“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.
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!
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.
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.
Socially aware people are, often justifiably, very good at moral indignation, but they just as often display a touching naivety. I recently watched with some surprise the American Occupy activists who were shocked (shocked I tell you!) as policemen (or university rent-a-cops) launched unprovoked attacks using batons and pepper spray.
It is indeed despicable that these officials use so much violence. But if people are still shocked by this in 2011, one has to wonder where they've been hiding for the last 10 years – have they not watched the news? Did they think that they could let stolen elections, illegal wars of aggression, shooting children with anti-tank weapons and the torture of innocent civilians happen without the ultimate consequence of their govenment using the same force against them?
But even the naive indignation of some Occupy activists about their government and its boot boys, is nothing compared to the childish surprise of the IT press about ACTA and SOPA. The copyright industry has for decades lobbied for the length of copyright to stretch to the end-of-time-plus-a-day extra.
Sony has no problems with infecting computers of their customers with what amounts to a virus. A torrent of writs has poured forth from the offices of copyright enforcement. Babies and the elderly without a PC, deceased persons, and even a HP laser printer have been falsely accused of copyright infringement (labeled as “theft” by the lawyers of the industry). Surely we all know the kinds of organisations we are facing now?
<originally a Webwereld column - in Dutch>
Over the last few years it seems as though everything that is centralised fails. Governments fail to solve societal problems (or even just complete a successful IT project), central banks fail to monitor the behaviour of ordinary banks, IT companies fail to offer us solutions that are safe and respect our privacy somewhat ...
Decentralisation works better: bittorrent, non-Western popular revolts, open source software, hacktivism and to a certain extent the Occupy movement. I'm glad Bits of Freedom and international counterparts such as the EFF exist because they put issues on the agenda that most of the over-50 politicians would not otherwise consider. In Berlin, the Pirate Party has over 9% of the seats in local government and is spreading rapidly across Germany.
But is all this really upholding our "rights"? Because despite all petitions, motions, actions and other initiatives our (digital) civil liberties are still evaporating. In the Netherlands it is virtually impossible to finish high school without buying Microsoft or Apple products, despite a long string of promises and agreements about this from our government. There are so many PCs that are controlled by cyber criminals that Microsoft had to set up a specific spring-cleaning for the Netherlands without user consent. This also makes it immediately apparent who really controls all these systems. Meanwhile, the government uses its own catastrophic Diginotar failure as a pretext for yet more government regulation of the online world.
<originally a Webwereld column - in Dutch>
Diginotar's multiple IT failures in the public sector have been swept under the carpet. So far, nothing indicates that there will be any real change to the Dutch government's overdue IT projects. During the hearing (mp3 – in Dutch) in the Lower House it was apparent that neither the government overseer OPTA or auditor Price Waterhouse Coopers believe themselves at fault, despite the fact that for years as regulators they have rubber stamped the work of Diginotar. The decisions of the PwC auditors were obviously good because "they are executed by responsible professionals". This will be heartening for all those Iranian citizens who are suffering the consequences of this (think of an unpleasant convergence of kneecaps and power tools).
But because of the chaos at Diginotar, we may never know for certain the full horror of those consequences. It is very simple for someone to take over an entire network and manipulate all the logs. The only thing we can really say with any certainty is that so far we have no reason to believe that IT security was any better in the past than the recently discovered FoxIT mess. The PwC audits are obviously not able to detect such a mess and OPTA apparently did not even look. Possibly Diginotar has been totally hacked for many years, and nobody noticed. A really smart spy or cyber criminal does his job and leaves no traces. The many detailed discussions about the exact scale and timeline of the hack have completely ignored this fact. From his grave Socrates is smiling at the idea that we only certainly know what we certainly do not know.
Over nine years ago, I was talking to Kees Vendrik <Dutch MP) about the broken Dutch software market. Not only was it impossible to buy a top brand laptop without buying a Microsoft Windows licence, it was also impossible to visit many websites (municipalities, Dutch railways and many others) without using Internet Explorer. The latter area has greatly improved and I can lead my life using my OS and browser of choice. Only occasionally do I have to just swallow a Windows licence when buying a new laptop. Not much has improved in that area. Our national dependence on products such as MS Office has not really diminished either, despite all the wishes of our Parliament and its related governments policies.
Meanwhile, the technological seismic shift that frightened Bill Gates so much back in '95 (the web makes the operating system irrelevant) is fast becoming reality. Almost all new developments discussed by IT power players and specialists are web-based or based on open specifications and the most commonly used applications are running quite well as service in a browser.
My grandmother was born in 1920 and left school at the age of 12 to work in her father's shop. She has never used a computer (but has tried an iPod for audio books). She is now 90 and is still interested in what I do.
Usually I just quickly skip over the technical aspects, because it's difficult for her to understand. The “why” is much more relevant. Privacy, civil rights and the control of your own details/information. She understands this easily, without having to follow all the technical details of open source codes and cryptography.
Last Sunday, Bits of Freedom in Amsterdam organized a lecture and discussion with Prof. Eben Moglen, a former programmer who is now a law professor and advocate for the use of free software. Part of his lecture was about the risks of cloud computing (see a previous lecture in New York on the same theme).
The Dutch Journal for Surgeons, publishes an article written by my collegue Younass and myself. We wrote this article to further explain some of the points we made during our keynote at the natinal Convention of Surgeons last month. The entire article here in English and Dutch, the PDF of the journal here. Background links and articles here (mostly Dutch).
The German Chaos Computer Club, the oldest and largest hacker group of Europe, made available to the public the fingerprint of the German Minister Schäuble for the Interior. They wanted to show how easy it is to obtain someone's identity when identity is based on fingerprints.
The German government is preparing to build a national database containing the fingerprints of all its citizens for the purposes of fraud-prevention and national security. Minister Schäuble is very angry about the release of his fingerprints and has stated he will take legal measures against the CCC. Dutch hacker Rop Gongrijp pointed out that the Minister's anger was curious since it was the minister after all who wanted to collect the fingerprints of over 82 million Germans and the CCC only collected one.