Notes on “Private Investigations”

This year’s Chaos Communication Congress’s motto is “Private Investigations”. Thinking of private investigators, the first thing that may come to your mind is the image of a hard boiled yet well-intentioned guy in a trench coat who solves problems in his own special way, as depicted in film-noir classics, such as The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. The lone wolf, the rōnin, the mysterious guy working on his own are well-established metaphors the media has repeatedly used when describing hackers. As with many things that happen when media realities and hacker culture clash, these images contain both pieces of truth and myths that are blown out of proportion. In that sense, this years’s motto is both a nod of respect to the hacker community and the strange birds in there as well as a bit of self-irony.

Perhaps the neo-film-noir movie that can best be described as “seminal” is Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner. Set in a dark and dismal future, it describes the work of Rick Deckard, a police man whose job it is to hunt down and terminate replicants, artificially created humans. As the story continues, we see how distinctions blur and ultimately, the movie asks the question of human identity. Here, our motto gets a twist. “Private Investigations” can also be interpreted in a different way: They are these kinds of investigations (mostly conducted by the government or large corporations) that target privacy and thus go to the very core of identity, the part of us that contains the little secrets that make us unique.

And boy, did we see a lot of these investigations this year! The all new and shiny biometric, RFID-powered passport recently introduced in Germany is just the tip of the iceberg here: it’s a shoddy piece of technology, hastily introduced in the aftermath of 9/11, yet one of the biggest onslaughts on privacy in recent German history. In short, it sounds like a call to arms for every hacker. Privacy is a topic that is bound to keep us interested this year. As more and more of our life becomes as public as possible (which can be a good thing: think of citizens’ media and weblogs that have the potential of putting discourse in society in the hands of so-called average people), online privacy and its limits and culture still need to be developed.

In a minor scene in Blade Runner, a colleague of Deckard’s folds origami unicorns, in order to give him a hint. The unicorn will appear as a design element in many places at this year’s congress and we are sure you will be excited by the design once we can reveal it, as a lot of hard work went into it. Origami is actually an interesting thing for hackers in many ways. It’s somewhat technical and artful (there is even a talk on “paper prototyping” for GUIs this year) and can be seen as an example of 3D visualization: By folding a two-dimensional object (a piece of paper) you get a three-dimensional thingy. Also, origami has a symbolic value that is linked to last year’s key-note on a meta level.
Peter Glaser, long time member of the Chaos Computer Club and acclaimed writer (winner of the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis, one of the most important prizes in German literature) gave us an introduction to the history of those excited by the use of technology, the “usual suspects” of last year’s motto. Talking about the darker side of technology, he quoted nuclear scientist Enrico Fermi who said in the early summer of 1945: “Leave me alone with your pangs of remorse! Look at what beautiful physics this is”.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the drop of the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the most deadly weapons ever to be developed by a bunch of nerdy scientists. Among the victims was a Japanese girl named Sadako Sasaki who was diagnosed with leukemia and, wishing to recover, believed in the old Asian legend which said that anyone who folds a thousand origami paper cranes would be granted a wish (this legend is still strong in Asia today, just last year Thailand’s air force dropped 100 million origami cranes over rebellious Muslim areas of the country in order to bring peace to these regions). According to one story, Sadako started folding the birds, but died before she could finish her origami work.
As hackers, we are excited by technology. But not everything is just “beautiful physics” to us. Hackers are people who push buttons on computers. The hacker ethics are what is supposed to separate us from those who push the button.

But we don’t want to give you the impression that the tone of this year’s congress is gloomy and all about pondering. After all, Europe’s biggest hacker party awaits you. Feel free to investigate everything and make 22C3 your private party. Have fun!