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19 August 2009, 08:12

Hacking at Random: more bandwidth, more far-sightedness, more future

by Detlef Borchers

Hacking at Random logo The hackers' summer camp at Vierhouten in the Netherlands, Hacking at Random, has come to an end without any major events or serious injuries. Inspired by the many hacks they discussed in their tents on that extensive site, the members of the "scene" have dispersed once again to their European enclaves. Despite their proclaimed political high ideals there is still some doubt about whether these people are really at the centre of the political fight for freedom. On the stroke of 6 pm on Monday evening, the gigabit internet link from the De Passheuvel camp site was cut. "Hacking at Random '09" has became history, and its participants were already busily archiving their own stories and carefully storing away their "I was there" wristbands as trophies of the hacker's life.

In technical terms, the festival featured a number of networking exploit highlights, but these were less important to the crowd than the party mood. The organisers cry was "Use more bandwith", but that message was largely ignored. One technical triumph was setting up a WLAN to cover the very spacious camping area. Sixty Cisco access points were involved, bundled so that a node could be found at any time by simply selecting the letters of the camp area or the conference tent. 1,460 subscribers used the WLAN, many of them via a Google G1 phone. The HAR schedule was also running in an application on G1 phones. Around the same number had cable connections, but the organisers got by with a lot fewer data loos than at previous festivals, like What the Hack.

Another technical master stroke of "Hacking at Random" was "240-42" or "42", its own GSM network based on open-source programs. Plans for this network had already been announced at the annual meeting of the Chaos Computer Club, but the fact that it actually happened was a small miracle. All of the GSM equipment (base stations, transmitters and switches) had to be hurriedly bought in off eBay, after a car carrying all the vital equipment went up in flames in Berlin, having been parked beside a Porsche Cayenne that was attacked by protesters. Just getting authorisation for setting up a small GSM network was another miracle. Authorisation was applied for by the "Stichting Hxx" (Foundation Hxx) as a "congress organiser", and it was granted very late and made subject to a great many special conditions (four frequencies, 100 milliwatts transmitter power) by the Dutch telecom authorities responsible. One condition was that the antenna must not be mounted more than three metres up. However since no base level was given as a measurement reference several hackers became human squirrels and fitted antenna to some of the highest trees.

The hacker wireless network ran without problem until being switched off on the last day of the festival at 4 p.m. As the GSM researcher Harald Welte explained in his presentation, 1,100 telephones tried to book into the network (which, for the sake of security, involved having to input a password and the IMEI number on a web site). 450 registered subscribers were then able to make phone calls and send elaborate SMSs. The nerve centre, a Linux computer running Welte's own OpenBSC, needed only five per cent of its CPU power, even at peak times. "Use more Bandwith" was the call of the GSM researchers here too.

One may argue about whether setting up and operating a GSM is trivial but, as Harald Welte said, there is no "Hitchhiker's Guide to the GSM Galaxy" at present. Working with GSM in full operation without disturbing a provider's "production network" enables members of the scene to reconnoitre a new territory where security isn't seen as particularly important. The two GSM presentations that followed, on the airprobe project and the decryption of encrypted GSM telephonyPDF, already showed how technology can be made transparent. There are also projects aimed at developing one's own encryption systems.

At the end, the question remains whether the brilliantly organised camp achieved all its own claimed political aims. These were initially set very high. "As the world is more and more defined in terms of the technology of the internet, the once obscure political freedom-fights that hackers were involved in have truly reached centre stage. The next few years are about defending fundamental freedoms, and we better step to it, because nobody is going to do it for us." As a political force, the hacker scene has big problems with current debates, as was shown by an ad hoc podium discussion about "censorship". For long stretches, this was a lament about the miserable role played by "the media". Even such a well informed analyst as Karin Spaink fell into the explanation patterns typically used by elderly people who no longer understand the internet or the technology behind it. The fact that articles about the internet as a law-free space or "criminals' paradise" can be written by trained computer scientists and publicised in the August issue of the Behörden Spiegel ("the Officials' newspaper", aimed at civil servants) shows that the discussion has long left behind any understanding of the technology and has become a fight to impose dogmatic views. The internet is being described as law-free so that the next step can be to subject it to restrictions.

The soberest view of this development was given by Jérémie Zimmermann, talking of the squaring of the net. He described the debate about network laws from the point of view of a programmer who sees the law as code, and badly programmed code at that. He said all political directions were fighting to put their patch on the code, such as the interests of the content industry in the French Hadopi law and the activities of the Dutch Foundation BREIN against the Swedish Pirate Bay – who nevertheless seemed like quite good friends at the hacker camp. Zimmermann asked everyone in the audience to tackle the politicians in dialogue on the spot and edit their patch code. All in all, he said, we should look further into the future than just as far as the next election, and he pleaded for improved cooperation at European level.

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