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Inside the Paris raves teaching you digital security

TransCyberian is the Parisian hacker-run noise party guiding artists in online safety and showing nerds how to dance

When global mass surveillance and data breaches have got you down, you can always head to a CryptoParty. A global, decentralised movement, CryptoParties are public and open meetups where people learn how to use privacy and security tools to safeguard their online selves. But while CryptoParties are all about outreach, tech-newbies might be put off by these teach-ins. And if you’re hoping to, you know, actually party, you’re out of luck.

As Full Frontal’s Ashley Black jokes during her visit to a Harlem-based CryptoParty, “you invite me to a party, scare the shit out of me, and there’s no booze?” Are cypherpunks worried that if they start dancing, their tinfoil hats will fall off? Not at all. To prove it, a group of Paris-based hackers and artists are bringing the noise out of the echo chamber by hosting a series of international, alternative CryptoParties called TransCyberian. At TransCyberian, attendees flow freely from the dancefloor to info-security trainings and hacker-art showcases. And if they need a drink, partygoers can head to the Cryptobar to glitch out on Snowden shots.

“Transcyberian is for me a big experiment and part of a research project: how to organise a new format of CryptoParty, taking into consideration previous experiences, failures and successes,” says co-organiser Ksenia Ermoshina, aka Xenia Lotus. As a youth activist in Russia, Xenia saw first-hand the importance of digital security in coordinating action. Now a postdoctoral researcher, Xenia contributes with encryption research for the European project and frequently attends CryptoParties to study community privacy and security needs.

Originally, Xenia planned to host a hackathon on the Trans Siberian railway — coding across mother Russia as a test of off-the-grid know-how and a statement of hope for a better, borderless world. But while waiting for that project to boot up, TransCyberian has taken on a new meaning, “trans stands for transgression, but also for transgender and trans-genre (transgressing the genres/styles of music and arts, not only genders), and transhumanist, and cyber relat(ing) to our passion for hacking.”

“The fact that everything can be monitored, that everybody can be tracked makes me really angry”

I joined the March 10 TransCyberian party at the Le Plomb Squat in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine. The theme of the night was “cryptic beauty”, which Xenia describes as “the opposite of Instagram beauty” and “the beauty that likes to hide and needs efforts to be ‘decrypted’”. Workshops focused on hacking your appearance to escape facial recognition, computer vision, and the standards of beauty.

The first booth I visited was Nadja’s Magnetic Nail Art Studio. For a small donation, Nadja Buttendorf, a Berlin-based artist, lacquers on a magnet to your fingernail so you can pick up metal items like paperclips and coins. Some magnetic nail owners even claim to sense electricity running through wires. Cybernetic enhancements like magnetic and RFID tag implants are popular trends among biohackers seeking to mesh their bodies with technology. But unlike implants that require cutting into the finger, nail art feels more intimate than surgical.

When Nadja applies the magnet, we’re holding hands, chatting away about the future of bodies. “Nowadays everyone is talking about body-enhancement in a performance-enhancing narrative,” says Nadja. “This is outlining a narrow-minded and one-sided view of the human body and it's perception.” In another demonstration at TransCyberian, Buttendorf showcases “FATbit – How to cheat your fitness tracker”, which asks questions like “how to stay calm, but still earning as much steps as possible? How to drink beer without letting your Fitbit know?”

A couple yards over, Nils Gasp, a co-organiser, puts together an anti-surveillance face-painting station. “The fact that everything can be monitored, that everybody can be tracked makes me really angry,” says Nils. The face paint booth draws inspiration from artworks aimed at thwarting surveillance — notably Adam Harvey’s CVDazzle and Jillian Mayer’s “HOW TO HIDE FROM CAMERAS.” Harvey’s CVDazzle responds to computer vision with a fashion lookbook and style tips to dodge face detection. In a similar vein, Jillian Mayer democratises the process in her YouTube video “HOW TO HIDE FROM CAMERAS”, which uses the makeup tutorial format to teaches viewers how to stay undetected.

While the makeup did successfully foil my phone’s built-in face detection, partygoers stopped and stared at my digital camouflage. As Mayer sums up, “this isn’t about blending in, this is about sticking out.” The intent behind the face paint is ultimately speculative: what statement can obfuscation make? In the future, will we lean on homespun remedies to combat pervasive surveillance?

Upstairs, partiers crowd around a projector while Malte, a CryptoParty veteran, runs a presentation on how to use Qubes OS, an operating system designed for security and anonymity. At other TransCyberian parties, attendees learned introductory digital security, including how to use PGP encryption tools. Qubes is not exactly for beginners, but attendees eagerly followed along and asked questions about the principles underlying Qubes. While I don’t expect anyone to switch over soon, the Qubes demonstration illustrated a key security tactic: to compartmentalise aspects of your digital life so that all your eggs aren’t in the same basket.

On the dancefloor, I walk into a scene not far off from a Hackers-style roller-rink rave. Musician-coded aleatoric algorithms fill the room with organic synths and mechanic voices. Walls and bodies on the dancefloor shake, like haptic feedback registering the party’s success. “When there is a party that doesn't take place in a club, with danceable music all night and low prices I think a lot of people feel welcome, and they are so damn right,” says Nils.

As part of the effort to encourage a wide audience, TransCyberian is entirely donation-based. “Last time we had more diverse public – people from ‘banlieue’ (suburbs of Paris) came, and I was happy to see them, because it changed a lot from normal ‘hipster’ Parisian audiences,” says Xenia. “They could discover nice techno and noise music, big names, such as Christoph Fringeli from Praxis Records. It was new to them, some of them said they were surprised that parties like that existed. We also have more and more LGBTQI+ folks every time, and this is a very good thing.”  

A number of events, like Brazil’s CryptoRave, play with the format of a CryptoParty to include electronic music. Fitting, as our technofuture is awash in noise — chthonic data centers hum, hard-drives click, server fans whir, drones drone. Hyperdub label founder Steve Goodman, aka Kode9, writes in his book Sonic Warfare that “noise had always been experienced as destruction, disorder, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages.”

For some, these qualities make noise a nuisance. For Xenia, noise is part of the process of liberation: “across history there were always some classes of people who decided what is the ‘good’ music, the ‘right’ harmony… (noise) is a protest against the monopoly of harmony. Noise is the liberation of the sound as the prime matter of music – it is the quantum music – where music exists as wave, not as a particle, and as a borderless flow, not as a fixed and objectified identity.”

You can join the next Transcyberian Party in Berlin on June 16 (with all donations going to the Chelsea Manning Fund. In September, TransCyberian plans to slip between the black and white keys, breaking from 1’s and 0’s with its theme of “non-binarity.” Can’t make either? The TransCyberian party format is free and open to replicate, so add your own signal to the noise.


At the TransCyberian Cryptobar, users tap into libations like Kiss My PGP or Mr. Robot

Here’s the code for a Snowden Trip:

2 litres of Vodka + 300 ml of beetroot juice + some slices of beetroot + black pepper + 150 ml honey + thyme

Leave for one week in a nice big glass bottle. Open, share, and enjoy!