The “world’s first” presidential campaign hack-a-thon was less about politics than it was a search for a little bit of Silicon Valley magic.
Rand Paul, the iconoclastic junior senator from Kentucky and GOP presidential hopeful, is banking on digital-savvy to give his campaign an edge over other candidates in 2016. His digital team has been known to troll rivals on Twitter with hashtags like #thingstorunfrom and #hillaryslosers. A fake phone call they created between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush went viral.
The idea is that these little digital victories — making a video go viral or winning a sparring match on Twitter — will help boost fundraising, galvanize the voting masses and land Rand in the White House.
So on Saturday, as campaign CTO Ron Schnell surveyed an assembly of 20-odd high school kids, college students and hardcore libertarian hackers that had showed up at the San Francisco co-working space StartupHouse to hack for “liberty and privacy,” he was looking for “inspiration.”
“I know all of you care about privacy, and that’s why the theme of this hackathon is privacy and liberty,” Schnell told the crowd, which was small enough that there were almost as many journalists as hackers. “We know the Valley cares a lot about privacy, we don’t want to see the government building backdoors into our systems.”
In Silicon Valley, of course, genius is fueled by Rockstar energy drinks and thrives on sleep deprivation, and so Schnell hoped that over 24 hours last weekend this assemblage of young (primarily white, male) hackers would come up with something shiny and clicky, the kind of thing that might inspire the Paul campaign’s next major micro-victory. And maybe something that would also endear Paul to Silicon Valley libertarians he has so vigorously courted.
Sujaeth Jinesh, a 17-year-old who will be a freshmen at Georgia Tech next year, said he was mainly there to get some practice coding. He’s actually a Democrat, he said (though not a registered one, since he’s not old enough to vote yet).
“I came here not to talk about politics, but to talk about code,” he said.
His group of four people, Team Electorep, created an app to help voters figure out the positions of people they’re voting for.
His teammate, a 22-year-old U.C Davis student named David Chen, said that he started out interested in both Paul and Bernie Sanders, the junior Democratic senator from Vermont. But he had taken a quiz online, and it said his views were more in line with Sanders. He had come to the hack-a-thon, mainly, because he “was hoping Rand might show up.” (He didn't.)
Paul’s messaging could be a slide from a hyped-up startup pitch deck. Campaign signs on the wall told attendees to “Unleash the American Dream” and “Defeat the Washington Machine.”
But his ideology is at times deeply disconnected from the socially liberal Valley set. He may be Congress’s loudest advocate against NSA surveillance, but he is also outspoken against net neutrality. Likewise, Paul has been silent on same-sex marriage and “religious freedom” laws, issues many prominent Valley figures have spoken up about.
Schnell, who got his start programming in FORTRAN on IBM 360 on punch cards, said he was initially drawn to the campaign because it seemed like running tech for a political campaign would probably be pretty cool. It was only later that he realized he was also into Paul’s message.
After almost 24 hours, empty Cheetos bags and energy drink cans covered nearly every inch of free workspace. Schnell prepared to judge the contestants, alongside Jekudo Privacy Company CEO Elissa Shervinsky (notably, the only female techie in the room on Sunday) and TechCrunch writer Alex Wilhelm (who is also planning on voting for Bernie Sanders).
All but one of the five groups focused on “liberty” rather than “privacy.” As one Team Electorep member put it, “liberty is easier to hack.” A team helmed by a 16-year-old high school student seemed to ignore the prompt entirely, instead creating an app to help with note-taking.
Second place and a miniature Constitution signed by the Senator himself went to a lone programmer who created a Twitter bot that tracks when politicians “flip-flopped” on their positions by crawling campaign website content and then tweeting when it changes.
The grand prize went to three French aerospace engineers who created Checkmate, software that uses biometric authentication, like a fingerprints, rather than a password to pay for for things online. The idea, said Aymeric Rabot, who had driven up from Orange County for the hack-a-thon, was to keep merchants from ever needing to see personal information, like your name or address.
All three were fiercely aligned will Paul, even though, as French citizens, they cannot vote. After the hack-a-thon, a car whisked them away to the Intercontinental hotel in Monterey, where a campaign aide said the senator was attending to “private meetings.”
After pitching Paul on their idea, Rabot said he was impressed with what a good listener Paul seemed to be.
“He’s really aware of what’s going on in the tech world,” he said. “That’s a good thing to see.”
Schnell noted later that Checkmate was the only idea that actually followed both the “privacy” and “liberty” parts of the prompt.
Nonetheless, he said, he found it all really inspiring. He asked all the participants for their contact info, so the campaign might stay in touch.
As the hack-a-thon wound down, Jinesh, the 17-year-old, was taking a few of the campaign posters off the wall, carefully removing the tape and rolling them up.
“I think these go for a lot on Amazon,” he said.