Dear Hacker Community - We Need To Talk

Posted on 30.12.2012 (netz-)kultur, gesellschaftspolitik

This blog-post was originally available at Asher Wolf - until recently - co-organized Cryptoparty and quit over constant sexist harassment. The blog-post, mirrored below, is a wonderful piece describing sexist behavior so common among the geek community. We think every Computer Science student (and faculty staff) should read it and take it to heart. We do not think it should cause a shitstorm on the interwebs, and hacking her blog only proves here original point:

Some parts of this article deal with misogyny, sexism, and harassment, while other aspects of it respond to experiences of down-right douche-baggery. It doesn’t apply to all of you, but a number of you engage in it and many of you are bystanders.

I know a lot the community doesn’t want to talk about this stuff. I know I didn’t personally try to build a bridge between wannabe-crypto-users and hackers so I could deal with shitful sexism, misogyny and down-right crappy behavior.

I know most people would rather just delete a sexist webpage or image, apologize for the offensive comment, or shitty behavior and move on. Again.

But things aren’t changing for the better. And pasting anti-harassment rules on conference wikis doesn’t seem to be making a dent in obviously unacceptable behavior of some arseholes.

Yes, of course, there are arseholes in all communities. But some communities make sexists, misogynists, harassers and general arseholes truly unwelcome.

Unfortunately, the hacker community seems to flounder at making progress in the area of human relations.

“We’re trying!”

Yeah, I hear you, but it’s not good enough. Not good enough by far.

Inequality doesn’t just spring up without a context. And women don’t just opt out of hacking and hacker communities because of the tired rhetoric “maths and hacking is boys’ business.”

No, women stay the hell away from hacker-spaces, conferences and tech initiatives because of on-going experiences of misogyny, abuse, threats, put downs, belittlement, harassment, rape.

Last infosec conference I went to – there was six females and over 1000 males in attendance. My female friend roped me into pretending I was her lesbian lover, simply to get a guy to let-the-fuck-go of her hand.

“Oh, I’ve never experienced misogyny at a hacker conference”, says someone.

Well great for you. Many of us have. Including myself.

So much, that last night, I quit as an organizer of Cryptoparty.

It was an initiative I cared about and was deeply involved with setting up.

And yes, after I quit I said “fuck” a whole lot, and cried an ocean, then packed my son the toddler off to my mother’s house for the night and got profoundly drunk.

And now I’m ready to talk about the arse-hattery that basically broke me over the last few months.

I’m not some wall-flower or “pearl-clutching” provoker of needless moral outrage.

As a teenager I lived in youth refuges and on the streets. I’m unwilling to put up with bullshit

I have no problem fighting back. I’m not scared of speaking up either.

So what went wrong?

Cryptoparty was created one very boring evening, in a very open and inclusive conversation on Twitter, a little over four months ago.

I thought if the gap between cryptographers, hackers and users could be bridged, perhaps some activists would have a chance at scaling back aspects of surveillance. If we could teach people how to use crypto – we could maybe begin to organize without surveillance.

I paid a friend to set up a wiki and Cryptoparty was born. Decentralised, DIY, psuedo-leadership. All the catchy keywords. It felt exciting. It took off. People were drawn to the concept. Beer, chips, party.

And it seemed so easy to set up a Cryptoparty. The only requirement was a venue, and people willing to learn.

My rule was “counter negative criticism with unbearably nice optimism.” Anyone who whinged about something was asked to fix it themselves. A “do-ocracy” supposedly.

As soon as the Cryptoparty wiki went online I asked that an anti-harassment statement be included, much to the expressed chagrin of some men. They said it wasn’t necessary. They said they’d help deal with harassment personally, if it happened (by the way – they didn’t.)

Later on, it was one of those same men who’d been so resistant to the idea of an anti-harassment declaration on the wiki – who participated in bullying and talking down to me.

Meanwhile, Cryptoparties were springing up around the world faster than I could keep track.

Anyway, at some point I broke – something in me broke or something broke me.

There were lots of little things, piling on me day by day. But let me try to explain the events of the last four months a little for the readers at home.

Here goes…

A number of Cyptoparty organizers regularly talked down to me when I questioned their choices, suggested I wasn’t qualified to comment on their actions.

And then they left me to face public scrutiny when the shit hit the fan over their stupid, unilateral decisions:

Some examples:

“We’re writing a Cryptoparty manual, it’ll be crowd-sourced by a limited group over four days…” (What? When were they planning to run the peer review before publication? Never?)

“Ohai, I’m running a Cryptoparty at Google and Mozilla.” (Cryptoparty is supposedly commercially non-affiliated and non-profit. Allowing it to be hosted at Google and Mozilla raised a number of issues that were never addressed.)

“Our Cryptoparty has a”no-laptop” rule, to keep users safe.” (Great, fabulous, and how were you planning to help new-comers learn to install crypto-tools?)

“We ran a Cryptoparty with @OpenISP in Tunisia with a real-name policy, funded by USAID.” (What the holy fuck!? @*#@$&!!!!!!!!)

You get the picture?

When I communicated about concerns and issues – as well as complaints from Cryptoparty participants peeved with out-of-touch crypto-lecturers who wanted to teach command lines to crypto-newcomers – I got put downs, got brushed off, ignored, told “oh don’t worry, we’ll look after it, it won’t be a problem”, “don’t worry your head about it”, or aggravatingly – told that I wasn’t qualified to judge their choices as I wasn’t a crypto-expert or a hacker.

And I got told to quit. Quite a bit, actually.

And then I got emails telling me to stick to motherhood and tweeting.

When I criticised @RT_Com for airing a segment on Cryptoparty that promoted CryptoCat (an insecure host-based security tool, not a core tool taught at Cryptoparties) – Cryptocat’s founder, Nadim Kobeissi responded:

I think I may have told him to go bite me.

Eventually we both apologized for niceties sake, but damage done.

I also copped flack for the technically inaccurate aspects of the Cryptoparty manual, despite not having worked on the technical aspects of the book and having suggested to the book’s organizers that the project’s time-frame was too short.

When the issue of technical flaws in the Cryptoparty Manual took off on the LiberationTech email-list I responded: “I didn’t work on the technical aspects of the book. I can’t. I don’t have the right skill set.”

Jacob Appelbaum responded:

“I believe that you are totally able to learn and I think that it is very demoralizing when people say they are unable or unwilling to learn.”

Jacob continued: “That isn’t to say that you will become a developer of cryptographic protocols.”

Appelbaum’s charming treatise finished with a flourish: “It is to say that many people will need to make choices about security and trusting a vanguard is dangerous. We’re always trusting someone and I realize that reality. I didn’t write my own compiler to compile my email client before sending this email with hand crafted electrons… However the high level view of most of this stuff is well within the grasp of each person – it just requires an interest and educational resources that empowers all people to learn.”

My response:

“Wait, I’m just trying to remember when I last slept more than 4 hours in a night while trying to educate myself. I’ve gone from being a Facebook user to running OTR, PGP and Tor all in under a month. Note: I’m a sole parent, without access to child support, no childcare and trying to support myself, my son, put myself through postgraduate studies and contribute to social movements.”

I should point out, Jacob was invited to speak at the first Cryptoparty. He asked me to use PrivateGSM, which I found impossible to install on my phone. 48 hours without sleep, and finally I managed to get it working on a friend’s phone. Hours before the Cryptoparty, Jacob let me know he had yet to install it himself. And then a couple hours later, he messaged to pullout entirely.

Yes, I’m sure he was very busy.

The idea behind Cryptoparty had always been about building a bridge between the crypto-community and new-comers, but increasingly I felt locked-out.

Multiple Cryptoparty IRC channels were created and the people creating them didn’t inform the general public about them, and didn’t add them to the wiki. Some of the servers they placed the IRC channels for Cryptoparties on were almost impossible to access.

One day I made it into one of the Cryptoparty IRC rooms – under a different handle than usual – and watched.

I watched a bunch of male Cryptoparty organisers talking about me – about how I knew nothing about crypto (well, that much was true, but the point had always been to build an educational bridge) and that “real hackers” should be the face of Cryptoparty, not a “mommy-type.”

Mommy-type. As if having a uterus made me ineligible. But I said nothing. I let it slide, for the sake of keeping the peace. I was trying to be “nice.” But I should have said something at the time.

Instead, I decided to drop back a bit from organising Cryptoparties, focus on getting a personal website set up instead.

An organizer from a Cryptoparty in London offered to make me a website, said it’d cost $700. Said it’d only take weeks. I was foolish, I handed the money over, emailed him the links I wanted uploaded and waited. And waited…

When my “web-developer” got in contact next it was to tell me he’d gone on holidays and had presented Cryptoparty at the European Commission’s “No Disconnect” meeting. He hadn’t discussed it with me before-hand. I still have no idea what representations he made to the E.C. about Cryptoparty. He never reported his talk with the E.C. to the Cryptoparty wiki.

When I tried to discuss how the issue, he /rage-quit the conversation.

Oh, and he still hadn’t done any work on the website either…

(Thanks to @selfagency for creating this website voluntarily and free of charge – it’s appreciated.)

Eventually, a number of friends encouraged me to apply to speak at 29c3 about Cryptoparty. My family offered childcare, on the sole condition I gained a speaker spot at 29c3.

At AUS$3k for a return flight to Europe, affording an airfare would have required me to do some serious crowd-funding – an idea I hated – but was willing to do for the sake of the chance to visit 29c3. It would have been my first holiday since 2008.

In the background of my application to speak at 29c3 was the fact a Sydney-based male Cryptoparty organiser had already posted in an application to speak at 29c3…

In an attempt to bridge the issue, I invited the 29c3 application to be crowd-sourced and agreed to make the talk into a panel – including the individual who had originally put in an application. He sat in on the crowd-sourced process of writing of the application, contributing nothing except criticism to anything I wrote for hours.

He didn’t actually contribute any text himself.

Later, he texted to say he thought he may have a “bit of an ego issue.”

29c3 got in contact, asked if I was willing to take some people off the application for the panel. I felt unable to, under pressure to yield to everyone. The application for a Cryptoparty panel at 29c3 was rejected.

Rejection always sucks, but what really rubbed my nose in it was knowing a group of guys who had treated me like crap, who put me down, talked down to me, criticized and belittled me for months… were heading off to 29c3 and running a Cryptoparty workshop – as opposed to the panel I’d applied for – without me.

And so finally, the last few days…

Watching Jacob Appelbaum on stage talking about the fight against the surveillance state via a glitchy live-stream.

Watching the guy who spent hours criticizing a compromised, crowd-sourced application to 29c3 tweet about how he was on his way to the conference – oh boy!

And watching the person I paid $700 to create a website months ago tweet he’d be at 29c3… and how he was looking forward to hanging out with the guy who criticised the Cryptoparty 29c3 application non-stop too (wheeee!)

And no, the “web-developer” still hasn’t built me a website or paid me back.

So by the time 29c3 properly got underway, my nose was more than a little out of joint.

And I stopped sleeping properly.

I reached peak rage as the ‘Creeper Card’ issue unfolded at 29c3. You might have read about the cards, if you were watching the 29c3 twitter stream.

The ‘Creeper Cards’ originated at DefCon in 2011.

Red cards supposedly represented unacceptable behavior.

At 29C3, someone took a bunch of the ‘Creeper Cards’ and made them into a statement all of their own. An image of a headless female body.

The ‘Creeper Cards’ were ripe for send-up. Let’s face it: the hacker community has begun to rely upon ouiji board-style methods often utilized by individuals with profound communication impairment.

The headless ‘Creeper Card’ female body image is one hell of a statement. It’s implied message: creeps will exist, where-ever and when-ever and despite the initiatives you take, your efforts will be subverted, and all your efforts will be subjugated to place the focus back on your body, your gender…

And I’m sure, if it wasn’t for the fact I was incredibly pissed off about how I’ve been treated by some elements of the hacker community, then maybe I would have found some aspect of the ‘Creeper Card’ image funny. Maybe.

I didn’t.

Instead, when I saw the Headless Female ‘Creeper Card’ image I blacked out with pure rage for more than a few seconds.

And then I publicly railed, in unholy unrestrained outrage for all the ways I had lost my faith in members of the hacker community over the last few months.

I quit Cryptoparty publicly, live on twitter, raging against the slimedom I’d encountered over the last four months.

And then I watched as twitter-users pounded me for the “drama” I’d “caused”, for being a potential “lolcow” for having an emotion, rather than just sweetly tweeting the news like a respectable automation.

Journalist Quinn Norton, responding to my decision to quit Cryptoparty wrote: “You know who is worse than hacker culture and really really doesn’t give a shit? The people we need to use crypto against.”

If the hacker community truly has no respect for the values flushed away by regimes who seek to crack crypto – and no will to fight harassment, discrimination and douchebaggery – then frankly we might as well give up and join the storm-troopers.

I didn’t create Cryptoparty just so a bunch of privileged white boys could exclusively hang out together, slurping down ClubMate while trying to figure out how to anonymously use BitCoin to buy Aderall off SilkRoad.

You shouldn’t need a red card wagged in your face to let you know your behavior is shitful.

Yes, it’s all so very well-meaning, but ultimately “Creeper Cards” are like all other responses so far in most parts of geek community – bullshit tokenism.

For the most part, the study of human relations within hacker culture is marginalised (except of course, the realm of social engineering and scholarly endeavours.)

Human relations issues such as discrimination and harassment are relegated to informal talks, given no space on the main stage – and anti-harassment statements are tacked-on, ignored on most conference websites.

After I quit Cryptoparty people responded I had to stay, had to take responsibility for changing the culture of the community.

I was beyond tact. I howled “fuck you” back at them repeatedly. I was sick to death of being constantly requested to fix other people’s shitty behavior.

I tried to build bridges and at the end of the day was left with the mockery of an option to flap little pieces of red fucking card in the air – and my public howl in despair at the absolute wankery I’d experienced over the last few months.

So you still want an solution to the issue of douchebaggery in hacker-spaces? Really?

Ok. Start by talking about it physically, formally in public spaces. Not just online, on wikis and in small working-groups or in informal talks run by feminists.

In workplaces around the world, human relations departments trot their workforces off to anti-discrimination workshops on a regular basis.

Human Relations departments do it because they know the cost of not formally addressing harassment and discrimination impacts upon the workplace, both in terms of productivity and culture.

I’m not suggesting we send the global hacker community off to a H.R. anti-discrimination/anti-harassment training session (though it probably wouldn’t hurt.)

But if you’re serious about dealing with discrimination and harassment – put it as a topic on the main-stage. I really mean it.

Put the anti-harassment policy as an opening statement at your hacker or infosec conference. Chose a “thought leader” to open the conference each year who will be willing to engage the topic of community standards, even for a few minutes.

Would 10 minutes at the start of a conference explaining anti-discrimination policy and acceptable conduct really infringe on anyone’s “fun”?

It won’t change the culture of asshattery over-night, but it will begin a conversation that’s needed – far more necessary than another article or blog post like this, or more red-card waving in the wind.

Is it selfish for me to quit Cryptoparty? Probably. But I believe Cryptoparty will survive without me.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find another way to get my message across that the culture has to change without walking away, at least for now.

And it is also self-preservation. I couldn’t stand another second of the crap I went through over the last 4 months.

So many of you are fucking bystanders, and my respect for you has gone down the toilet over the last few months. You knew what I went through. And you said nothing. Go to hell.

You’ll drink Club-Mate in your hackerspaces and tinker with stuff.

I’ll go back to child-rearing and tweeting in the lull while the toddler is occupied and amused…for now.

We’ll see what the future brings.