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The Pseudo-Ethics of Hackers

The Pseudo-Ethics of Hackers

Does information have an inherent right to freedom? Hackers and intelligence leakers believe so.

Jacob Bruggeman

On April 13, half a dozen rifle-wielding FBI agents arrested twenty-one year-old Massachusetts Air National guardsman Jack Teixeira at his family’s home in North Dighton, Massachusetts. Teixeira is accused of leaking hundreds of classified intelligence documents that circulated widely on Twitter, Telegram, and 4chan in early April—though the airman first leaked information over a year ago, in a chat group named Thug Shaker Central on Discord (an app popular with gamers). The documents detailed topics including U.S. and NATO strategy for Ukraine’s spring 2023 offensive, U.S. penetration of Russian military communications, and sensitive briefing materials on Canada, China, Israel, and South Korea. Teixeira, a low-level system administrator with a top-secret security clearance, is charged with mishandling classified information related to national defense.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Teixeira’s leak enticed commentators of all persuasions to weigh in on his potential motives. Public figures on the Right praised Teixeira’s actions as those of a conservative whistleblower. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted in support of Teixeira, who she praised as a “white, male, christian, and antiwar” guardsman whose actions made him “an enemy to the Biden regime.” Tucker Carlson described Teixeira as someone who was simply “telling the truth.” Mainstream journalists, meanwhile, emphasized the novelty of Teixeira’s digital community. A column in The Washington Post declared him a “new kind of leaker,” one ostensibly less concerned with an ideologically motivated exposé of government secrets than was Edward Snowden. Rather, the column presented Teixeira as someone who wanted to impress his friends and keep them informed about the war in Ukraine—not because of any foreign influence or political agenda, but simply “because he could.” Journalists on The Intercept’s podcast described this case as “the most unorthodox national security leaks in history.”

The discovery phase may reveal a more coherent politics motivating Teixeira’s document leak. Until then, explaining his actions along ideological or ethical lines is a pointless exercise. What is a worthwhile exercise, however, is to examine the history of hackers and leakers obsessing over conspiracy theories, and how their communities—often composed of mostly white teenage boys—cultivate incentives to leak information into digital channels of communication. In a word, we need to put Teixeira in historical context.

Historically, the headline-catching leaks from whistleblowers within the U.S. government have frequently been motivated by ideology or ethical objection. In 2010, Chelsea Manning leaked the State Department communiques and the Iraq War logs to change public attitudes about the war. In 2013, Edward Snowden released thousands of classified National Security Agency documents after having repeatedly raised ethical concerns about their content to Booz Allen Hamilton, where he was employed as a subcontractor. While his motives remain a subject of debate, Snowden explicitly styled himself as an anti-surveillance whistleblower who “did not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.” Ideologically or ethically motivated actors like Manning and Snowden have shaped the discourse about who leakers are and why they leak. Depending on one’s politics, leakers like this are easily cast as heroes or traitorous villains.

In his history of WikiLeaks, Wired editor Andy Greenberg encapsulated the positive view when he described leakers from Daniel Ellsberg to Julian Assange as the vanguard of “a revolutionary protest movement bent not on stealing information, but on building a tool that inexorably coaxes it out, a technology that slips inside of institutions and levels their defenses against the free flow of data like a Trojan horse of cryptographic software and silicon.” It’s true: leakers in groups ranging from the 1990s cypherpunks—a listserv and community of libertarian cryptographers (of which Assange was a part)—to those affiliated with the contemporary black hat hacker and hacktivist coalition known as Anonymous, frequently share ideological, political, and ethical motivations. These motives include a desire to declassify and disseminate government secrets for the public good; a deep distrust of state and corporate power; and a commitment to furthering the specific goals of the decentralized, cooperative digital communities to which they belong. The historical origins of these motives are complex, but historians trace them back to the 1960s, when a mélange of countercultural protest, power-to-the-people activism, drug-induced beliefs in the importance of consciousness, and an insistence on mastering machines gave birth to a distinctly Californian faith in the transformative power of new technology. Leakers and their champions continue to echo this faith in technology.

As time wore on, and personal computers spread to many American households, this faith remerged as a “hacker ethic;” a belief shared widely in Silicon Valley (and well beyond) that openness and the free flow of information are paramount for technological progress. The hacker ethic is best summed up in the adage offered by Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, at the 1984 Hackers Conference: “Information wants to be free.”

This belief, and the hacker ethic of which it’s a part, have shaped debates about the Internet and practices of leaking and whistleblowing ever since. But ethics and beliefs are not stable things. How one person interprets or expresses an idea is often a poor predictor for how the idea affects others. While the hacker ethic motivates some, like Assange, to leak for what they take to be the public good, it can just as easily serve as the impetus for conspiratorial thinking. At the present, all signs suggest Teixeira was more motivated by conspiratorial thinking rather than any ideological or ethical commitment to transparency. But conspiracy isn’t a bug in the history of leaking and hacking—it’s a feature.

Journalists have spent the last month digging into Thug Shaker Central, the Discord server with 600 users from at least twenty-five countries who bonded over their skepticism of government, their collections of firearms and military gear, and homophobic and racist memes. In the bear-vs-pig channel, restricted to roughly twenty-five active members, Teixeira, under the digital pseudonym “OG,” deposited his handwritten and photographed copies of U.S. intelligence. When the Washington Post interviewed one of Teixeira’s interlocutors in the bear-vs-pig channel, the interviewee described the server as a community: a “tightknit family” in which all users “depended on one another.” Though they only met in the digital world, the interviewee described Teixeira as “my best friend.” And to the Discord server, the user recalled, OG was that family’s leader: he enforced a “pecking order” and set the subject of discussion—almost always grounded in intelligence he copied while at work on the air base.

Teixeira’s messages teemed with contempt for U.S. “government overreach” and speculation about evil conspiracies. Some of his messages asserted that both Democratic and Republican party officials had “called airstrikes on hospitals lol.” Other messages declared that the U.S. had created The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In others still, Teixeira claimed to know that the government organized mass shootings: “The FBI and other 3 letter agencies contact these unhinged mentally ill kids and convince them to do mass shootings,” he wrote. Shootings like the Buffalo Tops supermarket rampage were, according to Teixeira, allowed to proceed so that the federal government could lobby for higher taxes.

Messages from members expressed support for these conspiracy theories—and an appreciation, as the interviewee told the Post, for how OG kept his so-called family “in the loop.” While the dynamics of this Discord server are unique, the relationship between leaking, hacking, and conspiracy is not. But to begin to grapple with why conspiracy is so central in communities of leakers and hackers, we need to turn to the British man who perpetrated what U.S. officials called the “biggest military hack of all time,” in 2001.

Between February 2001 and March 2002, a systems administrator in Scotland named Gary McKinnon, who operated under the pseudonym “Solo,” hacked into nearly 100 government computers belonging to the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Department of Defense, and NASA. U.S. prosecutors alleged that McKinnon caused upwards of $700,000 in damage to federal computer systems, stole or deleted classified information, and left critical communications capabilities inoperable. That McKinnon did this within a year of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 added a sense of urgency to the prosecution.

Despite the illegality of McKinnon’s actions and the consequences for U.S. security, authorities struggled to demonstrate that he was a cyberterrorist. On the one hand, McKinnon left a note on one U.S. Army computer that seemed to signal a political motive: “US foreign policy is akin to government-sponsored terrorism these days,” it read. “It was not a mistake that there was a huge security stand down on September 11 last year . . . I am SOLO. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels . . .” And yet, as the prosecution wore on, McKinnon appeared less and less motivated by a radical political agenda as he repeatedly expressed the belief that his actions were part of a broader “humanitarian” quest to access alien technologies for energy production and anti-gravity propulsion that, he alleged, the U.S. had covered up. (Thus, his interest in NASA computers.) As McKinnon told the BBC in an interview, “I wanted to find out why this is being kept a secret when it could be put to good use.” Even McKinnon’s warped worldview drew from the desire to explore systems and share information.

As the prosecution wore on into the 2010s, academics like John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, urged President Barack Obama to pardon McKinnon in an effort to “attract master hackers to our cause.” Obama didn’t drop the case, but McKinnon’s extradition was blocked in 2012, in a move led by Theresa May, the UK Home Secretary at the time. She then dropped the case against him, pointing to McKinnon’s diagnosis of autism and depression. Like many security breaches in the digital age, McKinnon’s case was too idiosyncratic to conform to the government’s attempt to construe it as a national security threat.

As in McKinnon’s case, Teixeira’s motives will likely become more complex as the persecution presses its case. Reaction from politicians leaving briefings on the case only reinforce this. Senators leaving a mid-April classified briefing on Teixeira noted having more unanswered questions than when they entered it. Sen. Ron Johnson, (R-Wis.), described the meeting as “bureaucratic gobbledygook.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), was more direct: “It’s just a shit show. I’m just as confused now as I was before the briefing.”

But court documents are revealing both a troubled past and violent rhetoric. In 2019, the guardsman was suspended from high school when, according to court documents, a classmate overheard “him make remarks about weapons, including Molotov cocktails, guns at the school, and racial threats.” Concerns about a tendency to violence were compounded when investigators found an “arsenal” of firearms, including a bazooka, in Teixeira’s home. These concerns were amplified when court filings revealed social media posts from November in which the defendant expressed a desire to “kill a shitton of people” and weed out “the weak minded.” Connections to the militant alt-right—a connection suggested in Teixeira’s case by comments like Marjorie Taylor Greene’s—aren’t uncommon among hackers, like the Nazi troll hacker weev in the group Anonymous. But it remains unclear whether Teixeira’s history of violent rhetoric played any role in the leak. Indeed, the defense might even use these statements—in conjunction with his fixation on conspiracies—to argue that Teixeira, like McKinnon, is mentally unstable.

In general, the discovery phase and investigative reporting so far points to a version of ‘‘information wants to be free” as motivation in the Teixeria case: “secrecy is for losers.” The Discord leaks, as they’re now called, raise critical questions both about how security clearances are commonly issued to low-level network administrators like Teixeira and also about the increasingly frequent disclosures of state secrets on digital chatrooms. Addressing those concerns requires examining more systematically how ideas about the freedom of information spread from the late 20th-century computer underground, were adopted by hackers like McKinnon, and are today being transformed in digital chatrooms.

Jacob Bruggeman is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Johns Hopkins University, where he is writing a history of telephone and computer hacking. He is also the editor-at-large at the Cleveland Review of Books.

Image: A man wearing a mask. (Unsplash: Nahel Abdul Hadi)