Renegades

The Hacker Who Left Wall Street to Fight Fascists

Vlad Teichberg has spent the past decade creating new tools to take on the far right. He’s convinced his biggest battle is yet to come.

The Hacker Who Left Wall Street to Fight Fascists

“It’s been a busy month,” Vlad Teichberg, a 45-year-old coder-by-day, activist-by-night, declared one day this fall. “More busy than average.”

This was an understatement. Over the course of 30 days in August and September, at his day job Teichberg helped solve a potential glitch in the server utility that companies use to assess damage to electrical grids after large storms, like the recent wave of hurricanes. In his spare time, he staved off the eviction of his Global Revolution TV media network from a space they have occupied without paying rent for more than a year. He also helped expose a former U.S. Army National Guard intelligence officer as a neo-Nazi and started discussions with other online activists about founding a news website to counter Breitbart News.

Much of what’s keeping Teichberg busy these days links back to the August weekend when white nationalist groups gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, bringing what had been a shadowy, internet-based movement out onto the street — where it exploded into real-life violence that left three dead and dozens wounded. It also created a national media spectacle that sent shockwaves across America.

But while the violence between hard-right nationalists and left-wing counter-protesters may be new, Teichberg asserts that the conflict is not. He sees it as a continuation of a long-simmering guerrilla information war between insurgent factions of the right and the left, or, as he puts it, “between authoritarianism and freedom.”

“The war started when Occupy started,” declares Teichberg, who played an early and pivotal role in the Occupy Wall Street protest movement that captured the world’s attention six years ago this fall. In the battle that has erupted since then, Teichberg has fought against some of the biggest names in the modern conservative movement, including Andrew Breitbart and Steve Bannon. And, he says, the war is only growing.

“We see nation-states figur[ing] out how to throw huge resources and basically control what’s on people’s timelines on Facebook and Twitter,” Teichberg says. Their goal, he asserts, is to turn “the social media revolution into a revolution of mass control.”

Teichberg’s role, he says, is to stop them.

A naturalized American citizen, Teichberg was born in Moscow and immigrated to New York with his parents when he was ten. Soon after, he got his first computer and became interested in coding.

He later went to Princeton, where he studied math, often incorporating his coding skills. After graduating, he returned to the City and went to work trading derivatives for big Wall Street banks, including Deutsche Bank, HSBC and Swiss Re.

“My first job,” he says, “was basically coding math models to price complex derivatives.”

Vlad Teichberg, 2017.

Later, at Swiss Re, he was on a team that was among the first to create a new kind of financial instrument called collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, which were insured packages of corporate credit risk, created from mortgage-backed debt. When the market for that debt collapsed in 2008, it triggered the Great Recession.

“I was one of the people that built the bomb that blew up the economy,” Teichberg says.

But by then, he had already quit Wall Street — “because I thought the whole thing turned into a racket.”

Starting in 2002, Teichberg began his shift from banking to activism.

“This was right after 9/11,” Teichberg remembers, “as the government and mainstream media started beating the drums of war.” When Muslim communities in the United States were harassed, “it became apparent to me that we were starting [down a road to] fascism.”

Today, in an era when so many warn of the threats of nationalism and fascism, Teichberg can rightly claim to have been ahead of the curve. Back in 2011, he told the Princeton alumni newsletter his goal was, “to combat the rising tide of fascism in the United States,” by “testing ways to use modern media to get people to start asking questions about what was going on.”

He and about 20 others co-founded the Glass Bead Collective. Their first project was producing a play, No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. Later, they shifted into guerilla light projections — such as beaming anti-war symbols on prominent buildings in Manhattan — and joined forces with a grassroots environmental activist organization called Time’s Up!

In 2005, Time’s Up! was documenting police harassment at a monthly cyclist event known as Critical Mass. The harassment, they alleged, included the arrest of riders on fabricated charges. By filming the police and their interactions with cyclists during rides, they hoped to reveal the truth.

“I was all over that,” Teichberg says. “We used Critical Mass to train video ninjas.”

“We wanted video to help frame the story, because the police mostly controlled the narrative before then,” adds Liane Nikitovich, who was the Time’s Up! Video Collective’s Director/Coordinator, sometimes referred to by the tongue-in-cheek nom de guerre La Femme Nikita.

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Already a seasoned media activist when she met Teichberg, Nikitovich says he “was inspiring. He was charismatic. Obviously very smart. He had that infectious optimism — he was fun to be around.”

Working with Teichberg, she says, “We trained citizen videographers to use cameras on bicycles: Don’t cut off people’s heads. Get badge numbers. Shoot video that could be usable as evidence and also hopefully usable as news.”

On the night of July 25, 2008, scores of bicyclists gathered in Manhattan for a Critical Mass ride. As the group rode down Broadway through Times Square, one rider, Christopher Long, encountered NYPD patrolman Patrick Pogan, who was standing in the middle of the street with another cop.

Pogan alleged that Long rode his bicycle into him. He arrested Long and charged him with attempted assault, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. But a dramatic video made public on YouTube and social media by Glass Bead and Time’s Up! revealed Pogan body-checking Long off his bicycle.

The video, according to The New York Times, became a “viral presence on the Internet.” As a result, the NYPD stripped Pogan of his gun and badge, and he was ultimately convicted of filing a false criminal complaint against Long.

The video ninjas Teichberg helped train had notched their first victory.

I first met Teichberg a month after that Critical Mass ride, when I was covering the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. An acquaintance took me to a loft in a converted riverfront industrial building where indie media activists from around the nation had set up a base of operations. Runners brought video recordings straight from the street for editing and broadcast on social media. In the middle of it all, helping coordinate the activity, was Teichberg.

The next day, while covering a nonviolent protest outside the convention hall, a police officer shot my camera out of my hands with a rubber bullet. Other police officers wielding truncheons beat me to the ground and arrested me. A Secret Service agent took my press credentials and disappeared. I spent three days in jail on bogus charges before the police department’s spokesman apologized and took me to lunch at a fancy restaurant in downtown St. Paul, where he returned my equipment.

After what the police in St. Paul did to me, a government-credentialed journalist, I was starting to see what it must be like for protesters and others agitating against the status quo. So, back home in New York, Teichberg and I stayed in touch.

That fall, when Wall Street self-destructed. Teichberg had already fled his apartment in Manhattan’s chic Tribeca neighborhood for a room in a squat-like loft in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The cinderblock, fortress-like structure was sandwiched by a Chinese food distribution warehouse and Surreal Estate, a residential arts and activism collective.

Teichberg’s new place was known by the numerals in its address: 13 Thames. “13,” was filled with graffiti, crust punks, street kids and empty cans of Four Loko. There was a constant smell of marijuana, and a white powder called diatomaceous earth was spread in front of the loft’s many rooms to keep bedbugs and fleas at bay. In 13’s basement was the Bunker, a space filled with computers, cameras and Pelican cases of electronic equipment.

In Teichberg’s windowless room, an extra-large computer monitor linked to a hacked-up Mac glowed perpetually. Teichberg was always in front of it, organizing online while chain-smoking cheap American Spirit cigarettes in between short trips to the 24/7 deli around the corner for cups of coffee.

Inside 13 Thames.

For years, Teichberg lived off of savings from his banker days while keeping busy organizing, largely via email threads and Listservs. (He continued to do some work for a hedge fund as late as 2011.) Operating out of 13, he connected with a global network of media activists from the United States, England, Spain, Holland, Israel and Denmark.

Marissa Holmes, 31, an activist and visual documentarian, recalls visiting 13: “I walked in and made my way through this labyrinth of lofted beds and makeshift plywood rooms and piles of computer parts and wires and half-empty coffee cups and cigarettes everywhere. This crazy minefield. I got to where Vlad was tinkering with something. He’s hunched over a keyboard, his fingers like a piano player manipulating everything, cigarette hanging out of his mouth like a madman in this bunker.”

Working with the Glass Bead Collective, Teichberg pioneered live-streaming as a reporting technique during the 2010 protests against the Toronto G20 meeting and during a protest outside of a jail where Chelsea Manning was being held.

The goal of live-streaming, Teichberg says, was to get the truth out about any incidents before it could be distorted: “It was obvious that if you put out what happened in real time, you can define the narrative.”

Live-streaming also provided protection from the ever-present possibility of the police seizing the recording, because the live-stream would be recorded by a remote server in a secret location. That winter, using secondhand parts scrounged from eBay and Amazon — a refurbished laptop computer retrofitted with powerful, state-of-the art central processing units and a camcorder — Teichberg crafted a prototype live-stream kit that could be easily and cheaply duplicated. The kit ran both Windows and Apple operating systems and was loaded with video-editing software. Teichberg called it a Hackintosh.

Once he debugged his prototype, Teichberg started shipping Hackintosh kits to protest groups around the world. That spring, he traveled to Spain and led a team live-streaming video of anti-austerity protests in Madrid, where demonstrators occupied the Plaza del Sol. While in Spain, he also met his future wife, Nikky Schiller, now 43.

Later that year in Egypt, activists used his Hackintoshes to record and live-stream video of the occupation of Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, capturing police using lethal force to evict protesters from the streets of Cairo.

In July 2011, Teichberg returned to New York with Schiller and helped found Global Revolution TV, in preparation for Occupy Wall Street. Global Rev, as it became known, live-streamed video of the occupation and its protests, beginning on its first day. Democracy Now! called it the main video hub for the movement, declaring that, “the site has transformed how protests are covered and observed.”

Just before Occupy started, in the middle of forming Global Revolution TV, Teichberg and Schiller jetted off to Burning Man, where they were married by the activist Reverend Billy. Their daughter, Valentina, was born in Spain in May 2012. Teichberg says she was conceived in Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street.

On September 17, 2011, I watched, camera in hand, as Occupy protesters took to the streets for the first time. That night, when protesters set up camp in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, the first thing Teichberg and his team did was establish a makeshift media center around concrete tables in the park’s northeast corner.

The Occupy Wall Street media center was filled with Hackintoshes, cameras and mobile internet hotspots. A gas-powered electrical generator powered the equipment and charged batteries. From here, Teichberg and his team broadcast live-streams and used social media to rally public support for the Occupy movement.

The makeshift media center set up by Teichberg during Occupy Wall Street.

“Before social media,” Teichberg says, “protests and protesters were marginalized by the mainstream press, labeled as anarchists without a cause, and delegitimized. Social media allowed us to short-circuit mainstream censorship. We told our own story, and we did it in real time. That made it impossible for the mainstream press to reframe what we were doing in a negative way.”

On September 24, Occupy protestors marched to Union Square. On their way back, police used nets to kettle protesters on the sidewalk and arrest dozens. Video emerged of an NYPD officer pepper-spraying the penned-in protestors, for no apparent reason. The identity of the officer was not evident from the video, but after an amateur photographer posted photos of the officer on his blog, Twitter user @subverzo soon tweeted: 

@OccupyWallStreet @OccupyWallStreetNYC this #NYPD commanding officer, Anthony Bologna, is the macer.

I reached out to the user behind @subverzo, who declined to identify themselves but did confirm they had worked closely with Teichberg and the other leaders of the Occupy social media team — a collaboration that continues to this day. “We got a still [photograph],” @subverzo explained, “then we enhanced … enhanced … then figured out his name was Bologna. Someone else was able to figure out it was Anthony.”

The New York Daily News and other mainstream news outlets confirmed Bologna’s identify and reported it. That was the point when the world started paying attention to Occupy.

It’s also when, Teichberg charges, Andrew Breitbart hacked the movement the old-fashioned way: with a spy.

In 2007, Breitbart, a right-leaning blogger who cut his teeth as an editor at the Drudge Report, founded a group of websites known today as Breitbart News. That year, he also met Steve Bannon, who gave Breitbart office space and helped him raise money to fund the websites. Bannon became chief executive in 2012 shortly after Breitbart’s death. Bannon, who would go on to advise President Trump, has called Breitbart News “the platform for the alt-right.” Mother Jones has called it “an online haven for white nationalists.”

An Occupy Wall Street demonstration, October 14, 2011.

Breitbart’s spy, Teichberg alleges, posed as a protester and volunteered to work with the Occupy media group. This allowed him to participate in decision-making, as well as to monitor private email communications among Occupy organizers. The spy downloaded the messages and gave the cache to Breitbart News, which used it to publish a smear story on the movement.

Gawker identified the spy as computer security consultant Thomas Ryan, reporting, “Ryan says he’s done contract work for the U.S. Army and he brags on his blog that he leads ‘a team called Black Cell, a team of the most-highly trained and capable physical, threat and cyber security professionals in the world.’”

Breitbart News itself admitted that it deployed an “army of citizen journalists” to infiltrate Occupy, and even proudly trumpeted that fact in a 2012 story, “How Andrew Breitbart Stopped Occupy.”

“Breitbart infiltrated our training session for the media and published our entire mailing list at the beginning of Occupy,” Teichberg claims, adding, “It didn’t work, because we were so legit.”

Still, Breitbart’s monkey-wrenching wasn’t without effect.

“People started pointing fingers at each other, accusing them of working for Breitbart,” remembers Casper Snyder, 36, a member of the Occupy security team. “It was almost hysterical. We didn’t have a witch hunt, but it could have been.”

A few months before he died in 2011, Andrew Breitbart gave a prophetic interview. “This is a polarized nation,” he said. “This is a civil war based upon communication.”

In recent years, Teichberg has returned to freelance and contract coding to support himself and his family. He and Global Rev are now based out of a new space in Bushwick, not far from 13 Thames (currently feuding with their landlords, they have managed to stave off eviction throughout multiple stays and appeals). Teichberg travels frequently to Spain to visit his daughter and wife, who has recently had trouble securing a visa to come to the United States — he believes, due to their activism.

Through 2014, Global Rev focused on live-streaming Occupy-related activities. Since then, they’ve branched out into a number of offshoot collectives focused on various social justice projects, often on Twitter.

Now, in the wake of Charlottesville, Teichberg and other Occupy media veterans are focused on coordinating a response to the white nationalists who have been emboldened by Breitbart and others.

“It’s one thing if they sit in their chat rooms on Reddit,” Teichberg says. “But when they dress up in neo-Nazi outfits, with shields and spears and bats … holding torches and screaming ‘Burn the Jews,’ or whatever the fuck they were screaming, that’s something else.”

“At this point,” Teichberg continues, “they’re out in public. In the public space. We do have a right to take their picture. We do have a right to ask questions: ‘Who the fuck is this asshole?’ This is completely legitimate.”

With this in mind, Teichberg and his cohorts have launched a campaign to out those involved in the white nationalist movement. On September 7, @GlobalRevLive tweeted:

#UniteTheRight #Charlottesville Neonazi Discord conspirator Dr_Ferguson

aka Am3ricanPaladin is ex-Army Intel Agent Eric Nicholas Ober

@GlobalRevLive pinned the tweet to the top of its account, which has 60,100 followers. It stayed there for 11 days and was retweeted 115 times. Four more Ober-related tweets followed. Global Rev supported its tweet with a screen grab of a chat room discussion about Charlottesville that Ober had allegedly participated in under the alias Dr_Ferguson.

According to Global Rev, Ober wrote: “I am about securing the existence of my people and a future for white children cville will be a good place to meet. I will be the guy psyopping with music, if or when we have to engage the crowd.” (“Psyops” is military shorthand for “psychological operations,” which sometimes include the playing of loud music.)

Also included in Global Rev’s tweets were screen grabs from Ober’s since-deleted LinkedIn account, showing that he served in the U.S. Army National Guard for more than eight years, including six as an intelligence analyst. (A spokesperson for the U.S. Army National Guard confirmed Ober’s service; multiple phone calls to a Virginia number listed as Ober’s were not answered.)

The risk that former soldiers turned right-wing extremists will use their military training to commit terrorist violence is well-documented. In July 2008, the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division even prepared an intelligence assessment on the subject, “White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel Since 9/11.”

The assessment “identified 203 individuals with confirmed or claimed military service active in the extremist movement.” Looking to the future, the 2008 assessment warned that “sensitive and reliable source reporting indicates supremacist leaders are encouraging followers who lack documented histories of neo-Nazi activity and overt racist insignia such as tattoos to infiltrate the military … in order to recruit and receive training for the benefit of the extremist movement.”

Among the raw information that led to the identification of Ober was a cache of chats on the voice and text chat Discord. The cache, which included audio recordings and screen grabs, was first published online by a website called Unicorn Riot, which is described as “a volunteer-operated decentralized media collective made up of multimedia artists and journalists.”

One of its co-founders is Lorenzo Serna, 37, who worked alongside Teichberg and Holmes as a member of the original Occupy Wall Street media working group that met at 13 Thames. (Serna declined an invitation to talk about his work, and Unicorn Riot did not respond to an emailed request for comment.)

When Unicorn Riot published the chats, activists and members of the Global Rev team went to work analyzing them, along with other information the group received. According to Teichberg, Global Rev has “a network of activists around the world” dedicated to gathering news and information and sharing it. At first, the group used Facebook to organize, communicate and make decisions, but then it migrated to more secure platforms. Today, it uses an encrypted, open-source platform to communicate, but Teichberg declined to name it.

When a Global Rev member or other allied source uncovers potentially newsworthy information, it is shared with the group. Trusted individuals within the group can post to the Global Rev Twitter account, but they are expected to consult with the group before posting potentially controversial or sensitive content. In those instances, the group, not the individual, makes the decision to publish or not.

In the case of Ober, a Global Rev analyst identified him and shared the information with the group. Then the group’s most experienced and trusted members vetted the information.

“We had discussion,” Teichberg says, “and made [a] request that more confirmation be provided. More social media. More photos to compare from different angles. We didn’t want to misidentify someone… It was published after everyone agreed, ‘OK, this is legit.’”

Because of Global Rev’s decentralized organization, which relies on the autonomous efforts of individual citizen newsgatherers, Teichberg says he can’t predict what the group will do next or where their focus will turn, but he expects they will stay on the case of white supremacists.

Then there are those talks Teichberg’ a bona fide multimedia news website that could serve as the left’s answer to Breitbart News.

As the battle between the left and the right continues to escalate, “we want to document all the different fights for humanity, for justice and equality — sort of what Breitbart did with Nazism, except we’ll do it with humanism,” Teichberg says. “We want to tell the truth.”