23C3, Berlin

23rd Chaos Congress

Berlin has its own feel. Its standout feature is its cafes and bars which cover every kind of clientelle. These, along with a mix of modern and old buildings set the scene for what has mostly been a live and let live city - a liberal place with a lifestyle to match.

The Chaos Computer Club lives here and every year just after Christmas they have a congress. And they're big! ... both the congress and the club, which has many chapters throughout Germany.

Maybe you heard about the club at the time of someone called Pengo, who with a group of others hacked into various US gov computers. A fellow called Clifford Stoll wrote a book about it called The Cuckoo's Egg where he was the hero and the nasty hackers got theirs. The nasty hackers were selling information to the KGB however which did put them in the Black Hat brigade.

The slogan then was Information Wants To Be Free! It still does. Is it OK for governments and companies to collect huge amounts of data about you, and then they own it? Is it OK that it might well be a crime for you to try and see it? Is it OK that people who can't see this is a problem actually get to vote?

Is your blood up yet? heh heh, anyway, this is serious business and the three days of talks and workshops reflect this. The first day is kicked off by John Perry Barlow of EFF and Greatful Dead fame. Mstation missed this but we presume his talent for making reasonably simple things sound like 4th year philosophy class continues.

Other subjects for the day included Probabalistic Trust Networks, a secure object-orientated TCP/IP stack and a talk by American blogger Josh Ellis about the sins of America including silly excesses like the dot com boom and bust. His cry for the people of Africa and the poor and disposessed in the USA was presented in a jokey kind of way which didn't sit well with some of the crowd. Also, his view that technology was mostly a trivial game wasn't ever going to be a crowd pleaser. In fact, one of the few things that capitalism is good at is weeding out ideas on a short term basis. The long term is another story. Also thought provoking was Marco Gercke's talk about government's current need to know its citizen's business. Needless to say, big brother UK featured in this talk with a laughable anti- terrorist law to compel people to hand over their passwords or encryption keys when requested - Penalty, two years prison. As the man said, if you were an actual terrorist faced with two years for non-disclosure or twenty to forever, which would you choose? He also mentioned attempts to ban open WLAN networks. We wonder who might be in telco's pockets here. And later we went along to a talk on Information Operations including Information Warfare.

The whole thing is being held at the Berliner Conference Center which is a short walk from the S and U-Bahn station at Alexanderplatz. It's a domed modern building with one big hall and a series of smaller rooms, all of which are being used. There's a cafe and arts and music section as well on the ground floor and the whole place is quite crowded.

The Chaos Computer Club is also big. They have their own offices and clubrooms not too far from Freidrichstrasse and the place is crammed with equipment. There are also people who work there. The club has regular open days when anyone can drop in and have a chat and use the WLAN networks. As one of them said 'We are not anarchists here...unlike the USA'. They are social activists though.

Hacking is actually not about the things the media normally talks about - illegal access to computers by people with criminal intent - bad people! Within the computer community a hack means a sort of non-standard, clever solution to a problem. A hacker is someone who does that - good people! It might also mean system explorers.

This isn't about bored kids exploring forbidden databases (although it might be) or about turning millions of PC's into spamming zombies (and extremely unlikely to be). It is about a thirst for knowledge and about a very keen eye kept on the society/technology interface and the doings of government and corporate states. Keine bilder bitte! ... amongst many other things.

Day 2 brings more talks and workshops and the first snow which settles on the city's many parks and gives that nice hush. Inside the conference center it's warm and crowded.

And then it's the last day and another full day of events. One man demos a sort of helicopter object with four main rotors. It has inbuilt GPS and so can be sent to a predetermined spot to, say, take photos. It can carry a 200 gm payload but is limited in a few ways. One is that it only does 30 kph so if a stiff wind is blowing, it's gone! That doesn't detract from a really clever piece of engineering though - imagine syncing four engines so the thing isn't randomly taking off in different directions. It's size is only about 10 cm or so.

There's been a continual video and music show in the arts area for the entire conference and Mstation has a chat with the people there about the upcoming Bleepfest Berlin. There will be some Chaos Computer Club related people performing there and also, there might be some sort of electronic empowerment thing going with demos relating to Linux arts and music apps.

At the 23C3, voting machines, RFID's, surveillance, and the rest are all things that have been talked about here in some depth in different sessions. There is clearly a need for some organisations to exist to point the finger at this sort of thing to try and make sure that it doesn't happen. If it still does, we'll hack it!

There's a BSD presence here as well including people who will help you get BSD onto your recalcitrent laptop. We talk a little about embedded BSD which leads to the question of binary vendor drivers which are now used in Linux. BSD won't have them, and they get fairly indignant at the idea of them. They talked about reverse engineering some drivers and, to them, the USA's DMCA is just a faraway, irrelevant joke with no legal bite. Needless to say, companies have been whining at politicians to toe their line but with only a little success so far.

Maybe you feel, that where you are, the Surveillance Society needs containing and that you should do something. In some places this is dangerous and requires proper precautions (for one thing, look at steganography: straight encryption is obvious). Also google for privacy enhancement for more clues. In other places there are a number of organisations doing work on an issue by issue basis like the anti-RFID people in different countries, the electronic voting people, the UK passport people and so on. Why not join them?

Another thing that has been covered here in some technical detail is WLAN. There hasn't been any mention of the huge benefits of large scale WLAN nets because most everyone here understands the plusses - some freedom from obnoxious telcos and ISPs that grows larger as each new machine is added to the network. It's interesting that in some countries, well, mainly the USA, they're using all sorts of perjorative terms to describe people involved in this kind of thing - you don't want to be free? Or even a little bit freer? Plenty of people don't.

Evening rolls along on the last day. Dread-head kids along with other members of the alternative nation are rolling in. There is the occasional uber-cool looking girl. There's also a lot of long hair, ponytails, and extremely normal looking people as well. There are more laptops on the premises than we've ever seen in one place before. Armies of them. Later on, these armies will fight hacking battles.

Bass-enhanced reggae plays and there are wafts of spliffy smoke going past in this non-smoking environment. The lights are dim in the arts area and in the basement too where the laptop armies are on manoevre. Sleep-deprived people are catching up in unlikely places - a girl on a couch with her coat over her head, another on a t-shirt counter under a pile of them. She wakes up and gestures in time with the music, and settles back down again.

They are from all over. We've talked to Americans, Belgians, Austrians, Dutch, and Germans of course. There are academics and tech workers, scenesters and observers, probably some secret police, and a bunch of kids from the suburbs.

One of the last events and before the Defcon-inspired Capture the Flag and Hacker Jeopardy was Prof. Lawrence Lessig talking about issues to do with what big corporations would like to be a "read only" society - and the threat to both creativity and culture that results. He moved on from saying that the current US laws were broken in the general area of copyright, where he is an advocate of the Creative Commons licences. These are designed to allow copyright holders various choices as to how their works are used and whether they might expect payment under certain circumstances. This is in contrast to the GPL which has some sense of moral imperative to it - a situation which Lessig thought to be unhelpful. Moral jihadists are not who we need to win this battle especially when we get them preaching to people like working photographers and musicians who just say W-h-a-t-! The talk ended in a standing ovation for Lessig not only because what he outlined made reasonable sense for the real world but also because he really is an excellent speaker.

And so it winds down ... Look for the hacker camp this summer.
Chaos Computer Club

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