The Hacker Wars is an angry documentary about angry young men. Brilliant and schlubby, the hackers profiled by director Vivien Lesnik Weisman see themselves as valiant and subversive defenders of digital security and privacy in an age of surveillance, and they just might be. Though their methods are often crude and aggressive, full of bigoted remarks and images of sphincters spread wide, the hackers draw major press attention to the American government’s access to and use of individuals’ information.
Most prominent and charismatic is “weev,” or Andrew Auernheimer, a joyfully outlandish hacker who declares, “Embarrassing people — I enjoy it, it’s viscerally fun.” Auernheimer uncovered a breach in AT&T customer security and was sent to prison for revealing that the communications giant had left vulnerable the information of customers including Rahm Emanuel, Diane Sawyer, and the U.S. military. Recently released after his sentence was overturned, the volatile hacker refuses to be silent or to flee.
He tips back bottles of beer and vows to keep on with his work. The other men profiled — including Barrett Brown, propagandist for the Anonymous hacktivist collective, currently serving a 101-year prison term — are equally dogged. Weisman underscores the urgency of their hacks and claims against the FBI with a compelling background thump of hip-hop and electronic music.
The documentary can sometimes feel like a video game, with cartoonish pinging graphics, but the real-life consequences of digital activity, from arrests to CIA monitoring and a total lack of privacy for ordinary citizens, heighten its stakes. As one journalist tells Weisman, “Information is the weapon.” It’s worthwhile to understand how it’s being used.