There's a wariness to the way that Alex Lifschitz and Depression Quest creator Zoe Quinn comport themselves over Skype, as though they've grown accustomed to expecting assault. Their voices are clipped, their laughter strained. They're careful about everything, vigilant against even the slightest risk of being hacked.
Which makes sense. Caution is a natural response when you're in the crosshairs of the internet.
Lifschitz and Quinn are the co-founders of Crash Override, a grassroots volunteer effort that aims to provide support to those suffering from online harassment. It's not the first of its kind; organizations like Stay Safe Online and Working To Halt Online Abuse have long labored to cultivate a safer internet. But Crash Override is trying to offer a little more. "One of the big things that separates our network from others is that we like to say it's 'for survivors by survivors.'" Lifschitz explains.
Quinn, in particular, is what many would consider a survivor of online harassment. About six months ago, an ex-partner of hers published a series of vitriolic blog posts alleging sexual infidelities. The diatribe, overflowing with screencapped Facebook conversations, was the catalyst for an avalanche of personal attacks from readers who believed that Quinn had slept with a journalist to secure positive coverage for her game.
"It's for survivors by survivors."
This supposed breach of ethics gave way to the so-called Quinnspiracy Theory: that Quinn used sex and pity to manipulate the industry. As weeks passed, the accusations continued to mount. Quinn was implicated with a litany of questionable acts, including sabotaging a game jam led by The Fine Young Capitalists. The situation eventually came to a head when actor Adam Baldwin created the #Gamergate hashtag, providing an identity for the growing movement.
Though ostensibly about ethics in games journalism, Gamergate has also been linked to various incidents of online harassment, including doxxing (having one's private information researched and disseminated), SWATing (the act of inciting an emergency response to false situations) and death threats, among other examples. Quinn says she personally experienced many of these kinds of attacks.
But where others might reciprocate aggression in kind, Lifschitz and Quinn are taking a more constructive approach with Crash Override. "There's a massive cultural issue where people sort of think that the internet is this magic alternate dimension where your actions don't matter," Quinn says. "When really, it's sort of like tech needs to have its Soylent Green moment and go, 'The internets is people!'"
Educating the public about the dangers of online harassment is only part of what Crash Override does. Built in response to their own experiences, the organization specializes in assisting others with what the two describe as "coordinated online mob harassment." Such attacks are often planned on anonymous bulletin boards like 4chan and 8chan, which have become infamous as staging grounds for internet "raids" -- large-scale assaults on websites, forums or targeted people. Quinn says that Crash Override is also beginning to assist with "smaller-scale things," such as individual cyberstalking and harassment.
There's no cut-and-dried methodology to the work it does. Quinn says no two cases of harassment are the same, adding that the "correct thing to do" can vary wildly depending on things like the person's ethnicity, gender, who their aggressors are and the nature of their digital footprints -- the kind of personal data they've made available on the internet. Not surprising, considering the panoply of forms such abuse can take, and how minorities are treated online. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center, for example, shows that young women are more likely to experience "severe" forms of abuse -- stalking, threats of physical assault and sexual harassment -- than men.
According to Quinn, some of these situations can be safely waited out. However, a huge portion requires active monitoring and safety measures to be taken on the part of the victim. "What we try to offer people is some best practices, advice and just lending an ear if they'd like to talk because very few people understand what it means to go through this kind of harassment."
She adds that the network can also help provide some basic diagnostic assistance for those attempting to divine weak points in their computer setup, along with information on what kind of service hacks to expect and how a person might be compromised. For highly technical matters and more specialized assistance, Crash Override has an extended network of experts conversant in fields like white hat hacking, PR, law enforcement and counseling -- most, if not all, of whom were former clients.
The original group, Lifschitz says, came about when a handful of those affected by Gamergate banded together to contend with their harassment. "There wasn't much of a formal procedure other than, 'Hey, we really helped each other out; wanna join up?'" Lifschitz adds that there are still people who they reach out to who are "not formalized agents of the network."
But Crash Override is not a catch-all solution, says Quinn. "There are some people that we can't really do much for in terms of, like, if they have a very specific need. So, in those cases we like to try and refer them to someone on our network who has prior experience with their specific situation."
Similarly, Quinn warns that Crash Override can't really assist unauthorized third parties looking to act on someone else's behalf. ("We don't like to step in unless we're explicitly working with the victims themselves," she says.) Still, there's a middle ground. The organization has a Tumblr cataloging general advice and other assorted public service announcements. Thus far, it includes an explanation on how to avoid being doxxed and how to secure private accounts. More specialized guides are in the works, including one on how to talk about mob harassment. "Everybody can benefit from having better online security," Quinn says. "Everybody can benefit from scrubbing themselves from information brokers."
Although the pair hopes to help as many people as possible, local cyberlaws can be a factor. "There are some countries that take this more seriously than others," Lifschitz says. "Sweden and Norway have more secure laws about that kind of thing, or pay more attention to the issue. The UK has stricter cybercrime laws." Lifschitz also said that SWATing is mainly an issue in North America.
The two are reserved about discussing future plans for Crash Override. Lifschitz says it's "all very organic." He describes a similar approach to funding, too. Right now, the organization is being funded by the pair themselves, but that's subject to change. "Currently, we're doing just fine on our own," Quinn states, stressing that she can't currently see a situation where the group would need to accept outside funding. "If circumstances dictate that we could be more effective and help more people in ways that we're good at while still making sure that all of our agents are safe and anonymous and everything's still working on our end, we'll go in that direction."
While Crash Override has been positively received by the general media, it's also being met with angry opposition. Lifschitz says their sites have been hit with over 700 hacking attempts, with Crash Override itself enduring 184 of them. Nonetheless, the pair continues to persist, determined to give back to the community that they love.
Lifschitz says their sites have been hit with over 700 hacking attempts, with Crash Override itself enduring 184 of them.
"Being able to survive as we have is something we recognize that not everyone will be able to do," Lifschitz says. "We have to give back somehow as best we can, and to people who might not be able to have access to the same resources we do."
"We get so many people contacting us every day saying just, like, 'Thank you for being there.' It also takes a bit of a personal toll, but it's something that we know we're in for the long haul, and we've always been prepared for that."
If you'd like to get involved with Crash Override or have been the victim of online harassment, you can learn more at the organization's website.
[Image credits: Hackers movie (background) / Crash Override Network (logo); Wikimedia (Zoe Quinn in 2014); Crash Override Network (GIF)]