From Internet Pirate to Security Consultant: Chaos Computer Club
No sooner had Germany’s National Cyber Defence Centre (NCAZ) commenced its work in mid-2011 than a new generation of computer hackers called for a worldwide attack against this state form of data protection. “We call upon every battleship to open fire” was the menacing tone of a “declaration of war” jointly issued by LulzSec and Anonymous: hackers who in recent months have created a furore with their spectacular attacks on various corporate and high-security data networks. Their aim is to take up arms against any government or authority that attempts to control “our Internet ocean”.
Founded by “computer freaks”
It would appear that the days when the hacker community still cultivated the fun-loving guerrilla image are over – like the “computer freaks” of the German Chaos Computer Club (CCC), which was formed on 1 September 1981 at a time when home computers and electronic data networks with their acoustic couplers, Btx online service and analogue remote data transmission (RDT) were still in their infancy.
Back in those early days, the proclaimed goal of the CCC, which originally had its roots in the West Berlin anarchist scene, was the “creative use” of electronic data interchange – that is to say its manipulation for illegal purposes. The club quickly became popular among technology fans, tinkerers and geeks. The CCC soon relocated to Hamburg where, until returning to Germany’s capital in 2003, it held its annual Chaos Communication Congress: a kind of “happening” which ended up becoming a compulsory red letter day for followers of the “chaos meetings” which were organized on a decentralized basis throughout the German-speaking world.
Communication as a basic human right
Even 30 years after its foundation, the CCC still enjoys flirting with its former reputation as a “terrorist organization”, and to the present day has yet to be officially recognized as a non-profit institution for the common good (which, for image reasons, not everyone sees as a bad thing). Nonetheless, the club decided back in 1986 to seek official recognition as a registered society.
This is because the activists led by the CCC’s founding members Herwart “Wau” Holland-Moritz, Klaus Schleisiek (“Tom Twiddlebit”), Steffen Wernéry and the writer Peter Glaser had understood that the risk of criminalization would be detrimental to the CCC’s genuine goals of promoting freedom of information and the right to globally unhindered communication on the Internet.
Spying for cash
The activities of the Chaos Computer Club were spectacular right from the start. A number of the dramatic “hacks” which the CCC used to reveal holes in what were supposed to be the highly secure computers of world space agencies such as NASA and the ESA or of leading research institutions such as CERN date back to the time when the organization was established or shortly afterwards .
One group of hackers led by Karl Koch (“Hagbard Celine”), Markus Hess (“Urmel”) and Hans Heinrich Hübner (“Pengo”) – until they were arrested in 1989 – was also paid by the KGB (the Soviet security agency) to spy on a number of computer systems in Western companies and organizations, even those of the Pentagon, in an attempt to alleviate their money worries.
The CCC last made headline news in 1998 on account of the mysterious death of the hacker Boris Floricic (“Tron”). The 27-year-old Berliner, who boasted the unusual ability to read binary codes, had previously demonstrated that no commercial encryption or authentication system could defeat him.
Hackers go respectable
All of this has gone down in the club’s annals as a legend, and has done no long-term harm to the positive public image of the “chaos family”, which has meanwhile grown to number some 9,000 members and sympathizers.
On the contrary: in economic and political circles nowadays, the one-time Internet anarchists have become security consultants and expert advisers who are as much in demand as they are highly paid. Today they hold university chairs in information technology or appear before Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court as expert witnesses in proceedings involving controversial draft legislation – such as in the area of data retention, Internet censorship or biometrics. Even the German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere (CDU) has cautiously praised their expertise.
Now a CCC member even sits on the German Bundestag’s “Internet and Digital Society” committee of inquiry – of course, as he puts it himself, merely to provide “emergency technical assistance with setting up an electronic civil participation system”. To justify this involvement in politics, something which until only recently would have been scorned, the Chaos Computer Club cites the opportunities that the new dynamic methods of online participation offer when it comes to reshaping a new democratic policy. It would seem that the one-time “chaotic Internet activists” have finally become respectable.
works in Landshut and Munich as a freelance editor, journalist and author.
Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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