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<nettime> Autumnal Net Critique under existent social conditions
Bruce Sterling on Sat, 4 Apr 2015 19:32:07 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Autumnal Net Critique under existent social conditions


   *I'm as touched by nettime-list nostalgia as anybody else here --
   (since I was the first guy of American nationality to sign up for the
   ordeal) -- but sometimes I think nettime ought to wise up and declare
   victory.  It's nettime's world and we just live in it.

   *Check out this narrative where globe-trotting Russian wise-guys hack
   Presidents and Kremlin PR experts without even bothering to ask
   permission from any Western media theorists.  So much for the East-West
   digital divide that nettime used to decry, eh?  The Russians got their
   hardware in spades, so this scene reads very high-tech low-life  --
   it's like a European cyberfantasy from some mid-90s Amsterdam squat
   where everybody in the building ate the "cognition enhancers" from the
   back pages of MONDO 2000.

   *This screen makes Geert Lovink's "CRACKING THE MOVEMENT" read like a
   Tove Jansson "Moomin" story.  Still, it must have some connection to
   our contemporary reality, because most of the public events described
   in here have demonstrably happened.  It's café society, swappin' those
   purloined text files via Sneakernet, and the planet trembles. -- bruces

   https://meduza.io/en/feature/2015/02/02/a-man-who-s-seen-society-s-black-underbelly

   `A man who's seen society's black underbelly' Meduza meets `Anonymous
   International'

   13:45, 2 FEBRUARY 2015 MEDUZA

   After a year's existence, the data-leaking blog Anonymous
   International, better known as Shaltai Boltai (Humpty Dumpty), has
   never released truly important documents to the public.

   Nevertheless, every one of Shaltai's publications causes a sensation on
   Russian social networks. (Some of the group's leaks include private
   emails allegedly belonging to Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich,
   Duma Deputy Robert Schlegel, Kremlin official Timur Prokopenko, and
   Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev himself, as well as several other
   politicians.) While targeting such individuals, Shaltai also provides
   readers with at least a general idea of how the Putin Administration
   functions.

   Meduza's special correspondent, Daniil Turovsky, traveled to Bangkok
   and met with one of the leaders of Anonymous International, in order to
   learn more about the group's origins and why it's doing what it does.

   Originally published in Russian on January 13, 2015

   On August 14, 2014, around ten in the morning, an unremarkable man
   walked into a café near Tishinskaya Square in Moscow. He ordered a
   coffee, sat down in the café's far corner, and opened up a cheap
   laptop. Next, he launched a few applications: a text editor, an app for
   encrypted chat, and a Web browser. Then he connected to the free Wi-Fi
   and accessed the Internet through a VPN, using his own private server,
   in order to make tracking his actions impossible. He opened Twitter in
   the Web browser and entered the login and password that were saved in a
   separate document.

   His first tweet read, I'm resigning. I am ashamed of this government's
   actions. Forgive me.

   The note immediately appeared on Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev's
   official Twitter account, visible to his 2.5 million subscribers.

   Taking a sip of his coffee, the man in the café wrote a few more
   tweets: I will become a free photographer. I've dreamed about it for
   some time;

   Despite our efforts, certain online hooligans still sh!t on needing to
   provide their passport number for Wi-Fi access. :( :( :(;

   I've wanted to say this for the longest time: Vova [Putin]! You are
   wrong!; and I like reading  {AT} Navalny.

   Then, he retweeted Navalny's former campaign manager, Leonid Volkov,
   and opposition journalist Roman Dobrokhotov. Finally, he wrote, "You
   think anyone in Yalta today will say something important? I doubt it.
   I'm sitting here and thinking to myself, what's the f*cking point?" (At
   the time, Medvedev and Putin were visiting Yalta on the Crimean
   peninsula.)

   The man didn't think anything unusual or extraordinary about his task.
   He hadn't even planned on coming to the café that day, to write in the
   Prime Minister's account. It just so happened then that he was the only
   one not at work, among the members of the group Anonymous
   International, better known as Shaltai Boltai.

   The programmers at Shaltai had gained access to Medvedev's Twitter
   account long before, when downloading from iCloud copies of three of
   Medvedev's smartphones. (The Prime Minister kept his social media
   passwords in a note on one of his iPhones.) The group timed the Twitter
   hack to coincide with Putin's speech in Yalta, now a part of Russia,
   where he was addressing local officials.

   "We monitored Medvedev for two years, but nothing interesting ever
   happened, so we decided we'd just troll him instead," one of Anonymous
   International's members told me, explaining the reason for the Twitter
   hack.

   Thirty minutes after the first phony tweet, Putin's press secretary,
   Dmitri Peskov, announced to reporters, "I can say with high probability
   that we're looking at a hacker attack."

   The government soon confirmed it: "The Prime Minister's Twitter account
   has been hacked. The last several messages posted to his micro-blog are
   untrue." Medvedev's press service started deleting some of the tweets,
   but the man in the café managed to publish a few more:

   We might be returning to the 1980s. It's depressing. If this is what my
   colleagues in the Kremlin are after, they might soon get their wish;
   and Russians shouldn't have to suffer because the country's leadership
   has problems grasping common sense.

   Additionally, the man in the café retweeted Anonymous International's
   Twitter account,  {AT} b0ltai (blocked inside Russia since April 2014): "The
   circus has ended and the clowns have scattered. Ban electricity! :)."

   The "creative technician," as he's called at Anonymous International,
   was able to scribble as many tweets as he pleased--nobody was able to
   kick him out of the account. To stop what was happening, Medvedev's
   press office would have needed to ask Twitter's administrators to block
   the account. Instead, after an hour, the man wrote to his colleagues
   over chat, saying, "I'm bored. I'm getting out of here," and he closed
   his netbook and walked out of the café.

   * * *

   One of Anonymous International's heads told me this story in the city
   of Bangkok, in early January 2015. He didn't tell me his name, he
   refuses to let me describe his appearance, and he forbade me from
   recording our conversation. For the sake of convenience, I'll call him
   Lewis. (After all, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, with its
   inside-out logic, most accurately captures the world of Russian
   politics, Shaltai's members have said.)

   It took three months of emailing to arrange a meeting with Lewis. At
   first, the meeting was supposed to take place in Istanbul, then in
   Kiev, and later, in November 2014, Anonymous International's
   representative informed me that they could only meet in the capital of
   Thailand, where "it's warm and the booze and women are cheap :) :) :)."

   I asked Shaltai Boltai if they were changing our planned meetings from
   one city to another because the police were on their trail. "We don't
   think so :) :) :). We've got too many trails. Really, we're not afraid
   of anything, honestly :) :). Believe it or not, our motives are purely
   wholesome, like a family's :) :) :). We're all just folks--just regular
   people :) :) :). Incidentally, we got loosely acquainted with you
   through a mutual friend in Moscow :) :) :)," Anonymous International
   told me online.

   * * *

   The final instructions regarding our meeting arrived in my inbox just a
   day before they expected to meet: "Fly [to Bangkok]. Buy a local SIM
   card, and email us the number. You'll be called back within a few
   hours, and we'll agree about the meeting." A day later, after doing
   this, Lewis himself was the one to call me. He said the meeting would
   take place a few hours later on Khao San Road, the most crowded area of
   the city.  (...)  Every other European is walking around with a Thai
   prostitute under his arm, and the local wheeler-dealers whisper to
   tourists, "You need weed? We've got weed. You need loving? We've got
   loving."

   A little more than a year before this meeting, on December 12, 2013,
   Anonymous International registered its website on [2]Wordpress.com....

   In an interview conducted over encrypted chat, Anonymous
   International's press secretary asserted that the group publishes leaks
   because it is "dissatisfied with the restrictions on free speech online
   and with Russia's aggressive foreign policy." It has complaints about
   Russian domestic policy, too: "They only let the convenient candidates
   participate in elections," and it's "impossible to work peacefully in a
   small or medium business." Shaltai's stated mission is "to change the
   world for the better, helping to bring greater freedom and social
   awareness."

   One of the group's members even quoted the 2009 film Watchmen, saying,
   "We don't do this thing because it's permitted. We do it because we
   have to. We do it because we're compelled. Once a man has seen
   society's black underbelly, he can never turn his back on it."

   * * *

   With another bang of the exhaust, we come a halt 15 minutes later in
   the center of Bangkok, where Lewis suggests another ride, this time on
   the subway. "We were supposed to meet recently with [another] Russian
   journalist," he explains. "We've got loads [of information] that's been
   verified. Well, it turns out, they hacked his emails (you can guess who
   "they" are), and put a tail on him. We had to cancel the meet at the
   last minute. They checked you out, too, but found nothing. But I still
   asked Boltai to make sure nobody is following us."

   "Boltai is here, too?" I ask Lewis.

   "Yeah, he lives here," Lewis answers. "I came here one day to transfer
   files. When you've got several gigabytes of data, it's sometimes
   simpler to hand over a hard disk in person, than try it online. We keep
   at least two copies of all our data in different countries. And no one
   person has full access to the entire archive." He looks at me again and
   adds, "We wanted to take a dip in the pool at Boltai's condo today, but
   it's too cold."

   Shaltai Boltai, if Lewis is to be believed, is only a "side project."
   The group's main work is getting hired to dig up information about
   private and public individuals. The whole company consists of a dozen
   people.

   Apart from the technical staff, there are Shaltai and Boltai, who
   manage communications with the outside world, two co-founders (one of
   whom is Lewis), and a certain woman named Alice. "She's a field officer
   doing extremely important work. For instance, when needed, she follows
   Prokopenko to a café and sits down behind him, to see what he types on
   his computer," Lewis explains.

   The company's structure, Lewis says, resembles an "online gaming clan":
   the staff don't know each other in person, but they spend hours
   chatting together every day. No one collects a regular salary, and the
   size of one's earnings depends on how much he or she contributes to an
   operation. They pay these fees in cash, and sometimes in bitcoins.
   They've hired no new staff since they started publishing documents
   under the Anonymous International brand.

   Lewis says all the group's employees, except for Shaltai and Boltai,
   live inside Russia. Lewis himself moves between Moscow, St. Petersburg,
   and Kazan (though he never explains why he goes to Kazan specifically).
   "I also love going to this café in Staraya Square [in Moscow], where
   [pro-Kremlin political strategist] Dmitri Badovsky likes to dine,"
   Lewis adds.

   Every time before crossing the Russian border, Lewis wipes his hard
   drive of all its files. He came to Bangkok for just one day, arriving
   from a neighboring Asian country.

   * * *

   Lewis confuses the subway stations, and we have to exit our car and
   backtrack on the next train. Leaving the subway, we head for a
   European-style café because he "doesn't like Asian food." Lewis
   suggests walking there through a back alley, where, in almost total
   darkness, among the shacks and puddles, we find no passage and turn
   around. Finally, we sit down at the first café we can find....

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