Hacker collective Telecomix's latest project is a DIY drone to help Syrians in their fight against the increasingly bloody dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. The group are working with NGO's to get the sousveillance drones and other equipment inside the country.
This past Saturday at the Salon des Solidarités in Paris, a meeting of ‘Hackers and NGOs‘ took place. There, between a Médecin du Monde stand and a stall selling fair trade jewellery, attendees gathered around a strange humming machine. A miniature drone, straight from Brittany in north-west France, where a handful of members of the hacktivist collective Telecomix have been hard at work on its development. But this particular drone has not been designed to roam in the clear French skies, but rather to assist Syrians in their fight against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship.
The initiative was launched by KheOps, a nickname behind which a young man with long blond hair operates. KheOps had been shocked this winter by the deaths of the journalists Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik.
It’s better to lose a drone than a journalist.
In the do-ocracatic realm so dear to hackers, intentions are of little significance; only concrete actions count. So for the past several weeks KheOps, aided by other self-described Telecomix “agents”, has set out to construct a customised surveillance machine.
With this project, Telecomix are adding another brick to the solidaristic edifice of 1’s and 0’s they began constructing during the Arab revolutions. In the words of Tomato, a German agent, the informal collective “is an idea. The idea of free communication. Any type of communication“. In Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, again and again the group has helped to eductate people in how use the Internet safely. With Syria this week appearing to have launched a new crackdown1, and as the conflict there continues to drag on, these agents are not about to flee the battle.
The drone must be able to collect and disseminate information, while evading a sniper ambush. Adhering to these specification was an imperative therefore, as KheOps explained.
The person should take the least risk possible. It must be able to be piloted manually, by sight, via a camera.
The camera is equipped with a transmitter, allowing images to be broadcast live within a theoretical radius of several kilometres. The small working group has inspired many projects under development in recent months, in the same spirit of sousveillance, such as the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators’ Occucopter. Construction is not a question of reinventing the wheel, as the hacktivists explain. “We stuck the bitsand pieces of the drone’s brain together with duct tape,” said Okhin, a skinny fast-talking agent. “The controller, for example, already exists, and it’s then a matter of patching2 it based on our experience.”
In truth, Saturday’s demonstration was something of a disappointment. “It’s not working yet, it worked ok yesterday,” KheOps apologised. “We don’t know (how it will work), we learn as we go.” The goal is to finish the project by late June. The most important step is to provide clear documentation, so that the drone can be easily reproduced. That fact also has another, more unfortunate consequence, of which they are extremely conscious: the drone could also be used for repressive purposes. Moving the equipment remain an unresolved problem; drones and cameras are not a habitual sight in Syria. It’s there that the links Telecomix has forged with a number of NGO’s may prove useful, as agent Ksa explained.
We’re going to get them back in using NGO networks, via Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. We don’t necessarily need the NGO’s, but it’s better.
While those unfamiliar with the hacker world may find it surprising, the link with NGO’s in conflict zones makes sense. The imperative of DIY; freedom of communication as a sacred principle; the need to protect one’s identity in certain circumstances; an acute awareness of the fragility of technical infrastructure, and thus resilience: all are shared foundational values of the hacker and the NGO activist. Hackers have a long tradition of active engagement. The Hacktivismo collective, for example, an offshoot of the legendary Cult of the Dead Cow, who first coined the term hacktivism back in 1996. “Some wear two hats, hacker and NGO,” noted one of the agents.
“We have already worked with RSF3,” KheOps recalled. “We know them, we get along well.” A collaboration with the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) was organised “as soon as Ben Ali fled, when Telecomix began supporting organisations,” said Nicolas Diaz, webmaster and head of IT for the FIDH. “After assessing needs, we set up a digital safe to store the archives.” With his long hair rivalling that of KheOps or Okhin, Diaz does not look out of place, and is in familiar territory. “We have developed encrypted communication tools with members of Ubuntu and Telecomix,” he explained. Sharp, hyper-reactive, a little protective of their time, the hacktivists sometimes need a little “level-headedness, in the face of technical requirements,” he suggested.
This strong relationship has already resulted in the project Syrian Stories, launched in March. The platform draws together a selection of videos and puts them in context, drawing on documents from the Telecomix Broadcast System (TBS), a database posted online at the same time. The whole project forms a sort of timeline of memorial, a much more polished and produced version of the quite raw (in every sense) material from the TBS. And later, insha’Allah, these images can be used as evidence in any trial.
They also plan to adapt the concept of the Pirate Box, itself originally a hack. The initial Pirate Box was an open source tool as big as a lunch box that emits a wi-fi signal and allows the user to share files with anyone, without the need to reveal their identity. It offered an invitation to rediscover the joys of sharing culture and the culture of sharing. Under the guise of music sharing, the on-the-ground version of the tool could be used to communicate within a critical perimeter, a bombed building for example. The Pirate Pony Box, as they’ve humorously baptised their version, is equipped with an anonymised chat module. Inexpensive and powered by solar panels, several Pirate Boxes could form a mini-network grid, which would pass information from relay to relay.
In just one year, Telecomix has acquired an impressive notoriety that its agents could never have anticipated. “Hype”, encouraged by an aura of technical wizardry, has led to the hacktivists being solicited from all sides. “We can’t help everyone,” interjected Okhin. “NGO’s should not depend on hackers but be autonomous. We post the documentation online, use it! Anyway, it would be bad for our ego if we became James Bond.”
With lulz in their DNA, we can likely trust these young men in baggy pants and sneakers to avoid that fate. While aware of the grave seriousness of current events, they retain a sense of fun in their approach. The taste for the technical challenge is inherent in hackers. A philosophy summarised in a phrase, delivered amid a burst of laughter by a highly caffeinated Okhin.
The only extraordinary thing we do is not sleeping. If it pissed us off to save the world, we wouldn’t do it.