How to Be a Digital Anarchist

09.26.12 Kyle Chayka

Ever since the first few curious kids ventured out onto early BBS sites, the internet has always represented an escape from reality: a virtual landscape where the tech-savvy can communicate with each other, share information — from DIY how-tos to obscure pornography — and hatch plans that range from acts of crowd-sourced kindness to sinister real-life trolling plots. The web has also become a haven for certain extra-governmental or anti-governmental phenomena, a free launching ground for political groups, ideological communities, and black markets. In all its radical openness, the web is the closest thing we have to controlled anarchy.

Anarchism’s core belief is that humanity could still hold together without laws or government, maintaining order with social bonds and a willingness to share equally. In fact, one theory behind that Anarchism symbol that’s graffitied on the walls of cities across the world —  the letter A inside an O — is that it came from French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s statement that “anarchy is the mother of order.” Sounds just like the web to us! Online, there’s no hierarchy, no governing body, and communities grow based on sharing — yet order is maintained.

So instead of attempting to rebel against the government or passing around inflammatory pamphlets, maybe it’s better to take anarchic activities online. Like a beginner’s digital Anarchist Cookbook, this is our guide to making the most of your anarchic web experience, using technology to help with everything from circumventing surveillance face-recognition software to erasing your tracks online and dodging copyright.

Avoiding Big Brother

Twenty-first century technology has made surveillance simple, from London’s patchwork network of CCTV cameras (1 camera for every 14 citizens of the city, according to some journalists) to Facebook’s tracking of which sites you visit, links you click on, and people you look up. But the same technology has also made it easier to prevent being watched. Those stupid browse-anonymously websites that business computers so often block aren’t going to cut it. For completely encrypted surfing, the only answer is Tor, short for “The Onion Router.” Launched in 2002, Tor is an easily downloadable piece of software that uses a global network of servers to conceal the locations of individual browsers—the “onion” in the name comes from Tor’s different layers of encryption. The network has been instrumental in organizing anti-governmental protests like those of the Arab Spring, allowing for freedom of expression in countries where it’s illegal.

Speaking of preserving anonymity for protesters, artist Adam Harvey’s CV Dazzle is a system of visual hacks, using make-up, asymmetrical haircuts, and clothing to stymie the face recognition software that’s now being used in urban security cameras. When subpoenas can force Twitter to hand over information about its users activities, there’s Vibe — a new substitute that allows anonymous registration, hidden hashtags, and ephemeral messages. Burner is an iPhone app that turns your smartphone into that drug-dealer staple, the disposable cell. Though the service doesn’t promise to keep your calls completely off record, the app will swap your phone number out with a new, random one for short-term use. Deleting the number and getting another one is as easy as hitting a button.

Purchasing Illicit Goods

The web is also the world’s biggest marketplace, and it’s pretty easy to find just about anything for sale online. The Silk Road, which requires Tor to access, is the internet’s premier digital souk, a sprawling bazaar whose members buy and sell contraband substances. Launched in February of 2011, the Silk Road has become infamous as “the Amazon.com of illegal drugs,” as NPR called it. Dealers on the site traffic entirely through Bitcoin, an untraceable virtual currency pegged to the U.S. dollar, and transactions are held in escrow until both parties are satisfied.

The site relies on a certain amount of trust to work — sellers have to purchase their accounts and buyers and vendors alike are both rated. There’s a code of conduct to be followed, but the site complies with the laws of no country or government; it exists independently, made possible only by the internet.

Screw Copyright

If there’s one thing the internet has been great at over the past two decades, it’s liberating copyrighted material. Much to the chagrin of the music and movie industries, the web has made pirating, rather than buying, the de riguer method of media acquisition for generations of young consumers. We’re way beyond choppy Kazaa downloads now, with websites devoted to distributing the latest in pirated TV episodes, albums, and software. Kickass Torrents and Pirate Bay are search engines for Bittorrent downloads, a decentralized, peer-to-peer system that links groups of uploaders to groups of downloaders, ensuring high speeds. Upload sites like Rapidshare and Yousendit (as well as the recently shuttered Megaupload) offer free space for users to host files. All of those download links are easily searchable through Google.

On the other side of the equation, the open source movement provides a framework for creators who want their work to be easily distributable online without the need for overwhelming copyright restrictions. Look for the Creative Commons label, which signifies content with limited or no copyright, often free to use for non-commercial projects. The Free Music Archive collects Creative Commons songs while Flickr has a search engine for Creative Commons-only images.

Hacking Satellites

The upside of the 21st century’s constant surveillance is that we can all take advantage of it too. Sure, we’ve all used Google Maps and Street View to check out our hometowns, maybe spy on the current address of an ex. But it’s also possible to use satellites more directly. The first American personal satellite was launched, amazingly, in 1961 by the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation, who piggybacked on a U.S. government operation—the satellite quickly failed, but it had enough power to broadcast a few signals before falling back to Earth.

Now that satellites are commonly used for everything from directing drones to coordinating GPS, some tech-savvy computers users are taking advantage of them in a different way. A 2011 report stated that U.S.-operated satellites are vulnerable to attacks, and hackers have compromised the integrity of the satellites more than once. The flip side of attacking satellites is actually launching private orbital machines. That strategy is being attempted by Berlin’s Chaos Communication Congress as well as the bittorrent host Pirate Bay, who, if their land-bound servers are disrupted, plan to launch their own airborne servers. Of course, the Guardian disputes the effectiveness of that claim, but the proposal still stands.

For as long as the internet remains a relatively anarchic zone, technology exists for any activist to take advantage of. There isn’t any universal online bill of rights, so it’s important to take be careful — but, as generations of pioneers have done before, always remember, push the boundaries.

(Illustration: Nate Cepis)