Fear And Loathing In Montreal: An Evening With Glenn Greenwald

By Commander X

I first found out Glenn Greenwald was doing a speaking engagement in Montreal from the Twitter account of Gabriella Coleman.  I immediately did two things. First, I messaged an Anon who lives in Quebec – and told them to prepare to come down for the event. The next thing I did was to  write an E-Mail to Glenn offering to make myself available to him while he was in Montreal. To my huge surprise, I received an answer back almost immediately. Glenn not only wanted to meet with me in private, but was apparently quite anxious to do so.  After bouncing a few messages with Glenn’s “secretary” we settled on a meeting in the lobby of Glenn’s hotel the evening before his speaking event, scheduled for October 23, 2014 at McGill University.  At that point, I honestly thought it would just be an interesting evening – maybe some drinks after. Little did I know Glenn Greenwald’s visit would precipitate quite a little three day adventure for us Anons here in Canada.

On the afternoon prior to the speaking event, the Anon from Quebec City arrived at the coffee house we were meeting at. This person was very excited to not only meet Glenn Greenwald, but later Gabriella Coleman. “Biella” as she is affectionately known within Anonymous was hosting Glenn’s talk and she had agreed to meet with us both prior to the event at her office on McGill University campus. Surprisingly, there was no real “cloak & dagger” type preparations for the meeting with Glenn. Our plan was to show up in the lobby of his hotel and have the front desk call him.

When we arrived in the lobby of the hotel however, I began to sweat – and it wasn’t because of the heat. As it really began to sink in exactly who I was about to meet with, (not to mention who was doing the meeting) – I noticed what seemed like an inordinate number of individuals around us wearing suits and ties. Granted, it was a high-end business hotel – but there still seemed like a lot suits were about. How many of them were foreign intelligence agents?  CIA?  What seemed like a straight forward meeting with yet another journalist was now starting to feel a bit more…dangerous. It got really weird when the desk lady called Glenn and suddenly turned to me and asked “who’s calling?”. Me and the other Anon briefly looked at each other and then I turned back, coughed once and said “tell him it’s X”. I’ll give the girl credit for being a pro, she only hesitated about a half a second before complying.

The other Anon and myself then found a comfortable looking area in the sprawling lobby out of the way (and as far away from the “suits” as we could get), and settled in to await one of the most famous journalists in modern times. A few minutes later Glenn Greenwald bounded down the steps and looked us over. I stood up and straightened out the “Guy Fawkes” hoodie I was wearing and smiled at him. He strode right up to me and shook my hand with a firm grasp and said “X, I presume?”. I introduced my companion and then we all settled in to our corner of the lobby.

Over the course of the next couple of hours I had one of the most fascinating and stimulating conversations I have ever had with a journalist. Normally when I am meeting a journalist, even one as esteemed as say the editor of Rolling Stone – I am still the most famous person in the equation. But to sit there in that lobby talking information activism with the journalist who published the Snowden leaks, the single most trusted and hated journalist in the western world – was an incredibly unique experience.

There were some secrets shared. But much of what we discussed was about information activism, and the various factions within this movement and how those factions relate to each other. So for example, I filled Glenn in on the details of the great “Paywall Battle” between Anonymous and WikiLeaks that erupted in 2012. We discussed the relationship and differences between hacktivists and whistleblowers. And we discussed my own self-imposed political exile in Canada and it’s implications, for myself and for the movement. We talked a lot about Anonymous and it’s critical role in the information activism, past Ops and future possibilities. 

One thing I want to portray about Glenn Greenwald is his personality did not conform to what I had been led to expect.  He was not in any way aloof or high on himself. Despite being clearly exhausted he bounded across the lobby, shook my hand with great enthusiasm – and was lively, curious – and engaged throughout our wide ranging conversation. He was genuinely pleasant, down to earth – and wanting to know anything we could tell him about Anonymous. We spent a lot of time discussing the sacrifice of not only the whistleblowers like Snowden, but the hackers like Jeremy Hammond and journalists like Barrett Brown. Glenn was particularly curious  (and genuinely concerned) about how I was holding up under the rigors of nearly 3 years in exile and hiding.

The next evening my companion and I made our way onto McGill University and began the almost comical adventure of trying to locate the tiny and disorganized office of one Gabriella Coleman – the famous anthropologist who studies hackers. We were going to the meeting ostensibly to score signed copies of her new book “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy”, but we were both hopeful of spending some quality time with Biella – who is so beloved within Anonymous. After many wrong turns, we finally stumbled upon Coleman’s “office”. Apparently holding the “Wolfe Chair” at McGill does not entitle one to an office with a bathroom. Biella’s office was small, cramped, dis-organized (but not un-tidy) and yes, right in plain sight as we walked in there was a Guy Fawkes mask resting lazily on a shelf.

Gabriella Coleman’s research assistant Matt was there. And just prior to our arrival Biella had received a rather disturbing phone call from the Campus Security Office. Apparently a viable death threat against Glenn Greenwald had been made, and the security for that night’s event was being tightened. Glenn was not even going to be allowed to walk the short distance across the quad to the lecture hall, but was to be driven instead. However, with the weirdness and the book signing thing out of the way – we settled in to enjoy a delightful meeting with Gabriella Coleman. We touched on everything from Anonymous Operation Ferguson to how pissed off Barrett Brown was about some of the stuff in Biella’s new book. Coleman and her research assistant were particularly curious about a controversy called “gamer-gate” and our thoughts on it.

Finally the time arrived for my companion and I to make our way to the venue for that nights event. We scored some excellent seats up front near the VIP section and waited for Biella to take the stage and introduce the star of the evening, Glenn Greenwald. I won’t waste time trying to summarize Glenn’s talk that night because you really should simply watch it for yourself below…

WATCH  HERE

Glenn Greenwald’s presentation was consummate, being directly applicable in every way to the Canadian audience in attendance. He was able to use his time on stage to brilliantly lead his audience through the Snowden and other leaks, their highlights – and why these disclosures are important to Canadians. When he was finished he took many questions from eager students in the audience.

After the event, my Anon companion and myself were due to meet Gabriella Coleman and some other friends for drinks. But we had an hour or so to kill so we headed to a local sandwich shop to grab a bite to eat. Despite the fact that we were only inside for about 30 minutes, someone broke into my friends car and stole his laptop and both signed copies of “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy”. Were we the victims of some cagey intelligence people following Glenn and trying to see if we passed him anything?  Or was it just an incredible coincidence and really bad luck?  We’ll never know I guess.

Anonymous and the information activist community are a tight-knit group, like family really. Later that night as we all gathered at a couple of different watering holes to celebrate Glenn’s visit – there was much consternation at the theft of my friends laptop (the signed books were happily replaced the next day by Biella, who joked on Twitter she hoped the thieves would at least read it!). By the end of the evening a secret collection had raised more than enough to replace the computer stolen from my friends car. And just to add a touch of Black Hat to the evening, on the way home late that night we made a brief stop to pick up a package at a friends house. His doorbell didn’t work, and we only had Skype on mobile so we needed WiFi to call upstairs to get his attention. Undeterred, I went back to the car and grabbed my laptop – sat down on the sidewalk in front of my buddies house – and calmly hacked his WiFi password so we could call him.

All in a nights work, really.

Copyright © 2014 by Christopher Doyon. All Rights Reserved.

What It’s Like To Be Studied By An Anthropologist: A Review Of “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy” By Gabriella Coleman

By Commander X

Before I launch into this, my very first ever book review – a couple of caveats are in order. First, I am and have been for 5 years – a very active part of the idea called Anonymous (which is the topic of Gabriella Coleman’s book). I spend on average of 12 hours a day seven days a week working on various Operations and other Anonymous related projects.

My second caveat is that over the past five years as Biella, as she is fondly known within the Global Collective of Anonymous – wrote this work we became more than subject being studied and anthropologist. We became friends. The truth is that I, like many Anons – have grown quite fond of Biella.  Unlike Parmy Olson, who despite putting one or two (more or less truthful) anecdotes about me in her own tome on Anonymous (but never made any attempt to speak with me) – Biella was a regular, even daily – part of not only my own life but the vast majority of active Anons globally. Not only was she already present in virtually every IRC channel I might enter in a day, but she would appear in moments as if by magic after I created a new channel for an Anonymous action or Op. This constant presence, combined with her witty, sweet – and truly nice personality made it almost impossible not to love Gabriella Coleman.

That said, I was totally prepared to be disappointed with “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy” after Parmy Olson’s thoroughly wretched book on Anonymous (which actually wasn’t even about Anonymous, but an un-related off-shoot called LulzSec) soured me to books being accurately written about us. However, when I finally finished it and set it down about a week ago – I was stunned into a deep introspection that lasted quite a few minutes. To say that Biella’s book was amazing is to admit that words simply fail to capture how I felt in those moments after I finished reading it. The closest thing I have ever felt was sitting in the world premier of the full length motion picture documentary about Anonymous entitled “We Are Legion” (held in Toronto, and ironically I was sitting in the VIP section next to Biella). When you are involved in a history making and world changing endeavor, and you see or read about it accurately portrayed – there is a weird sense that overcomes you that is quite impossible to describe. It’s a strange combination of awe and contemplation akin to “did we really do all that shit?”. It is definitely bizarre to read books or watch movies about something that has literally become the culmination of your entire life’s work.

“Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy” is both epic and encyclopedic. Not an easy combination to get right in a single work – but Coleman accomplishes it with a seeming ease that belies how incredibly difficult I know this task was for her. The work is epic in the sense that it succeeds brilliantly in capturing not only the historic moments of triumph within Anonymous, but the beautiful yet difficult to capture mythos and ethos of Anonymous. As an anthropologist, Biella is uniquely qualified to assimilate and then explain to the reader how Anonymous is not only a powerful and historic movement, but an incredibly rich and deep culture.

And Coleman’s book is encyclopedic as a result of her sheer and unrelenting commitment. The number of hours that Biella spent immersed in Anonymous are quite simply incalculable. No one has ever made such an effort, and it is unlikely anyone ever will again. To put it simply Gabriella Coleman made her self a trusted and constant fixture in Anonymous for at least the entire five years that I have been involved. While I did note one or two secrets we managed to keep from her, there was virtually no corridor within the maze of Anonymous that Biella did not have access to.

The first thing I noticed as Biella handed me my signed copy of “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy” in her cramped and rather disorganized office space at McGill University (and yes, there was a Guy Fawkes mask resting on a shelf) was the size of the volume. It is fucking huge!  As I idly flipped through it at that meeting whilst we had a wide-ranging conversation mostly centered on current Anonymous Operations, I noted it is a well crafted book. The font is very readable, and the tome is easy to navigate. As I began to plow through it after that meeting I could see why Coleman chose the theme of a maze for the work. But let the reader relax, Biella is going to lead you through the maze that is Anonymous with charm, wit – and grace.

As I continued reading a couple of things leapt out at me. The first was the difference between a book about Anonymous written by a journalist and one written by an anthropologist. Journalists are expected to keep a decent amount of detachment from their subject matter, but the exact opposite is true of anthropologists. They are, in fact – expected to (within certain guide lines) immerse themselves in the culture they are studying to a very deep degree. This why Coleman is not only allowed, but is commended – for “crossing the line” and in fact becoming Anonymous. As such she is able to go where no other commentator on Anonymous has gone before, and give a glimpse into our psyche, our hearts – even dare I say it but…our souls. Some of the barbs and witticisms she popped out fairly took me by surprise, and I actually had to read back and think – did she actually just say that OMG!

The other thing that blew my mind as I read Biella’s book is the incredible historical depth, breadth and accuracy. And it was here that Coleman actually teaches me a thing or two about Anonymous. As one of the most active participants in Anonymous, working daily for five years with Anons from all over the world – I sort of thought I knew most everything that goes on in the Collective. But after reading “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy” I came to realize that however big a channel I may think I am burrowing through Anonymous, and no matter how lofty my view of the Global Collective – I am but a spec; one ant tunneling through a truly gigantic maze of a movement.

I won’t give any spoilers. I am mentioned twice in the book by name, and the two episodes described were ones that were truly epic and memorable for me. So I am well pleased with my own portrayal in this gigantic work. And I would like to thank Gabriella Coleman from the bottom of my heart for the incredibly kind mention she made of me in the Acknowledgments.  As I have already stated, Biella has become one of my dearest friends in the movement – and it is a moment of huge pride to think that I helped her in any way to produce this wonderful and historic work.

And now, just so my readers don’t think that I am a complete sycophant for Coleman and her book – I do have one fairly significant criticism. And it requires me to wade into a rather nasty controversy that involves another close friend of mine, Barrett Brown. As some may know, Barrett recently released his own review of Biella’s book which, too put it lightly – was scathing. In the title of his review, as well as ad nauseum in the body – Brown uses the word libel to describe Coleman’s treatment of him in “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy”. Now, to be perfectly fair to both of my friends, that is in fact a form of libel on Barrett’s part. Libel requires both deception as well as malicious intent. Gabriella Coleman is utterly incapable of either of these, and as such Barrett’s claims of libel are frankly bullshit.

That said, I have to admit that I was rather disappointed with Biella’s treatment of Barrett Brown – and her portrayal of his over all accomplishments within Anonymous. Again, being cautious of spoilers for the reader – I won’t get into great detail or cite specific examples.  Let’s suffice to say that Coleman gives inordinate amount of time and credit to a rather tiny and insignificant group of nay-sayers in Anonymous who are familiar to all of us who have, like Brown – worked so hard to build Anonymous into the powerful social justice movement it has become. Biella conversely seems to have missed many of Barrett’s great achievements within Anonymous, as well as his popular appeal amongst the rank and file and his trusted status among those in Anonymous who wield global influence. It is not the only place in her book that Coleman seems to fall into the trap of giving this tiny group, which completely lacks any significant influence within Anonymous – an over-sized voice and role. Her treatment of certain “crews” within the orbit of Anonymous is also tainted with what I consider to be an erroneous focus on these perpetual “trolls” that plague the underside of Anonymous like fleas on a camel’s belly.

But while this criticism is probably exaggerated for me due to the fact that it involves two close friends for whom I hold unfathomable affection, it is rather minuscule given the immense undertaking and achievement that is “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy”. My reading of it was careful, slow – even painstaking at times as I scanned back often. Despite my dislike for a couple of choices in focus – I found not a single inaccuracy that I am certain of. In fact, despite it’s approximately 500 pages – I think I ran across only one typo. An incredible feat of editing given the size of the tome.

Overall, I find it incredibly unlikely given the amount of time, effort – and expertise that went into the creation of “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy” that anyone will publish anything even close to as comprehensive and thorough on the subject of Anonymous in the coming decades. Gabriella Coleman has accomplished the nearly impossible task of describing for the world who we are, what we do, what we did, and why – and does so in a way that if you are patient is comprehensible. Even her Conclusion, which in most lengthy academic works would be barely worth reading – Biella’s prose is quite literally soaring. She exits the maze she has patiently led you through, climbs a rickety stack of old books, spreads little angel wings and carries the reader with her into the great un-known, leaving the reader staring at Anonymous….and the future, with complete wonder and awe.

 

You can purchase your own copy of “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy” at most local bookstores or online at Amazon.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Christopher Doyon. All Rights Reserved.