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A report from Reuters Friday revealed that presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke was once a member of an infamous hacking group during his youth.
But it’s not as dramatic as you may think.
The Texas Democrat, who recently announced his bid for the presidency, is reported to have belonged to “The Cult of the Dead Cow.” Founded in Lubbock, Texas in 1984, the group was known for everything from releasing hacking tools to the public to coining the term “hacktivism.”
Based on the article’s headline, “Beto O’Rourke’s secret membership in America’s oldest hacking group,” one might envision the skateboarding politician behind a terminal, breaching government systems and pilfering classified data. But a quick glance at the claims shows a much less sensational reality.
Joseph Menn, a Reuters cybersecurity journalist and author of the piece, admits several paragraphs in that there is “no indication” O’Rourke actually ever broke into computers or even possessed the skills to do so. Instead, O’Rourke’s membership is linked to his participation in online discussion forums ran by the group. Beto himself operated one such forum known as “TacoLand” to discuss mostly punk rock.
Beto did, however, steal long-distance service to dial into the forums so he “wouldn’t run up the phone bill.” The politician also admitted to downloading pirated video game software. The horror.
Rubbing digital elbows with the group, Beto says, did help shape some of his political views though, specifically on net neutrality.
“I understand the democratizing power of the internet, and how transformative it was for me personally, and how it leveraged the extraordinary intelligence of these people all over the country who were sharing ideas and techniques,” O’Rourke said.
Using the pseudonym “Psychedelic Warlord,” Beto also penned numerous writings on the forums known as t-files, short for text files, discussing a range of topics including the abolishment of money.
It should be noted that the term “hacker” wasn’t always associated specifically with breaking electronic systems. Kevin Wheeler, the founder of The Cult of the Dead Cow, states that Beto’s involvement was at a time when the group wasn’t “deliberately looking for hacking chops.”
“It was very much about personality and writing, really. For a long time, the ‘test,’ or evaluation, was to write t-files,” Wheeler said. “Everyone was expected to write things. If we were stoked to have more hacker-oriented people, it was because we’d be excited to have a broader range in our t-files.”
Beto likewise states that he was very much at the group’s margins, but that he “very much wanted to be as cool as these people, as sophisticated and technologically proficient and aware and smart as they were.”
“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,” Beto added.
At the end of the day, Beto was a member of The Cult of the Dead Cow hacking group, but he wasn’t hacking in the way people view it today.
Mikael Thalen is a tech and security reporter based in Seattle, covering social media, data breaches, hackers, and more.