Monthly Archives: June 2014


Panel at PETS 2014: Privacy Enhancing Technologies Post-Snowden

Our plan for a panel on the implications of the disclosed NSA and GCHQ surveillance programs for PETs researchers is materializing. The panel will take place on the 17th of July in Amsterdam at the PETs Symposium. We expect to have a lively discussion with Susan Landau, Wendy Seltzer, Stephanie Hankey, Nadia Heninger and George Danezis. In fact, thanks to a blog post on “The Dawn of Cyber-Colonialism”, it is maybe better to state, George has already kicked off the discussion.

Great thanks goes out to the program committee who have supported the idea from the first minute, and to the general chair Hinde ten Berge, Jaap Henk Hoepman from the PI.lab, and NWO for their material support.

PETs Post-Snowden: Implications of the revelations of the NSA and GCHQ Surveillance Programs for the PETs community

Despite the entertainment value of program names like “egotistical giraffe”, “onion breath” and “moth monster”, the revelations about the NSA and GCHQ surveillance programs are more than troubling. Specifically, BullRun (attacks on crypto) and the egotistical series (attacks on Tor) pose challenges to the PETs community and the solutions they work on. This panel focuses on some of these challenges, discuss their implications for PETs researchers and practitioners, and explore ways forward.

According to some, the revelations show that law and policy have failed to protect citizens around the globe from surveillance. It falls, among others, upon the shoulders of the PETs community to build technical solutions that are resilient to “mass surveillance” practices. But while Edward Snowden announced that “crypto still works”, intelligence agencies will continue to find ways to work around it. So others have argued that technology is far from a complete answer and that working with policy and law is more necessary than ever. If so, the challenges here range from finding ways to convince policy makers that weakening the Internet for surveillance is not acceptable to actually regulating “good” security and “bad” surveillance practices.

Both positions are troubled by motions to prevent companies from applying secure designs that may be seen as obstructing law enforcement agencies from conducting investigations. Further, governments around the globe are likely to consider implementing “back doors” as well as utilizing zero-day exploits as a way to guarantee law enforcement and intelligence access. These aggressive policies raise questions about where PETs can and should live; and, how to guarantee that their design remains robust, e.g., by keeping the implementation open to scrutiny?

Simultaneously with the revelations, cybersecurity for critical infrastructures has gathered force. Governments around the globe now bring intelligence agencies, standards bodies, contractors as well as academic researchers around tables in order to align technical security issues with national security interests. Cybersecurity funding abounds, affecting research trajectories as well as what gets done. How are PETs researchers and practitioners to manage these increasingly politicized demands along national lines?

Finally, people in their everyday lives navigate the implications of the revelations about the surveillance programs as much as engineers and researchers. Prominent security engineers have favored prioritizing developing measures against mass surveillance rather than for targeted surveillance. How “targeted” end users may be impacted by the prioritization of protections against “mass surveillance” is unclear. And indeed, the distinction itself may not be as clear cut as some of its proponents suggest. In other words, the issues raised here beg the question as to how we can ensure that user interests can be a continuous part of the PETs community’s priorities?

summer 2014: “thinking together” in times of mediated politics and politicized technologies


How can we live together? This is the very simple and fun (if not challenging) question that the participants of the Osthang Architecture Summer School will be asking this Summer in Darmstadt, Germany. The program will come to a closure with a nine day(!) public forum titled “thinking together” curated by Berno Odo Polzer. As Berno writes:

“«Thinking Together» is focused on rethinking future modes of living together in a pluricentric world, so it is a transdisciplinary platform for political imagination: ‘political’ because it is concerned with the way in which we organize the spaces, practices and lives that we share, locally as well as globally – ‘imagination’ because it is aimed at forming new ideas and imaginaries about how to do so.”

As part of “thinking together”, Femke Snelting, Miriyam Aouragh and myself will be organizing an afternoon with the title “Let’s First Get Things Done!”. In other words, how we can resist the divisions of labor between “activists” and “techies” that occur in those sneaky moments of moving forward?

Our experience is that the politics, values and practices of those activists heavily using networked technology for their struggles, and of techno-activists who struggle for progressive and alternative technologies do not always concur. Loyal to the utopia of a globally functioning interwebs, techno-activists usually organize around universal values: information must be “free”, secure, “privacy-preserving”, accessible, etc. In comparison, those who bring their political struggles to the interwebs may express political differences across a broader spectrum, situated in local and/or global contexts. Furthermore, “pragmatic decisions” due to time pressure and lack of resources often mean that these struggles integrate themselves into proprietary and conservative technical infrastructures. In the process, many organizational matters are delegated to techies or to technological platforms. Imagining our futures together, we may want to radically reconfigure these divisions of labor. But how? Where do we start? Well, it seems we will start in Darmstadt.

But, we are not the only ones asking these questions. This June members of some of the most successful alternative projects met at Backbone 409 in Calafou with the objective “to build infrastructures for a free Internet from an anti-capitalist point of view: autonomous servers, open networks, online services, platforms, open hardware, free software, etc.” . I am looking forward to hearing back from that meeting.

In August, Interference will take place in Amsterdam and also raise similar questions with respect to the politics of technology and infrastructures of politics. The organizers write:

“Interference is not a hacker conference. From a threat to the so-called national security, hacking has become an instrument for reinforcing the status quo. Fed up with yet another recuperation, the aim is to re/contextualize hacking as a conflictual praxis and release it from its technofetishist boundaries. Bypassing the cultural filters, Interference wants to take the technical expertise of the hacking scene out of its isolation to place it within the broader perspective of the societal structures it shapes and is part of.”

And surely, these discussions will show up at the TransHackFeminist Camp organized in collaboration with Calafou and the eclectic tech carnival people, and also at HOPE. It also seems that the topic has found interest among academics. See the call for papers for the next issue of the FibreCulture Journal titled: “Entanglements: activism and technology”.

Thanks to all these events, this will be a summer of collaboration and labor. I cannot wait to see what thoughts and actions we return with for the Autumn.

Let’s first get things done: on division of labor and practices of delegation in times of mediated politics and politicized technologies

4th of August, 2014
Osthang, Darmstadt, Germany

Be it in getting out the call for the next demonstration on some “cloud service”, or developing a progressive tech project in the name of an imagined user community, scarcity of resources and distribution of expertise makes short cuts inevitable. But do they really?

The current distance between those who organise their activism to develop “technical infrastructures” and those who bring their struggles to these infrastructures is remarkable. The paradoxical consequences can be baffling: (radical) activists organize and sustain themselves using “free” technical services provided by Fortune 500 companies. At the same time, “alternative tech practices”, like the Free Software Community, are sustained by a select (visionary and male) few, proposing crypto with 9-lives as the minimum infrastructure for any political undertaking.

The naturalization of this division of labor may be recognized in statements about activists having better things to do than to tinker with code or hardware, or in technological projects that locate their politics solely in the technology and infrastructures as if they are outside of the social and political domain. What may seem like a pragmatic solution actually re-iterates faultlines of race, gender, age and class. Through the convenient delegation of “tech matters” to the techies or to commercial services, collectives may experience a shift in the collective’s priorities and a reframing of their activist culture through technological decisions. The latter, however, are typically not open to a broader political discussion and contestation. Such separation also gets in the way of actively considering the way in which changes in our political realities are entangled with shifts in technological infrastructures.

We want to use this day to resist the reflex of “first getting things done” in order to start a long term collaboration that intersects those of us with a background in politics of society and politics of technology.