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South By Southwest Is Ready for War

The spirit of innovation has morphed into a digital bootcamp for security and privacy.

Image: SXSW

Howdy from Austin, where I'm here covering South by Southwest for Motherboard and kicking it at VICE's massive event space for the next four days. Just like last year, the conference so far is a lot of chaos, a lot of rain, a lot of booze, and far too few cabs. But unlike last year, there's a distinctly grim undercurrent here at Interactive, where hackers > makers and the spirit of innovation has morphed into a digital bootcamp for security, privacy, and arming yourself against the distrustful powers that be.

It's almost as if SXSW changed from a bright-eyed kid playing with quadcopters and holograms to a jaded adolescent who’s discovered the darker side of the world is just really angry. If you take a look at the tech world over the last 12 months, there are plenty of reasons to choose from: government surveillance, jailing hacktivists, exiling whistleblowers, censoring dissent, the exploitation of online privacy, or the corporatization of the web.

To wit: This year, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are topping the bill—giving virtual talks from government exile, no less—whereas last year we had Elon Musk inspiring the crowd with breakthroughs in reusable rockets and electric cars, or Bris Patel excitedly demonstrating about how 3D printing would revolutionize the world.

Saturday kicked off with a panel called Hacker Wars: The War Has Already Begun, featuring filmmaker Vivien Lesnik Weisman, who directed a documentary by the same name, as well as Jay Leiderman and Tor Ekeland, attorneys for famous activists like Andrew "weev" Auernheimer and Matthew Keys. I had the pleasure of joining the three of them last night for a liquor-infused conversation about the governmnet making an example of hackers with overcharges, and the battle for information—power—in the 21st Century.

The Hacker Wars official trailer

Later this afternoon Assange skyped in from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and warned about a “surveillance nightmare,” a “military occupation of the internet,” and living in a “totalitarian” world that we don't even understand. Telepresence Assange's floating head wasn’t defeatist though, more like a call to arms for the crowd: “You can outmaneuver these huge vehicles of power,” he said "You can do it."

From there I hopped over to a very smart talk on the state of cyberwar today by Brookings Institute security and intelligence director Peter Singer, who has written such agressively titled books as Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, Children at War, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, and the latest, Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Should Know.

All this before I had my first bite of barbeque.

The parties, social media blitz, and frivolous apps and startups still abound at Austin’s famously nerdy romp. But mixed in is a clear sense that the techno-elite—armed with cryptocurrencies and encryption apps—are readying for a fight.