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Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

2013-06-06

PRISM, Verizon: Surprise!

Someone in another forum was asking his friends whether they were surprised by the new revelations about US surveillance, and whether they thought there was a collective will to battle it. After the stream of “no and no” responses, I ended up saying this.

I deal with this material every day, and while what I feel isn’t really what I’d describe as “surprise”, I still feel aghast and disturbed whenever we uncover a new revelation. I also know that, if all the implications of the PRISM Powerpoint are true, there are a lot of people at the tech companies who are feeling extremely played right now. They put a lot of effort into building tools that they genuinely believed weren’t being used for this purpose, and indeed spent much of their time trying to ensure that they couldn’t be misused. If they have been betrayed by their upper management or their own government, or both, to this degree, they will be surprised, and upset, and angry.

Surprised, upset, angry, people are people I feel a bond with and sympathy. I can understand when people believe they are not surprised, although that sounds to me more like a coping strategy; I struggle a bit more with the “surprised that others are surprised” response, because that just makes you sound  dismissive of others’ ignorance, while exhibiting your own. It does no good to be aware of technical surveillance, while not knowing how most other people think of it.

I really don’t agree with the people who think “We don’t have the collective will”, as though there’s some magical way things got done in the past when everyone was in accord and surprised all the time. It’s always hard work to change the world. Endless, dull hard work. Ten years later, when you’ve freed the slaves or beat the Nazis everyone is like “WHY CAN’T IT BE AS EASY TO CHANGE THIS AS THAT WAS, BACK IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS. I GUESS WE’RE ALL JUST SHEEPLE THESE DAYS.”

You have to work hard to stop a war that kills a few hundred thousand instead of millions. You have to work hard to stop massive surveillance, instead of genocides. It’s all hard. Things can still get better. Disappointment is the price of wanting a better world.You need to stop being surprised that no-one else is fighting for it, and start being surprised you’re not doing more.

2010-03-24

ada etc

My real Ada Lovelace day piece goes out this Friday, in my Irish Times column. Honestly, it’s more an introduction to the idea (and why identifying diverse role models in tech is important) than a real story about a technologist I know, though it does mention a few.

I sort of sabotaged myself last year by listing forty women in tech who have inspired me, not realising I could have padded that out for an entire lifetime of ALDs. This year, I was going to salute the women of the EFF (without looking like I was just sucking up to my bosses), but Cory beat me to it with his profile of Cindy Cohn, EFF’s legal director.

(Then again, he didn’t mention EFF’s executive director, Shari Steele, who led the EFF to its current amazing successes; Jennifer Granick, its senior criminal lawyer (you want to watch this video to get an idea of Granick’s work); Marcia Hofmann who has leads many of EFF’s FOIA-related scoops, Gwen Hinze who steers EFF’s work at WIPO, against ACTA and beyond; Corynne McSherry who mends free speech when it runs into the DMCA; Eva Galperin who is your first responder when your digital rights catch on fire, Rebecca Jeschke who keeps obscure tech issues in the headlines where they belong; Alyssa Ralston who brings the money in, Katina Bishop who masterminds EFF’s awesome events and more awesome major donors; Leticia Perez and Andrea Chiang who make sure the briefs get filed and the bills get paid — and I sabotaged myself again, didn’t I?)

2010-03-19

what i did next

For a moment, climbing out of the too-fresh sunshine and with the taste of a farewell Guinness still on my tongue, slumping into the creaky old couch in the slightly grimy, Noisebridge to write something from scratch, San Francisco felt like Edinburgh in August, a day before the Festival.

Edinburgh for me was always the randomizer, the place I hitched to every year, camped out in, and came out in some other country, six weeks later, with hungover and overdrawn, with a new skill or passion or someone sadder or more famous or just more fuddled and dumber than ever.

Today was my last day at EFF. Just before our (their? Our.) 20th birthday party in February, where I had the profoundly fannish pleasure to write and barely rehearse a 30 minute sketch starring Adam Savage, Steve Jackson, John Gilmore, me in my underpants, and Barney the Dinosaur, I callously told them I was leaving them all for another non-profit. We commiserated on Thursday, in our dorky way, by playing Settlers of Catan and Set and Hungry Hippos together. They bought me money to buy a new hat. I logged off the intranet, had a drink, and wandered off into a vacation.

In April, after a couple of weeks of … well, catching up on my TV-watching, realistically … I’ll be kickstarting a new position at the Committee to Protect Journalists as Internet Advocacy Coordinator.

I’ve known the CPJ people for a few years now, talking airily to them about the networked world as they grimly recorded the rising numbers of arrested, imprisoned, tortured, threatened and murdered Internet journalists in the world. Bloggers, online editors, uploading videographers. Jail, dead, chased into exile. As newsgathering has gone digital, it’s led to a boom in unmediated expression. But those changes have also disintermediated away the few institutional protections free speech’s front line ever had.

CPJ has incredible resources for dealing with attacks on the free press on every continent: their team assists individuals, lobbies governments at the highest levels, documents and publicizes, names and shames. They were quick to recognize and reconfigure for a digital environment (you have to admire an NGO that knew enough to snag a three letter domain in ’95). Creating a position for tackling the tech, policy and immediate needs of online journalism was the next obvious step.

The question I had for them in my interview was the same that almost everybody I’ve spoken to about this job has asked me so far. On the Internet, how do you (they? We.) define who a journalist is?

The answer made immediate sense. While “journalism” or “newsgathering” or “reportage” as an abstract idea might seem problematic when cut from its familiar institutions, and pasted into the Internet… nonetheless, you know it when you see it. When someone is arrested or threatened or tortured for what they’ve written, if you can pull up what they said in a mailreader or a browser, it really doesn’t take long to identify whether it’s journalism or not.

What’s harder is untangling the slippery facts of the case — whether the journalist was targeted because of their work, or other reasons; whether it was the government or a criminal enterprise that did the deed; where the leverage points are to seek justice or freedom.

In those fuzzier areas, in the same way as EFF uses its legal staff to map the unclear world of the frontier into clear legal lines, CPJ uses its staff’s investigative journalist expertise to uncover what really happened, and then uses the clout of that reinforced and unassailable truth to lobby and expose.

Honestly, I’m still only beginning to map out how I might help in all this. I spent a week last month in New York where CPJ is based, listening to their regional experts talk about every continent, all the dictators, torturers, censors and thugs, all the bloggers and web publishers and whistleblowers.

I know I am starting on that ignorance rollercoaster you get when striking out into new territory. I can tell these people about proxies, AES encryption and SMS security, but I still can’t pronounce Novaya Gazeta, or remember what countries border Kenya. You surprise yourself with how much old knowledge becomes freshly useful, at the same time as you feel stupid for every dumbly obvious fact you fail to grasp.

I think part of my usefulness will come from writing more, and engaging more with the communities here I know well to explain and explore the opportunities and threats their incredible creations are creating today. At the same tie, I’m already resigned to taking a hit in my reputational IQ as I publicly demonstrate my ignorance (my friends in Africa and Russia are already facepalming, I can tell). Hope you’ll forgive me.

In the mean time, I’ll be setting up my monthly donation to EFF. I’ve said it before and I’ll bore you again, EFF are an incredible organization, made up of some of the smartest and most dedicated people I’ve ever met. I smugly joined in 2005 thinking I understood tech policy, and spent the next few years amazed at what it was like to live as the only person who didn’t have an EFF to help me understand what I was looking at and what to do about it. I guess I finally got the hang of juggling five hundred daily emails, a dozen issues refracted through dozens of cultures across the world. And I guess that’s aways the cue to switch tracks and reset to being dumb and ready to learn again.

Incidentally, EFF is looking for an IP attorney right now. I don’t know how many lawyers read this blog, but if you know a smart IP legal person who wants to randomize their life for the opportunity to become even smarter for a good cause, get them to apply. They won’t regret it, not for a minute.

2009-09-18

online voices, twitter and register

I’ve been commenting a lot online recently. I’m enjoying getting a voice back on the Net, especially to talk about politics and other contentious topics.

Weirdly, I haven’t talked much on the Net in my own voice for years. My main voice on the Net for long long time was the NTK one, which is actually rather disengaged and aloof. Dave and I inherited a disdain for political drama by the time were doing NTK: on my side that came from the psychic damage of having to write Weekending and Spitting Image; on Dave’s I think it came from him from having to listen to people talking about writing for Weekending and fucking Spitting Image all day. Also I believe Dave thinks politics is an obscure branch of Earth Primatology. (I remember him noting the day after the landslide election that brought Labour and Tony Blair to power that maybe we should have mentioned it  once in that day’s NTK).

Anyway, because I was such a firebrand, he’d allow me to write one or two “worthy” news items a week, and I’d grudgingly allow him to write 3,000 words on chocolate anytime he wanted. In the NTK divorce, I got to bother people about the Open Rights Group (join now! Fight Peter Mandelson and meet Ben “Bad Science” Goldacre!), and he got to run SnackSpot (Confirmed sighting: Brannigans Roast Beef and Mustard/ Blue Diamond Jalapeno Smokehouse Almonds). So I got a little more worthy after NTK.

When I joined EFF, and put childish things behind me, I ended up dropping that voice too, and becoming even more worthy if that were possible. Weirdly, that meant becoming far less personally outspoken. I was EFF’s main domestic activist for a while, and in that position, you quickly realise that anything you say, even informally, stops being “Danny said blah” and becomes “The EFF’s Danny O’Brien stated”. It’s like walking around online with a loudhailer stuck to your mouth; you end up just not saying anything for fear of suddenly having headlines explaining how you’re worse than Karl Rove and Hitler combined.

I do, incidentally, think that matters have got better on that front in the years since then. When I wrote about public and private registers in conversations a million years ago, I predicted that eventually we’d get used to a more informal tone from public figures:

We’ll learn a kind of tolerance for the private conversation that is not aimed at us, and that overreacting to that tone will be a sign of social naivete.

I think that’s what Twitter is all about, and permits: it’s sort of magically translated the informal register of text messages into the public space, and for public figures, allowed them to get away with throwaway comments far more than before. (My current favourite: the star of Pimp Your Ride complaining about, joking about, and finally replicating, the “yo dawg, I herd you like X, so I put an Y in your Z so you can VERB while you VERB” meme he inspired.)

That said, my political speech right now are crazily messed up. Obviously there’s the whole libertarian embarrassment. Apart from anything else, libertarians online are like Jehovah’s Witnesses, and appear to be obliged to go knocking on every comment thread they see, selling copies of the Laissez-Faire Watchtower or whatever. I know that even flirting with that title has somehow required me to endlessly clarify apparently batshit notions to my more … orthodox friends. I know for instance that I spent several hours last night actively researching the economy of Somalia before concluding that, yes, it is actually fucked. But you know, I had to check, because WHO CAN TRUST THAT STATIST LACKEY THE BBC.

At the same time, however, I’ve also becoming intensely interested in privilege, feminism, racism and power inequities amongst groups. Yes, yes, very contradictory of me, I contain multitudes cool aren’t I cheers thanks. But that means I get to be in on those endless arguments too! Usually (but not always) on the other side!

We shall talk more on this topic tomorrow, because you are already bored. But I just wanted to let you know, buried down here, that I let the NTK voice on an outing this week on my twitterfeed.

So now you can quote me horribly out of context and get me into trouble. I am Hitler!

2009-06-03

tethering the android

So it was being stuck without wifi in the Library of Congress the other week that finally made me decide to overwrite the T-Mobile firmware on my Android G1 with something with root access. I was talking with the US Copyright and Patent offices about how to improve access to copyrighted material for the reading disabled (in the hopes, partially, to encourage them to support the Treaty for the Visually Impaired at WIPO the following week).

I know some people frown on net access at such affairs, but as Cory once noted, if you think people are distracted when they have net at meetings, you should see how distracted they get when they don’t have net.  A bunch of us were scrabbling to get information in and out of the public meeting in advance of the transcript becoming available. So, for instance, I recorded my comments onto my phone, and then mailed them out to the rest of the EFF international staff to hear as they were already preparing to fly to Geneva.

The same thing happened, only more fervently at WIPO, with Jamie Love and other attendees  frantically twittering out to the wider world about the imminent attempts to kill the treaty, and thus getting the visible external support they needed to put pressure on countries to keep the Treaty alive (thanks to everyone who contacted their governments, by the way).

All of this networked analysis and activism gets much harder when you don’t have laptop connectivity. Because my G1 phone wasn’t rooted (and T-Mobile forbids tethering apps in Google’s Android app Market), I couldn’t link my computer to my phone’s 3G network. And I wasn’t quite ready to multi-task listening to my fellow panellists and attempting to re-flash firmware at the same time.

I’m glad I waited. It turns out that these days, it’s relatively easy to drop in a version of Android that gives you power over your own device. These instructions on how to root your G1 take you through the tortuous (but by now pretty foolproof) procedure.

In the end, I chose to install JesusFreke’s distribution of the Android OS, which now has a great little utility to manage who gets root on your phone (each application’s request is intercepted, and you, as user, get to allow or deny it). This tethering application is incredibly easy-to-use, and lets you share your 3G connection via wifi or bluetooth (I haven’t tried the bluetooth). You can WEP encrypt the wifi connection, or allow access to only selected users.

Of course, next time I go to the LoC, I’ll be sure to keep the wifi node open. I wouldn’t want the MPAA guys doing without!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.