Cyber War Crimes: speculations on their inevitability

The British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has announced that the UK is “developing a full-spectrum military cyber capability, including strike capability”. In doing so, has become the first Western politician to publicly acknowledge offensive operations in cyberspace as a state priority, although a few months earlier the head of the NSA spoke of creating cyberwarfare divisions

The context of the British revelation was a Dr. Strangelove style interview in a nuclear bunker beneath Whitehall. The narrative was of “clinical cyber strikes” and claimed that “in contrast with bloody, dangerous and inaccurate bombing raids, entire cities could be conquered without a single loss of life, helping Britain to avoid a military war – and a public relations battle”. 

The reality of cyberwar is likely to be dirty; more like a messy proxy-war than a disciplined confrontation between national armies. What is more, cyberwar arrives draped in the vestments of future war crimes. A closer reading of current evidence suggests it will generate activity across three areas that are definitely unethical and potentially illegal; namely funding dangerous militias, increasing the number of children enrolled in conflict, and poisoning public spaces. 

Firstly, the threat of militias. Despite being a top-end engineering project, Stuxnet seems to have depended on shady private sector engagements. The zero day exploits used to deliver the payload were almost certainly a product of the growing black-market in vulnerabilities. Companies like French firm VUPEN are the Blackwaters of cyberwar, and even civilian law-enforcement agencies are willing to pay for exploits so they can slip spyware onto suspects' mobile phones according to Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union. As a case in point, the Syrian conflict has spawned several digital militias with dubious affiliations, from the established pro-regime Syrian Electronic Army to the spray of opposition splinter groups like the Jabhat Al Nusra Electronic Army. There's a murky nexus of mafia, malware and militias at the core of cyberwar which can only swell as the military ramps up it's budget for offensive capabilities. It's not hard to see what kind of mess can be created by mixing global demand with a militia and proxy wars; just look an the unending strife in Congo where various interests fight for, among other things, control of the mineral coltan which is used in mobile phones & laptops. Moreover, nothing about cyberwar can be separated from the surveillance systems exposed Edward Snowden. As Thomas Rid, Reader in War Studies at King’s College London says in the FT; “Building cyber weapons requires attacking first. You can’t build a cyber weapon without first knowing the target. This requires penetrating the target first, through aggressive probing for intelligence. The effect is escalation, not deterrence.” Cyberwar needs Prism, Bullrun and the rest.


The second disturbing trend is the focus on enrolling youth and children. The tabloid article interview with Hammond in which he revealed the switch to a cyber offensive stance also contained references to a new Cyber National Guard of part-time reservists which will be “open to computer whizzkids who cannot pass the current Territorial Army fitness tests, on the basis that press-ups do not aid computer skills. ‘A TA for computer geniuses’, as Mr Hammond called it”. While this may be rhetorical chaff to divert attention from other cuts in the defence budget, cyberwar raises a substantive issue about age and conflict. Hackers start young, and some will be behind those exploits that fetch high prices in the global black markets. We can also ask what part of existing cyber militias consist of kids too young to take up a Kalashnikov. As for the state, what should we make of DARPA's enthusiasm for funding the 'maker' agenda in education (as Tim O'Reilly's tweet says “@make and @otherlab plan to bring making to education … with the help of a DARPA mentor grant” ). In the past, the UK has been criticised by Amnesty International for using 'child soldiers' ("The United Kingdom is the only country in Europe which routinely sends children under the age of 18 into armed conflict”). The government's welcome switch in schools' ICT learning curriculum to make coding a priority is now taking place in a state that considers offensive cyberwar as central to future war strategy. While no-one is suggesting the education agenda has been set by the military, there is some sense in which they are moving in step. At the very least, the expansion of the malware-industrial complex will proliferate job ads like those from Raytheon which boast of youth culture: “Surfboards, pirate flags, and DEFCON black badges decorate our offices, and our Nerf collection dwarfs that of most toy stores. Our research and development projects cover the spectrum of offensive and defensive security technologies.”  


A third strand of possible cyber war crimes is the nature of the weapons as indiscrimate rather than surgical. In this arms race, proliferation is baked in; techniques used by Stuxnet have surfaced in code used by regular cyber criminals (“The parallel is dropping the atomic bomb but also leaflets with the design of it” according to one think tank). The fact that Stuxnet itself was discovered by the outside world is attributed to a bug in the malware which led to it spreading beyond its intended target (the centrifuges in Iran's Natanz nuclear plant). A programming error introduced in an update led to the worm infecting an engineer's computer that had been connected to the centrifuges, and spreading further when the engineer returned home and connected his computer to the internet. In the past few months a couple of US-based engineers have exposed vulnerabilities in other SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems used to remotely monitor power stations and water utilities. “In the case of one vendor, Mr. Crain found that he could actually infiltrate a power station’s control center from afar. An attacker could use that capability to insert malware to take over the system, like Stuxnet”. This has led to a series of CERT (Cyber Emergency Response Team) advisories, such as: “The affected Triangle MicroWorks products are stand-alone or are third-party components, which communicate to outstation/slave devices using various transmission protocols. According to Triangle MicroWorks, the products are deployed across several sectors including electric utilities, transportation systems, water, and government facilities...The outstation can be sent into an infinite loop by sending a specially crafted TCP packet from the master station on an IP-based network. The device must be shut down and restarted to reset the loop state”.  Sujeet Shenoi of the Cyber Corps Program at the University of Tulsa 'fears the consequences of active strikes against infrastructure. “I think maybe the civilian courts ought to get together and bar these kinds of attacks,” he says'. As the Internet of Things infuses every aspect of our lives well beyond our industrial infrastructure, the potential for attack becomes fractal. If a hobbyist can create a search engine Shodan for exposed devices including traffic lights, security cameras and home heating systems, as well as industrial infrastructure, what will a serious cyberwar agency or militia be able to do? And what will be the inevitable unintended consequences? Despite Hammond's claim that “entire cities could be conquered without a single loss of life” we know that so-called non-lethal weapons like tear gas frequently kill; when, for example, the gas is fired in to enclosed spaces where there are older people or children. Cyberwar will attack the atmospheres of our lives in ways that will unpredictably toxic. 


When all this or something similar comes to pass and, too late, we agree that cyber war crimes have occurred – what then? Do we rely on an institutional human rights framework which has failed to adapt to the age of networks? What class of professionals will be qualified to prosecute? In the USA, legislators charged with overseeing surveillance programmes were persuaded that metadata is innocuous, and the judiciary legitimised blanket interception by defining massive data sets as 'targeted facilities'. Perhaps we will look to 'the new politics of the internet', a networked politics which takes the commons as a priority. “What these new political models hope to achieve is not just decentralization, but self-organization...The internet has given not only the tools but also the language and culture required for so many people to participate in self-organized systems at global scales”. Perhaps the peace and anti-nuclear movement will be reinvigorated and combine Menwith Hill peace grannies with Tweets from the Streets. The politics that emerges from the internet also comes with the defence of the internet as a fundamental social good, whereas a notable characteristic shared by surveillance agencies, cyberwar programmes and, for that matter, the defenders of incumbent business models (think SOPA and ACTA) is a willingness to 'break' the internet in pursuit of their goals. The internet was imbued by its university origins with the academic ideals of free expression and the sharing of knowledge. As one of the leaders of Germany’s Pirate Party once said “We don’t offer a ready-made programme, but an entire operating system” and this could describe the internet itself, a space for global collaboration in the face of climate change and energy shocks. In this situation, waging war on the internet itself may at least constitute a crime against the commons. 

The fruit of the Vine?

Why are micro video blogging sites like Vine so popular? TechCrunch's DIY analysis back in March showed a trend in Vine's early growth that's still going strong, although the big media story right now is the battle between Vine and the newer Instagram video offering (fifteen seconds of video instead of six! Filters!!). Sure, social media trends can be as shallow as you like: but can a closer reading of Vine tell us anything more interesting about our times?

The BBC was off the blocks in January with a decent stab at listing 'six things people have learned about six-second video in a week'. Although all social media sites can seem superficial they are also cultural spaces; and people can participate in creating these cultures instead of choosing from cultural forms approved by mainstream taste-makers. Six seconds of video can be banal; but it can also be poetic or political. An aggregation of Vine videos recalls the the Mass Observation social research project of the 1930s. You're seeing the ordinary stuff of people's lives unfold in front of you: in this case, a few dizzying seconds at a time.

What's more, there's something meme-ish about the micro video format. As other people have pointed out, you can see the lineage to animated gifs. Vine videos can have that funny-or-disturbing payload that lends itself to sharing and adaptation. Memes are the DNA of online culture (complete with junk DNA) and they're way we share a common feeling or outlook about everything from cats to the overthrow of Mubarak.

Twitter was dismissed as trivial at the start, it's now a strategic component of politics, business and social uprisings. Imagine a six second looping video of Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire. And if you think Vine and it's ilk are simply the waste pipe of public consciousness, you missed the significance of 4chan's /b/ board.  The images there are like a teenager's toilet humour on Tourette steroids, but the shared grammar of jokes and memes was an important petri dish for the sub-culture that became Anonymous

But of course, like the other spawn of Silicon Valley, the business model is the dark side of Vine and the other sites and may ironically be the source of their ultimate failure. It's no secret that the battle between Vine and Instagram video is a courtship of the advertisers as much as (more than) an appeal to the users. That's the ABC of the tech startup – grow a massive user base by being both cool and free, then sell to a bigger company who can monetise the metrics. You can almost taste the advertiser's saliva when they say "We would be interested in exploring the advertising capabilities, their analytics platform/offering and how granular they can go from a targeting perspective".

Targeting is the key here. The sinister thing about all the video blogging sites is that it's really you, the person making the video, who is being watched.  The companies want to know who all your friends are and what kind of stuff you like so they can target advertising at you (“If the product is free, you are the product”). Thanks to Edward Snowden we also know that the intelligence agencies are hoovering up everything we do online. By making a form of stalking into the engine of social media, Silicon Valley has achieved a Taoist unity of business model and threat model. What will the wider impact of Vine be in the age of PRISM? Remember, it was a video that gave Wikileaks a big kick-off (the one of a helicopter gunship in Afghanistan casually killing a Reuters journalist and some children). Will the micro video sites simply be part of the strangling pondweed of surveillance or will we see some Vine-powered transparency? How about a six-second video from a drone control room in Lincolnshire?

In this light it's an app like Snapchat that says more about our times than the enhanced video editing  features of Vine's competitors. Although it shares a refreshingly minimalist approach to user interface, Snapchat is mainly interesting because of the promise to forget your images & videos – ten seconds and they're gone. Of course, Snapchat's pitch for privacy was technically fake and it shares pretty much nothing with proper privacy tools. But it's the idea that gave it life. We don't want everything to last forever, to haunt us at our job interviews or to sit in the digital filing cabinet of some spy agency. So maybe the next hot video app won't be a slicker version of Vine but some hybrid of Snapchat and Tor. People want to express themselves freely – and that's what the internet was originally good for.

MA module: Social Media Campaigning

I'm teaching this new MA module on Social Media Campaigning this term (Spring 2013). I'll update the list of lecture links each week as we go through the course. The hashtag is #smcampn


"This course will immerse participants in the latest developments around social media campaigning. It will explore the underlying dynamics of change around political and social campaigns and their interactions with companies and government. This participatory module will explore the affordances of technology, digitally-enabled crowdsourcing and participation, and new practices of prototyping and agile campaigning. This course will be relevant to students from a range of disciplines including political science, media & communications, and entrepreneurship. It will engage with external communities and take a connectivist approach to learning. Lectures will be combined with peer-to-peer group work and hands-on experiments with a range of tools".


1. social media as a platform. Tracing a path from "Grass Horse Mud Style" past the "Sh!t Online Organizers Say" we find that social media has escaped the organisation while becoming strategic enough for war. Along the way we pick up some useful terms (striation, affordances and hacktivism) with which to dig deeper in to these changes. lecture 1 links

2. agile campaigns and social movements. "Agile movements are continually emerging from the underlying flow of micro-political acts" - in particular we look at NOTW, UK Uncut, and the mobilisation against cuts in disability benefits. We uncover parallels with Spain's 15-M movement and trace the characters of these movements through the mobilising affect of the hashtag. lecture 2 links

3. crowds and participatory tools. The response to hurricane Katrina was a snapshot of early crowdsourcing and a lesson in institutional striation. While some projects require bespoke platforms, we explore the crowdsourcing tools that are to hand, and the implications for self-organisation. While Crowdflower has captured crowdsourcing for corporate benefit, we look at counter-examples of learning and capacitation such as Crop Mob and The Good Gym. lecture 3 links

4. mapping as campaigning. Digital cartography blends the technical descdendents of web 2.0 (ajax, APIs) with the political interventions of Dronestagram and the Syria Tracker crowdmap. We look in some detail at the machinery behind Google Maps and Open Street Map to find affordances for campaigning and community empowerment. "Most people think [maps] represent the world. My argument is maps propose the world, then bring it into being through enforcement policies."(Denis Wood). lecture 4 links

5. social business and openness. Rather than focus on campaigns against specific businesses, we examine changes in the form of business itself. Starting with the Cluetrain Manifesto, we see that "all organizations are social, but few are social organizations" and that "there is no such thing as a social media strategy, there are only business strategies that understand networks". Following the passage of 'open' through open source & open innovation, and the rise of crowdfunding, we hear the call for social business to tackle society's biggest problems. lecture 5 links

6. making as campaigning. It's time for campaigners to 'get excited and make things', especially as 'making is connecting'. Through examples, we see how  biomapping, 3D printing and experiments with Arduino are crossing over in to campaigning, underwritten by an emerging infrastructure of hackerspaces & makerspaces. This starts to look like a critical form of Citizen Science, and we extrapolate what this might mean for the Internet of Things and the possibility of community #drones. lecture 6 links

7. hacktivism & internet freedom. Going back to hacktivist roots in Hactivismo/Cult of the Dead Cow (programmer culture), and the Electronic Disturbance Theater (progressive artist-activists) we try to delineate the idea of hactivism as something outside the old catogories of civil disobedience, criminality and activism. Identifying core issues (from free speech to 'keeping things up and running') we follow it forward through 4chan, Anonymous and Wikileaks, arriving at the campaigns against SOPA & ACTA and the spread of self-organised activities like CryptoParty. lecture 7 links

8. prototyping and prefigurative politics. Where orthodox campaigning seeks to influence political decision makers, we look at the direct impact of network politics. Starting with the Pirate Party (“We don’t offer a ready-made programme, but an entire operating system") and ideas of liquid democracy, we fmove to a broader view of post-SOPA politics. Is internet politics the new environmentalism - a epochal consciousness change like that of 1968? We trace the link between hacktivism's policy circumvention and the post #OWS practices of Occupy, and suggest a connection in 'non-excludable benefits' and the production of the Commons. Plus, we practice Occupy hand signals ('jazz hands'). lecture 8 links

9. breaks & flows: the post-structural philosophers of social media campaigning lecture 9 links

Big Data Capabilities and Citizen Glitching

by Dan McQuillan


Big data has followed the web out of the accelerator tunnels. When I was a particle physicist in the late 1980's the data flowing out of detectors was a mere one or two Mb/s[0]. Now the Large Hadron Collider produces at least 1 GB/s[1] while self-generated personal data flows into Facebook data centres at a similar rate. And on this journey out of the superconducting dark, big data has (like software) acquired a dimension called 'open'.

These days the big open data movement slurries through the streets like a mudslide, swirling repetitions of hopeful intention seeping over the sandbags of criticality. Big open data will bring transparency, accountability and democracy, and will sweep in to line rigid institutions and govermental structures.

Perhaps the institutions of power have not been hypnotised by open data. Perhaps they are happy to ride the wave for political advantage. In the UK, government open data could be a vital lubricant for civic outsourcing; part of a privatisation API that slots the Sercos and G4S's neatly in to place[2].  Selling off non-anonymised data from the UK's National Pupil Database is only the start[3]

Not that the idea of big open data for good has gone unvoiced. The UN's Global Pulse initiative has tried to harness big digital data and real-time analytics and asks “How do you find indicators for changes human well-being in big data? How do you know which digital signals are relevant enough to warrant further investigation?”, hoping to find answers through partnerships with data research companies and research centres[4].

But the current data ecosystem lacks diversity, especially in the capabilities of citizen actors. Sen & Nussbaum's capability theory sees wellbeing as based on a set of functionings (‘beings and doings') that we have reason to value – a view that they trace back to the Aristotelian notion of flourishing[5]. The negative freedom of open data (“we won't stop you using it”) needs to be superseded by the positive and substantive freedom of being able to use big open data to enrich the lives of people and communities. 

There are some worthy initiatives trying to fill the capability gap, such as the School of Data[6], although the current beneficiaries tend to be from disciplines trying to update themselves (journalists, social scientists). More fundamentally, the exercise of capabilites is based on the ability “to choose from possible livings”. It requires a critical understanding of the present and the development of an Imaginary about possible futures.

A citizen capability approach to big open data needs a critical pedagogy that fits with technological forms of life; a combination of critical peer learning and rapid prototyping that can be called Critical Hacktivism[7]. The gains of open data are not to be found only in statistical correlations but in the critical engagement of participants in examining and questioning what represents their world inside the data machine, and having the ability to intervene on behalf of their preferred futures.  

As people engage with the data they will encounter its obstinacy and material resistance. A data scientist knows that the bulk of work is beneath the surface – cleaning and purifying the data ready for analysis and visualisation. But these glitches can also be heuristic, can surface questions about the way the categories are constructed (“are the causes of my problems really captured by the category of Troubled Family?”[8])The exercise of separating indivisible lived experience in to suitable data objects becomes political, and the next logical step is to create data that is meaningful to us as citizens, that has value to us because it is part of a process of achieving wellbeing. This is where data science meets citizen science.

Participatory citizen science combines techniques of data analysis and mapping with a community development methodology, enabled by the affordances of technological innovation. A citizen science project in conducted by Mapping for Change in Deptford developed a methodology for collecting noise measurements with cheap, hand-held devices that the residents of Pepys Housing Estate could use to create an online map of noise pollution in the area, as part of their campaign against an unpopular local scrapyard. At a public meeting, the community were able to present the authorities with the evidence. After professional acousticians carried out a survey that largely confirmed the results of the residents' study, the environment agency revoked the license for the scrapyard[9].

Citizen science scales to big data when it meets the Internet of Things. Post-Fukushima projects like Safecast[10] are starting to generate large quantities of citizen-powered radiation measurements. The infrastructure is growing in the form of projects like Cosm/Pachube[11], and the Public Laboratory has successfully crowdfunded a DIY spectrometry kit[12]

What happens when citizen data meets big data? If citizen capabilities have been informed by a critical pedagogy, we can expect something like the approach of the Counter-Cartographies Collective to mapping data: 

“One big point of discussion was how to deal with the embedded biopolitics behind data sources like US Census data that we use in our maps — as 3Cs, we often talk about how we ‘queer’ data or statistics by pulling map stories out of them that they weren’t intended for.”[13]

In this way, citizen data could bring the New Aesthetic[14] to big data; a glitching that reveals the computational assumptions behind our databased world, a hacking away at the invisible voxels of power that striate society, an R[15]-powered interruption that returns a capability to the collective citizenry.

[0] The ZEUS detector and Data Storage at ZEUS

[1] CASTOR2 rises to LHC's data storage challenge

[2]Outsource to easyCouncil? Not in our name, says Barnet

[3]Opening the National Pupil Database?

[4]Video from Global Pulse’s 8 November briefing to the UN General Assembly

[5]Technology as empowerment a capability approach to computer ethics by Justine Johnstone, Science and Technology Policy Research, Freeman Centre, University of Sussex

[6]School of Data - Learn how to find, process, analyze and visualize data

[7]Critical Hacktivism, by Dan McQuillan, Internet.Artizans blog

[8]Troubled families, Department for Communities and Local Government

[9]Scientists and Citizens, Chinadialogue

[10]Safecast global sensor network - “for collecting and sharing radiation measurements to empower people with data about their environments”

[11]Cosm platform, API and community – How it works

[12]Public Lab DIY Spectrometry Kit > on Kickstarter

[13]3cs in Chicago (part 1), Counter-Cartographies Collective

[14]The New Aesthetic: Waving at the Machines, a talk by James Bridle

[15]RStudio - Take control of your R code

Hopeful Hybrids: the idea of Social Innovation Assemblages

by Dan McQuillan


In Critical Hacktivism[1] I outlined an approach to the affordances of social technology that evades capture by existing institutional and knowledge structures. In this post I'll look at the next challenge; how can these social innovations scale in a way that is 'prototyping a new society in the shell of the old' without becoming completely assimilated by existing institutions.

Most of the systems that we inhabit are 'striated' (marked by linear boundaries, restricted to a particular plane of activity in the space of all possible potentials) and this inevitably acts to control and capture. Our experience with Social Innovation Camp[2] is that projects coming out of the camps are are too small and too different for a system to acknowledge (whether that system is a host organisation or the wider political economy around a social issue). Or, if they are recognised, the reaction is just as likely to be hostility as support[3]. Similarly a project like Apps for Good[4], channeling pure Paulo Freire through the affordances of the Android operating system, finds itself pushed away from disaffected youth and in to schools[5] by the fear-based benefits system and the myopic and self-interested voluntary sector. How can we scale our critical hacks without becoming the same as that which went before? When Richard Day warns against 'the hegemony of hegemony'[6] he's highlighting the poverty of our ideas about how to be influential in the world. I'm proposing a line of flight based on 'hopeful hybrids'; hybrid combinations of social startups and existing entities based on the idea of assemblages.

On one level, an assemblage is simply a heterogeneous complex system – it could be made up of objects, people, organisations and biological components. As a philosohphical idea from Deleuze & Guattari, and developed by de Landa, it takes on some characteristics that make it a good fit for social prototyping, a way of hacking the system while 'keeping the power on' (to borrow a phrase from Abstract Hacktivism[7]. On of the useful distinctions made by assemblage theory is the distinction between the properties and capacities of an entity. “We may have exhaustive knowledge about an individual’s properties and yet, not having observed it in interaction with other individuals, know nothing about its capacities”[8]. When these elements come together in an assemblage new capacities emerge, that become characteristic of the emergent whole. The assemblage is not reducible to its parts.

Working with an ontology of assemblages lets us think our way past the potential choke points, whether technical, organisational or social. It allows us to look at an set of elements to hand and think “how can we reassemble this?” What's more, it is impossible to predict a priori what will emerge with from a particular assemblage until we try. For these reasons it is a useful way to look at the practice of critical hacktivism, an active reassembling that draws on the unexpected affordances of technology for constructing socio-technical structures. I'm going to illustrate this with a real world example that traces a path of emergence between the Katrina hurricane and the earthquake in Haiti.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of people and many online survivor registries appeared where people could report missing relatives or check for family and friends. One of the responses was an early effort in volunteer hacking and crowdsourcing which became known as the Katrina PeopleFinder Project.  One of the participants, Ethan Zuckerman, gives a riveting first-hand account[9] of the way the project emerged as “geeks start screen scraping databases and bulletin boards with information about hurricane survivors” while volunteers work on manual entry of data from unstructured sources like discussion forums and blog comments. The #globalvoices channel on becomes a key point of coordination for the project (Ethan is also a co-founder of Global Voices) as the coalition finds ways to route around problems. “We rapidly figure out that assigning people a page of bulletin board results isn’t going to work, as the posts on each page change as new posts are added to the system. A pair of Craigslist geeks solve the problem on their site, by creating HTML pages with the contents of 25 Craigslist posts on each page – they place them on a constant URL so we can index the pages easily for the wiki. Nate Kurz comes up with a clever hack to index posts on bulletin boards that use sequential post IDs. I write an ugly perl script using his hack to generate assignment pages that have links to bulletin board posts.”

One of the key early steps was the creation of the People Finder Interchange Format (PFIF)[10], a data model and an XML-based exchange format for information about missing or displaced people. Using this open standard for storing both person records (identifying information about a person) and note records (comments and updates on the status and location of a person) enables survivor registries to aggregate and share information with each other via automated means. One of the creators, Kieran Lal, wrote a personal account of the creation of PFIF[11] showing how individual efforts weaved together projects like CiviCRM and companies like Salesforce. At the time of Katrina, however, incumbent NGOs like the Red Cross did not participate in these efforts.

In the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) we can identify some of the structural roots of striation that act to close down innovation. The mission of their Central Tracing Agency is 'reuniting families separated by conflict and disasters'[12] and goes back to 1870 when it was able to use prisoner lists from the German forces to inform French families about the fate of those missing in action. Critically, this role has become established in international humanitarian law[13], an authority which is maintained by the ICRC itself since “the ICRC, being the initiator and the guardian of international humanitarian law, is responsible for its development”. Embedded in international humanitarian law and percolated through the operating culture of a historical institution - the perceived 'ownership' of a social issue doesn't get deeper than this.

The period between Katrina in 2005 and Haiti in 2010 saw the growth of civic and crisis hacktivism, ranging from MySociety and Social Innovation Camp to software platforms like Ushahidi and establishment of the Crisis Camp movement. “CrisisCamp began in March 2009 as a barcamp event to connect crisis management and global development practitioners to the technology volunteer community. During the Haiti response, CrisisCamp became a movement and added a response mechanism to the community.”[14]. The self-organised crisis camp community played a role in passing hacktivist learning from People Finder to the Haiti response. According to the After Action Review on CrisisCommons, the CrisisCamp volunteers become concerned about the fact that there were at least 46 missing persons systems available by the first weekend of the crisis. 

" 'I was involved after the first day or so, participating in a discussion forum run by volunteers from CrisisCommons and Random Hacks of Kindness,' said Andy Carvin, social media strategist for NPR, in an e-mail interview. 'Though I'm not a techie and can't really participate in the substance of the tool-building that's taking place, I advocated that we all figure out a way to have these various missing persons lists talk to each other ... So I advocated that they use a format developed after Katrina called the PeopleFinder Interchange Format (PFIF), which was created by volunteers to make it possible to process all of these various missing persons reports into a single format that could be passed along to the Red Cross.' According to his online resume, one of the originators of PFIF, Ka-Ping Yee works in software engineering for Google's philanthropic initiatives, and 'no doubt that influenced how they moved forward' Carvin said. Within 36 hours of the January 2010 Haiti earthquake Google engineers built Person Finder in order to help those affected by the earthquake connect with their loved ones"[15].

From the perspective of hybridity, one of the most interesting projects to emerge from the dust of the Haitian earthquake was Mission 4636, the crowdsourced reporting and processing of crisis-related SMS messages via a local mobile shortcode ('4636'). Although hugely driven by Haitian efforts in the diaspora and on the ground, catalysed by some key tech enablers, the project also gave rise to a proto-assemblage that connected large institutions, grassroots projects and ad-hoc initiatives in a shifting pattern of information exhange and action. The Ushahidi blog was among the first to try to capture this new creature, but the far-from equilibrium nature of the assemblage can be seen from the fact that the diagram underwent major changes between 8th February[16] and 11th February 2010[17]. As the introduction to the second version says:
“Shortly after we posted the original Project 4636 info graphic, a few folks involved in the project got in touch to see if we could clarify the process. There are a lot of moving parts, many of which are constantly changing, and so the original graphic didn’t quite reflect the exact process as well as it could have. With that in mind, we worked with Josh Nesbit of Frontline SMS Medic and Nicolás di Tada of InSTEDD to make sure the graphic reflected the process as accurately as possible”.


One reading of this assemblage is the possibility that incumbent institutions, whose rigid structures also command significant practical resource in terms of people and equipment, can be productively enrolled with grassroots projects and agile initiatives to leverage technologies for a crisis situation, without crushing the necessary speed of innovation under the weight of bureaucratic overcoding. This is also the atmosphere of the 'Geeks for Haiti[18], a crisis camp video showing how technical specialists came together in a hackspace with students and volunteers from the diaspora. It created a 'smooth space' for anyone frustrated about the speed & ambition of institutional responses and the passivity of simply donating money to international NGOs.  “CrisisCampers are not only technical folks like coders, programmers, geospatial and visualization ninjas but we are also filled to the brim with super creative and smart folks who can lead teams, manage projects, share information, search the internet, translate languages, know usability, can write a research paper and can help us edit wikis.”[19]

But a word of warning comes from one of the reports on Mission 4636. Despite positive conclusions about the crowdsourced activity of the Haitian diaspora (“The structured data, now in English, was streamed directly back to the relief efforts in Haiti, with a typical turnaround of just 5 minutes”) the report by one of the key people involved argues that the role of NGOs has been exaggerated. “Previous reports about Mission 4636 have incorrectly credited international organizations with the majority of the work. Only 5% of messages to 4636 went through the software run by international not-for-profits, but reports like the Disaster Relief 2.0 Report inflated this 5% to appear to be the whole effort, sidelining the 95% that was Haitian run.“[20] While there was some genuine operationalisation of a crisis assemblage around Project 4636, it seems that the post-event narrative was captured by the NGOs.

In fact, NGOs and other institutions can themselves be seen as assemblages. The theory makes for a flat ontology, where any level of 'being' or 'structure' can be seen as a combination of elements with particular properties and capacities. In de Landa's version, one dimension through which assemblages can be defined is the synthetic role the assemblage plays , on a spectrum between full territorialisation and full deterritorialisation. '" 'Territorialision is any process that seeks to stabilise the identity of an assemblage, to define physical boundaries, to express codes of appropriate behaviour so as to homogenise other parts...' On the level of social organisation, such territorialising forces include the police and border control, which are largely material assemblages, and on the other hand, policy documents and law archives, which function mainly as expressive assemblages"[21]. Agile inititiaves, on the other hand, are marked by the deterritorialising tendency that characterises critical hacktivism and the ability to innovate through the affordances of technology. There's an activist mandate in these latter assemblages, an urgent experimentalism, as it is only by doing that we can discover the emergent capacities of the parts, and the wholes that they will produce.

It remains to be seen whether the idea of hacktivist assemblages will be useful for social projects. Will hopeful hybrids only emerge in the heat of a humanitarian disaster? Or will the lengthy social crisis create an alembic out of which social innovation assemblages will emerge to tackle homelessness, dwindling pensions and depressing care homes[22]. What kind of structure will amplify the flow between the Good Gym[23], the NHS and local communities? Between EnabledbyDesign[24], the Homecare Industry, Occupational Therapists and disability activists? What assemblages will channel the flow between government, citizens and hacktivist youth projects[25] for the prototyping of a new country like Kosovo[26]? For social assemblages to be innovative they will need to evade the forces of reterritorialisation, perhaps by incorporating elements that bring the the energy and intensity of social movements. "And as with natural dynamical systems, the key ingredient to insuring that assemblages remain ‘interesting’ is the production of intensive differences that are produced through flows of energy through the system. These flows can be analysed for the limits they place on the system and the structures they impose, thus forming an analysis resembling a kind of neo-materialism"[27]. In the next post in this series I'll look at the emerging area of citizen science; how this can be a form of critical hacktivism and be furthered through assemblages. But I'll suggest that, rather than depending on the existing levers of policy change, the impact of citizen science will be stronger if it becomes rooted in the prefigurative politics of social movements like Occupy.

(This is #2 in a series of posts based on my talk at “The Co-Production of Knowledge: Social Media and Science &Technology Studies” at the University of York.)


[1] Critical Hacktivism

[2] Social Innovation Camp

[3]Government is an elephant | Public Strategist. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from

[4] Apps for Good

[5]From NEETs to schools: a shift in channels. (n.d.).CDI Europe. Retrieved August 23, 2012, from

[6]Day, R. J. F. (2005). Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. Pluto Press.

[7]Busch, O. V., & Palmas, K. (2006). Abstract Hacktivism: The Making of a Hacker Culture. Mute

Publishing Ltd.

[8]DeLanda, M. (2005). Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy. Continuum.

[9]…My heart’s in Accra?» Recovery 2.0 – thoughts on what worked and failed on PeopleFinder so far. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from

[10]People Finder Interchange Format 1.4. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from

[11]A personal history of the effort to find the survivors of Hurricane Katrina | CivicSpace. (n.d.). Retrieved August 24, 2012, from

[12]Reuniting families separated by conflict and disasters. Retrieved August 23, 2012, from

[13]International Humanitarian Law - Fourth 1949 Geneva Convention. Art 26 (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from

[14]About Crisis Commons. (n.d.).CrisisCommons. Retrieved August 23, 2012, from

[15]CrisisCamp AAR - Project Support - Person FInder - CrisisCommons Wiki. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from

[16]Project 4636: An Info Graphic – Ushahidi:: Blog. (2010, February 8). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from

[17]Project 4636 Revisited: The Updated Info Graphic – Ushahidi?:: Blog. (2010, February 11). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from

[18]Geeks for Haiti. (n.d.).Current TV. Retrieved August 27, 2012, from

[19]About Crisis Commons. (n.d.).CrisisCommons. Retrieved August 23, 2012, from

[20]Mission 4636?» Mission 4636 Report. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2012, from

[21]Hodgson, T. (2007). A Social Philosophy of Immanence: Realism, Assemblage Theory and Neo-Materialism.

[22]Social Innovation Camp Meetup - ‘What is the potential for new startups to get involved in Social Care?’ (n.d.).Eventbrite. Retrieved August 23, 2012, from

[23]GoodGym | a group of runners that runs to do good (n.d.). Retrieved August 27, 2012, from

[24]Enabled by Design | People passionate about Design for All. (n.d.). Retrieved August 27, 2012, from

[25] Kosovo Innovation Camp | Projects. (n.d.).Kosovo Innovation Camp. Retrieved August 27, 2012, from

[26]Prototyping a new Kosovo

[27]Hodgson, T. (2007). A Social Philosophy of Immanence: Realism, Assemblage Theory and Neo-Materialism.

Critical Hacktivism

by Dan McQuillan


In this post I want to lay out an approach to social technology that I'm calling critical hacktivism. It tries to connect the affordances of social technology to social innovation in a way that evades capture by existing institutional and knowledge structures. If the current crisis is a legacy of these structures then critical hacktivism asserts that we can create alternatives through the practice of social prototyping.

We begin with the vexed question of technology's impact on society. Are the social effects determined by the technology, or is the meaning and impact of a technology contructed by social narratives? While this question has been debated back-and-forth by researchers in Science & Technology Studies (STS) among others, it has taken on a more urgent edge through the irruptions of the Arab Spring and the way social technologies were embedded[1] in activist movements. 

Critical hacktivism adopts the notion of 'affordances' proposed by Hutchby[2], a non-determinist approach that still values the particular materiality of technologies. This idea has it's origins in Gibson's work on the psychology of perception, where affordances describe the way a natural environment offers animals particular opportunities and constraints in terms of actions that can be taken. The idea is that technology has intrinsic material properties that shape the ways it can be used, but the actual uses are not limited or defined by the technology itself and are open to unexpected interpretation.

I will use the idea of affordances to look at learning and hacking, two of the precursors of critical hacktivism. While both highlight the disruptive potential of social technologies I will also indicate ways in which they are open to capture by incumbent structures - what Deleuze & Guattari would call reterritorialisation. 

The idea that internet technologies can help redefine forms of learning was recognised in Hase & Kenyon's 2001 paper ‘From Andragogy to Heutagogy’. They pushed for “the concept of truly self-determined learning, called heutagogy” and saw that “If handled well, the current enthusiasm for providing courses using the internet...may provide superb opportunities for the use of a heutagogical approach. It will not be enough to simply place print based materials onto a server. Rather electronic delivery offers the hope of increased learner-learner and learner-teacher interaction through chat rooms and email lists”[3]
This statement implies the idea of affordances – a positive pedagogy is possible but not inevitable via the new technologies. With the rise of social media, the potential has become more fully explored through concepts like peeragogy[4] which “ focuses on the way in which co-learners shape their learning context together” and explicity incorporates constructionism (focusing on learning via designing and making artefacts) and connectivism (where the connections that make it possible for us to learn in the future are more relevant than the sets of knowledge we know individually, in the present).

However, whereas some of the free-flowing potential for peer-to-peer learning has been seen in early connectivist MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) the potential for capture[5] is also clear in the attempts of elite institutions to impose their own model in this space[6]

The other precursor of critical hacktivism is hacking itself. But what is a hacker? The nine definitions of hacker in the original 'jargon file'[7], the glossary of geek slang from the era of the PDP-10, includes two apparently contrasting entries;
(1) A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.
(7) One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.
Hacking, it seems, is a hybrid techo-social activity. By exploring technical details the hacker can surface new affordances from the matrix of the technology, and  creatively apply them to circumventing blockages.

While the mainstream narrative has relegated this to mischief-making, and activists have seen hacktivism only as a form of online direct action, the paper on 'Abstract Hacktivism' by Von Busch and Palmas interprets hacking as a new conceptual model through which we can understand and approach the world[8]. I will adopt the idea of hacktivism in this broad sense but without divorcing it from the material technology.

However, hacking is also vulnerable to assimilation. There is a trend for striated institutions to adopt hackdays and app challenges[9] as way to deliver both new projects and the associated credibility of moving with the times. With the inevitable foreclosure of affrodances, it's unlikely that intiatives like The World Bank's 'Apps for Development'[10] can result in real social innovation.

One way to move both pedagogy and hacking in the direction suggested by critical hacktivism is through the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire[11], which positions peer education at the service of the oppressed. For Friere, learning does not involve one person acting on another, but rather people working with each other. He was focused on praxis – action that is informed. Critical pedagogy is not just about learning but is the co-operative activity of making a difference in the world. The starting point is the lived experience of participants, who come together to understand the ways this experience is constructed and to prepare actions to overcome the challenges they identify. According to Freire:
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”[12]

A project that explicitly links this to app development is Apps for Good[13] where “course style and structure follows a peer-to-peer, problem-centred learning model inspired by the work of the influential Brazilian educator Paulo Freire”. The 'making a difference' can be seen in the nature of the apps produced[14] and the confidence generated in young people from London's East End[15]. Both AppsforGood and it's parent project CDI (which works in the Brazilian favelas) have engaged in critical hacktivism by reading the affordances of technology through Freire. For CDI, this was by developing a 5-step framework that links ICT to problem-driven learning supported by local action and critical reflection[16]. This was cleverly adapted by AppsforGood to match the steps in an app development cycle.

Another project which manifests critical hacktivism is Social Innovation Camp (Sicamp)[17]; I co-founded this project with others because we wanted to show the untapped potential of social technologies to create social start-ups if the process was allowed to happen outside of institutional constraints. Examples of projects created through Sicamp so far include Enabled by Design[18], MyPolice[19], and The Good Gym[20]Sicamp is fundamentally peer-to-peer, and has been characterised as “organising the moment of self-organisation”[21]. It sets up the affordances of social technology for social innovation. Sicamp projects use the ability to aggregate distributed resources as a way to enact forms of Asset-Based Community Development[22]. The ready-to-hand availability of internet infrastructure and software tools enables rapid prototyping: projects go from back-of-the-envelope ideas to working prototypes in less then 48 hours. Through the affordances of open source software and net neutrality, Sicamp participants are able to tackle social issues without permission i.e. without seeking the approval of whichever insitution considers itself to currently 'own' that particular issue.

John Dewey is another thinker associated with critical pedagogy, and Sicamp connects to his ideas around publics[23]: “In The Public and Its Problems, Dewey presents a public as a confederation of bodies, bodies pulled together not so much by choice (a public is not exactly a voluntary association) as by a shared experience of harm that, over time, coalesces into a 'problem'.” Sicamp starts with an open call for ideas, through which the things that bother people come up in a very different form to the way problems are framed by institutional stakeholders. In this sense, whether it's about living aids for people with a disability or about the intersection of physical exercise and social isolation, Sicamp is also productive of publics.

This post has attempted to draw the experience of Sicamp and AppsforGood together with an account of learning and hacking based on affordances. Constructing the idea of critical hacktivism is done to evade capture and to further the craft of social prototyping. With the right approach, the possibilities and constraints evoked by social technology can reveal further 'lines of flight' and the possibility of 'prototyping a new society in the shell of the old'[24]


This is #1 in a series of posts based on my talk at The Co-Production of Knowledge: Social Media and Science &Technology Studies at the University of York, .  In future posts I will

  • explore assemblages as ways that social prototypes can collaborate
  • look at the way critical hacktivism can extend citizen science beyond 'representation'
  • debate social technology as an instrument to reveal crisis in legitimacy of modern science


[1] New Social Networks With Old Technology - What The Egyptian Shutdown Tells Us About Social Media. Dan McQuillan 2011

[2] I. Hutchby, 2001. Conversation and technology: From the telephone to the Internet. Cambridge:  Polity – quoted in Hacking and power: Social and technological determinism in the digital age Tim Jordan  ]

[3] Hase, Stewart, and Chris Kenyon. ‘From Andragogy to Heutagogy’, 2001. l.

[4] Peeragogy - a peer-learning handbook

[5] Learning for free? The world of MOOCs by Mira Vogel, Goldsmiths Learning Enhancement Unit

[6] Inside the Coursera Contract: How an Upstart Company Might Profit From Free Courses

[7] The Jargon File (version 4.4.7)

[8] Busch, Otto Von, and Karl Palmas. Abstract Hacktivism: The Making of a Hacker Culture. Mute Publishing Ltd, 2006

[9] NYC BigApps

[10] The Apps for Development Competition 

[11] Paulo Freire, on the informal education homepage

[12] Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000

[13] Apps for Good

[14] Guardian - Apps for Good: How can mobile apps help communities?

[15] Mahima Ahmed, Student and App Developer, at STEM skills event, 15th September 2011

[16] CDI Europe

[17] Social Innovation Camp

[18] Enabled by Design

[19] MyPolice

[20] The Good Gym

[21] Social Innovation Camp: Organising the moment of self-organisation (PDF)

[22] The Asset-Based Community Development Institute

[23] Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010

[24] McQuillan, Dan. Could Prototyping Be the New Policy? The Guardian, May 28, 2012.

The GREAT campaign, or non-fascist media

  1. In a time of austerity and crisis, the GREAT campaign aims "to use the platform of the Games in 2012 to showcase Britain’s capabilities, to promote and enhance our reputation abroad and to maximise the economic potential of the Games". In 'The palingenetic core of fascist nationalism' (pdf) Roger Griffin describes contemporary scholarship's view that fascism centres on a mythic rebirth of the nation from crisis. The term 'palingenetic' describes a rebirth that is radical & modern ("Technology is GREAT Britain", "Innovation is GREAT Britain") but embraces a mythic past ("Heritage is GREAT Britain", "Countryside is GREAT Britain").
  2. The GREAT campaign uses traditional mass media for national branding. What about the potential of new technologies to open things up? History suggests it could go either way; radio regulation re-tuned that medium away from experimental many-to-many communication to became instead the patriotic poshness of Reith's BBC and the main vector for Nazi propaganda. We know only too well that the internet could follow. But right now it offers a deterritorialisation, however transient; a way out of coded identities and rigid hierarchies. Can we read Anti-Oedipus as our manual for social technology, so that it becomes (to adapt Foucault) "an Introduction to Non-Fascist Media"?
  3. In a video for the GREAT campaign the blokey but repellent 'Sir' Paul Smith extols the virtue of high value fashion, including his leather shoes "handmade in Northampton". The roots of Northampton's shoe making lie in the English Civil War - it got the contract to make boots for the New Model Army, who were fighting for a country where no-one would Lord it over anyone else. Perhaps our picture of the future need not be "a boot stamping on a human face - forever" but the footwear of the multitude flying at every screen where a dictator appears.

Image credit: @teacherdude - more at Teacher Dude's BBQ


Prototyping a new Kosovo

[Blogging the Kosovo Innovation Camp, May 2012]

Social Innovation Camp brings together ideas, people and digital tools to build web-based solutions to social problems in just 48 hours. One of the reasons we can do this is the power of prototyping. We set up Social Innovation Camp to imitate the speed of digital startups and the way they can deploy a working prototype in less time than it takes an NGO to write a funding application. A team assembles, and idea is ready, and the race is on to get something that works out in to the world. Everything useful on the web is in permanent beta; never finished, always adapting. This is the dynamism made possible by internet-connected technology. (For more on this, see ideas about the lean startup and ideas of the minimum viable product).

(Image: the NEWBORN monument in Prishtina)

At the same time we're trying to tackle hard social problems - stuff that isn't easy to solve, where people are probably short of resources. So we take an asset-based approach, encouraging projects to pull together the things the community does have rather than complaining about what's missing. This is also given a boost by internet-powered technology, as the internet has turned out to be very good at making something significant by assembling lots of small contributions (think of crowdsourced projects like wikipedia or open street map, which are unimaginable without the net). This is why Sicamp has helped start great projects like The Good Gym.

Technology know-how is central to Social Innovation Camp, but technology only makes a difference when it's used to redesign the way the world works. The Sicamp outlook is related to the emerging area of Service Design - the reorganising of a service or the creation of a new one based on the participation of users. Sicamp projects bring a web perspective to this, with ideas of mashups and peer-to-peer services. Sicamp supports people to do something directly about their 'itch' - the issue that frustrates them or that they feel passionate about. In the world of the web, they can do this directly and without asking permission from the self-appointed authorities who claim to own that issue.

Fundamentally, Sicamp encourages people to hack their reality - to realise that, via technology, they can prototype a better way to get things done. Sicamp applies the self-confidence of the Web Kids manifesto to really important social issues. We know it can produce good projects, but we also know that it can make a longer term change in the attitudes of people who take part. People get excited about making stuff, and more confident about their power to make a change. With a prototyping and hacker approach, young people in Kosovo can use the internet to re-assemble different parts of their society. When it works they can build on it, when it fails they can learn and move on.

Many people in Kosovo tell me the system is basically corrupt. The influence of money and politics touches every decision and every appointment, while the economy and infrastructure are languishing in a post-war state made worse by the current financial crisis. Of course, their are already NGO projects like which encourage people to report corruption via an online map. But my hunch is that the spread of a social hacker ethic in the younger generation will do more to limit corruption and can also create a lot of positive side-effects like projects, startups and networks. That's why I think Sicamp is a good match for the current needs of Kosova - helping people use the web to assemble small resources in to something bigger, helping people to route around and bypass the blockages of the current system, and (to rephrase the IWW) helping prototype part of a new society in the shell of the old.


Young Kosovars take a break from a training session at the Innovations Lab

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