Conversation with Steve Phillips, lead developer and Project Manager of The Pursuance Project edited by The Doctor. Also, thanks to Barrett Brown for reviewing the transcript for errors and to Lisa Rein for final proofs.
This article and its sequels constitute a somewhat edited and condensed transcript of a discussion between Barrett Brown and Steve Phillips at the San Francisco Aaron Swartz Day Hackathon in 2017. We’ve tried to trade off informality for clarity, and refer the curious reader to the original source material in the spirit of transparency. Any emphasis and hyperlink references are ours.
In 2012, Barrett Brown was arrested for his role in the Anonymous hack of Stratfor, a global intelligence company that serves corporate and government interests around the world. The hack revealed an apparent insider trading relationship between the company and Goldman Sachs, among other dubious business activities. Brown won the National Magazine Award for his work while in solitary confinement. While in prison, Barrett had some ideas for a software project, the democracy-building project called Pursuance.
From the Pursuance homepage
“Pursuance exists to amplify the efforts of activists, journalists, and non-profits by (1) creating open source collaboration software and (2) building a powerful network of talented, reasonable individuals around it…
“Our free, open source, and secure Pursuance System software enables participants to: create action-oriented groups called “pursuances”, discuss how best to achieve their mission, rapidly record exciting strategies and ideas in an actionable form… receive social recognition for their contributions, and to delegate tasks to other pursuances in this ecosystem in order to harness its collective intelligence, passion, and expertise.”
STEVE PHILLIPS: I read a Wired Magazine article that said that Barrett Brown was out of jail and doing awesome stuff again, an encrypted environment where you can collaborate with other activists and journalists and people who are trying to change the world, and I thought that sounded ultra-compelling. So, I immediately reached out to him in several different ways — snail mail and Twitter and email, like all in parallel, and got through, and then I jumped on a plane and flew to Texas to meet Barrett.
[Barrett Brown], let’s talk a little bit about your background. You won a National Magazine Award, but let’s go back to 2010. You had the sense that we should be using the Internet for activist-type things. Even if it’s just a small percentage of people who really care about issues, there are billions of people online so that could be quite the force. Take me back to some of your thinking around that time, right before you started doing work with Anonymous.
what did Aaron do to get in so much trouble? Well, you’re not going to believe this:
Aaron downloaded a bunch of journal articles over an open network at MIT.
No, seriously. That’s what he did.
By Lisa Rein
I’m here to tell you about this weekend’s hackathon and celebratory festivities, and also explain a few things about how these things all weave in and out of our existing MONDO-world. It’s a TRIP.
I co-founded this event with Brewster Kahle, after Aaron’s death, in 2013. The Aaron Swartz Day and International Hackathon is an annual event that encompasses an entire weekend — celebrating Aaron’s life and providing yearly updates for many of Aaron’s collaborative projects that are still thriving today.
Who was Aaron Swartz? Well, the Aaron Swartz that I knew really well was just a 15 year old kid that helped me do my job better at Creative Commons, when I was its Technical Architect, working with Lawrence Lessig, in 2001-2002. We were using RSS news feeds to describe copyright licenses.
Yeah. It’s as boring as it sounds, and that’s why people don’t think about it unless they have to. Our job was to make it easy for them to insert some information about their Creative Commons license in the existing places — metadata fields in a .jpg file, or an mp3 file, etc. Aaron and Matt Haughey came up with the idea of asking a series of questions that help people determine what license they want, which turned out to be the hard part for artists. (Here’s a table I have a actually that makes that choice a bit easier.)
But I digress…
Aaron allowed me to be successful in my Creative Commons “mission” from Lawrence Lessig. We used RSS to describe copyright law, and, as it happened, so much more. It happened. Perfectly. Because Aaron knew just how to do it, and Lawrence and I let him, even though he was 15 years old.
I’ve also worked with Brewster digitizing some of the Timothy Leary Archives, since I am Timothy’s Digital Librarian, and now, also, Chelsea Manning’s Archivist. (Not to be confused with Michael Horowitz, who is Timothy Leary’s Archivist. Michael and I collaborate on the Timothy Leary Archives and Michael’s Own Archives, from that time period. Over these last two years, since I’ve been Chelsea’s Archivist, he’s given me oodles of excellent advice.
The Open Library, which is one of the projects people can hack on at the hackathon this year, started out small, although its goals were quite large: aspiring to create “a web page for every book.” Now, just over ten years later (Started circa 2007 by Aaron), Open Library is the world’s free digital library with over 2M public domain books and another 500k+ books available to be borrowed and read in the browser. Even when the Open Library itself doesn’t have a digital copy, it can connect readers to libraries that do have copies. So far, Open Library has collected information about over 25M book records.
After the Open Library, Aaron went to Stanford for a semester, dropped out and founded a Y-combinator startup, that later was spun into Reddit. Reddit was bought by Conde Nast, which wasn’t quite Aaron’s style, so he left. He was an Ethics Fellow at Harvard when the famous altercation took place.
So, what did Aaron do to get in so much trouble? Well, you’re not going to believe this:
Aaron downloaded a bunch of journal articles over an open network at MIT.
No, seriously. That’s what he did.
The actions that the U.S. government took against Aaron: making up hacking charges, stressing him out with surveillance and concern that those he loved would be interrogated as witnesses in his case. It seems like it all made him feel like his life, and his entire future, was somehow ruined.
He was kind of a genius and had a lot of projects that are still going. The Aaron Swartz Day community just worked hard to secure Chelsea Manning’s release — and she is our guest speaker.
TICKETS(Use the Promotional Code “MONDO” & save $35.)
How Aaron Swartz Day started:
It was on the eve of the San Francisco Memorial for Aaron, that Brewster, myself, and several others that night all had the same idea: Let’s keep up the momentum from all of this inspired action with some kind of event every year. So, for five years going now, we gather in November for an entire weekend of events on what would have been his birthday weekend. There are two goals. One is raising awareness about what happened to him — in order to protect other innovative students from government over prosecution — and future “hackers” that are exemplifying the true nature of curiosity and improvement. The other is to draw attention to his projects that are still going strong, such as SecureDrop and the Open Library.
At the same time, in the months that followed, memorial hackathons started popping up all over the world. We approached Yan Zhu, a friend of Aaron’s who was organizing them, about combining forces in November, and she agreed.
As Brewster and I began to create the first event (2013), many people had the same requirement: that the event be forward-thinking and uplifting, should not be sad or pessimistic, or dwell on what we would have done, had we known — except to the extent where doing so might help us protect others in the future.
After a few years of these events, we decided to step it up a notch, and try to think of ways that we could really use our event to make a difference. So, Brewster and I decided we would reach out to Chelsea, see if we could archive her writings or letters or something, if she’d be up for it, and just basically try to find different creative ways to try to make Chelsea Manning’s life in prison a little more livable.
Both Chelsea and Aaron stood up for the ideals of transparency and accountability. Ideals that Brewster and myself had taught them were so important. Yet, when Chelsea and Aaron stood up for these ideals, they were crushed by the full weight of the government.
There’s more to this than first meets the eye. Our community has always felt bad about not being able to do more to help Aaron. We wish we would have pressed him further about his case, when he was reluctant to discuss it. We wish we would have done this… We wish we would have tried that. We all drive ourselves crazy thinking these thoughts, still, to this day.
All of us that knew Aaron told each other privately that we would have done anything to help him, had we realized the severity of the situation. When I heard Chelsea’s voice over the phone, I realized it was happening again. Except we had a chance this time; Chelsea was still alive, and we could still save her.
The question was, what could we really do? We didn’t know yet – but I knew that if I could find out what she needed, our entire community was ready and willing to help her. So, we decided that we would start by writing her and ask her if she’d like to prepare a statement for Aaron Swartz Day. She accepted. (2015 Statement) (2016 Statement).
The rest, as they say, is history.
That’s why this year’s event is especially incredible: because Chelsea Manning is attending in person, after only being able to send us statements from afar, in prison, for two years running. Her speaking to us in person, as a free woman, is definitely nothing less than a dream come true.
Evening Program of Speakers with special guest Chelsea Manning
Saturday, after the San Francisco hackathon, at 6pm, there will be a reception and we will toast to our community’s accomplishments this year! The program upstairs will begin promptly at 7:30 pm. I’ve just added 50 tickets just for you Mondo 2000 readers! When you go to buy tickets enter the promotional code “MONDO” to get a $35 discount off of the $75 ticket price 🙂
Each of this year’s evening event speakers was asked to attend for a very specific reason. Some speakers knew Aaron and worked with him directly, others were inspired by him, or were working on projects inspired by him (such as Barrett Brown’s Pursuance Project). Barrett Brown is fresh out of prison and ready to stir up more folks to become aware of their surroundings.
Other speakers, such as Chelsea Manning, we know Aaron “gushed about” and thought was “so cool.” Jason Leopold is going to teach us about FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) and about the FOIA requests that Aaron submitted. Also Jason just got a new dump of files from the Secret Service that look interesting. It’s almost as if we were given a present before the event. Daniel Rigmaiden will be there, who exposed the Stingray from prison, in the course of representing himself, once he was able to determine that the Feds had used a Stingray on him illegally, in order to determine his location.
Here is the complete line-up of speakers with their bios:
Chelsea Manning – Network Security Expert, Transparency Advocate
Chelsea E. Manning is a network security expert, whistleblower, and former U.S. Army intelligence analyst. While serving 7 years of an unprecedented 35 year sentence for a high-profile leak of government documents, she became a prominent and vocal advocate for government transparency and transgender rights, both on Twitter and through her op-ed columns for The Guardian and The New York Times. She currently lives in the Washington, D.C. area, where she writes about technology, artificial intelligence, and human rights.
Lisa Rein – Chelsea Manning’s Archivist, Co-founder, Aaron Swartz Day & Creative Commons
Daniel Rigmaiden became a government transparency advocate after U.S. law enforcement used a secret cell phone surveillance device to locate him inside his home. The device, often called a “Stingray,” simulates a cell tower and tricks cell phones into connecting to a law enforcement controlled cellular network used to identify, locate, and sometimes collect the communications content of cell phone users. Before Rigmaiden brought Stingrays into the public spotlight in 2011, law enforcement concealed use of the device from judges, defense attorneys and defendants, and would typically not obtain a proper warrant before deploying the device.
Barrett Brown – Journalist, Activist, and Founder of the Pursuance Project
Barrett Brown is a writer and anarchist activist. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, the Guardian, The Intercept, Huffington Post, New York Press, Skeptic, The Daily Beast, al-Jazeera, and dozens of other outlets. In 2009 he founded Project PM, a distributed think-tank, which was later re-purposed to oversee a crowd-sourced investigation into the private espionage industry and the intelligence community at large via e-mails stolen from federal contractors and other sources. In 2011 and 2012 he worked with Anonymous on campaigns involving the Tunisian revolution, government misconduct, and other issues. In mid-2012 he was arrested and later sentenced to four years in federal prison on charges stemming from his investigations and work with Anonymous. While imprisoned, he won the National Magazine Award for his column, The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Prison. Upon his release, in late 2016, he began work on the Pursuance System, a platform for mass civic engagement and coordinated opposition. His third book, a memoir/manifesto, will be released in 2018 by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.
Jason Leopold, Senior Investigative Reporter, Buzzfeed News
Jason Leopold is an Emmy-nominated investigative reporter on the BuzzFeed News Investigative Team. Leopold’s reporting and aggressive use of the Freedom of Information Act has been profiled by dozens of media outlets, including a 2015 front-page story in The New York Times. Politico referred to Leopold in 2015 as “perhaps the most prolific Freedom of Information requester.” That year, Leopold, dubbed a ‘FOIA terrorist’ by the US government testified before Congress about FOIA (PDF) (Video). In 2016, Leopold was awarded the FOI award from Investigative Reporters & Editors and was inducted into the National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame by the Newseum Institute and the First Amendment Center.
Jennifer Helsby, Lead Developer, SecureDrop (Freedom of the Press Foundation)
Jennifer is Lead Developer of SecureDrop. Prior to joining FPF, she was a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Data Science and Public Policy at the University of Chicago, where she worked on applying machine learning methods to problems in public policy. Jennifer is also the CTO and co-founder of Lucy Parsons Labs, a non-profit that focuses on police accountability and surveillance oversight. In a former life, she studied the large scale structure of the universe, and received her Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Chicago in 2015.
Gabriella (Biella) Coleman holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University. Trained as an anthropologist, her scholarship explores the politics and cultures of hacking, with a focus on the sociopolitical implications of the free software movement and the digital protest ensemble Anonymous. She has authored two books, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (Princeton University Press, 2012) and Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (Verso, 2014).
Caroline Sinders – Researcher/Designer, Wikimedia Foundation
Caroline Sinders is a machine learning designer/user researcher, artist. For the past few years, she has been focusing on the intersections of natural language processing, artificial intelligence, abuse, online harassment and politics in digital, conversational spaces. Caroline is a designer and researcher at the Wikimedia Foundation, and a Creative Dissent fellow with YBCA. She holds a masters from New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program from New York University.
Brewster Kahle, Founder & Digital Librarian, Internet Archive
Brewster Kahle has spent his career intent on a singular focus: providing Universal Access to All Knowledge. He is the founder and Digital Librarian of the Internet Archive, which now preserves 20 petabytes of data – the books, Web pages, music, television, and software of our cultural heritage, working with more than 400 library and university partners to create a digital library, accessible to all.
Steve Phillips, Project Manager, Pursuance Project
Steve Phillips is a programmer, philosopher, and cypherpunk, and is currently the Project Manager of Barrett Brown’s Pursuance Project. In 2010, after double-majoring in mathematics and philosophy at UC Santa Barbara, Steve co-founded Santa Barbara Hackerspace. In 2012, in response to his concerns over rumored mass surveillance, he created his first secure application, Cloakcast. And in 2015, he spoke at the DEF CON hacker conference, where he presented CrypTag. Steve has written over 1,000,000 words of philosophy culminating in a new philosophical methodology, Executable Philosophy.
Mek Karpeles, Citizen of the World, Internet Archive
Mek is a citizen of the world at the Internet Archive. His life mission is to organize a living map of the world’s knowledge. With it, he aspires to empower every person to overcome oppression, find and create opportunity, and reach their fullest potential to do good. Mek’s favorite media includes non-fiction books and academic journals — tools to educate the future — which he proudly helps make available through his work on Open Library.
The San Francisco Hackathon is leading the way for the hackathons around the world. This year, we are integrating remote hackers from all over the world to work on our projects, and we are going to stay organized, so we can keep hacking on them in the days and weeks to come.
SecureDrop is an open-source whistleblower submission system managed by Freedom of the Press Foundation and originally created by Kevin Poulsen and Aaron Swartz. The goal of SecureDrop is to help media organizations simplify the process of securely accepting documents from anonymous sources. Dozens of news organizations, including: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Vice, The Guardian, AP, The Intercept, BuzzFeed and Forbes, are now running SecureDrop servers to communicate securely with sources.
The Pursuance System software enables you to create a pursuance (which is a sort of organization), invite people to that pursuance (with the level of permissions and privileges that you choose), assign those people tasks (manually, or automatically based on their skill set!), brainstorm and discuss what needs to be done.
Next, you’ll be rapidly recording exciting ideas or strategies in an actionable format (namely as tasks), share files and documents, be notified when relevant events occur (e.g., you are assigned a task or mentioned), and effectively get help from others. Here’s an interview with Barrett Brown and Steve Phillips explaining Pursuance in more detail.
OpenArchive is a free, open source application for android, available on the Google Play Store that enables you to send your mobile media directly to the Internet Archive over Tor (Orbot), and choose what metadata and Creative Commons license to include with it. The primary goal of the app is to empower the user to easily archive photos, video and audio from their mobile device to a secure, trustworthy, and remote storage service.
Come join members of the Open Library team, and work directly with them on Sunday, November 5th and together we’ll turn your ideas and suggestions into empowerment for an international audience.
Open Library is the world’s free digital library with over 2M public domain books and another 500k+ books available to be borrowed and read in the browser. Started circa 2007 by Aaron, the vision of Open Library is to be an open wiki catalog of every work ever published. So far, Open Library has collected information about over 25M book records, empowering readers with data to locate books even when Open Library doesn’t have a digital copy. Over 100,000 readers borrow books on Open Library each month, but there’s a lot we aspire to do to make our library experience more accessible and useful to readers world-wide.
Right now, citizens have to play a guessing game with Law Enforcement in their town. Police Departments are not required to have a policy on the purchase and use of surveillance equipment unless there is public outcry for them to do so. At Aaron Swartz Day this year, we aim to provide a public outcry model, automate the process for filing multiple public records requests, asking for every known variation of surveillance equipment, providing a template for the requests, and also another template to demand that your city government implement a policy regarding how surveillance is used on the citizens of any given town. Then, we’re going to split up in to “follow up groups,” whose job it is to keep making calls and sending emails until the local governments are taking action.
Efforts are in the final stages in both Oakland and Berkeley, and both should have laws by the end of the year. So, we’re going to use them as examples for the rest of the country.