Hacking the Hackers: The French Hacking Scene In its Historical Context
Conference by Gabriella Coleman - Wednesday, May 16
In the late 1980s and early 1990s across Western Europe, North America, and Australia, a particular breed of hacker, part of what is referred to the hacker underground—a group of technologists who liberally broke into computers largely for exploration and learning rather than criminal purposes— thrived. In these regions, governments and law enforcement went to great lengths to snuff out this sort of activity by arresting hackers and criminalizing hacking. Naturally, national responses to the hacker underground were distinct. Gabriella Coleman’s research concerns the French context and case which is unprecedented in several regards, notably the government’s bold willingness to rely on deception. After recruiting a young hacker, Jean-Bernard Condat, he established a decoy organization—a French chapter of oldest European hacker association, the German Chaos Computer Club— to track, arrest, and compel arrested hackers to join their ranks. In essence, they sought to hack the hackers not to simply stamp them out of existence but to hire them.
Up to this point, the history of this far-reaching campaign has been told only in fragments with no eye towards its legacies and broader lessons. The government’s operation of a fake grass roots hacker organization over numerous years likely shaped the subsequent development of the French hacker community. The question is how and with what long term effects? This project seeks to unearth the fuller history of this infiltration effort to answer the following broader questions: how did the inclusion of hackers from the underground scene alter how government intelligence agencies in France operated and approached security, privacy, and surveillance? How did the crackdowns and arrests of hackers, and especially once news of the infiltration became public, shape the political commitments and proclivities of future generations of French hackers and their views of government and surveillance?
By Gabriella Coleman, McGill University, Montreal, laureate of the DEA programme.