What Can Rojava Learn From The Hacker Community?

I decided to write this post after reading on the Internationalist Commune website (Rojava), “If you have ideas for new projects to contribute to our work we are happy to hear from you.” I decided to write this post because I do have ideas that I believe may greatly increase the freedom of the people of Rojava in regards to the digital world. Perhaps I am shamelessly utopian in my dreaming of a truly liberated world, in my enthusiasm for what is happening in Rojava today, for a truly free and democratic world. Regardless, I do hope the reader will take my views seriously, for I say that anything is possible today. As a disclaimer it should be noted that the word “Hacker” is subjected to as much misuse as the words “Socialism”, “Anarchism”, and “Communism”. We are not here referring to criminality. A hacker is someone who writes code, a cracker (a more specific form of hacker) is someone who specializes in breaking into computer systems, both with permission (white hats) and without permission (black hats), and those who break the written law whilst still abiding by the law of morality (grey hats). Though generally there is some overlay, we are referring primarily here to the former and not the latter.

The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (Rojava) is actively striving for total liberation of the Kurdish people from every possible form of institutionalized oppression and exploitation, including and especially the oppression that comes from the nation state. When thinking of institutions, the Internet naturally comes to mind, and Syria’s Internet is anything but free. I am not talking here of state censorship which is another matter, but of surveillance.

On 29 November 2012, almost all Internet connectivity between Syria and the outside world was cut off. In the midst of the civil war, one side blamed the other, and the fighting intensified. It was not until 2014, two years later, that the world learned of the real culprit thanks to the heroic act of a Mr. Edward Snowden: it was the American government, the NSA. You see, by that time the surveillance of the Syrian nation by the National Security Agency of the United States was so intense that it had managed to “filter” the entirety of Syria’s Internet through NSA owned servers. The “blackout” happened due to a catastrophic failure at an NSA owned data center. This surveillance almost certainly continues to this day, and in all likelihood is far more intense. If the Americans can do it, what of Turkey, America’s so-called ally? What of the government of Iraq? The Russian government? ISIS? What about the companies that provide the people of Rojava their Internet connections and phone data? Can they be trusted not to spy on the people of Rojava?

I would not call myself an anarchist, but I agree with Proudhon when he said this of authority:

“To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so.”

In Rojava the people are effectively learning to govern themselves thanks to the principles of Democratic Confederalism, but insofar as they are being watched, even by a foreign power, they cannot be truly free. In the spirit of the fact that “Freedom is always the freedom of dissent” (a paraphrase of a quote by Rosa Luxemburg), I wrote recently in a post titled “Why Every Activist Should Use a VPN/Tor and Oppose Mass Surveillance” the following:

“Privacy in the digital age is the only real prerequisite to civil liberty. One is not truly free to dissent if one is being watched at every moment, (it is a well known and independently verifiable fact that people alter their behaviors when they are being watched, especially by authorities, and especially when these authorities retain everything a person said or thought or did indefinitely) and if one is being watched at every moment, one is not free at all. One doesn’t even have to wield this power to the fullest extent possible to destroy human liberty, its very existence is a terminal illness to every form of human freedom. In light of the horrendous abuses of power by NSA, GCHQ, and its accomplices, the Marxist left is bound by its principles to fight against mass surveillance, for the preservation of human freedom. We are bound by our principles to fight against these abuses of power in the political realm, but it is also necessary to protect ourselves and our communities at the individual level as well.”

The people of Rojava are more capable of reaching a greater state of real freedom and democracy than any other people on the face of the earth. I have stated previously that it is my firm belief that thhttps://puri.sm/products/librem-5/e Greek democracies of antiquity are to our modern society, what Rojava is to the world of tomorrow. In the midst of such revolutionary potential, I believe it necessary for the people of Rojava to look towards ensuring and maintaining freedom in the digital world as well as in the physical. We used to say that a woman’s home is her castle, now it is a woman’s phone that is her castle.

Before going further, I felt it necessary to quote in part, Julian Assange’s introduction to his book Cypherpunks, titled Introduction: A Cryptographic Call To Arms. I highly recommend anyone interested in internet freedom to go out and read the book itself, as it is a very interesting read:

“The platonic nature of the internet, ideas and information flows, is debased by its physical origins. Its foundations are fiber optic cable lines stretching across the ocean floors, satellites spinning above our heads, computer servers housed in buildings in cities from New York to Nairobi. Like the soldier who slew Archimedes with a mere sword, so too could an armed militia take control of the peak development of Western civilization, our platonic realm.

The new world of the internet, abstracted from the old world of brute atoms, longed for independence. But states and their friends moved to control our new world—by controlling its physical underpinnings. The state, like an army around an oil well, or a customs agent extracting bribes at the border, would soon learn to leverage its control of physical space to gain control over our platonic realm. It would prevent the independence we had dreamed of, and then, squatting on fiber optic lines and around satellite ground stations, it would go on to mass intercept the information flow of our new world—its very essence—even as every human, economic, and political relationship embraced it. The state would leech into the veins and arteries of our new societies, gobbling up every relationship expressed or communicated, every web page read, every message sent and every thought googled, and then store this knowledge, billions of interceptions a day, undreamed of power, in vast top secret warehouses, forever. It would go on to mine and mine again this treasure, the collective private intellectual output of humanity, with ever more sophisticated search and pattern finding algorithms, enriching the treasure and maximizing the power imbalance between interceptors and the world of interceptees. And then the state would reflect what it had learned back into the physicalworld, to start wars, to target drones, to manipulate UN committees and trade deals, and to do favors for its vast connected network of industries, insiders and cronies.

But we discovered something. Our one hope against total domination. A hope that with courage, insight and solidarity we could use to resist. A strange property of the physical universe that we live in.

The universe believes in encryption.

It is easier to encrypt information than it is to decrypt it.

We saw we could use this strange property to create the laws of a new world. To abstract away our new platonic realm from its base underpinnings of satellites, undersea cables and their controllers. To fortify our space behind a cryptographic veil. To create new lands barred to those who control physical reality, because to follow us into them would require infinite resources.

And in this manner to declare independence.

Scientists in the Manhattan Project discovered that the universe permitted the construction of a nuclear bomb. This was not an obvious conclusion. Perhaps nuclear weapons were not within the laws of physics. However, the universe believes in atomic bombs and nuclear reactors. They are a phenomenon the universe blesses, like salt, sea or stars.

Similarly, the universe, our physical universe, has that property that makes it possible for an individual or a group of individuals to reliably, automatically, even without knowing, encipher something, so that all the resources and all the political will of the strongest superpower on earth may not decipher it. And the paths of encipherment between people can mesh together to create regions free from the coercive force of the outer state. Free from mass interception. Free from state control.

In this way, people can oppose their will to that of a fully mobilized superpower and win. Encryption is an embodiment of the laws of physics, and it does not listen to the bluster of states, even transnational surveillance dystopias.

It isn’t obvious that the world had to work this way. But somehow the universe smiles on encryption.

Cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action.”

As an activist and a self-proclaimed computer nerd, I have found myself drawn to the Free Software community, which advocates the exclusive use of free (as in freedom) software that respects the users freedom to know what the software is doing, to change the software, and to redistribute modified versions of the software. That freedom is not abstract but real. Only when software is free can a user have control over the software, and not the other way around. The Free Software Foundation views the issue of free vs. proprietary software not as a matter of personal preference, but of individual and social liberty, and I cannot help but agree. In addition to this I have been an avid GNU/Linux enthusiast, favoring the free and democratic, community driven initiatives behind the Linux world over the proprietary corporate monopolies of Microsoft and Apple. It’s no secret that Microsoft tells the NSA about security vulnerabilities in its software (including Windows) before patching them, and Apple along with other tech giants were most prominently featured on leaked NSA PRISM slides. I have also been a supporter of efforts to restore privacy and build individual liberty in the digital age. One of the projects I actively contribute to is called I2P (The Invisible Internet Project). The featured image is of Itoopie (the I2P mascot) standing with the International Freedom Batallion while waving the flag of Rojava. When explaining the need for such technologies, I often find myself quoting what American founding father John Adams once wrote to Thomas Jefferson,

“When people talk of the Freedom of Writing, Speaking, or thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed. No such thing now exists; but I hope it will exist. But it must be hundreds of years after you and I shall write and speak no more.” (15 July 1817)

Technologies such as I2P actively seek to bring about in practice the genuine and unfettered expression of individual liberty in the digital age, of real freedom of writing, freedom of speech, freedom of thought. Their mission is to do precisely what Adams and Jefferson dreamed of. It is ironic that in contributing to the development this technology, I actively hamper the American NSA in its mission statement to “know everything”. Truly it is a sad world we live in. But for a liberated people and for a people struggling day by day for liberation, such as the people of Rojava, real freedom is on the table, not as an abstract idea but as a potential reality. We must of course, still be practical. What can the people of Rojava do today in this regard?

I have not yet been able to find a GNU/Linux distribution that supports Kurmanci (the main language used in Rojava) natively. The I2P project also lacks sufficient translation to Kurmanci, as does the Tor Project from what I can tell. For the people of Rojava, protecting the existence of individual liberty is paramount, and having access to the tools that do just that, in their own language, is paramount. I would highly recommend the people of Rojava use Linux as opposed to Windows or MacOS in their daily computing. For this to become practical, someone fluent in the language needs to help translate! Debian I think would be the best Linux distribution to translate since many other Linux distributions are based on it, and its generally a good distribution that uses all free software by default. You can find out how to translate for the Debian project here. Furthermore I would highly recommend the people of Rojava become adept in using Tor to protect their privacy online, for this to be practical, translators are needed yet again. I also would recommend those enthusiastic about this kind of thing to look into I2P, translators are needed here too! Unlike Tor, I2P is focused primarily on location hidden services (rather than anonymizing regular internet usage).

I favor I2P over other censorship resistant networks such as Tor, Freenet, and ZeroNet because they have a stronger focus on community, as well as having a better way to implement democratic principles while still respecting individual liberty. As far as “darknets” go, the content found on I2P is generally of a remarkably good nature. I attribute this precisely to the community oriented model embraced by the I2P project. Anyone can do anything they like, but things that reflect badly on the community or on I2P generally are not shown to the user by default, and as a result are of less quantity than other censorship resistant networks. With other censorship resistant networks, bad people see links to bad things almost immediately out of the naivety of the developers in taking the phrase “information is neutral” too seriously , or hear about abuses from the media, and bring more bad people to the network and before you know it the whole thing becomes a swamp. Sadly this is happening to tools like Freenet and ZeroNet, where ethical users must actively avoid key parts of the network, even if Freenet and ZeroNet have mainly legitimate, benevolent uses (Chinese citizens for instance openly talk on ZeroNet about state repression, and make up a substantial part of the network). I2P has thus far been largely immune to these problems, and that is why I am most enthusiastic in my endorsement of this particular piece of software. Here I dream of the practical uses of I2P in a liberated society.

What could the people of Rojava do with I2P? Anything! The people of Rojava could set up their own DNS servers (called addressbook services), that were democratically run by the community itself. Every computer user could set up their own website free of charge and put it onto I2P with the in-built Jetty webserver. If someone set up a website, they could get a domain from the community run addressbook provider, and no one else would know who ran it or where (geographically) it was located. If someone posted something immoral or illegal, the community would have the power to remove the domain name (without actually taking down the server) with the popular consent of the people. Thus if something really bad ever was happening in Rojava in regards to authoritarianism (itself unlikely), or if someone wanted to anonymously post a complaint or report an abuse, the people would have a safe space to freely voice their concerns without fear of retribution. There is hardly any better safeguard against authoritarianism than this, and because freedom is always the freedom of dissent, there is hardly a greater assurance of individual liberty in the digital age. The people of Rojava could also set up their own email servers and configure them to run over I2P, or use I2P-bote (an end-to-end encrypted, decentralized email like platform). The entirety of Rojava could email one another, talk to one another, and share things with one another inside the I2P network where no external power, no matter how strong, could ever spy on the people of Rojava or threaten their individual liberty. Why should one person in Rojava ever email another in Rojava when the email (itself unencrypted by default) was sent far outside of Syria, through the NSA’s massive net, and then back into Syria to the intended recipient? Does such a scenario not limit the intellectual pursuits, the freedom of speech and thought of the person writing the email?

Children growing up in such a society would learn the importance of free software. They would learn to code and hack without limits, understanding that innovation is greatest when they share with one another. As the society progressed, they could contribute to these projects, actively securing and safeguarding the freedom of the people. The future generations would learn the values of privacy and the values of a society that did not give up its liberties to state power in the false name of “security”, of a society that saw privacy as a fundamental prerequisite to civil liberty in the digital age.

For more general uses of the world wide web (a priceless tool that ought to be safeguarded), it is my view that the public’s telecommunication infrastructure should be democratically run by the community itself, by neither state nor corporation. Those who manage it should be democratically elected, at all times instantly re-callable by the community by popular petition. ISP’s should not log the activities of the people or store their search histories, perhaps community run VPN services would help to obfuscate internet traffic as an extra safeguard. In America, our congress made it legal in 2017 for ISP’s to sell the American people’s internet history to the highest bidder. Your ISP’s should be nothing more than dumb pipes, infrastructure that gets messages from point A to point B without violating the rights of the people by spying on them or collecting their personal information. In that regard, you can progress far beyond the United States or any nation state in regards to individual liberty. There are other technologies too, that may be of interest to a liberated people, I would recommend fostering the use of PGP encryption for all email communications, using apps like Signal instead of texting, and the widespread use of privacy respecting services such as those found at PrivacyTools.io as a social norm (a translation of PrivacyTools here is also needed). Once mastered, two parties can communicate with one another safely without the prying eyes of any third party. I would recommend hackers look into projects such as Hyperboria that seek to create community run meshnets, that in theory would replace the centralized power of an ISP with 100% community infrastructure run by the people themselves. In spite of my numerous criticisms of the market and the existence of money as a currency of exchange, certain cryptocurrencies such as Monero (XMR) have the key benefit over the use of credit cards of being as or even more anonymous than cash. Tools such as Matrix can be used as a replacement for phone calls and texting. I would recommend the people of Rojava to look into these technologies.

As Glenn Greenwald said, “We all need places where we can go to explore without the judgmental eyes of other people being cast upon us, only in a realm where we’re not being watched can we really test the limits of who we want to be. It’s really in the private realm where dissent, creativity and personal exploration lie.” Perhaps there is no better place in the world to put this into practice than Rojava. In conclusion, I think the people of Rojava could benefit greatly from the free software, Linux, and hacker community, and from projects such as I2P and Tor.

It is my highest hope that Rojava may continue to become a bastion of liberation, that it might climb to new frontiers in regards to digital resistance too, frontiers not dreamed of within the confines the nation state! Long live liberty! Long live the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria! Long live Rojava! May it last a thousand years!

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