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Beto O’Rourke and legendary hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow explained

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Beto O’Rourke, the presidential candidate, once belonged to an obscure but influential band of computer hackers who helped set the scene for Anonymous and the high-profile hacktivists of the modern digital era.

As a teenager in the 1980s, O’Rourke joined the group called the Cult of the Dead Cow (CDC), named for a Texas cattle slaughterhouse. He spent a few years affiliated with CDC, posting on primitive internet message sites and becoming casually acquainted with some of the most well-known hacker activists of that early generation. Joseph Menn, a hacker historian who wrote an upcoming book about Cult of the Dead Cow, revealed O’Rourke’s membership in the group in Reuters on Friday.

The 46-year-old O’Rourke hasn’t actively participated in CDC in years, falling off after he left for Columbia University at age 18. Its members kept his secret for a long time, though, only agreeing to talk publicly about the history after O’Rourke himself spoke with Menn for his book.

The former Texas Congress member already enjoys a certain cool-kid reputation. He’s the skateboarding punk rock bassist who can now claim associations with an influential cadre of early digital activists, who have taken on Microsoft, Chinese censors, and the Church of Scientology.

He doesn’t appear to have been deeply involved or to have participated in any of the group’s better-known stunts. But there is something fitting about O’Rourke’s membership in a group that was known for its communications savvy — “a flair for spectacle” as one expert put it — more than its technical proficiency.

“CDC wasn’t pumping out tech. It was really about trying to get the word out there that hackers could do good in the world,” Gabriella Coleman, a McGill University professor who has written about hacker anthropology and culture, told me. “CDC had cultural cache. They were like the punk rock band of the hacker world.”

The Cult of the Dead Cow coined the term “hacktivism” for politically motivated digital activism. Its biggest stunt targeted Microsoft at the height of its powers in the 1990s in a bid to force the software giant to fix security holes in its programs. CDC ethos could be found in Anonymous, the first hacktivist group to really break out and influence real-world politics.

Now they’ve given us Beto, the first hacker candidate.

The Cult of the Dead Cow, explained

In those days, when the Cult of the Dead Cow was founded in the 1980s, there were a few different kinds of hackers: the truly nerdy programmers with all the technical wizardry, the security professionals who wanted a private and safe internet, and the early hacktivists, who saw the internet as a tool for change (and had a real mischievous streak). CDC was part of the latter caste: While some of their members did have strong tech chops, they were better known for their ability to draw media attention with a penchant for the ridiculous.

They came up with a word for it: hacktivism. They declared war on the Church of Scientology in 1995, furious about the church’s attempts to censor online content. They went after Chinese censors for the same reason. In 1998, they pulled off their most audacious move: releasing a program called Back Orifice that allowed remote users to control somebody else’s computer through Microsoft Word. The goal was to force the software giant to improve its products’ security — an altruistic aim, though not everybody agreed with CDC’s methods.

“Some of the people totally think it was reckless,” Coleman said. “Others thought it was really helpful. This was a moment when vendors would not fix the patches. This was a stunt to get Microsoft to fix it.”

They otherwise spent a lot of time posting political theories or amateur fiction onto chat sites known as BBSs (bulletin board systems), primitive forms of the messaging apps like Slack today. CDC did tend to be more overtly political than its contemporaries. At an institutional level, they were strongly in favor of informational freedom; as individuals, they tended to be liberal or even leftist, Coleman said.

The hacktivist ethos that CDC pioneered later informed the work of groups like Anonymous, which notably targeted the Church of Scientology, a longtime Cult foe, with its first major action. They have even been subsumed into parts of the establishment: One of the members later led the military’s futuristic Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“They were a really important early kind of group, establishing those hacktivist tendencies,” Coleman said. “In terms of widespread popular appeal, that really came with Anonymous.”

Beto O’Rourke’s time with the Cult of the Dead Cow, explained

You should read Menn’s full article for an exhaustive history and discussion of O’Rourke’s relationship with the CDC. He also related on Twitter how he discovered the connection.

In brief, O’Rourke had wandered into the bulletin board systems where CDC lived, starting one about punk music. It was there he was linked up with the loose collection of posting boards that made up CDC, where its members mingled. He appears to have used stolen high-speed internet and frequented pirating sites for games, a history that suggests O’Rourke was well-versed in the early digital native culture that preceded social media.

“That was significant that he was on these boards. It’s not something most people knew about,” Coleman said. “You’d have to have a kind of geeky inclination to end up there.”

Menn flags a few notable posts from O’Rourke’s time on the CDC boards, writing under the name Psychedelic Warlord. There was one in which he discussed “a money-less society (or have a society where money is heavily de-emphasized).” In another, he wrote a disturbing piece of short fiction about running over a couple of children in the middle of the street. O’Rourke also fought with another poster who identified as a Nazi, challenging the poster’s notion that Adolph Hitler was misunderstood.

O’Rourke described what his time inside CDC had meant to him like this to Menn:

“I was really at the margins, but I very much wanted to be as cool as these people, as sophisticated and technologically proficient and aware and smart as they were,” he said in the interview. “I never was, but it meant so much just being able to be a part of something with them…understanding how the world worked – literally how it worked, how the phone system worked and how we were all connected to each other.”

It’s difficult to know how much his time with CDC still informs O’Rourke’s worldview. Menn notes he’s been outspoken in favor of net neutrality and savvy in his use of social media to push the Beto brand. That the other CDC users did not speak to the press any earlier in O’Rourke’s career is a testament to “the very strong code of ethics” among the people in these groups, Coleman said.

“It was a kind of club of people who were very interesting and very smart, who liked to intervene politically,” she said. “I do think it’ll be interesting, now that the cat’s out of the bag, how it’s gonna be associated with his team or treated by the hacker community.”

There might not be much more to learn about O’Rourke and the Cult of the Dead Cow. It does track with his overly online persona and confirms his past flirtations with more fringe cultures. It probably does not explain whether or not he supports Medicare-for-all.

But it’s still a new wrinkle in the back story of a candidate whose campaign seems premised almost entirely on his personal charisma and self-created narrative.

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Look at How Much “Game of Thrones” Characters Have Changed Over 8 Seasons

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During the summer of 2019, the final season of Game of Thrones aired. The show had gone on for almost 10 years which is a long time not only for the characters but also for the actors who portrayed them.

Bright Side is remembering what characters looked like in the very first episodes of the groundbreaking series and is comparing them to what they look like in the final season of the show.

1. Cersei Lannister

2. Jon Snow

3. Tyrion Lannister

4. Daenerys Targaryen

5. Sansa Stark

6. Arya Stark

7. Jorah Mormont

8. Varys

9. Jaime Lannister

10. Sandor Clegane

11. Brienne of Tarth

12. Samwell Tarly

13. Davos Seaworth

14. Theon Greyjoy

15. Brandon Stark

Did you watch Game of Thrones? Did you enjoy season 8? Tell us in the comment section below.

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Baltimore’s ransomware attack, explained – Vox

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Thirteen bitcoins are standing between the city of Baltimore and many of the services and processes its citizens rely on after hackers seized thousands of government computers at the start of the month. The ordeal has been going on for two weeks, and there’s no clear end in sight.

Here’s what’s happening: On May 7, hackers digitally seized about 10,000 Baltimore government computers and demanded around $100,000 worth in bitcoins to free them back up. It’s a so-called “ransomware” attack, where hackers deploy malicious software to block access to or take over a computer system until the owner of that system pays a ransom.

Baltimore, like several other cities that have been hit by such attacks over the past two years, is refusing to pay up. As a result, for two weeks, city employees have been locked out of their email accounts and citizens have been unable to access essential services, including websites where they pay their water bills, property taxes, and parking tickets. This is Baltimore’s second ransomware attack in about 15 months: Last year, a separate attack shut down the city’s 911 system for about a day. Baltimore has come under scrutiny for its handling of both attacks.

The ransomware attacks in Baltimore and other local governments across the US demonstrate that as ransomware attacks spread, and as common targets such as hospitals and schools beef up their online systems’ security, there are still plenty targets vulnerable to this kind of hack. It also exemplifies the conundrum that ransomware victims face: pay up and get your access back, or refuse — potentially costing much more in the long run.

What’s going on in Baltimore, briefly explained

Hackers targeted the city of Baltimore on May 7 using a ransomware called RobbinHood, which, as NPR explains, makes it impossible to access a server without a digital key that only the hackers have.

The Baltimore hackers’ ransom note, obtained by the Baltimore Sun, demanded payment of three bitcoins per system to be unlocked, which amounts to 13 bitcoins to unlock all the seized systems. The note threatened to increase the ransom if it wasn’t paid in four days, and said the information would be lost forever if it wasn’t paid in 10 days. Both deadlines have now passed.

“We won’t talk more, all we know is MONEY! Hurry up! Tik Tak, Tik Tak, Tik Tak!” the note said.

The city government is refusing to pay, meaning that the government email systems and payment platforms the attack took down remain offline. The attack has also harmed Baltimore’s property market, because officials weren’t able to access systems needed to complete real estate sales. (The city said transactions resumed on Monday.)

Baltimore Mayor Jack Young, who’s officially been in his office less than a month, said in a statement on Friday that city officials are “well into the restorative process” and have “engaged leading industry cybersecurity experts who are on-site 24-7 working with us.” The FBI is also involved in the investigation.

“Some of the restoration efforts also require that we rebuild certain systems to make sure that when we restore business functions, we are doing so in a secure manner,” Young said. He did not offer a timeline for when all systems will come back online.

The Baltimore City Council president also plans to form a special committee to investigate this latest attack and try to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

A similar attack using RobbinHood hit government computers in Greenville, North Carolina, in April. A spokesperson for Greenville told the Wall Street Journal that the city never wound up paying, and that while its systems aren’t entirely restored, “all of our major technology needs are now being met.”

More than 20 municipalities in the US have been hit by cyberattacks this year alone. And such attacks can be expensive, perhaps especially if targets say they won’t pay. In 2018, hackers demanded that Atlanta pay about $50,000 in bitcoins as part of a ransomware attack. The city refused, and according to a report obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, the attack wound up costing the city $17 million to fix.

Ransomware attacks aren’t new — but we’re still figuring out how to deal with them

In 2017, a ransomware called WannaCry targeted tens of thousands of computers using Microsoft Windows operating systems in more than 100 countries. Officials in the US and the United Kingdom eventually blamed North Korea for the attack. Also in 2017, corporations in the UK, France, Russia, Israel, and Ukraine experienced ransomware attacks. US hospitals were also targeted.

Here’s how Timothy Lee explained for Vox what was going on and how ransomware had become more prolific:

The basic idea behind ransomware is simple: A criminal hacks into your computer, scrambles your files with unbreakable encryption, and then demands that you pay for the encryption key needed to unscramble the files. If you have important files on your computer, you might be willing to pay a lot to avoid losing them.

Ransomware schemes have become a lot more effective since the invention of Bitcoin in 2009. Conventional payment networks like Visa and Mastercard make it difficult to accept payments without revealing your identity. Bitcoin makes that a lot easier. So the past four years have seen a surge in ransomware schemes striking unsuspecting PC users.

Some ransomware schemes are so sophisticated that they even invest in customer service, helping victims who want to pay their ransoms navigate the complexities of obtaining bitcoins and making bitcoin payments.

Since then, a number of sectors and organizations have made improvements to their security practices to protect against ransomware. But the latest Baltimore attack exemplifies what a whack-a-mole game this is: One area improves its practices and hackers just go looking for another.


Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

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Cameron Russell for ELLE

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A film by Kai Z Feng of our February 2014 cover.

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