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What Went Wrong at the HOPE Hacking Conference?

Attendees at Hackers on Planet Earth don’t think the conference is doing enough to address issues of harassment and intimidation from "bad faith attendees."

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Jul 23 2018, 6:39pm

Image: Daniel Oberhaus

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Anyone who’s ever attended Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE), a biannual conference in New York City, could probably tell you that expressing support for Donald Trump there is probably not the best way to make friends. The conference is a magnet for anti-authoritarians of all stripes, a place where ACAB, not MAGA, is the four letter acronym du jour. If someone is brash enough to not only wear Trump gear to HOPE, but to harass and intimidate other attendees, they can expect to be expelled from the conference.

Or at least that’s what long-time HOPE attendees assumed, but were disappointed when an attendee wearing a MAGA hat who described himself as a “nationalist” and said he marched at Unite the Right wasn’t immediately removed from the 12th HOPE conference last weekend.

This resulted in a letter of “no confidence” in HOPE’s ability to enforce its Code of Conduct that was signed by dozens of high-profile attendees and digital rights organizations, such as Chelsea Manning and the Tor Project. Several of the conference’s panelists also used their platform to raise concerns about how the conference handled reports of harassment and intimidation.

HOPE has a code of conduct that says the biannual event should be a “harassment-free conference experience for everyone.” On the code of conduct page, there is an email address, phone number and online form that allows attendees to file complaints about code of conduct violations. Yet according to attendees I spoke with over the weekend at HOPE, the process of contacting the conference’s code of conduct team was convoluted and complaints often felt like they were falling on deaf ears.

Although the attendee in question was eventually expelled from the conference, a string of related incidents left many attendees feeling unsafe and uncertain that they would return to the next HOPE.

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According to the attendees I spoke to, this incident reflects major gaps in HOPE’s organizational machinery, particularly when it comes to reporting violations of the conference's code of conduct and protecting those who don’t feel safe.

WHAT HAPPENED AT HOPE?

The confrontation that precipitated the fallout occurred shortly before noon on Saturday. According to the conference attendees behind the letter of no confidence who were present at the time, a man in a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat provoked other attendees by saying that he had marched at Unite the Right in Charlottesville. This led to another attendee grabbing his MAGA hat. Although the MAGA hat was confiscated by HOPE employees and returned to its owner, the man in the MAGA hat called the police to report a theft at the conference. The incident led to the expulsion of the attendee who had grabbed the MAGA hat while the person wearing the hat was initially allowed to stay.

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After a group of attendees came together to publish an open letter of no confidence in HOPE’s code of conduct, it was discovered that the same person in the MAGA hat had harassed Matt Blaze, a prominent security researcher, during the question and answer period after his talk on Friday. According to the authors of the paper, the man in the MAGA hat asked “aggressive, inappropriate questions” about the legitimacy of Blaze’s remarks about John Draper, a widely known figure in the hacking community who had recently been banned from many major hacking conferences for sexual misconduct. According to a joint statement written to me by all the signatories of the HOPE no confidence letter, “Blaze was also called homophobic slurs.”

Shortly after Saturday’s initial confrontation, several other attendees arrived at the conference wearing MAGA gear and one wore a t-shirt that said “Fuck your sensitivity." The number of these attendees differed according to who I spoke with. The authors of the no confidence letter said there were “six to eight other individuals of concern and varying degrees of open association with the main instigator.”

According to Mike Roadancer, a longtime volunteer security team leader for the HOPE conferences, the additional instigators were two “ex-military” guys. Moreover, Roadancer said that when the HOPE security team was notified of their presence, it took preemptive action and went and told the guys, “‘Don’t be a dick.’”

The warning, however, didn’t seem to work. After Chelsea Manning’s keynote speech, the MAGA crew followed Manning to another area of the hotel where they “hovered threateningly” while she did a radio interview, according to the authors of the no-confidence letter.

“They also got aggressive with several of the friends supporting [Manning], threatening to fight one of them, and trying to bait them with misogynistic language,” the letter’s authors told me in an email. “Security eventually asked the men to move away from the radio area, but did nothing beyond that.”

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Some attendees said that harassment at the conference continued throughout Saturday. Camille Fassett, a reporter for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, tweeted that “one of the fascists at HOPE harassed me, made comments about my appearance, and threatened the electronic devices of me and my friends.”

Caroline Sinders, a researcher using machine learning to investigate far-right communities online who gave a talk at HOPE, also told me she heard several instances of people being harassed and stalked by these same individuals. At one point, Sinders said she had to escort one of the speakers to her hotel room after her talk because she was afraid to go alone after learning that the MAGA crew was in her audience.

When I spoke to Roadancer at the conference on Sunday afternoon, he said the security team got about “four or five complaints” in total. They finally ejected the man in the MAGA hat, who Roadancer described as German, when it was reported that he had cornered one of the attendees on Friday night.

Roadancer said this kind of physical intimidation was a clear violation of the code of conduct and that action would have been taken sooner, but said the incident was only reported the following night. Roadancer said he doesn’t believe the attendee received a refund, as was initially reported by Unicorn Riot, because he violated the code of conduct.

NO HOPE?

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After several attendees took to Twitter to complain about the lack of response from HOPE staff, the conference organizers responded on Twitter and said that they have “hundreds of ‘staff,’ some of whom are under 15 years old.” The problem, according to HOPE’s organizers, was that the code of conduct violations just weren’t being reported to the right people. But the attendees I spoke with say the problem is systemic.

“The problem isn’t the code of conduct, it’s implementing the code of conduct” Sinders told me on the phone. “It was a breakdown in HOPE’s system of how to field and gauge reports so these reports fell through the cracks.”

Read More: 72 Hours of Pwnage: A Paranoid n00b Goes to Def Con

Still, Sinders said that HOPE wasn’t naive about what was happening. Rather, she and many of the other attendees I spoke with felt like HOPE was avoiding addressing their concerns because it would be giving the instigators “what they wanted.” Indeed, HOPE tweeted on Saturday that “we can’t ban MAGA hats...but don’t let yourself be manipulated into giving them control. That’s a big part of their game.”

Sinders agreed, but doesn’t see that as an excuse for HOPE failing to act on multiple complaints from other attendees.

“Part of enforcing a CoC is believing your attendees and believing potential victims. You have to do some investigation, but in this case it was very clear what was happening,” she said. "Those people came because they wanted to get kicked out. They came to a hacker conference where people are wearing ACAB shirts and we're talking about circumventing adversarial governments. They weren't here because they were interested in hacking, they were here to intimidate.”

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Roadancer told me that after each HOPE, the organizers get together to do a “post-mortem” and decide on improvements for the next conference. This year’s events, he said, are “going to provide big discourse on the code of conduct going forward.”

Most of the attendees I spoke with were less critical of the conference’s code of conduct than the way it was implemented, however. Sinders cited International JavaScript conference’s code of conduct as a sterling example of effective guidelines in action. Unlike HOPE’s code of conduct, the JS conference outlines specific types of harassment, such as following other attendees at the conference.

The authors of the no confidence letter, which included Sinders, had similar demands for improving the code of conduct. They also suggested that the conference commit itself to removing other people that make attendees feel unsafe, including “police officers, FBI agents, and private intelligence contractors.”

“We would like HOPE conference organizers to enforce their code of conduct by committing to removing fascist and white nationalist disruptors from future events,” the authors told me in an email. “We would additionally like the code of conduct to be revised or clarified to make it clear that this type of behavior is unacceptable, and to explicitly state a commitment to create a space that recognizes how power affects the ability for marginalized communities to meaningfully engage.”

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During HOPE’s closing ceremony, the editor of the hacking magazine 2600 and HOPE’s main organizer, Emmanuel Goldstein expressed an apology to all the “people who have been harassed by those idiots” and vowed to make improvements for next years conference based on feedback from the community.

Motherboard reached out to Goldstein on Monday morning and will update this post if we hear back.

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