Today is the 11th of Februrari 2014,"The Day We Fight Back". We fight against out-of-control spying on our privacy as free citizens. We fight against Orwellian espionage because we know where it leads to in the end.
The text below is inspired by the speeches of Winston Churchill in during may and june 1940. While the nature of the opponents of democracy and freedom is different today the consequences of losing the fight are just as dire. Our society and the planetary eco-system is a great trouble. We need our democracies to function and our internet to be free so we can adress the great challenges of out time.
"What Cory Doctorow and Aaron Schwartz called the fight against SOPA & ACTA is over. The battle against TTP and global surveillance continues to rage on. Upon this battle depends the survival of the internet and our democracies. Upon it depends our own way of life and the long continuity of our institutions and our culture. Once again the whole fury and might of the enemies of freedom will very soon be turned on us now.
Those working towards a police state know that they will have to break us or lose this conflict. If we can stand up to them, all of the Internet may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States and Europe, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new corporatist Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted technologies.
You ask, what is our policy? We can say: It is to hack, by server, laptop and phone, with all our might and with all the strength that Turing can give us; to wage lulz against a monstrous tyranny, rarely surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory, victory at all cost, victory in spite of all the terror, corruption and lies.
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our networked homes. To ride out the storm of surveilance, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of the hacktivists - every one of them. That is the will of free citizens, the technologists and the creatives, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend their native internet, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there will be no free culture.
Therefore we shall go on to the end:
we shall fight in Europe,
we shall fight on our browsers and our operating systems,
we shall fight with stronger encryption, and secure hardware,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength
we shall defend our networks, whatever the cost may be,
We shall never surrender.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the Internet and its hacker community last for a thousand years, they will still say, "This was their finest hour”."
No go participate or organise a cryptoparty, support people developing better tools (mail, web, secure systems and all this Free-as-in-freedom Software) or ask other people if they value being able to read without being read at the same time. Privacy is a human right according to the UN Declaration of human rights and yes, you to have something to hide as well.
Originally for Consortium News - Warning! this article violates 'Godwin's Law ' in almost every paragraph. Regrettably all these violations are all based on historic facts and documented current events.
When the famous skyline landmark building in the world’s economic center was attacked in fire and flames on that fateful, horrible day, and our elected leaders decided to go to war against terrorism under the banner of “you’re with us or against us”.
When the blame for all evil was unanimously put on people from the Middle East with their foreign religion, and all of those were made suspicious.
When patriotic new laws were passed almost immediately in the emotions from the attack, and those laws suspended most civil rights. When the word “Homeland” suddenly started being used again, after having been practically extinct.
When the country went to war, one after another, in the wake of that attack. When internment and torture camps for those middle-easterners and other unwanteds were created – outside the country borders, in order to hide what was going on from the public.
Indeed, the 1930s were a very dark time in Germany, and the Reichstag fire in Berlin set off a chain of events that might – theoretically – repeat itself.
I was a guest on Max Keiser's programme 'The Keiser Report' last Thursday jan. 16th for the second time. Max is a former Wall Street trader who foresaw the current economic crisis a decade ago.
Max caught me be susprise by asking about the NSA TURMOIL and TURBINE programs. I confused them with other programs (there are many). The TURMOIL and TURBINE programs are part of the 'Targeted Acces Operations' family (see this Spiegel article). These are programs for gaining acces to systems by other means than abusing their built-in weaknesses over internet connections (the NSA's favourite method because it can be automated to spy on everyone at very low cost). Targeted Accces Operations (TAO) deals with everything from intercepting & modifying electronic devices that people order online to the use of microwave beam weapons to identify, hack, break and manipulate computer systems from great distance. The latter method has also been used for targeting drone strikes. The talk by Jacob Appelbaum I mention in the beginning of the interview is here. Many more talks from the 2013 CCC conference in Hamburg can be found here.
The US Declaration Of Independence is one of the greatest political writings in history and can be re-written for more contemporary political problems as I did here. Accoring to US academics the US declaration was inspired by the Dutch declaration that preceded it by almost two centuries.
Blogpost on a previous interview last year.
Last year during my December visit on London I gave a 1 hour interview to London Real. This is great new free-form 1+ hr completly unscripted interview program that is available on Youtube and as a podcast. Tired of the superficial 3-minute interviews that stop just when things get interesting? London Real is your channel. If you want to keep up to date on the London startup/tech scene then checkout Silicon Real.
Brian Rose and me spoke about NSA-spying, the nature of privacy, copyright, bitcoin and much more. The interview begins at 7:48. For more check out the London Real site. Compact mp3 for download here.
On December 25th 2013 Edward Snowden delivered an alternative Christmas message on the UK's channel 4 TV station. Before the broadcast a short version of the speech was leaked and immediatly uploaded to youtube. That upload was immediatly blocked but many re-uploads made the clip available everywhere. This is one of those places. If you want to thank Edward Snowden for giving up his relationship, familiy, job and any chance of a normal life to inform us all go here and donate. Or spread his message. And do something with it. Because if something is done all of Edward's sacrifices have meaning.
From April 26th until December 18th 2013 I was a member of the expert committee on voting computers. This committe was instituted to advise the Dutch Minister for the Interior on the feasability of re-introducing electronic voting methods.
In the past (2008, 2012) I have always been very critical about the way electronic voting was implemented in The Netherlands up to 2007. The lack of transparancy of this method and the impossibility of recounts made this fundamentally incompatible with real democracy and,
after some convincing by citizens, even the government agreed on this.
On Moday december 2nd 2013 I was a guest on Max Keiser's programme 'The Keiser Report'. Max is a former Wall Street trader who foresaw the current economic crisis a decade ago. On his show he lets rip on the insane financial system and allows his guests to do the same.
O, and a PetaFLOP is 1.000.000.000.000.000 computations per second. I should have known that ;-)
Over the last month Prof. Eben Moglen held a series of lectures on the implications of the documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden. More than any other article or interview these talks give a clear analysis of the meaning of this information and what it is we all need to do as citizens if we want a future where freedom and civil liberties still has some meaning. Original video's, audio recordings and transcriptions of the talks can be found at http://snowdenandthefuture.info/.
<on 26-09-2013 I gave the keynote at the Eurapco congres where top EU insurance firms share expertise>
We live in a world of rapid technological change. Keynote speaker and IT expert Arjen Kamphuis discusses the implications for the insurance industry and its customers, and what measures can be taken to ensure the best possible customer experience. The objective was to raise awareness of the rapid pace of socio-technical development today and what fundamental effects this will have on the insurance industry. Changes in customer behaviour and expectations will have an impact on customer satisfaction with our companies’ claims handling.
Future shock – are we prepared for change? Some of the topics discussed in the keynote
<also on HuffPo UK>
Shortly after the initial release of some documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden I wrote a little summary about the IT-policy implications for Europe based on earlier columns. A lot of additional documents have come out since then and we can basically conclude that almost every computer system on the planet is fully broken or at least very vulnerable to NSA interference or manipulation.
Nobody, including the NSA, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald has a total oversight of all the in the tens of thousands of documents let alone the political or strategic implications of the info contained in them. Most of the news keeps focusing on the 'scandal' aspect and/or the person of Snowden. Being angry at the US government (practised by most opponents) and attacking the person of Snowden (a favorite of apologists of the US regime) distracts from defining adequate policy responses and so far there have been precisely none in Europe. This constitutes a massive failure of the various EU governments to protect their citizens' rights and the economic sovereignty of their nations. It is also strange in light of the fact that an adequate policy response had already been formulated in July 2001 and really just needs to be implemented.
But every now and them the disinfo spread by some apologists for the behaviors of the NSA is useful for understanding how much worse the situation may just turn out to be. This article by a former NSA employee is a nice example of an attempt at smearing the whistleblower while actually digging the hole the NSA (and the US regime) is in much, much deeper. The piece claims Snowden secretly worked for Russian intelligence all along. While I do not share the authors views on Snowden's motivations or allegiances the suggestion that outside organisations could have agents inside the NSA has some interesting implications.
(this post text started as an email to a Dutch employee of the national broadcast service NOS - somewhat equivalent to the British BBC) - also on Sargasso.nl. See Dutch version of this blog for links to the complete follow-up (in Dutch). Overview of this on Sander Venema's blog in English.
Yesterday you felt it tweet-worthy that Russia Today TV had cut off a guest who used the platform he was given not to discuss the Bradley Manning trail but instead staged a protest against the horrible LGBT-rights situation in Russia. This incident was to you 'proof' that RT could not be trusted as a good information source in other things. As a reference you picked the Dutch newspaper 'De Telegraaf'. This, in my view, was a rather unfortunate choice since this newspaper has itself a long and sordid history of collaborating with the German occupation, misinforming of misrepresenting world events and generally being a publication that only cares about human rights when it suits their political agenda. All in the tradition of FOX-news and the Daily mail.
At OHM2013 I talked about implications of accelerating tech, some ways to understand the various crisis we're in right now and some questions we can ask about the strange things our governments seem to be up to these days.
I was critical of most western 'mainstream' media because they see quite incapable of asking basic questions such as: "why are we putting Bradley Manning on trial and not the helicopter-gunner who shot up over a dozen civilians including children?" Shooting at children with an anti-tank gun and then lying about it to the world is probably a war-crime, certainly something worth digging into in the context of a war that itself has been started based on lies.
Just did the latest version of my 'Futureshock' talk (update from 2005 / 2009) at OHM2013. The central new insight is that exponential change does not only work 'up' (Moore's law, Kurzweil's law of accelerating returns) but also the other way: exponential out of control financial systems and military-industrial-security-complexes causing exponential depletion of critical resources. All of this is very bad but the exponential climate disaster is now rapidly approaching a level that could end up killing more people that all the wars ever (and perhaps all of us). Welcome to the age of consequences where 'crisis' will be the new normal.
Just as in 2005/2009 I to give an overview of exponentially developing technologies and their implications (for details see the earlier versions of the talk linked above). But we really need to discuss some bad news about exponentially growing problems of resource scarcity, environmental degradation and the policy non-responses of our governments so far. A lot of activism against things like 'The War on Terror' or the various other ways our governments have lots their democratic ways seem to be working from the assumption that most of the problems are just a misunderstanding. And if we can just explain the facts to these, not so smart, but esssentially well meaning people in Brussels and Washington everything will be OK. This model of reality is good for getting funded as an NGO and getting invited to talk to aforementioned well-meaning people. It is not good for actually understanding and influencing what is going on (firstly because it ignores the fact that politicians in Brussels and Washington are really not in charge). Lets at least consider the idea that these 'crazy' policies are not crazy at all but are actually working perfectly. That is for the actual goals, just not the officially stated ones.
Let's talk. But let our talking be based on a harsh assesment of where we really are, not some politically convienent pretense of where we should be or would like to be.
When trying to understand current events in their context it's often more useful to look at the policies that are influencing these events than individual cases (although the individual cases often make up 'the news'). In many cases there is a gaping chasm between the formally stated goals of a policy and their actual effects ('wars' on various nouns such as 'terror' or 'drugs' come to mind).
Despite this, discussions about and opposition against are often argued from the rather fictional standpoint that the stated goals are the actual goals. Even if it is patently obvious that the policy in question does not further this goal, and that everybody smart enough to have some influence is aware of this. Opposition against misguided or destructive policies thus allows the parameters of the debate to be fenced-in by its proponents. It's pretty hard to win any debate if the other party can define (and re-define) the goal-posts without a need for any evidence that these goal-posts are reasonably placed.
The UK Centre for Investigative Journalism is a non-profit organisation dedicated to educating and training journalists to benefit the quality of journalism and thus public debates on important topics in society. Every year the CIJ holds a 3-day summer school where journalists can follow lectures, participate in workshops and meet with some of the foremost professionals in their field. Several months ago, when the CIJ asked me to help set up a workshop in information security, we had no idea then how hot the subject would become after the revelations by former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden. I was very happy to see the room at London City University was packed with journalists eager to learn both theory and practice of securing their communications and protecting their data. An overview of theory & tools for those who missed it, slides here, video below.
Being in London for a few days also allowed me to contribute to a cryptoparty (a workshop for teaching info security basics to anyone interested) that was kindly hosted and wonderfully supported by the London Hackerspace. Dozens of people from all walks of life showed up and we had a great time.
If you would like to attend such a workshop contact your local hackerspace and join or look at this list of upcoming cryptoparties. If nothing is planned in your area start a group yourself. The time for it has never been more propitious. The links above can get you started. If you get stuck mail me and I'll be happy to put you in contact with people near you.
Below a recording of the theory introduction part of the workshop at the 2013 summer school. After this intro the whole class worked together for several hours setting up software tools for email-encryption, anonymous browsing and testing these new capabilities with colleagues. By the end of the day over 30 journalists were tooled up to receive scoops from high-risk whistleblowers.
On July 11th 2001 the European Parliament published a report on the Echelon spy network and the implications for European citizens and businesses. Speculations about the existence of this network of Great Britain-and-her-former-colonies had been going on for years but it took until 1999 for a journalist to publish a report that moved the subject out of the tinfoil-hat- zone. The report of the EU Parliament contains very practical and sensible proposals, but because of events two months later across the Atlantic, they have never been implemented. Or even discussed further.
Under the heading "Measures to encourage self-protection by citizens and enterprises" lists several concrete proposals for improving data security and confidentiality of communications for EU citizens. The document calls on Parliament to inform citizens about the existence of Echelon and the implications for their privacy. This information must be "accompanied by practical assistance in designing and implementing comprehensive protection measures, including the security of information technology".
Other gems are the requests to "take appropriate measures to promote, develop and manufacture European encryption technology and software and, above all, to support projects aimed at developing user encryption technology, which are open-source" and "promote software projects whose source text is published, thereby guaranteeing that the software has no "back doors" built in (the so-called "open source software")”. The document also mentions explicitly the unreliability of security and encryption technologies whose source code is not published. This is an issue that is a strict taboo in Dutch and UK discussions on IT strategy for governments (probably because certain major NATO partners might be offended).
Also, governments must set a good example to each other and their citizens by "systematic use of encryption of e-mails, so that in the longer term this will be normal practice." This should in practice be realised by "ensuring the training and publication of their staff with new encryption technologies and techniques by means of the necessary practical training and courses." Even candidate countries of the EU should be helped "if they cannot provide the necessary protection by a lack of technological independence".
That one paragraph from the summer of 2001, when rational security policies had not yet been completely destroyed by 9/11, describes the basis for a solid IT policy that ensures security and privacy of citizens against threats from both foreign actors and the government itself (historically always the greatest threat to its citizens and the reason why we have constitutions).
Had these policies been implemented over the last decade then the PRISM revelations of the last week would have been met mostly with indifference. European citizens, governments and companies would be performing most of their computing and communications on systems controlled by European organisations, running software co-developed in Europe and physically located on European soil. An American problem with an overreaching spy apparatus would have been just that, an American problem - like teenagers with machine guns or lack of universal healthcare, just one more of those crazy things they do in the colonies to have 'freedom'.
“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” - Mahatma Gandhi
This summer the Dutch hacker community, with help from friends all over the world, will organise the seventh hacker festival in a series that started in 1989 with the Galactic Hacker Party. The world has changed massively since then (we'll get to that) but the goal of these gatherings remains the same: to share knowledge and ideas about technology and its implications for our world, have heated discussions on what we should do about the problems we see (sometimes well before many others see them), generally have fun in communicating without keyboards, and being excellent to each other.
Four years ago a somewhat unknown Australian hacker with some new ideas about the future of journalism gave the opening keynote at HAR2009. His site was called Wikileaks and some of us had a hunch that this concept might be going places. We had no idea just how far that would be...
Not long after the first gathering in the Netherlands in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. While we can claim no connection, the interminable Cold War had finally ended and many of us felt, with the optimism so typical of youth, that world peace might just be possible in our lifetimes. We would go back to making rockets that went up instead of straight-and-level and other great things would follow.
<Originally a Webwereld column - in Dutch>
In the middle of election season in Iceland a debate is raging about the need to protect young children from violent pornographic imagery that can be found on the Internet. Although it is unclear what the scale of this problem is, there is concern about the methods used by some in the porn industry to market their wares. There is an idea that some firms use the old tobacco industry method of 'get them while they're young'.
As I was in Iceland recently I was fortunate enough to be asked my opinions on these matters by government officials. The entire debate is being conducted during election season, so the local media are on top of every word uttered by anyone from either government or the local digital civil liberties organisations. What causes most of the (international) attention is the specific plan to put a national filter on all Icelandic internet connections. This would be a first for a western democracy (although such filters have been tried in various Asian countries from Iran to China). Proposing a method that could very well be called censorship is incongruous in a modern and progressive society such as Iceland (the only country to have convicted its bankers over their part in the current global financial crisis).
During an informal dinner a few days later with officials it became clear that no decision on a filter, or any other policy, had been made. The government was looking into the problem and discussing possible solutions. The emotive nature of the debate causes the problems and solutions to get mixed up. I therefore attempted to structure the discussion over dinner:
On February 26th 2013 I gave a talk at Reykjavik University in Iceland on Privacy & Online freedoms. The whole thing played out in during and Icelandic election season were a proposal to put a national filter on Iceland's internet connection to block violent pornography caused quite an uproar in Iceland and abroad. Slides of this presentation here.
A few years ago, Israeli and American intelligence developed a computer virus with a specific military objective: damaging Iranian nuclear facilities. Stuxnet was spread via USB sticks and settled silently on Windows PCs. From there it looked into networks for specific industrial centrifuges using Siemens SCADA control devices spinning at highspeed to seperate Uranium-235 (the bomb stuff) from Uranium-238 (the non-bomb stuff).
Iran, like many other countries, has a nuclear program for power generation and the production of isotopes for medical applications. Most countries buy the latter from specialists like the Netherlands that produces medical isotopes in a special reactor at ECN. The western boycott of Iran makes it impossible to purchase isotopes on the open market. Making them yourself is far from ideal, but the only option that remains as import blocked.
Why the boycott? Officially, according to the U.S. because Iran does not want to give sufficient openness about its weapons programs. In particular, military applications of nuclear program is an official source of concern. This concern is a fairly recent and for some reason has only been reactivated after the US attack on Iraq (a lot of the original nuclear equipment in Iran was supplied by American and German companies with funding from the World Bank before the 1979 revolution). The most curious of all allegations of Western governments about Iran is that they are never more than vague insinuations. When all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies in 2007 produced a joint study there was a clear conclusion: Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon (recent speech by the leader of this study here).
At their yearly conference the Dutch The National Cyber Security Center stated this week they want to listen more to the hacker community. It is fine that the government will at last listen to the people who have been ahead of the curve for decades, although the question remains - why it has waited to do this until 2013? Even if this had been done as recently as 5 or 10 years ago it would have saved an incredible amount of trouble and public money. I sincerely hope that the consultations with the hack(tivist) community are about more than just technical tricks, because most benefits to society are derived from discussing policy. For purely technical issues the usual consulting companies can always be hired and then simply pay hackers for their knowledge and advice, just like any other experts.
Meanwhile a big group of hackers were unhappy about the fact they were not welcome and organized an alternative meeting. If the NCSC's intentions for the coming year work out in practice, next time this might not be necessary. On the community side, these invitations to the table should be dicussed openly and in detail (who sits at the table and wearing what hat). Because when community contributions and possible commercial interests get mixed up, things quickly degenerate into bickering and arguing. I speak from experience ;-). Nobody is "representative" of the entire hacker community. The NCSC will have to adjust to the idea that we have no centralised organisation with a head office where you can meet up with the CEO/director/top-dog.
Not sure what to say about the sudden death of Aaron Schwarz, idealist, freedom-fighter-extraordinaire and friend of open access to information for all of humanity. Aaron spend his life fighting for humanity's highest ideals, contributing to technologies most of us use every day (even if we don't know it). It just feels like something is very, very wrong is the so-called 'free world' is killing its best and brightest for living up to its highest ideals. We've got big problems and cannot afford to lose people like Aaron.
Cory Doctorow has written a eulogy here, Prof Lawrence Lessig had an overview of the case the US Department of Justice (ha!) saw fit to launch against Aaron. Glen Greenwald wrote about his heroic work in helping to defeat SOPA over the last years. A digital memorial to Aaron will be here for as long as there is an Internet. The files that started the case can be found here. Spread them around as wisely as possible.
But mostly just watch Aaron's speeches and interviews, as many times as needed before you understand his ideas and ideals fully.
On July 11th 2001 the European Parliament published a report on the Echelon spy network and the implications for European citizens and businesses. Speculations about the existence of this network of Great Britain-and-her-former-colonies had been going on for years but it took until 1999 for a journalist to publish a report that moved the subject out of the tinfoil-hat- zone. The report of the EU Parliament contains very practical and sensible proposals, but because of events two months after publication, they have never been implemented. Or even discussed further.
Under the heading "Measures to encourage self-protection by citizens and enterprises" lists several concrete proposals for inproving data security and confidentiality of communications for EU citizens. The document calls on Parliament to inform citizens about the existence of Echelon and the implications for their privacy. This information must be "accompanied by practical assistance in designing and implementing comprehensive protection measures, including the security of information technology". So not just some abstract government infomercial on TV/radio but hands-on tips to get some actual work done please!
<originally a Webwereld column>
Last month the VVD and D66 political parties (the Dutch equivalent of the Conservatives and LibDems in the UK) again proposed that the Netherlands should re-adopt electronic voting. Earlier this year the Dutch Association of Mayors also called for their reintroduction (don't you just love it when non-elected officials comment on and interfere with the electoral process :-). While the use of voting computers in the Netherlands has been banned for over four years, even for water board elections, there remains a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic problem with electronic voting.
While the many clumsy security problems (video) or the absence of the source code of the software (in the case of Nedap and SDU voting computers), are excellent talking points for the media and political agenda, these issues are not the core of the problem. And although the voting computer dossier at the Ministry of Home Affairs is now labelled with a bright fluorescent sticker: 'radioactive, do not touch!", there is still a risk that local authorities or suppliers will continue to feel that voting by computer is best "if we can just iron out a few little bugs”.
The real objections are more fundamental and have little to do with security bugs or open source code. They are the fundamental principles underpinning our democracy, and are threatened by the use of voting computers. In the many discussions on mailing lists and web forums it seems that people have lost sight of these principles.
Gartner, IT-journalists and even former employees of Microsoft agree: Windows 8 will be a disaster. The Metro interface designed for tablets (a market that virtually does not exist in relation to MS-Windows) is unworkable on a desktop with a vertical non-touch screen, keyboard and mouse. Most office spaces still have this and most run legacy applications with interfaces that rely on a Windows PC using a keyboard and mouse. It is precisely the ongoing purchase of desktop PCs with the combination of MS-Windows and MS Office that has kept Microsoft financially afloat over the last 15 years
The combination of legacy applications (mostly proprietary) and familiarity with MS Office, led many IT organisations to automatically buy the new Windows platform, despite the high cost of licences and support. The inevitable result is a world of pain, with new interfaces, a lack of compatibility and the sudden cessation of support for critical components. IT policy is organised around coping with these problems instead of focusing on sustainable alternative solutions. And solving or mitigating these problems requires so much time and money that there is often little left over to plan further ahead. Thus, in many organisations the perfect vicious circle has existed for so long that many IT people can not even see it.
hen in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for people to dissolve the commercial, legal and moral bands which have connected them with an industry and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which their most fundamental principles entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all lives are enriched by the sharing of culture, that citizens are endowed by their democracies with certain unalienable rights, that among these are knowledge, true ownership of their property and the sharing of culture. That to secure these rights, laws are instituted among the people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any of these laws become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish them, and to institute new laws, laying their foundations on such principles and organizing their powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Friday a week ago I, along with other "experts", attended a Parliamentary Working Group to answer questions about government IT projects. This was a Parliamentary group of MPs investigating the many IT failures of the government. After the summer (and the sept 12th elections), the investigation should begin with a sharp set of research questions. The invited experts were there to help formulate the right questions.
Here are my blog links to some of the available online advice written by the working group and the video stream (all in Dutch). It was striking how unanimous was the message presented by all the IT experts, given the variety of backgrounds.
Like other columnists and opinion writers, I also emphasised the failings of government and egregious damage to national security, privacy and general public funds. From available data, in terms of the government, the cost to the Dutch has moved from millions to billions of euros annually.
With such a government it is like shooting fish in a barrel for columnists. Therefore it was refreshing on this occasion to make a more constructive contribution. Although it was a pity that such meetings do not occur more frequently and are not better attended by the officials and suppliers who are responsible for all these projects. As 6 billion euros pour down the drain every year (and that is only the out-of-pocket costs - the social impact may be much higher) it might be a good idea to hold consultations more often. While I doubt that the gathering last week has any ready-made solutions for all the problems, I think there is a reasonable degree of consensus about their root causes:
On June 1st 2012 the Dutch government's Parliamentary working group on government IT-projects held a hearing of experts. My written contribution below. Capture of videostream... (in Dutch). Dutch journalist Brenno de Winter published his thoughts here.
Introduction - IT and the Dutch national government
Universality is an assumption of astrophysics that states that all phenomena, everywhere, behave as we observe them from Earth. I'm assuming that phenomena I have observed in specific government IT projects also occur in government IT projects that I have less infromation about (this is usually caused by the poor implementation of Freedom Of Information Acts, see the notes of Mr de Winter).
IT project management is currently based on a rather naive model of reality - "smart entrepreneurs compete on a level playing field for the favours of the government, which then procures with insight and vision." However, this model does not adequately predict the observed outcome of the projects. Whence this group.
Another model would be "a corrupt swamp with the wrong incentives, populated by sharks and incompetent clowns". This model has the advantage of perfectly predicting the observed outcomes.
Eben Moglen explains the biggest and most important fight for civil liberties in the next decade. Nothing the Free Software Foundation has not been saying for over 20 years but now more important than ever. Freedom requires freedom of thought and this requires freedom of media and communications. These cannot be guaranteed if private interests, controlling or controlled by governments can interfere with the functioning of the information networks and devices. Freedom requires free technology (where free means free as-in-freedom) where the people using the technology control what is does for them and how it does it. I talked about this in 2010 and many times before and after on this blog.
Cory Doctorow's column in the Guardian about tech-politics and the importance of outreach by the tech community can be found here. Cory makes the point that ensuring your rights through technical skills is great, but not much help to society if the tech is too difficult for most people to use. Outreach activities and the hard work of polishing technical tools for non-techie use are of vital importance.
However, I do think that one important aspect was missing from Cory's argument, so my additional comment on another vital aspect of current tech/internet politics is below:
As nerd-politics is a subset of 'normal' politics, it's not just the nerd-part we need to worry about. The political system itself needs to function - at least some of the time - to get anywhere. If a country has a political system that retains the rituals of a democracy but no longer actually functions as such, then no amount of good nerd-politics (or politics of any other kind) will fix anything. Especially if such a fix threatens established and well-funded business interests.
It is perhaps no coincidence that all the bad tech-policy examples that Cory cites (SOPA, ACTA, TTP, DMCA, attacks on the Piratebay, mass reading of email, etc) orginate in the US and are foisted on other countries from there. While those countries deserve their fair share of blame for allowing a foreign power to bully them into this stuff, it is pretty clear where the problem lies. With or without nerds involved.
Either we fix the completely broken US political system (and good luck with that!) or the rest of the world needs to get better at ignoring absurd US laws and treaties cobbled together by lobbyists of private for-profit organisations. Neither those corporations nor general US politics concern themselves with the interests of the inhabitants of the rest of the planet. And the rest of the planet should respond accordingly.
Nerds (aka the tech community) can provide some tools to help out with that, as the Free Software movement and Wikileaks have shown.
Doublethink is a concept that was introduced by George Orwell in his famous novel '1984 '. It is a mental mechanism that allows people to believe sincerely and simultaneously two completely opposing ideas without a problem.
In the ten years that I have been involved with open source and open standards in the Dutch public sector, I have encountered many double thinkers. So for years I have endured “experts” and insiders patiently explaining that the migration to open source desktops within that community would be impossible, because civil servants could not work with other platforms. Asking non-techies to use anything but the Windows + Office desktop they were taught at Dutch schools would lead to disaster. It Just Could Not Happen.
The certainty with which this (to this day) is mouthed as an aphorism everywhere has always amazed me. Previously, the Netherlands had migrated from WP5.2 in DOS to Windows Word 6, yet the Earth kept turning, children went to school and there was water from the tap.
Multiple migrations, mostly outside the Netherlands, have also demonstrated that ordinary users can do their work well with alternative platforms, provided they are given some training and support (something, indeed, that is perfectly normal when migrating to new releases of the usual proprietary systems).
The same people who for years have claimed with great certainty that "It Just Could Not Happen” have been busily rolling out iPads to the many managers and directors, who for many and varied reasons discover they need one. Apparently the adoption of an entirely different platform with a totally different interface is not as problematic as was asserted for all those years. Huh?