally in 1981 by I.T. professionals who met to discuss the impact of I.T. tools and their use on society. They put together a list of some of the issues that were arising, such as privacy.

The CCC was more formally set up in 1984, with the release of their magazine Die Datenschleuder (literally The Data Extractor) and the first Chaos Communication Congress. I joined before the CCC became an official association in 1996. I’m one of the oldest! I wanted to share ideas about hacking and meet more people who played around with electronic communications. The CCC brought together people from very different social classes, it was a very heterogeneous group but with common interests. It was unusual and it’s still the case today.

The club was small but we were beginning to become known in Germany, thanks to the hack of Bildschirmtext in 1984. We returned the money of course, and explained to the public what we had been doing.

People were playing around with technology that would become mainstream a decade later, like the Internet. This power to use the network to make something happen on the other side of the world with our small home computers, that was still something really special for us data travelers. At the time in Germany there was a big movement against government interference into the private lives of citizens, especially regarding the public census they wanted to carry out.

When I first arrived, there were 300 people. Today there are more than 3,500 of us, but we can’t accommodate everyone on the premises for health & safety reasons. The congress has grown little by little, and the readership of the magazine has gone from 200 to a thousand people. The quarterly print edition was more important in the 90’s, but now the online news is what gets seen first.

The CCC is still relevant as a forum where all kinds of discussions can take place, where ideas are born, where very different people meet. At the same time, I have to say it’s sometimes chaotic. It’s a very dynamic place, sometimes too dynamic. We don’t pay people, no one gets paid by the CCC. That’s not to do with hacker ethics. We just want people to be here because of the cause and not because of the money, even if that system imposes its own limitations.

Right now there’s a buzz around hackers, hacking has become fashionable. Is it something you feel in the CCC?

The way we do things has changed so much. Today this is a global political and cultural movement, which was not always the case. In the 1980’s, very few people understood what we were doing. It was really a subculture. We had a lot of legal problems, so we needed a lot of legal experts to advise us what we could or could not hack, and to help us distinguish between legal activities and grey areas of legality.

France was a good example. If you showed up as a hacker in France, you had two options: go to jail or work for the government. The government was very closely monitoring people who had specific knowledge about systems security. That’s why the hacker scene there hasn’t developed as much.

We’re also seen as a lobby that advocates for the protection of privacy and therefore regulation of personal data, but also for transparency and open technologies, or even self-regulation. In the 2000’s there was the introduction of this term nerd, which to me seemed like some sort of culturally created vindication of people’s right to have no interest in reality or how we treat each other, because we are all really living completely in the “machine”. Which I disagreed with. This geek culture feels a little foreign to me, as an old backpacker. So do the hackerspaces.

What does the average member of the CCC look like? You were talking earlier about the great social diversity, is that still the case?

I don’t think there is a typical profile. We are now in the fourth or fifth generation and I stopped counting long ago. The CCC is highly decentralized, we have clubs throughout Germany and worldwide, so the profiles are varied.

At first it was inspired somewhat by the culture of the left. The hardcore hacking scene – the second generation, my generation – was even more varied. But there were still people who were just there looking to help their careers. They would just pass through the club but they also brought a lot of ideas and projects. That’s always the way things have worked.

Now the Internet has brought with it a lot of new employment opportunities. Many members of the CCC work in this sector; they have their own companies as Internet service providers (ISPs) or they manage infrastructural parts of the network. So they come here to share their knowledge, but they also take care of our infrastructural needs and are invested in the ideals upheld by the CCC. As for women, we’re just above 10% female membership.

Hackers appear to be being listened to more in German politics now, would you agree?

I think that’s true. If you look at the political environment in Germany, the CCC is an accepted and recognized entity because it has worked to educate the public about technology since the 1980s. We have always dealt with strange stories that were brought to us, about data that disappeared for example, and we could help to explain things like that.

The German media have always seen us as people who know our stuff about technology, its benefits and dangers, and not as guys who work for companies with economic interests.

So we had the power to define ourselves and we have always used that. In the 90’s we were invited to government hearings on questions surrounding the regulation of telecommunications and privacy. We tried to organize public participation on these issues. So we have a history of lobbying for more or less the last 20 years.

We don’t necessarily want to be formally integrated within policy making, but we play an advisory role from the outside. They can’t afford to ignore us completely anymore. The politicians need our expertise and we’re very familiar with the laws, so we can point out their errors. The advantage we have is that some of us at the CCC can look after the more political issues, and others can speak up on more technical issues. We have both sides.

Do you think the German hacker scene is influential because of the history of your country? It’s sometimes said that the Germans are more aware of the need for a strong opposition.

Issues such as privacy are very sensitive, especially given the history of East Germany. We know how structural abuse can become dangerous because we’ve done it all. Like putting yellow stars on people before sending them off to death.

So we have an awareness, but that also comes from the German education system. At school you learn the history of Nazism. Germans are anti-authoritarian and anti-didactic. You won’t find anyone here giving orders.

As a German, we have these two conflicting aspects within our cultural genetic code. We aspire to great efficiency and excellent organization in whatever we do. But we also have an intimate understanding of the evil that hierarchical structures can bring to communication, or treating people like objects.

The CCC, in the way it’s set up, is trying to have the best of both worlds. To be aware of the evil that can occur, and also to get things done efficiently.

Do you think Germans from the former GDR are culturally more inclined towards DIY because they had to do without and improvise in their daily lives for so long?

The CCC in Berlin was born from the merger of two computer clubs, one in Hamburg and one in East Berlin. I came from Hamburg in 1989 when the government of East Germany was falling apart. We came into contact with the young talent in East Berlin.

They had different ways of handling things, they improvised a lot. They also brought their humor and the experience of having already toppled a government. That’s very important, you should never underestimate how they perceived the West German government. For them it was just an intermediate step – at some point we would have to overthrow this government. It was just a matter of time. The structural differences between what existed in the East and the system in the West are not that great. In Berlin we have a saying that in a socialist or communist system you have humans abusing humans. With capitalism it’s the other way around.

They also had this anti-authoritarian side, and they had come into close contact with the secret services. In Berlin, their experience with the Stasi (the East German secret police) has greatly enriched the CCC. The Stasi are now one of the best documented secret intelligence services that has ever existed. We have all their training manuals and we know the techniques they used to destabilize groups and sow doubt. Their contribution was essential to understanding the modern world, and the mess in Berlin between East and West, with Russian and American influences.

What are your biggest successes and regrets?

The congresses have always been a barometer of what was happening. Over time they have become international events, attracting people from around the world. We realize that this is a global movement now. This is a great success.

The CCC is now made up of many clubs around Germany and worldwide, and we’re all connected with each other. Each has its own unique organization, and I see this diversity as an asset.

Then, as individuals, we’ve also gone through a lot of shit, which has taught us a lot. We know what not to do, we have learned the lessons. Now we can function even in difficult circumstances. Whether there are police investigations going on, people getting killed, all kinds of intrigue, difficult discussions involving very opposing points of view.

We have a very strong culture of debate here that might confuse a lot of people. Nobody leaves the room; everyone stays and trades views even if it goes on until 3 in the morning.

But this process of discussion and formulating new ideas is more difficult today because there are so many us. If you asked me who makes up the core of our organization, I couldn’t tell you. In a congress with 3,000 people, there are expectations in the room that have to be addressed. At the same time, it’s not a show. It’s a moment where everyone should be involved. But how do you discuss things with 500 people in the room?

So how do you organize it? The Pirate Party uses a tool called Liquid Feedback for example.

Yes, but they are a political party, so they need to reach agreement on certain topics. Liquid democracy also involves delegating a topic to a person who has more knowledge and can act in your best interest.

But for communication we do also use tools, such as chat rooms or Jabber. But I’m a bit conservative about tools like Twitter. I’m sorry but as a German, when I see the word “follower” I think of Nazi Germany. I can’t use it.

To return to your regrets, is Daniel Domscheit-Berg one of them?

What should I regret? The problem is that you are recording this interview, and we made an agreement with the CCC spokesmen not to comment on Domscheit-Berg. It’s too controversial. People are very divided on this episode, some think he was a decent guy and others that he was an American spy. I said what I said in my statement, which I think is totally accurate on the subject.

What was the decision process to oust him?

The board of the CCC took the decision. In reality, there was already a history of people within the club who were uneasy with his attitude. But we didn’t want to take sides. We like the idea of leaking documents and of providing logistical support for people in a vulnerable position with a government, because we’re in favor of freedom of information. It’s always been one of our goals.

Concerning the personal problems between certain people – we were not there, so we’re not taking sides. But what we didn’t want and what became problematic was that Daniel regularly used the premises of the CCC to give his interviews to the press or television. That left the impression that the CCC was directly involved in the Open Leaks project. All the members here have personal projects or projects that they contribute to. Actually, no one here knew Daniel before he came to us through WikiLeaks, and he was not a long term member of the CCC. He was not asking for permission even though people were constantly reminding him that he should stop this behavior.

What he did at the CCCamp was the last straw. People felt abused by his behavior, the fact that he used the camp as a test for his project and then declared it secure. He still didn’t consult the opinions of the Club. I was not against his project or him as a person. But, for example, during his introductory speech I realized there was no mention of open source software. The structure of the project was not transparent. Nothing was open about OpenLeaks. Everything about it was in opposition to the values and principles of the CCC.

Perhaps I had more of an opportunity to express my discomfort with the situation. I did an interview with Der Spiegel. “This is unacceptable”, that’s what I said. At the same time, I was surprised by people’s reactions. Kicking him out was not my idea but that’s what we agreed in the end, unanimously.

People wanted to give him another chance or to at least wait until the end of the camp. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the desire for harmonious relations in life. But to have consistency in our processes and our political ideas, having frank discussions is unavoidable. It’s much healthier to call things as they are.

Hackers affiliated with the CCC have been linked to intelligence services in the past. Some of those stories, such as Karl Koch and Tron, have ended badly. We know that intelligence services are recruiting hackers, sometimes against their will. How do you handle these issues?

When I visited the first conference of hackers in the US, I was surprised to see how government services were openly recruiting there, how it was normal to work for the government. If your value system is based on your technical ability, it doesn’t matter who you’re working for. But if it is based around something like the freedom of information, then the intelligence services represent the opposite of what you believe. Their goal is to keep information secret.

I was invited to a conference in Washington called Open Source Intelligence, and I met some people from the German Embassy who had worked in the offices of the German secret service. I asked them what this culture of secrecy was about, and they told me directly. “We’re trying to slow down processes in order to better control them.”

Hackers, as the CCC define them, want to give everyone the power to know what is going on, in order to help them make an informed decision. So from this point of view, it’s not acceptable for our members to work for these organizations.

We have experienced difficult situations, with Karl Koch, but not just with him. Others have worked for the KGB. It was the Cold War, the 80’s, a difficult time with police investigations, arrests and house searches. It was difficult amongst ourselves as well: who could we trust? Today, it’s pretty much just about money and careers. Of course there are still real spies, and informers, but they’re easily identified and we know how to deal with them. What I find more troubling are the technically talented people who don’t care who pays them, working on the infrastructure of the Internet or intercepting data.Money has always been an fly trap and not just among young people. Of course, when your situation is not stable financially it becomes easier to sell out. But you have to build a kind of immunity against it.

How do you build that immunity?

Karl Koch and Tron are examples of well-known figures who have died for these reasons and they are therefore historical examples for the younger generation. That’s knowledge that we try to pass on. Some people have come to us saying they were tricked into working for the secret services. At first, these are private companies who contact them for a job, but gradually it becomes clear that the work required is less and less innocent.

If you came here and asked someone to hack for the government, they will send you on your way. But if you entice them with a technical challenge that’s relevant to their field, and a little money, it’s not so clear cut. They do that very well. It’s like the story of the boiling frog.

Economy, science, telecommunications, etc. The program of the last Chaos Communication Camp was a real political program. Have hackers started to formulate a response to the crisis? Do you believe in their ability to come up with solutions?

From a practical point of view, we use these camps as survival training. For a few days can we provide power, an Internet connection, Club-Mate? All these things…For the first camp we actually lost a lot of money. We didn’t anticipate some essential stuff in terms of infrastructure, such as toilets that flush or having hot water for showers.

This experience can be very useful in other ways. Learning how to build an Internet network when there is no infrastructure available, for example. The hacker scene brings with it this understanding of the principles and the physical characteristics of technology, an approach of raising technical and political questions and being prepared to do everything by yourself. Those that have already done something can share their knowledge with others and everyone contributes, participating in this open system. I don’t know whether what we do is super serious, but it’s at least an approach and a state of mind.

What do you think of the Pirate Party? Four of their fifteen members elected to Parliament in Berlin are members of the CCC, is that pleasing?

Let’s put it this way – political parties are complex organizational forms. By participating in this process for at least the past fifty years, you had to agree with what the majority decided, even if you have other ideas or knowledge about it. Hence the existence of micro-groups within the major parties. Democracy has been defined differently. The Pirate Party is an opportunity to get out of this process. I love that idea, it’s nice.

The most interesting thing is to see how many other politicians are afraid of this new organization. They try to get involved in issues surrounding the Internet, they call PR agencies, read the CCC’s articles and try to speak the same language as the younger generation. Politicians can no longer ignore young people, which they did for a long time, and they can no longer be content to talk about networks only when raising the specter of pornography on the Internet.

They’re adopting the “hugging strategy” – “we’re your friends”. They’ve tried to invite us but we keep our distance, even with the Pirate Party. We talk to everyone. The Pirate Party is nice and we’ll see how they get on. What is interesting is that they are careful to keep clear of the traditional functions.

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Photo Credits: Ophelia Noor

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