“My girlfriend is a hacker”: Inside the EFF party

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On our way to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s 21st Birthday party, my programmer friend explained to me why, if it weren’t for the work of the good folks over at EFF, neither eBay nor WikiLeaks could do their thing.

See, it’s all about encryption, a topic my friend is slightly obsessed with. It used to be illegal for anyone but the government to send encrypted information through electronic channels, he explained, using technology that’s now commonplace and used in any website that requires a log in. In the 1990s, the EFF came along with a lawsuit to open up the ability to offer a secure transfer of information to the masses. The tech law firm prevailed, and soon it became possible to securely log in to a website and enter your credit card information without fear that it would be intercepted. Hence, the trail was blazed for online shopping.

From minds far more subversive than that of Meg Whitman sprang a very different use of the technology. Utilizing encryption software, WikiLeaks designed a way for whistleblowers to securely submit classified documents to an online repository.

That’s just one of many accomplishments that EFF could point to at its Feb. 16 celebration. A nonprofit, EFF "fights for freedom primarily in the courts," according to its website, taking on the US government and major corporations on issues that threaten Internet freedom and digital rights. EFF boasts more than 61,000 contacts through its Action Center, which it uses to beat back bad legislation and raise awareness.

Just in the last few weeks, EFF has taken on the FBI over its plan to expand federal surveillance laws, weighed in on net neutrality, fended off against attacks from Congress over its aggressive protection of online privacy, and spearheaded a program that allows web users to surf secure all the time.

The EFF staged its 21st bash at Bricks and Mortar Media (BAMM.tv), a “content creation factory” in SoMa.

The place was adorned with festive, futuristic hacker art, from a flat-screen monitor displaying a word cloud, to a stage setup featuring an aerial array of computer bits and video game controllers.

One room featured a live video feed projected onto the wall with a strobe-light effect, and partygoers delighted in throwing kung-fu kicks in front of it and watching themselves flicker on screen like action figures seconds later.

In true tech-pioneer fashion, the night featured live nerdcore performances. What’s nerdcore? Let me put it this way. When the star of Dual Core shouts into the mic, “Throw your hands in the air if you’ve got mad skills,” the people he’s addressing really do have mad skills – like programming, web design, developing apps for mobile devices, managing vast databases, creating video games, and yes, even hacking. One of Dual Core’s raps included the line, “My girlfriend is a hacker.” He's clearly smitten.

Several chiptune artists also performed, including Crashfaster  -- “a chip musician, retro remixer, and low-bit concert promoter whose outreach has galvanized the Bay Area's vibrant chiptune community,” according to EFF – and Trash80, “the eminent chip musician behind ArduinoBoy -- software that helps integrate the Nintendo Game Boy into any existing electronic music arsenal.”

I had the honor of chatting with Doctor Popular, described on EFF’s site as a “professional yo-yoer, nerdcore artist, and innovator.” The good doctor makes music using only an iPhone, iPad, and some wires. He told me he writes songs using a handful of apps while riding CalTrain from San Francisco to San Mateo for his day job at a company that makes video games.

And oh, the nerdy crowd! The knowing glint in their eyes, those people who really understand how to manipulate technology. They program software, develop apps, eat, sleep and breathe online communication, whip out iPhones and Droid phones and talk about video games, latest versions of browsers and operating systems, and other matters that this reporter could not quite comprehend, because they were using acronyms.

They were gracious. “Sorry,” some one said to me after launching into a paragraph of alphabet-soup gibberish to my programmer friend. “Sometimes I forget, and then I notice people’s eyes glazing over.”

And yet, when you hang out with hardcore nerdcore fans, you learn the most fascinating things. For example, how when you begin typing “Torrent” into a Google search engine, the word “torrent” will not show up in the automatic feed that suggests search terms. Why? Well, there are theories.