Hanging With Hackers: Inside Germany's Great 'Geek' Convention

  • Share
  • Read Later
Action Press / Zuma

Computer users take part in the Chaos Communication Camp, August 10, 2011, in Brandenburg, Germany.

This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Süddeutsche Zeitung.

BRANDENBURG — Kristian's NXP ARM Cortex-M3 processor isn't doing what he wants it to. "The mesh isn't working right," says the 29-year-old Norwegian.

A small rocket with tiny bright lights, wires and a display hangs around his neck. But it's not connecting with his friends' rockets, and his friends are sitting right there. No mesh means no communication, at least no digital communication — and that, in the largest hackers' camp on the planet, is a real problem.

The geeks are tightly packed together in the "hacking center" — a hangar in this Brandenburg no-man's land. In front of them are their laptops, with the other, digital world, on the screens. Many of these folks return only reluctantly to the real world.

For the non-initiated, a visit to Finowfurt, the former Soviet airfield, where over 3,000 hackers have been camping at the Chaos Communication Camp since last Wednesday, is a diverting sight indeed.

The many men and few women camping near the cracked tarmac are for some — and were, even before Wikileaks' revelations — modern-day Robin Hoods, the last defenders of citizen rights, fighters against a capitalist world. To some companies and governments, however, they are criminals. Ordinary folk may write them off simply as computer nerds.

In and among old Soviet fighter planes and wrecked tanks they've pitched their tents and pavilions connected with kilometers of electric and fiber glass cabling. Little lights blink on and off, there are sounds of beeps and keyboards clacking as participants work on their laptops.

The organizer of the event is the Chaos Computer Club, and at the entrance members of Germany's oldest hacker organization hand out small communication rockets that participants suspend around their necks. The theme of the camp this year is, after all, "Hackers in Space."

How the computer freaks are going to get into space is being explained by a man in his late twenties, leading a session on "solid rocket engines" in Hangar 1. The audience is listening raptly to considerations about preferred propellants, black powder, a zinc and sulfur mix, perhaps, or hexanitrohexaazaisowurtzitane.

In one of the last rows sits a man who looks a little like the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. His orange shorts are stretched tight across his rear end and don't cover it entirely. His thinning hair is combed over and tied in a pony tail. He says he finds the talk "visionary and important." No way can space travel be left in the hands of private companies and "business politicians" whose only interest is profit. "Profit is just a symptom of power" — and it should be shared, if not voluntarily then taken by force.

The man who looks like the Comic Book Guy speaks with much enthusiasm about the attacks of the hacker group Anonymous on private sector and government computers worldwide, saying that "the revolutionary drive of young people is now being used the way it was under Mao during the Cultural Revolution."

However, he doesn't want his sympathies for such actions splashed all over the papers. "At the end of the day, it's illegal," he says. He himself is an honest IT salesman, the man is careful to point out. Like pretty much everybody here, he doesn't want to give his name and won't even say where he's from or where he lives. "If I give you that information you might be able to identify me," he says, adding that there are a lot of secret service guys among the participants at the camp and it was now time for him to cut the interview short.

Frank Rieger on the other hand — the Chaos Computer Club spokesman — has been answering journalists' questions for days. "I see hacking as a way of making technology one's own," he says. Only somebody who doesn't understand the true nature of hacking would claim it is the same as cyber crime. It's about experimentation, "a creative way of dealing with technology," he says. And to make that fully possible here, a separate phone network was set up for the camp — getting too creative with the public network could very quickly lead to criminal charges.

Read the original article in German.

Also from Worldcrunch:

In Famine-Stricken Somalia, Islamic Aid Groups Shoulder The Relief Load
— Le Monde

Is Medvedev Readying For Another Run At Russia's Presidency?
— Kommersant

Looking For A Tax Haven? You Can Still Find One.
— Die Welt