Reverse engineering: an art of digital protest & civil disobedience

Reverse engineering: an art of digital protest & civil disobedience


Digital activism demands a free, fair and open digital future. It challenges governments and corporations use of technology to surveil and control us. Digital activism is integral to the betterment of a free and fair society in both the digital and IRL landscape. In today's society, activism in the IRL landscape relies on the digital to organize. Whether it's a group of people organizing a protest, an investigative journalist uncovering corruption or someone uploading a video of police misconduct – we rely on digital technology to bring about activist movements. Tech is foundational to a movement toward a free, open and fair society. Yet the dilemma we face, is that our tech is working against our movements. Governments and corporations use technology to surveil and control us, yet our movements require technology to function.

Corporations and governments wield unprecedented power and influence over our lives, both in IRL and online. Since our tech has become predominantly proprietary, the understanding of our devices and software have become abstracted. Corporations lock down their technology with legislation, abstraction, obfuscation and control, resulting in access being only to the select few. This invite only club, that control our technology, consists only of contractually bound employees and government entities.

The principles of creating an internet where open-source, open-access and open-protocol software & hardware is changing. Though companies are understanding the value customers have in these principles, proprietary technology is still the best way for corporate to achieve a monopoly. The very nature of monopolization depends upon removing interoperability. Propriety software, by design aims to stifle innovation, interoperability and open-knowledge.

You can make yourself look like a transgressor quickly by wanting to know what's in your tech. Demanding to know the workings and contents of the technology you own is seen as an infraction by corporations, and it's the very same people who check the ingredient information on their sandwich packet that silence your digital rights. This idiosyncrasy in our relationship with technology is something which corporations have imposed upon us and their employees. Stifling interoperability and open-source is something that which allows corporations to gain rapid control.

Enter, Adobe. Adobe's software-as-a-service platform is an all encompassing proprietary software machine. In November 2022, Adobe removed support for free Pantone colours in Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator. If you had any files that contained free Pantone colours, those colours would now be replace with black. To regain access to your visual free colours, you have to pay $15 a month. That's right, your digital drawing of Mr Bigglesworth with a lovely Pink "Pantone 206" colour would now appear as a void of darkness. Unless of course you pay for the privilege. This way of owning propriety software supports a corporations ability to force its customers into purchasing further products. When some radical techno-anarchists, who really want the free Pantone 206 color in their drawing of Mr. Bigglesworth, wishes to reverse engineer the software to properly render their free pink colour, they can't – because Adobe's General Terms of Use state that reverse engineering is prohibited. Adobe enforce you to obey their "Intellectual Property Rights", which legislation such as the Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, can result in you getting a five-year prison sentence or a $500,000 fine for simply trying to render Mr Bigglesworth in a pink Pantone colour.

Techno-anarchy and hacktivist movements against corporation or government ordinarily assume positions of offensive digital attacks against infrastructure. Think, DDoS operations – almost synonymous with hacktivist groups like Anonymous. Reverse engineering (RE), when viewed as a form of hacktivism or techno-anarchism, is a rarity. It is not an offensive attack on a corporation's infrastructure but rather on their intellectual property. RE opens doors to insight. The subversive act of RE results in hackers and tinkerers alike disobeying corporate control of proprietary systems and intellectual property. A digital guerrilla tactic, in a digital age that acts as a digital weapon. Reverse engineering is civil disobedience.

With the power to expose injustice, privacy violations, security flaws, and manipulation, it demands, invites, and advocates for interoperability, open access, and decentralization. It disrupts unwarranted, redundant, and inequitable controls. To engage in reverse engineering is to challenge oppressive digital systems and uphold the values of freedom, privacy, and open access. Control and exploitation cannot exist sustainably where transparency is enforced. Hackers and reverse engineers understand that their motivations aren't solely based on the desire to comprehend the inner workings of a particular technology. Knowledge of a system gives power; it is this power that is fundamental to exposing hidden mechanisms that may be used to control people.

Where reverse engineering enforces transparency, transparency creates demand for accountability. Intellectual Property Rights allow corporations their "rights" to waive accountability. When a Blu-Ray DVD demands kids to sign a 57 page End-User License Agreement (EULA) to just watch Sleeping Beauty or when Facebook makes your consent to targeted advertisements a contractual requirement to use their service, it gives insight into how these corporations are utilizing legislation to absolve themselves of responsibility and avoid being held accountable for their actions or facing consequences.

Big tech corporations endeavor to make it difficult to reverse engineer their products because they want you to stay within their closed ecosystems. They wish for you to remain in their walled garden. You see, for them, their walled garden is a garden of Eden. It is a safe place for you to operate and where they can show you all the pretty flowers they own. They wish for you to stay there, for any other garden is a threat. To move or interoperate between gardens is an infringement. To command this, they legislate, patient and enforce any free radicals who tear apart propriety technology. Like all acts of civil disobedience, reverse engineers face an ever-looming risk of legal oppression and criminalization. Legal threats, cease-and-desist orders and lawsuits leave reverse engineers often teetering on the edge of legal uncertainty. To prevail this, is to disobey and bring transparency, accountability into our technology. Without this, we cannot progress to a fair, free and open society.

The practice of reverse engineering is a tactic of electronic civil disobedience to protest injustice within technology in its truest form.

About this website

I am Ovi, I am an independent researcher. My work is solely related to human & digital rights activism focusing on reverse engineering, data privacy violations & surveillance from hostile government and private organizations that threaten humanity. I work with non-profit groups and directly with those at risk. As an independent researcher, getting my research, work and writings out can be hard, which is why I created this website. You can read more about this here. If you feel that you value this work, please consider subscribing, which will allow me to share my work directly with those who appreciate it without having to work with media organizations. Your subscription helps support me and my work, and also develops the space for independent researchers to truly be independent. If you do value my work and wish to support me financially, you can do so here through Ko-Fi.