CULT OF THE DEAD COW
How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World
By Joseph Menn
Our story begins at the end, at a fund-raiser for Beto O’Rourke. The attendees are drawn from the Bay Area start-up and tech security world and the host is Adam O’Donnell, an early member of the “original hacking supergroup,” the Cult of the Dead Cow. A cow skull hangs in the hallway as a reminder to those familiar with the group’s underground origins — like O’Rourke himself, another early member once known by his handle Psychedelic Warlord. The co-host is Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, a “prominent protégé” of the group. At Facebook, we learn, Stamos was “quietly helping” Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
In “Cult of the Dead Cow,” Joseph Menn unspools the history of this group, tracking their evolution from apolitical hobbyists to performance artists and culture jammers attempting to expose security flaws, to human rights and internet freedom advocates and eventually to security advisers for powerful institutions. But first we return to the early days of the group, also known as cDc, when many of the main figures were teenagers. True to the politically fungible countercultural style that has characterized the online world ever since, an ironic riff on “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” appears in the cDc member Kevin Wheeler’s online bulletin board Demon Roach Underground, which also mocked Nancy Reagan’s anti-drugs “Just Say No” campaign. Some brought the influence of fringe culture — “UFOs, secret societies and B movies” — while others shared utopian ideas about a moneyless future society and a libertarian opposition to censorship.
In early discussions about the group’s name, an original member, Brandon Brewer, still a schoolboy, knew that “we wanted it to be weird” and “to thumb our nose at the establishment.” The group’s name and symbol, a cow head with X’s for eyes, was influenced by an iconic industry of Texas, Menn explains, the place where they started out.
Another member, Jesse Dryden, who was also the son of a member of Jefferson Airplane, wanted the group to be shaped by a previous counterculture generation, including phone hackers and the Yippies. Dryden “helped turn cDc into a 1990s successor to the Merry Pranksters,” writes Menn. Dryden also counted as a family friend John Perry Barlow, whom Menn describes as a “freewheeling Grateful Dead lyricist and early fan of online communities who would be a major influence on cDc.” Barlow was also a founder of the libertarian organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Dryden helped set up HoHoCon, a hacker conference model that brought together all the different strands emerging in the hacker world and creating greater real-life networks.
The ’90s under Bill Clinton saw the beginning of the “new economy” internet boom, when many of the tech entrepreneurs who were influenced by this ’70s counterculture began their ascent into the new global tech bourgeoisie. As hacker networks expanded through conferences and online networks, these growing companies came to understand that they needed the skills of this still small community. So too did the security state.
In one of the hacking group’s first major acts of online sabotage they created “Back Orifice” to expose Microsoft security vulnerabilities. Their activities at this time were not so self-consciously political. In their own words, “Microsoft is evil because they sell crap.” Menn then shows how Laird Brown, known online as Oxblood Ruffin, became the most influential figure in shaping the idea of “hacktivism” through the cDc — hacking as a political act.
But Brown’s fellow member, Kevin Wheeler, began to complain that the countercultural spirit of the early hacker collective had faded as their influence grew: “These guys are all tech guys. Where’s the cDc skateboarding team? Why are there no porn stars in cDc? No guys into scary militias and a compound in Montana? Why are we 95 percent white males?” Menn quotes Michael Bednarczyk, a hacker in the same circles as cDc, as saying, eventually “you become the man.”
Some in the group had a keen sense of how to manipulate media. When they began to get exposure for outsmarting Microsoft, their media strategy was that “the hip press has to love us and the square press has to hate us.” They wanted to be seen, as Wheeler put it, as “godless commies and a threat to the American way of life.” But soon through the direction of Brown, hacktivism would take up a serious political enemy in the form of the Chinese Communist Party. Inspired by the student movement that sprang up during market liberalization, they made alliances by creating software for anti-government dissidents.
This won them praise in Wired magazine and when Naomi Klein got in touch to write a feature on the new hacktivism, Laird wrote to the group: “She thinks we’re this righteous politicized hacking machine out for world peace or somethin’. … Anyway we’re gonna get a lot of miles outa this baby.” According to Menn, Brown privately urged them to use the word “hacktivism” to the media no matter what the questions were about and said to the mail list, “After this you’ll all be able to run for public office.”
Under Obama, through Hillary Clinton’s State Department, the hacktivism championed by Brown and the cDc to help with dissident subversion of foreign governments would become American foreign policy, part of a program informally known as “internet in a box.” Adam O’Donnell, our Beto fund-raiser host from the opening scene of the book, would work with the C.I.A. to hack the Great Firewall of China. Menn details many other cases of people in cDc circles rising as expert advisers to tech C.E.O.s and even visiting the White House.
Menn is generous in his descriptions of the hackers he studied even when they moved from the underground to these positions of influence. But the villains of the book, aside from the Russian and Chinese governments, are Jake Appelbaum and Julian Assange, famous core figures in the Tor Project and WikiLeaks. Menn doesn’t reserve judgment here, calling Appelbaum an example of the cDc’s “negative influence” and accuses them both of “draping themselves in morality while serving other causes.” These parts emphasize allegations of sexual misconduct and egotism, and cDc members are quoted describing the need to kick them out of the groups and institutions that the hacker networks had created.
From the beginning, Menn’s book on the story of the Cult of the Dead Cow reads as personally and politically sympathetic to its main characters, who go from young members of the hacker underground to mixing among the elite of the security world in big business. Menn may assume the reader to be equally sympathetic. If that’s the case, I am not its natural audience. To me, someone like Beto is a viscerally off-putting neoliberal-on-a-skateboard. I am also deeply skeptical of the liberal politics of “hacktivism” and of the purposes it often serves.
Beneath the radical language and underground aesthetic is an ideological and political shallowness. Strip away the newness and novelty of the technological tactics and you find the same old machinations of military and capitalist power, which no plucky hacktivist can disrupt without risking their life, freedom and reputation. Through the filter of the media, hacker rock stars battling the authoritarian state one day can become creepy basement-bred egotistical nerds with poor personal hygiene the next, depending on which states they turn their talents against. Regardless, today no state can rival the world-dominating power of the tech monopolies and yet many in these circles concluded, according to Menn, that the best chance for “preserving individual freedoms” against the state was by joining forces with the likes of Apple and Google.
But this book is not a polemic, nor is it an attempt to theorize its subject in the way that other books like Fred Turner’s “From Counterculture to Cyberculture” or Richard Barbrook’s “Imaginary Futures” were. It is primarily a work of storytelling and as that, it stands as an invaluable resource. The tale of this small but influential group is a hugely important piece of the puzzle for anyone who wants to understand the forces shaping the internet age.