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 ;-)
<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?
Cybercrime and cyber-warfare are currently the trendy terms the government throws around to acquire additional laws and powers. If it can also link cybercrime to the distribution of images of child abuse (also known as child pornography), the government has hit political pay dirt and can do pretty much what it wants. What continues to puzzle me is how all this focus on the distribution of such images actually protects the child victims themselves.
Bart Schremer published his opinion piece recently, providing an overview of the issues that law enforcement agencies are facing. On the one hand society (or at least the media) expects law enforcement to solved all crime immediately, preferably on a modest budget. On the other hand most Dutch people would still prefer to avoid a police state along the lines of the North Korean or American model.
But in all discussions on permissible methods of detection, hacking police officers and crime-fight-using politicians is missing, is why cybercrime has grown so enormously. The fact that our reliance on IT is increasingly complex will certainly have contributed. But one other important factor is the huge digital illiteracy among the vast majority of citizens. Aside from some half-hearted campaigns, the government has done little to teach citizens anything of real use or value.
According to Dutch Economics Minister Maxime Verhagen, 'ordinary' people have nothing to fear from ACTA. This treaty is merely designed to shut down child pornography sites. Go to the link and have another listen (in Dutch), because he really does say this!
That's good because, although I quite like a good download, I tend to limit myself to movies and books that fall a little more within the acceptable media spectrum. However, this statement gives us a fascinating glimpse into the mind of our Minister-of-All. Apparently in the case of distribution of photographic evidence of actual child abuse he is first and foremost concerned with possible copyright infringement. Is this a professional contortion or is he simply exceptionally goal orientated? This is what journalists should be pouncing on. For the lulz.
But beauty emerges even from the surrealist farce that is modern western copyright policy. No, I'm not talking about more music, movies or books, for there is no evidence that more culture is created by fanatically prosecuting 14-year olds for downloading. However, the recent weeks have clearly shown the usefulness of a common enemy. Thanks to ACTA, more Europeans than ever are involved in a critical discussion of modern copyright law and the balance with civil liberties. That is a wonderful development. Furthermore, it now seems that ACTA is dying following the remarks of European Commissioner Viviane Reding (she senses the political climate). One European country after another is delaying signing the treaty. In the three years since the “crisis” citizens have developed a fairly sharp bullshit filter to detect the kind of neo-liberal nonsense that ACTA is full of, and they will take no more. Like Software Patents it always takes awhile for the protests to get going but once they go representatives tend to choose the side of the people who can get them in a seat by voting in a few years.
Yesterday was the big SOPA protest day. Wikipedia (in English), Boing Boing, Reddit and many other sites were blacked out. Other sites, and even google.com had one-line banners beneath the bar exhorting me to contact the US Congress. The link said: "millions of Americans Oppose PIPA and SOPA because these bills would censor the Internet and slow economic growth in the US". Even a classic song urges me "to call my congressman". But google.nl, did not show this - clearly indicating that it perceived the matter to be an internal American political problem.
In recent weeks there have been many calls for action outside the US against SOPA. These calls have been synchronized with outrage and protests as Bush Obama signed the NDAA anti-terrorism law. Under this law, anyone in the US "suspected" of involvement in "terrorism" (both nebulously defined) can be indefinitely imprisoned or even killed without trial or any other form of judicial review (think Stalin '30). The anger itself is justified, but more than ten years too late. Indeed the only new provision in the NDAA is that the US can now treat its own citizens in ways that have been enforced against the world's other 6.5 billion people since 2001.
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>
In 1996 I got my first MP3s. Storage was expensive, so I burned files onto CD-ROMs. There were 10 to 12 audio CDs on a CD-ROM. Conversion of an audio CD to a series of MP3s lasted hours using an encoder from the command line. They could only be played on a PC (or a very expensive laptop) so I had no good answer to the frequent question from family and friends: “why do you bother?”. Except that I was confident that bigger hard drives and smaller, cheaper laptops would evolve. I first had an audio PDA in 2000 – with a 256Mb memory card that could hold a few albums. I've forgotten what all that has cost, but probably quite a lot.
A year later, Apple came out with iTunes to make it easy to manage digital music collections. The first iPods with graphical software came along soon after, and MP3s were accessible to a wider audience. The result is that virtually all music can be downloaded from somewhere. It is up to the individual whether to pay for it, because downloading is not illegal in many countries and even where it is, there has been little noticeable effect on people's behavior.
The Future of the future; Utopia versus The End Of The World As We Know It Thursday, November 3, 2011
Registration: 18:30-19:00, Conference: 19:00-21:15
Location: Volkskrantgebouw, Wibautstraat 150, 1091 GR Amsterdam [former building of the Volkskrant]
The conference language is English.
The Future of the Future is an examination of the various future vision as portrayed by futurists, academics and scenario thinkers.
<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.