If a Chinese official had to come up with a list of his government's enemies overseas, a 51-year-old former journalist and ex-U.N. official in Toronto proudly admits he would be ranked near the top.
An active member of two computer hacking groups, the man, who goes by the alias Oxblood Ruffin, is leading an effort to help Chinese dissidents by providing them software that allows Internetusers to avoid Beijing's censors. Oxblood is a member of Cult of the Dead Cow, a hacker group that started in the mid-1980s. He is also active in a newer, related group, Hacktivismo, which last month released Camera/Shy, a free program that helps encrypt content on the Internet.
According to its Web site, the group believes "that state-sponsored censorship of the Internet is a serious form of organized and systematic violence against citizens, is intended to generate confusion and xenophobia, and is a reprehensible violation of trust." As a result, "we will study ways and means of circumventing state-sponsored censorship of the Internet and will implement technologies to challenge information rights violations."
I recently spoke to Oxblood (Hacktivismo's "Resident Windbag," according to the group's Web site) and asked him about what his groups are doing and why they are focusing on China. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:
Q: What is Cult of the Dead Cow?
A: There are two kinds of hackers: the hot dogs in front of the cameras like us and others who never come out of the woodwork. CDC started informally...back in 1984. Eventually CDC evolved into a group with a Web presence. We started releasing software four years ago.
We have 23, 24 members, all in the U.S. except for me. Everyone is very smart and a total [wiseacre] -- if David Letterman had been a hacker and into IT, he would have been prime CDC material.
Q: How does somebody sign up?
A: The CDC is sort of like the Skull & Bones of hacking. It's easier for Sinead O'Connor to get a date with the Pope than for anyone else to get into the CDC.
Q: Why the strange heavy-metal name?
A: Part of the hacking scene in the '80s was that everyone had ominous, gang-sounding names. A lot of these groups came out of Texas.... The CDC came from Lubbock, Texas. It was a transshipment point for the cattle industry, and there are a lot of abattoirs there. [The founders of the CDC] started hanging out in the abattoir, smoking cigarettes, talking about girls. It just sort of took off from there.
Q: What is Hacktivismo and what does it have against China?
A: Hacktivismo was founded a couple of years ago. The mandate is to work on technology that sort of raises the human rights bar within the Internet. We are very much concerned with things such as Internet censorship, access, and privacy issues. We're trying to make hackers more proactive. We provide tech that is entirely legal.
A: I've been in the CDC for six years. I first noticed that everybody in the group is unbelievably intelligent -- some of these guys are frighteningly intelligent, up on the genius level. But [I thought] other than being the coolest guys on the Net, what else are you...doing?
What I saw was a tremendous opportunity to use technology for fairly positive things. Hackers tend to be fairly libertarian-oriented people, into freedom and democracy, not too much government intrusion into their lives.
Q: And why China?
A: I've been aware that there is a lot of government censorship in places like China, and definitely China has always been the worst offender for me. I really didn't see [Western] governments doing anything. All the liberal democracies talk a better game than they play about the Internet and spreading democracy. Everyone is aware that there is Internet censorship, but no one is doing anything about it. I hate to quote President Bush, because I'm not a fan of his, but like he said...you are either for democracy or against it. I don't think you can have it both ways.
Q: So you don't think Western companies should be selling technology to China?
A: I don't think you can profit from having a business in the U.S. or Western Europe, enjoying everything that gives you, and turn around [and support tyrants] -- it's like sleeping with the enemy. They are providing every piece of technology they are being asked to provide. There are certain ethical or moral considerations that should be a part of that....
Q: But many people believe that China is changing for the better.
A: I don't buy that there is a new China. China should have to play the same game that everyone else is playing. I'm not a China hater. I just want for there not to be special favors or status.
Q: Your group has released this software, Camera/Shy. What does it do?
A: It's a form of encryption. If you have an e-mail or text document and you wanted to encrypt it, you hit the button and it goes off into an undecipherable mess. You can hide pretty much any digital content in a digital image. You can have a picture of Jiang Zemin, and you can hide a picture of the Dalai Lama in it.
Q: How does it work?
A: China and most countries that censor the Internet -- the Web and e-mail -- use something called DNS filtering, which works on the router level. A request will be flying along from somebody's desktop to a Web page outside China, and then it hits the router, where there is almost like a huge database that sits below the router that contains [banned] domain addresses. Every day there are about a million or so standard addresses that you can't get to.... They [the censors] are going out and looking for offensive Web sites. Camera/Shy allows people to publish whatever content they want on a Web site.
We are providing an alternative tool for people who want to do hit-and-run publishing on the Web. It doesn't require more than 10 minutes of learning and then you can be up and running.
Q: What sort of response have you gotten?
A: We know that groups are already using this in China, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran.
Q: How big of a hacker community is there in China?
A: I would say that it is substantial. It's kind of like the hacking community here: It's divided probably among people basically in the IT industry who are trying to make a lot of dough, and other people who almost fall into a Western ethos and look at the Net as a whole. They find the government interference and regulation of the Net as a gross annoyance and are trying to subvert that.
I'm starting to have more and more contact with a lot of these guys. They know that we are supportive and know the kinds of solutions we are working on. There is a certain amount of trust-building that is going on.
Q: The Chinese government must be angry about this.
A: I'm just convinced, with some of the feedback I'm getting, that the PSB [China's Public Security Bureau] is totally aware of who we are. They've been following us closely. The PSB thinks of me as their Osama bin Laden. We would be considered terrorists to them.
Q: Speaking of which, a lot of people say that terrorists can use your encryption software. Do you worry that you are helping terrorism?
A: Can terrorists use this application? Yes, but they are already using cell phones and Microsoft Word. There is always going to be sort of negative use and exploitation of positive technology. At the end of the day, is the upside greater than the downside? After September 11, that is what people have to ask themselves. Does this fundamentally benefit the democratic franchise? Could it fundamentally damage the institutions of democracy? Our technology is clearly intended for democracy and human rights activists. The people it was intended to serve are using it.
Q: What do you say to people who believe that hackers are criminals?
A: Nobody [in CDC] has been arrested for computer crime, nor would we tolerate [our members committing crimes]. I don't know if we would call up the FBI on them, but we would certainly throw them out of the group. In the computer world, people understand where we are coming from.
It's like the early days of rock and roll, when people thought that Elvis was a punk. A lot of hacking has that vibe about it. As a result of Hollywood, middle-class people tend to equate hacker with computer criminal. Maybe we need a better PR agency. Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BusinessWeek Online