Can hackers defeat fascism? (Watch Dogs: Legion)

With guest co-host Nate Crowley!

Put your goofiest masks on, lessoners, we’re jacking in. Watch Dogs: Legion wants you to recruit random passers-by to your hacker organisation, so you can free London from a fascist megacorp. But, as ever, the real baddies are not so easily got. In this episode, we speak to hacker expert Gabriella Coleman of McGill University about the culture of underground hacker groups, and the origin of government-opposed “hacktivists”.

Click “more” for links and a full transcription.


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Gabriella Coleman has put together a cool museum for “hacker curios”!

Hacker Hoaxer Whistleblower Spy: The Many Faces Of Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman

Follow Nate on Twitter

Nate’s Watch Dogs: Legion review

Another good review by Austin Walker

Hackers exploit cars, oh no!

Sabu, the hacker who defied stereotype and became an FBI informant

Phineas Fisher denies working for the Russian Government

The list of hackers we used for “Nate’s legal advice”

Thank yous:

SFX from various Watch Dogs: Legion promo materials, a BBC news report on Lulzsec, the trailer for WarGames, and other clips from MovieClips.

Music is Crypto by Kevin MacLeod, of course


The Machine Thinks by Kevin MacLeod too

Episode Transcription:

David Lightman (soundbite): We’re in.

Gabriella Coleman, hacker expert: If you look at the history of hacking, with each passing decade, the sentences got stiffer and stiffer, and this was in part enabled by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that was passed in the 1980s and was actually a kind of reaction, partly, to a film, WarGames. For example, Ronald Reagan was shown the movie.

WOPR (soundbite): Would you like to see some projected kill ratios?
David Lightman: 69% of the housing destroyed? 72 million people dead?

Brendan Caldwell: Hi there, and welcome to Hey Lesson, the podcast where we ask smart people stupid questions about video games, and we underhandedly teach you things in the process. Today, we will be talking about Watch Dogs: Legion, a game set in a near future London taken over by a militaristic corporation where you play as a gang of insurgent hackers fighting back. You hack cars, you hack computers. Let’s be honest, you probably kill a lot of people in the process. How close is all this to what real hackers do? Well, keep listening to hear from an expert on hacker culture, who will help us answer today’s question, which is: can hackers defeat fascism? Which is a simple question, right? To help us with that, on the video game side of things at least, is Nate Crowley of PC games website Rock Paper Shotgun. Hello, Nate. How are you?

Nate Crowley: Hello, Brendy. I’m very well, thank you.

Brendan: You’re good.

Nate: Yeah. Unlike London, which is totally flipped. I would have done a harder swear, but you advised me that this is a clean listening podcast.

Brendan: Sometimes the experts that we interview swear, um, but I have to bleep it and I’m too polite to tell them “please don’t do that”. So they can get away with it, but not you Nate. I’m sorry.

Nate: Well, London’s totally bungled mate. It’s full of flipping cabbages.

Brendan: You know it’s full of cabbages because you reviewed it. You reviewed Watch Dogs: Legion.

Nate: Yes I’ve been playing it for most of the last week, actually.

Brendan: You weren’t super keen on it by the sounds of things, a little keen, but before we go into exactly why that is, could you just set the scene for us. For someone who’s had their phone switched off for a few months? What is Watch Dogs Legion?

Nate: Yeah. So this is a game developed by and published by Ubisoft. Uh, it is one of their open world games which, as the name suggests, is one with a game map that you can rove around at will. Uh, and they’re usually typified by having lots of icons on a map and, and in Watch Dogs: Legion, which is the third of the Watch Dogs games, you play the role of a hacker. Uh, well, no, you’re not a hacker. You’re just a human recruited by an organization called DedSec. Uh, it’s a little way in the future and a big, horrible, private security megacorp called Albion has muscled in to the UK and taken over it, really as a sort of authoritarian surveillance state. And they’ve only gone and framed DedSec for some bombs.

Brendan: Oh no.

Nate: Yeah. So Dedsec’s been beasted and they’re in hiding, and you are the first person they’ve reached out to, to begin the resistance against Albion. Now, the big thing about Watch Dogs Legion – and the clues in the name…

Brendan: Tell me.

Nate: Well, there’s no main character.

Brendan: What? But it’s a video game, Nate. There has to be a main character. Who will I know… who will I empathize with otherwise?

Nate: Well, it could be Diane the talent agent with a high powered sports car and a history of going to furry conventions. Uh, it could be Levant the 79 year old car mechanic. It could be the man whose name I forgotten who has fights.

Brendan: You’re right. It’s him.

Nate: Because that’s the thing. There’s no main character in Watch Dogs Legion because there’s potentially 9 million of them. London is full of procedurally generated NPCs with, for some extent, a simulated life of their own. And you can recruit any of them to the DedSec cause and subsequently play as them. So to recruit them, you have to do a side quest for them like, “Oh, my granny’s been smuggling drugs for massive Michael, if you can get her out of corporate hyper jail, oh, I might join your crew.” And then you go and clear granny’s name and they join your crew. And whoever they are will bring with them a specific set of skills, or whatever it was Liam Neeson said in the killing-people film. And they might also have, uh, a couple of toys, like a lifty-droppy construction drone, or just a massive wrench to hit people with.

Brendan: The baddy in it, the big group that you talked about, Albion, the private security firm – just so people don’t think I’m exaggerating with the question or the title of this week’s episode… on a scale of one to, you know, Adolf… how fash are they?

Nate: Oh, they’re were about four and a half giga-Mussolinis. They are extremely fascist.
A lot of games I think have cynically and, uh, quite cowardlyly, uh, sidestepped the culture wars, and been, in inverted commas, “apolitical”. And a lot of people thought Watch Dogs Legion was going to do that. Because after all they want to sell a lot of copies. But to give them credit, they have been pretty clear about where their bread is buttered. Yeah. Cause that’s the thing. You can’t be subtle in a game on that scale and budget, um, because you want incredibly stoned 17 year olds to know what’s going on. And so it is absolutely telegraphed. Albion are mega fash. There’s no room for the banality of evil in it. Albion are operatically gittish, but at least, yeah, at least it’s clear where their politics lie.

Brendan: As you’re walking around the city, when you do hacking, what do you hack? Do you hack like other people’s computers or…?

Nate: Well, this… you know the concept of the internet of things? This game takes that to sort of the next logical remove from where it is now. And I think you would struggle to find a moment in the game when you’re not looking at something that can be hacked, whether that is a car, a security camera, a door lock, a safe, a vent, or even a person. You can, you can sort of hack people, not sort of control them as if they were but ants. But you can look in their future phone or whatever to find out, you know, if they have a desperate aspiration to beat up a helicopter… then you could, you know, wow, there’s a helicopter over there that looks like it wants a rumble… that might be your way to get them into the revolution.

Brendan: In the game it sounds like the mission is fairly straightforward. You bring down an authoritarian government and its corporate cronies, but in reality hackers might be a bit more divided. Anti-government hackers might find any such mission more difficult. So to find out more about hacker culture, I spoke to Gabriella Coleman. She is an anthropologist and the author of a book called Hacker Hoaxer Whistleblower Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. She’s written some other books too, but that’s the big one I think. And here is what she had to say about the challenges of hacker life.

[Interview begins]

Brendan: Gabriella Coleman. Can you please first of all, introduce yourself to our listeners. Who are you and what do you do?

Gabriella Coleman: Sure. So I am an anthropologist who stumbled upon the wonderful world of hacking about 20 years ago. And that’s been my area of research. I approach it anthropologically, which means I get my hands really dirty and dive into these worlds. I’m currently a professor at McGill university as well.

Brendan: For the people at the back. Could you tell us just what a hacker is, define the term for us.

Gabriella Coleman: Hacker, gosh. A hacker, among people who call themselves a hacker are those that approach technology creatively, with ingenuity. Often it’s focused on computers, but not exclusively. On the other hand, hacker is a term that’s controversial. It often is associated with criminality, with those who break into systems to access data or steal information. So it has a kind of dual life in the, in the public imagination.

Narrator (soundbite): Amy is a drone expert, a real tech connoisseur.

Brendan: What does the average hacker really look like, then?

Gabriella Coleman: There is no look. I’m currently teaching a class on computer hackers and I’m bringing in a hacker a week. And I think one of the things that has surprised my students is precisely the fact that they just look like you and I.

Narrator (soundbite): Look around: hipsters, punks, football fans, construction workers, paramedics, annoying tourists…

Gabriella Coleman: The depictions of them have tended to be pretty narrow. They tend to either be like the asocial nerd or the psychotic genius. You know, those are two kind of archetypes.

Brendan: In the video game that we’re talking about. Watch Dogs: Legion, England has become a surveillance state and the player has to fight against it by recruiting a collective of hackers. That idea of the hacker as an anti-establishment hero… is that a common idea? Is it fair? Do people like that really exist?

Gabriella Coleman: Yes. Yes. Certainly. The history of hacking has had many examples of both individuals and groups who are both anti authoritarian and who’ve acted individually and collectively against states or even corporations. The term for that is hacktivism. Now do all hackers follow that way? Absolutely not. But there is a history of that. And there are so many examples.

Narrator (soundbite): Everyday people, with something to fight for.

Brendan: In the game, you can do all sorts of handy things just from your phone. You can hack a car to make it crash, for example. You can hack other people’s phones as a distraction. You do all this instantly with a button press. Is that the type of thing that real hackers are able to do?

Gabriella Coleman: They can’t do it with the press of a button, but yes, yes, they can. Software… all software is hackable. It is certainly the case that hackers do have the skills to do this. It can be difficult, right? This isn’t a push of a button, but nevertheless, there are instances of hackers breaking into, for example, cars. Charlie Miller is a former employee of the NSA. He and some of his coworkers were able to hack cars in such a way that they could break them – which can kill people. So absolutely they can do this. I think what’s interesting is that very few use those skills for political protest. The great majority of hackers use these skills to create better security.

Narrator (soundbite): Or how about Elena? A hacker could always be useful.

Brendan: You used the term hacktivism there. Can you give us some examples of what a hacktivist is as opposed to a vanilla hacker?

Gabriella Coleman: Well, the term has a kind of history, um, and there was a group called the Cult of the Dead Cow. They didn’t invent the term hacktivist, but they certainly, uh, disseminated it into the public, uh, because they were really good at kind of media stunts. They used it to emphasize the ways in which hackers can apply their technological skills for the purposes of advancing human rights. In the context of, let’s just say China, where there’s a firewall, right? More recently, Anonymous, which is a name that hackers and non-hackers have used to organise protests largely online, would hack corporations. I mean, that’s hardcore to do that. And [they would] take information and release it to the public. Um, and some of this information was released in order to expose the kind of shenanigans of these corporations. And that’s a more contemporary form of hacktivism.

Zero-day (soundbite): I don’t expect you to understand this, but what I’m doing is good.

Brendan: We like video games here on Hey Lesson. And one thing that some PlayStation owners might remember from a few years ago is that the Sony servers were hacked by a small group, a different group. And they were called Lulzsec. They were a sort of, I don’t know, like a wacky group. Part hackers, part trolls. But you actually got to meet one of them while researching your book. Right?

Gabriella Coleman: There was only one that I met during the course of research, and then, after a number of them got arrested in different places, I met others. And indeed Lulzsec was a kind of breakaway group from Anonymous. But I did, I did meet one of the members of Lulzsec, who was also part of Anonymous.

BBC news presenter (soundbite): Back in December, cyber activists, attacked MasterCard and PayPal in protest after they cut ties with whistleblowing website WikiLeaks…

Brendan: His name was Hector Monsegur. What was he like as a person when you met him?

Gabriella Coleman: So it was Hector Monsegur, his hacker handle was “Sabu”. It was so interesting because he lived less than a mile away from me in New York City. I was living in New York City at the time. And he lived in some of the kind of social housing. His background, he’s from Puerto Rico. And he was very interesting because people think that hackers come from like white middle-class families. And his background was very different. He came from the projects, he was not white, and he did not come from a kind of privileged class. It is the case that there is more diversity than people assume. And yet it’s also the case that you just don’t have a lot of hackers coming from the projects or something. And so he kind of blasted a lot of stereotypes in that way.

Narrator (soundbite): Well, this one looks promising, let’s hack into his profile.

Brendan: And how deep does that diversity go in a wider sense? In the video game, in Watch Dogs, you have to create this medley of hacker friends by recruiting people. And it’s such a big mix that you can get. There are retired grandmothers, there are spooks, construction workers, beekeepers. Is it that diverse in real life? Are there beekeeper hackers?

Gabriella Coleman: There are beekeeper hackers, actually!

Brendan: What? I asked this question as a joke!

Gabriella Coleman: That’s why I thought it was so funny. I was in Scotland and I met one of the Anonymous hackers and he had a beehive, he was a beekeeper.

Narrator (soundbite): Some of the most legendary recruits, are not someone you just run into every day. Like this robotic beekeeper, Shelby.

Gabriella Coleman: You know… it’s a very male world. When it comes to other types of hacking, such as hardware hacking let’s say, or open source software, there’s a lot more females. There’s a lot of trans people. But when it comes to the act of breaking into computers and the communities that have formed around that activity, it’s been predominantly male. That said, Lulzsec, I think is very, very interesting because two of the members were people of color – Hector Monsegur and Mustafa Al-Bassam, who lives in London but is originally from Iraq. And, and so there’s a way in which I actually think if you look at class and ethnicity, it is actually a bit more diverse than you would otherwise think. Gender is the exception.

Narrator (soundbite): We’re everyone and we’re everywhere.

Brendan: Whatever happened to that group? To Lulzsec?

Gabriella Coleman: For a period of time, they were very busy. They did almost a hack a day for 50 days. I mean, that was remarkable. All of us in 2011 who followed Anonymous and Lulzsec were like glued to the computer in the spring and summer of 2011 and going, “Oh, who are they going to hack next? Who’s their next victim?”

Brendan: It’s like a spectator sport.

Gabriella Coleman: It was. It was like a combination between a performance and a spectator sport. But a couple of things happened. One of which is they got tired. It’s hard to, you know, do a daily hack, right. It’s kind of exhausting. Um, and then there was also Sabu, Hector Monsegur, at a certain point had been flipped by the FBI. They had found him, arrested him and basically enrolled him to become an informant. And then the third thing was long time political anarchist and hacktivist Jeremy Hammond decided to go out of retirement, and he joined Lulzsec and he convinced a number of people to become more militant.

Zero-day (soundbite): Destruction is always the cure.

Brendan: And then I’m guessing the big hammer came down.

Gabriella Coleman: It came down and it came down in Europe as well as the United States. The Lulsec/Antisec hackers in Ireland and in the UK were all arrested. And then Jeremy Hammond was also arrested. And all of this was facilitated by Sabu. Although some of the hackers also made technical or human mistakes that made it easier to catch them.

Nigel the fascist (soundbite): Criminals running on the streets, illegals threatening our family.

Brendan: How much time did those people get in prison?

Gabriella Coleman: Jeremy Hammond is still in jail. He was arrested in 2012, so people can do the math. He’s due out soon. In the context of Ireland and the UK, a number of the hackers were so young that they did next to no jail time. Maybe like two weeks, the sentencing in Europe is dramatically more benign. You know, the judicial system is not as draconian as it is in the United States.

Narrator (soundbite): The government turns to a private military company called Albion to keep everyone safe. What could possibly go wrong?

Brendan: This is something that I wanted to ask about because in Watch Dogs, the punishment for running foul of the rozzers, the police, is that your character is arrested and you can’t play as that character for a short time. You just have to go and play somebody else. But in the real world, the sentences are much harsher, especially in the States. Why do you think it’s so punitive?

Gabriella Coleman: There’s two different reasons. One of which is the judicial system in the United States is draconian. When I visited Jeremy Hammond in jail and was like, “wow, you’re doing 10 years for your hacking”, he recognized that it was a stiff sentence, but he also reminded me that there were other African American men in jail who, you know, maybe were convicted for possessing a small amount of cocaine and were doing 30 years. It’s an unfair, extreme system in the United States that really targets certain populations. So that’s one level. The other level is, you know, if you look at the history of hacking with each passing decade, the sentences got stiffer and stiffer, and this was in part enabled by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that was passed in the 1980s and was actually a kind of reaction, partly, to a film: WarGames.

Narrator of WarGames trailer (soundbite): David Lightman was a minister at computer games.

Brendan: Really? The film WarGames made them pass a law that made a harsher punishment for hacking?

Gabriella Coleman: Yeah. I mean, it fed into it. For example, Ronald Reagan was shown the movie.

Brendan: Oh no!

Gabriella Coleman: And yeah. And it came up during the deliberations in Congress, around the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. And the movie WarGames, you know, represents a happy-go-lucky, pretty benign hacker, David Lightman in the form of Matthew Broderick who actually then hacks into a kind of military computer. And so there’s like a lot of hysteria around what hackers can do after this film.

Narrator of WarGames trailer (soundbite): But it was the wrong computer.
WOPR: Shall we play a game?
Jennifer Mack: How can it ask you that?

Brendan: In terms of raw power, are these small groups like in the one in Watch Dogs, they’re called DedSec… are small groups like that not always going to be out-gunned and out-manned by the state and big businesses?

Gabriella Coleman: Technical security is very difficult. Oftentimes when you’re engaged with others, for a political cause the feelings of solidarity and bonding kind of push you to share elements of your offline life with others. And it’s… it’s hard not to. But if you really can pull it off, you can protect yourself from the state and corporations who otherwise do have tremendous resources to uncover and unveil hackers, right? But this is where the example of Phineas Fisher is a really good example and they’ve engaged in some really high profile hacks. And they’ve never been caught.

Undercover hacker (soundbite): Don’t mind me. Just doing recon for a bunch of insurgents.

Brendan: So there is, there is a sort of Robin Hood figure out there today, hacking corporations? They’re at large?

Gabriella Coleman: They’re at large, they haven’t done government hacks. It’s mostly against corporations. They’ve stolen some Bitcoins and have given it to kind of anarchist activists as well. They’ve hacked the Catalan police department. So that’s a kind of government hack now that I think of it, they strike occasionally and that’s good for protection. And then they’re not on Twitter, you know, trying to get recruits or showing off. Because that’s also bad for security. Every time you log onto Twitter is potentially a time where you make a mistake because you haven’t used the proper proxies and tools to cover yourself. You see what I’m saying?

Narrator (soundbite): Do anything suspicious and she’ll probably wind up with a bullet in the back of her head.

Brendan: We’ve called this episode “can hackers defeat fascism?” but like you’ve told us hackers come in all shapes and sizes, and have all sorts of motives. Is there a danger that hackers can, on the contrary, help bring about fascism?

Gabriella Coleman: Absolutely. The far and alt-right, which has gained prominence and visibility in recent years, they partly use technological means for their organising. Although they actually haven’t used a lot of hacking… One hacker who’s part of the Chaos Computer Club – they’re one of the oldest and most famous hacker organizations in the world, they’re from Germany – he was once asked this question and I thought his answer was really good. He said: Yeah. There’s nothing inherently about hacking that prevents people from supporting fascist causes. But there has been a very strong anti-authoritarian streak in the world of hacking. And that means that there’s been less of a tendency to go towards fascist circles.

Sabine (soundbite): The only way we’re going to stop London from falling into total oppression is to recruit and take the city back.

Brendan: We’ve already seen, for example, hackers from other nations meddling in elections and stuff like that. Uh, what can we expect in the future? Both from state-sponsored hackers and anti establishment hackers?

Gabriella Coleman: Yeah. In 2016 intelligence officers working on behalf of the Russian government used the cover of hacktivism to hack into the DNC, the Democratic National Convention as a way to kind of inject confusion before the election. And so this is an interesting instance where I think they did take a cue from the hacker playbook to do something very, very different. So while the Russians tried to make it seem like they were hacktivists, they didn’t pull it off, and they didn’t pull it off both for technical reasons, as well as like what I call stylistic reasons. Like, there’s a hacker style.

Brendan: Do you mean the Russian hackers… they basically weren’t wearing the right leather jacket… so to speak?

Gabriella Coleman: Yeah. They weren’t, exactly. Hacking has a whole history that’s not just about like technical acts, right? It’s about like the literature they publish, the ways in which they tell the FBI to f*** off. But I think in the future, I think in the future we will get much, much more sophisticated campaigns where it will be very difficult to tell… was that a nation state? Or was that a hacktivist?

Brendan: Gabriella Coleman, thank you very much for joining us.

Gabriella Coleman: My pleasure.

[Interview ends]

Brendan: All right. That was Gabriella Coleman of McGill University. If you want to hear the full conversation with her, it’s a much more detailed 45 minute chat in which she talks about hackers as, for example, the mythical trickster of our modern world (and she makes some other cool observations like that). Then you can subscribe to hear the longer version. For $2 a month you get access to these unabridged interviews with all the experts that we speak to, just go to, or follow the links by clicking “see more” in the show notes below. Nate, as you were saying, you’ve been tearing around London for a while. How much fash can one bash in Watch Dogs: Legion?

Nate: Well, I’ll say Gabriella was right on the money in terms of this game, or rather maybe Ubisoft were right on the money in terms of what she was saying, with some points at least. I really liked the thing about hackers not necessarily looking like hackers, because that’s something the game gets right half of the time. Like there’s this old geezer called Levant, who’s on my team who looks like a sort of a cross between Gandhi and Alf Garnett. And he just sort of dodders around in a shirt, but he’s a hacker. Uh, however, the game does go a bit hard on the sort of clichéd cybergoth aesthetic, uh, sometimes to really hammer home that these people are hackers.

Brendan: You mean like what they’re wearing?

Nate: Yeah. Like gold puffer jackets with skulls on. Neon pig masks. I mean, you will have seen the marketing for the game. It’s exhausting. Like, I just wish it was all people like Alf Garnett Gandhi. Right.

Brendan: What about the baddies? I know that there’s a man called Nigel.

Nate: Yeah. There is. There’s a sneering b******, which I think I can say, who comes on the telly.

Brendan: You can’t say that.

Nate: [Laughing] Well, he’s a horrid man. And he comes on the television to boast about how evil he is. Basically like, “Oh, we’ll now be allowed to execute children if we feel like it.” And then the Prime Minister will come on the telly and say “He’s right.” Um, yeah. So, you know, they are, I mean… Albion is such a relentless presence in the game. Like, every major landmark, you know, Big Ben and the London Eye and whatever, they’ve all got massive a Albion logo on them just so you can never forget who the baddy is. Such strong branding.

Brendan: Did… were they a bit too pantomime for you? You were saying like there’s no room for the banality of evil. Do you think they don’t represent any kind of government or body that a real life hacker would have to deal with?

Nate: Well, yeah, it’s quite… The game doesn’t make it dramatically clear what the relationship between them and the government is. It’s all sort of obfuscated a bit. The government is sort of plausibly blameless, but then people, NPCs, bang on about the NHS being gutted and stuff by the government. So yeah, I don’t think it’s quite made up its mind on that. Um, but I dunno. The way fascism’s crept into the real world is by all sorts of plausible deniability, isn’t it, you know, dog whistles and sort of suggesting horrific things and then saying, “No, no, no, of course that’s not what we were saying” when challenged on it. It’s this constant exhaustion of the reasonable, to sort of erode it away until what’s left by default is abhorrent, because that’s an incredibly efficient way of getting into power. Whereas just getting a load of bully boys with flak jackets and incredibly high tech checkpoints and stuff, if you just go ahead with that, I think that’s liable to raise a few more eyebrows and crucially, you know, not get half of the population hoodwinked into thinking it’s a brilliant idea. Uh, and that’s what didn’t quite sell me about Watch Dogs because the whole thing about it being called Legion and… and all of these people who you can recruit is this lovely idea… If we only all pooled our strength, we could easily overthrow the man. And well, yes, that’s true if the struggle against the man is abstracted to this sort of zero sum tug of war where burroughs have a numerical “defiance rating” and will riot like maniacs, if it goes above three or whatever. Whereas in real life, it’s complicated, there’s interplay between different… there’s in-fighting within left-wing groups and, you know… the Liberal Democrats, just what are they?

Brendan: Do you think then the game paints a too rosy picture of trying to overcome an oppressive regime?

Nate: Well, yeah, absolutely because it’s very… I think the big thing that was missing from the game that’s present in real life is disinformation, I suppose. Confusion, fragmentation. In the game it’s so clear what’s going on and how it can be fought against. It is as if the population of London has an enormous psychic golf club lined up for a perfect swing. Whereas in real life, the targets are constantly moving and… you know, things are being spread that aren’t true. And as I say, you know, things are denied. It’s much harder to know what you’re actually fighting.

Brendan: It’s like Gabriella was saying about how the alt-right has tended not to use hackers as much as using image boards to post pictures that help spread misinformation.

Nate: The first thing she said I thought was really interesting. That hacking, you know, it should be remembered, isn’t just about computers. Because I think the far right has done an astonishing job of hacking social media as a means of the distribution of information, uh, and yeah, in exactly the way she was talking about with image boards and things. And none of that happens in this game.

Brendan: Let’s imagine, okay, let’s step away from the game for a second. Let’s be wild. And imagine that say, the United States – to pluck an example – goes full fash. Just a random example.

Nate: Crikey.

Brendan: Do you think that hackers would help to defeat that and restore democracy? Or are you a bit more wary of that? A bit more skeptical?

Nate: I would hope so. Uh, I mean, I suppose it depends who… I’m not saying “young people use computers” but it does depend on where youth sympathies lie to some extent. A lot is depending on who votes in the election that… will take place potentially after this goes out? Or before this gets broadcast? The big, frightening election…

Brendan: This comes out just after.

Nate: God help us then. Well, a lot will have depended on how many young people went out to vote. Uh, one thing I’d like to ask Gabriella is, you know, how many “hackers” in inverted commas there are? As in, you know, what percentage of extremely online people have some sort of presence in this world.

Brendan: That’s a good question.

Nate: Because if it is an awful lot of people, then yeah, you’ve got quite a brute mass of interference there and, well, looking at the last few years, it’s horrible to say that there seems to be a case of diminishing returns with traditional routes of political protest and indeed direct action. You know, so maybe that is an avenue. I would certainly like to hope it is. And there’s lots of tricks to be learnt, I suppose, from the playbook adopted by the far right over the last few years, you know, they were there first, but there’s no reason people can’t learn to play dirty from them, I suppose.

Brendan: Let’s back it up a bit and just relax a bit. Okay. One of the things that, uh, Gabriella was telling us was about how sentencing in the United States is quite harsh. You appear on the Rock Paper Shotgun podcast. And I know you like to play games on that podcast because you’re always the gamesmaster. So I thought that’s not fair, let’s make a game for Nate to play.

Nate: Ooh.

Brendan: So here is a game I’m calling “Nate Crowley’s Office for Computer Misuse Legal Advice.”

Nate: I like the sound of this.

Brendan: I’m going to read you a hacker’s name. I’m going to read you their handle and their alleged crimes. These are real hackers I found on Wikipedia. It’s not things I’ve made up. All I want you to do is to tell me how much time they can expect to get in the clink, if any.

Nate: Okay. Right. Yeah. And this is in America?

Brendan: Uh, I will say where they’re from. All right. The first hacker is Samy Kamkar. His handle is Samy and he is from the United States. [He] was charged with creating the “Samy is my hero” XSS worm that spread across MySpace, a social networking site in 2005. What’s Samy looking at?

Nate: Cool. Man’s a God. Should just have a fine. $1,337.

Brendan: Sammy got three years of formal probation, 90 days of community service, restitution paired to MySpace, and restrictions on his computer use.

Nate: Aw, not allowed on Neopets anymore.

Brendan: Would like to know some trivia about Samy?

Nate: Yeah, I would, I’m really pro-him.

Brendan: I don’t know if the listener remembers MySpace, but MySpace was basically like the proto-Facebook. Within 20 hours of him making this worm and releasing it out into the world in 2005, over 1 million users had run the payload, making it the fastest spreading virus of all time. And the worm itself, it says here, was relatively harmless. It carried a payload that would display the text “Sammy is my hero” on the victim’s MySpace profile page. And then it would send Samy a friend request.

Nate: Amazing. I didn’t realize that bit.

Brendan: So it would basically just make him a load of friends.

Nate: Lovely.

Brendan: Three years of formal probation.

Nate: He didn’t have to do any custodial time then?

Brendan: I don’t think so, no. Um, okay. Here’s the second one. The offender is Lewys Martin, otherwise known as “Sl1nk”. And the “i” in slink is a one, just in case you were wondering. He is from the United Kingdom and he’s being charged with a hacking attempt on the websites of the Kent police, Cambridge university and Oxford university, as being a former member of Nullcrew, who are said to have penetrated the servers of the department of defense, the Pentagon, NASA NSA, and other UK government websites in 2012. What do you think Lewys is looking at?

Nate: That sounds quite serious actually doesn’t it…

Brendan: It does.

Nate: Is there any idea of what he was actually looking to do with access to those sites?

Brendan: I’m not sure.

Nate: Okay. I think four years

Brendan: Lewys got two years.

Nate: Custodial?

Brendan: Two years imprisonment. That’s all I’ve been told.

Nate: Bloody hell. Well, that’s better than I was fearing, so that’s good.

Brendan: Okay. Here’s the last one. Hamza Bendelladj – I don’t know if I’m pronouncing it right – Hamza Bendelladj, otherwise known as BX1, an Algerian, was charged with wire and bank fraud and being the co-creator of the Trojan horse SpyEye. He stole from 217 American banks in total stealing $400 million and sold the spy software to other hackers so that it could be used as part of a botnet.

Nate: It’s kind of amazing, isn’t it?

Brendan: Hamza did well.

Nate: Because of the vast amounts of money involved. And because I’m presuming that he’s not white, I think they’re going to have been horrendous to him. That sounds like a… I’m going to really be pessimistic here and say 10 years.

Brendan: After a three-year cheese, Hamza was arrested extradited to the U S where he got a 15 year jail sentence.

Nate: Oh, 15 years.

Brendan: You want to know some trivia about Hamza? He is alleged to have donated all the money to charities in Africa and Palestine, although that’s never been verified. And he earned the nickname, “the Smiling Hacker” because he was always happy whenever photos were taken of him after or during his arrest.

Nate: Goodness. Oh, the charity thing, if that’s true, that’s really sad.

Brendan: Yeah. Brutal. But who knows?

Nate: Could be some of that disinformation? Who knows? Probably not though, I get the feeling. Oh dear. Well, that was a jolly game Brendan.

Brendan: Hey Lesson is about learning through games. And so I thought we would learn some things. We’d learn how many people get put away for extreme amounts of time for stealing money that basically gets created on computers.

Nate: I did do a learn there. Crikey.

Brendan: All right, I’m sorry, but that is all we have time for, I’m afraid. I’m going to have to leave you on that downer. You’ve been listening to Hey Lesson with me Brendan Caldwell and our guest this week Nate Crowley. Thank you very much for joining us, Nate.

Nate: Oh, thank you. It was a pleasure.

Brendan: And for lending us your legal expertise.

Nate: Sorry I couldn’t be more use to the clients, but our computers are all down.

Brendan: We don’t have any ads or sponsors on Hey Lesson, we get by solely on help from subscribers. So if you have enjoyed this episode or others, please help us to keep going. If you become a regular donor, you will get extra goodies including full interviews with our experts, like I said, but you can also get bonus episodes, video updates, similar stuff. Just head to to become a supporter. A supporter like Alex! Shout out to Alex for being our first Porpoise-tier subscriber (we have animal tiers, don’t ask). Alex is a good person, a good porpoise.

Nate: Well done, you.

Brendan: If you have just run out of Hey Lesson podcasts, you can also check us out on Twitch. Every Thursday, I chat about the latest episode and its topic on Twitch while playing a related video game, you can find that at This week, I will be playing a hacking game. But you’ll have to come and see what it is. Anyway, that’s all for now. Thanks again, Nate!

Nate: Yep, thank you. I’ll see you next time.

Brendan: And thank you again to our listeners. Goodbye!

Nate: Bye.

WOPR (soundbite): Wouldn’t you prefer a good game of chess?
David Lightman: Later. Let’s play global thermonuclear war… All right!