AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Artists and criminals often push the boundaries of technology. NPR’s tech correspondent Laura Sydell has been looking at how they do that to get an idea about what the future holds for the rest of us. Today on All Tech Considered, she introduces us to a criminal who’s helped inspire art.
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CHANG: On the TV show “Mr. Robot,” the lead character is a hacktivist. That’s someone who breaks into computer systems to promote their cause. Real-life hacktivist Barrett Brown served time for his role in the hack of a private security firm. He’s now out and living in a halfway house in Dallas. And he spoke with Laura Sydell about how he became a hacktivist and what he wants to do now.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Barrett Brown spent years in a prison cell thinking about what he might do when he got out. And he says he’s ready to change so next time he gets involved in hacking a corporation he’s able to inflict maximum damage.
BARRETT BROWN: Certainly I haven’t gotten any less militant in the course of having these things done to me.
SYDELL: Since most hacktivists operate in the shadows, Brown offers the best look at these cyber revolutionaries and their motivations. The 36-year-old Brown was born in Dallas, Texas. His father was a wealthy real estate investor until he was investigated by the FBI for fraud. Brown’s father was never charged, but the family lost all its money, and his parents divorced.
BROWN: It was something that I’m sure instilled in me the idea that there was a degree of arbitrary power out there that could come down at any time and disrupt your life as it did to me when I was a child.
SYDELL: Brown hates arbitrary power – always has. He’s an anarchist who believes the U.S. government is fundamentally corrupt. And in his view, most Americans are too complacent to do anything about it.
BROWN: And that’s what, you know, in part brings me to contempt for the American citizenry. Obviously I have no respect for the laws, for the government or for the voters. And so, you know, having lost all those possible, you know, guidelines, I have to try to devise my own and do the best I can.
SYDELL: Brown became a sort of radical intellectual more interested in spreading revolutionary ideas than protesting in the streets. Brown saw a potential outlet for his anarchist dreams – the hacktivist group Anonymous. It was leaderless, crowdsourced, militant. Anonymous managed to organize a massive attack on Scientology, even taking down the group’s website. Brown started covering the group as a journalist but soon became deeply involved.
BROWN: I saw this as the very first ripples in something that would grow to be one of the great dynamics of the 21st century, that we would see more of this emergence online – warfare, essentially, against institutions, including nation states.
SYDELL: In 2011, the group began targeting companies that contracted with the U.S. government. Anonymous released emails from the global intelligence firm Stratfor showing that it was involved in top-secret government missions like the killing of Osama bin Laden. The emails also showed Dow Chemical hired Stratfor to spy on Indian activists of the Bhopal disaster. Brown viewed this as a private corporate version of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s effort in the 1960s to discredit activists like Martin Luther King.
He created Project PM, an online chat room where participants looked through thousands of hacked emails to find the most incriminating. One email contained thousands of credit card numbers. And stealing credit cards is a crime. In September 2012, Brown was talking online with members of Project PM.
BROWN: I heard a rustling at my door. And I walked over to the door. I was holding a beer in my hand. Thought it was another friend of mine. Opened the door, and there’s this confusing scene with a guy with some kind of big shield, a helmet. And I – there’s yelling.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible) Your hands, everybody. Keep them raised.
BROWN: Ow. I’m not…
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, is Barrett getting [expletive] raided by the FBI? Holy [expletive].
SYDELL: This recording was made by one of the chat room participants. He posted it on YouTube. Brown faced up to a hundred years in prison. His mom was charged for hiding his laptops. Brown admits he went a bit off the rails. He posted this YouTube video attacking FBI agent Robert Smith.
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BROWN: Anyway, so that’s why Robert Smith’s life is over. So when I say his life is over, I don’t say I’m going to go kill him. But I am going to ruin his life and look into his [expletive] kids.
I was a former heroin addict. So I was getting off Suboxone at the time, which is a synthetic opiate. And I was sort of suddenly feeling emotions again that have been kind of bottled, kept down a few months. I was very upset about my mother being threatened with indictment.
SYDELL: Brown eventually pled guilty to threatening a federal officer and two other charges. The government imprisoned other members of Anonymous. The group kind of faded away, but its tactics did not. During the 2016 election, Russian state-supported hackers used some of the same tools as Anonymous, hacking emails from the DNC to embarrass Hillary Clinton. I wondered, is there really any difference between a foreign agent trying to influence an election and hacktivists like Anonymous? They both aim to circumvent our democracy. Is Barrett Brown a hero or a villain?
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SYDELL: I turned to an unlikely expert to help me figure that out – Sam Esmail, the creator of the TV show “Mr. Robot.”
SAM ESMAIL: Their spirit is in activism. Their spirit is in exposing these, you know, frauds and abuses by people in power. And that’s just something on a human level I respect.
SYDELL: But the show “Mr. Robot” is hardly a glowing portrait. Its hero, Elliot, is a drug addict who can’t access his own emotions. Sound familiar? Elliot leads a group called fsociety that takes down the world’s largest corporation, erasing everyone’s debt. Chaos erupts.
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RAMI MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) That means any money you owe these pigs has been forgiven by us, your friends at fsociety.
SYDELL: Esmail says he’s looking at an age-old dilemma.
ESMAIL: And when you get to that level of do we commit a criminal act for something that we feel is just even though the consequences could be great, I mean, that’s such a kind of loaded, huge, very relevant question today.
SYDELL: Brown served four years in prison, but he’s unrepentant. He’s planning to pick up right where he left off. So he’s designing a software platform called Pursuant. It’s basically a more advanced and secure version of Project PM. He says the platform will be fully encrypted. It will allow anyone with the program installed to recruit and lead a team to hack and expose corrupt governments or corporations.
BROWN: The next great act of hacktivism, if it really is going to be great, it has to be an act of reaffirming the idea of civic duty. And it won’t just be slacktivism (ph). It won’t just be retweeting something.
SYDELL: Barrett Brown is ready to be a martyr if that’s what’s required of him.
BROWN: I want to be in a position to defeat my powerful adversaries in public where everyone could admire the pluck in which I did it.
SYDELL: Barrett Brown is casting himself in a starring role in the new world. And in his mind, “Mr. Robot” is no fantasy. It’s what the future really looks like. Laura Sydell, NPR News.