Coding Democracy: How Hackers Are Disrupting Power, Surveillance, and Authoritarianism

This is a book with a light teal to light orange vertical ombre cover. There are blue and black birds on the cover, and the title is in the center.

Book written by Maureen Webb

Book review by Helen Patton

Bottom Line

I don't recommend this nonfiction book for the Cybersecurity Canon Hall of Fame, but if you are interested in the topic, this is a good one to read.

Review

Maureen Webb has written Coding Democracy “about hackers and hacker politics”. The book explores in detail the rise of the internet, and the corresponding political, social and technological structures that have emerged as a result. The author explores the potential for technologies to enable utopian goals, and dystopian ones. Webb notes:

“In my view the takeaway is clear: we need to rebuild our societies and institutions with a new ethos of distributed power. It is our collective responsibility. This is what this book is about.”

This book is an excellent review of the global state of power, control and use of technology. While it is beyond the needs of the entire security profession and so not a candidate for the Cybersecurity Canon Hall of Fame, I highly recommend it for senior practitioners, sociologists, policy makers and anyone who thinks about the broader societal implications of digital security.

Book Structure

Coding Democracy takes the reader around the world to explore various hacking communities, examples, and hacktivist political thought. A read of the chapter headings reveals the spectrum of topics the author covers:

  • The Hacker Ethic: Germany’s Chaos Computer Club and the Genealogy of the Hacker Ethos
  • The Hacker Challenge: Cyberpunks on the Electronic Frontier
  • A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century: Privacy for the Weak, Transparency for the Powerful
  • The Burden of Security: The Challenges for the Ordinary User
  • Democracy in Cyberspace: First, the Governance Problems
  • Culture Clash: Hermes and the Italian Hackingteam
  • Democracy in Cyberspace: Then the Design Problems
  • The Gathering Storm: The New Crypto – and Information and Net Neutrality and Free Software and Trust Busting – Wars
  • Hacker Occupy: Bringing Occupy into Cyberspace and the Digital Era
  • Distributed Democracy: Experiments in Spain, Italy, and Canada
  • The Value and Risk of Transgressive Acts: Corrective Feedback
  • Mainstreaming Hackerdom: A New Condition of Freedom

Although the topics are inherently technical, the author ensures that a reader without a technical education can understand the nuances of the topics they cover. The depth of international research is refreshingly unique, and the research on the history of the organizations and individuals interviewed is instructive in describing hacker history, culture and political influences.

The Benefits of the Book

This book is well researched, well written, and doesn’t seek to instruct on solutions so much as it attempts to explore the societal culture in which we all live, and how the hacker community moves within it. 

A reader will learn about the way the internet and connected society developed, and how that now influences our daily lives. Readers learn about how the “pervasive illegality states and corporations are now engaged in with their uses of digital tech” and that “it is manifest the law is collapsing.” (page 3) A reader will also get to explore what the author calls “corrective actions” – things that hackers can do to nudge society towards temperance. “…somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries, less corrupt and unfair economic systems, wiser public uses of digital tech, more self-determination for the ordinary user, fairer commercial contracts, better conditions for innovation and creativity, more decentralized and robust infrastructure systems, and an abolition of doomsday machines.” (pages 257-258)

The author explores the nature of hackers, and reveals an admiration for their skills, ethics and mindsets: “I see hacking becoming a practice, and those, and a metaphor for a growing social movement in which ordinary citizens are taking things into their own hands when reform seems out of sight. At a time when people’s faith in elites to govern has never been lower, I see hacking inspiring a new wave of activism, a new way of thinking and acting, as citizens fight to take back their democracies.” (page 4) 

As the author moves from place to place, and time to time, the reader will recognize some names (Snowden, Assange, etc.) and many more that they don’t – but all individuals who have significantly influenced society. This allows the reader to have a much deeper understanding of the history and influencing factors of digital society.

What I Found Less Useful 

The author makes the reader wade through a lot of descriptive text – the locations she meets people, what a person is wearing, the weather… In moderation, this would set the scene and give context, but over the length of the book it felt like a slog to get through. If you read everything word by word, be prepared.

I picked this book to read because I’m eager to learn ideas for how to address the digital inequities I am aware of – and while this book gives lots of resources to pursue further (great!) it spent less time focusing on the solutions/ideas than I would have liked. This may be because there aren’t that many ideas, or it may be that the good ideas were buried in the narrative. I’m guessing I will need to go back and re-read chapters of the book if I am to get the most value from it.

In Conclusion

Somewhere in a security professional’s work life, they reach a point where they stop focusing on the minutiae of their technical focus, and start asking societal questions: What is the role of security in our society? Who is engaged in making society better? How does security fit into political, legal, societal and cultural disciplines? When a person has reached this point, Coding Democracy is a book worth reading.

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