Lucas Apa. Image: Miguel Escalante Jr.

How Argentina’s Political Crisis Gave Rise to Hacker Culture

Argentines have always had to make things work with fewer and lesser resources—a prime environment for hackers.

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Dec 14 2016, 2:00pm

Lucas Apa. Image: Miguel Escalante Jr.

In December 2001, Argentina was thrown into chaos. The worst violence the South American nation had seen since the early 1980s raged across the country as president Fernando de la Rúa resigned: 39 people were killed, the economy tanked, and police became aggressive against civilian demonstrators.

But while protests and riots raged, and the nation's presidency changed hands three times in 10 days, a generation of Argentine computer fanatics, made resourceful by unstable and challenging economic and social circumstances, was busy learning to program, publishing cheeky technical e-zines, and gearing up to become elite hackers.

Though Argentina was confronted with state violence and a severely devalued peso, hacker culture bloomed. In 2001, the same year that de la Rúa prematurely stepped down from office, the renowned annual securities conference Ekoparty was founded in Argentina.

Read more: Malware Hunter Finds Spyware Used Against Dead Argentine Prosecutor

The Ekoparty Security Conference is one manifestation of the hacking boom. It has been held annually in Buenos Aires since it was founded by Juan Pablo Daniel Borgna, Leonardo Pigner, Federico Kirschbaum, Jerónimo Basaldúa and Francisco Amato in 2001. During this gathering of hackers in Argentina's capital, securities pros present research, participate in hacking competitions, race to pick locks, and meet with major securities companies from around the world.

Ekoparty describes itself as "a unique space for the exchange of knowledge" which "provides a series of dynamic and relaxed activities, related to playfulness and computer security." Despite how serious hackers are about their work, there's no doubt they have a lot of fun doing what they do, a theme this conference embraces and encourages among attendees.

There has also been a pop culture embrace of Argentina's hacking culture. A crime and mystery TV mini-series called El Hacker premiered in 2001, highlighting a national interest in this line of work during this time period, and reemphasizing hacking as a new theme in the global entertainment (The Matrix was released just two years prior with international success).

The peso's value plummeted following the 2001 crisis, and everything became more expensive, including computers and other technology that young hackers-in-training wanted to get their hands on. But this new barrier to access didn't stop teenagers and young adults from pursuing their urge to subvert programs, create game cheats, and learn how to find the vulnerabilities inherent to any machine.

Lucas Apa, a hacker and penetration expert with US-based security company IOActive was fresh off of an evening addressing the Argentine senate and discussing electronic voting security risks when we spoke over the phone.

Lucas Apa. Image: Miguel Escalante Jr.

Apa told me he first became interested in hacking while playing video games as a kid. "When video games went into CD format, they became very expensive," he remembered. "So it was really common to buy cracked [or, pirated] games. Sometimes the games worked, other times I'd take them home and there would be a problem with the crack."

This was the first time he encountered manipulated software and was immediately interested. "From games I started looking at other kinds of software, and was intrigued with how cracks were made. By now it was 2001, and there was a Spanish language cracks mail list called Cracks Latinos. Lots of Argentines learned about cracks from these mail lists."

Learning cracks, Apa said, ended up becoming very useful for writing exploits (data or a piece of software that can take advantage of a program's vulnerabilities), one of the most lucrative forms of hacking, and something Argentine hackers are famous for.

Apa and fellow IOActive consultant Carlos Mario Penagos presented at the Black Hat conference in 2013 after they found ways that malicious hackers could hack into industrial plants via wireless sensors. With these exploits, Apa and Penagos found it was possible to manipulate sensors from up to 40 miles away, a security gap that could potentially have had catastrophic consequences in the wrong hands.

Exploit-writing has been a boon for many Argentine hackers, including Juliano Rizzo. Rizzo's hacking career is currently focused on cryptography, cryptocurrencies, and practical cryptographic attacks previously worked for many years in exploits before "becoming bored with it," he told me over email.

Apa and Penagos found it was possible to manipulate sensors from up to 40 miles away, a security gap that could potentially have had catastrophic consequences in the wrong hands.

Before going on to write one of the more important exploits in recent years, Rizzo developed into a hacker the old-fashioned way: he learned to program by hand at the same time he was learning to read and write, he participated in hacker call-ins where a group would discuss security and "H/P/C/V/A: hacking, phreaking, cracking, virus, anarchy". He also created security challenges for video games with his older brother, and dove into securities magazines written by fellow Argentines.

One of the few Spanish-language securities magazines available at the time, Rizzo said, happened to be written by Argentine hackers, Minotauro Magazine. Another important security magazine Juliano remembers reading was Virus Report, which was edited by the now-deceased Argentine hacker, Fernando Bonsembiante.

By 2001, Juliano was 18-years-old and studying in school, and attending Def Con and Black Hat (both big name international hacking conferences). He wouldn't attend Buenos Aires' Ekoparty until 2008, and three years later gained global attention for an exploit he wrote with Vietnamese hacker Thai Duong, which the duo presented at Ekoparty in 2011.

This exploit (only one of several projects Rizzo and Duong have done together), named the BEAST (Browser Exploit Against SSL/TLS) revealed major vulnerabilities in a widespread security protocol that websites use to encrypt data flowing through the internet. With the exploit, hackers would be able to decrypt transactions on PayPal or steal passwords from Gmail. The BEAST exploit, as Thai said at the time, "implements the first attack that actually decrypts HTTPS requests."

Even without knowing their country is home to some of the world's top hackers, Argentines often refer to themselves and their compatriots as "life hackers," or at least subscribe to the idea that Argentines are adept at finding a way to make things work. Some Argentines have told me they think of themselves as MacGyvers. Whether it's upcycling everything from old pens to jelly jars, or learning to soup up your own computer instead of buying a new one, there's a talent here for always finding new ways to look at things such that new possibilities emerge.

This cultural trait and mode of thinking is in no small way behind the talented hackers emerged in this country. The crisis in 2001 seems to have fallen at a critical moment, throwing the entire nation into chaos, and fostering, among some, a desire to 'stick it to the man,' as hackers are wont to do.

Argentines often refer to themselves and their compatriots as "life hackers".

"There were so many problems and a lot of sadness throughout the country," Apa told me. "So a fascination with technology became a kind of escapism. For some hackers, learning to hack felt like doing something against 'the system' or against major corporations that they felt negatively about."

This sentiment builds on one of the themes that was being discussed in hacker circles such as during the calls Rizzo dialed into: anarchy. Hacking is necessarily a subversive pursuit, and who is better equipped to subvert than brilliant computer pros accustomed to living life on the precipice of possible turmoil?

Hackers are, ultimately, highly skilled and creative problem-solvers, and as it happened, Argentina was faced with a vast number of difficult problems on nearly all levels (political, social, financial) at the same time home internet was becoming common, and there were a lot of young people willing to learn their way through the barriers to become computer pros.

Due to economic instability and restrictions on imports, Argentines have always had to make things work with fewer and lesser resources. The benefit here, Apa said, is a developed knack for "using what is available in ways that nobody else has thought of to accomplish new things."

This makes them not only particularly Argentine, but also exceptional hackers.

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