Security for the real world

August 7, 2013 § 1 Comment

I’m kicking myself for missing Observe. Hack. Make. – it sounds like it was an amazing event that brought together geek and activist communities in a really interesting and valuable way. Coverage coming through on Twitter also suggested that #OHM2013 hosted political discussions that were informed by a more complex political analysis than the ones I often see surrounding issues about digital security and civil rights. There was a lot of excitement around Eleanor Saitta’s talk in particular, Ethics and Power in the Long War. I encourage you to read the full transcript, but there were a few stand-out points that are worth emphasising.

  • Saitta talked about the need for those involved in developing digital security to stop harassing each other and have “a polite technical conversation like professionals do in the real world. (Sarah Sharp’s recent calls for civility on the Linux mailing list give good insight into some of the culture surrounding this.) This is especially important to me because poor communication and unwelcoming discussion are one of the barriers between better inter-community engagement I’ve noticed coming up over and over in my research and activism. Aggressive communication styles within a community are not only unproductive and tiring for those involved, they also makes it harder for those outside the community to consider joining, or coming in and saying, “hey, we need some help with this tool” or “can we link up on this issue”.
  • She also argued that “the user model is the thing that needs to come first”. There are some really useful security tools out there that people I know would benefit from, but they’re not using them because they require investing too much time and energy to learn, and the benefits aren’t clear.
  • Linked to this is her injunction to value the “incredibly complex and very powerful pattern matching CPU hooked-up to your system that you are not using … the user”. Many activists on the ground don’t have the skills (or the interest) to work through complicated tools that aren’t user-friendly, but they do have other important skills and knowledge, including an awareness of their own needs and an informed political analysis.
  • Saitta argued that we need new tools to be informed by a theory of change, an understanding of the larger battles and overall landscape in which tools will be deployed. Although her example focused on the brittleness of security systems (once stuff breaks, it really breaks), I’d argue that we also need to think about this in terms of a political theory of change. The theory of change for a lot of digital rights activism at the moment is, ‘more information will necessarily change politics’. More information helps, but we also need to understand that the system is sustained by powerful interests, not just ignorance, and our theory of change needs to be informed by that. (Which I think is happening, increasingly.)
  • She also calls out the tech community’s claims to being apolitical: “we don’t get to be apolitical anymore. Because If you’re doing security work, if you’re doing development work and you are apolitical, then you are aiding the existing centralizing structure. If you’re doing security work and you are apolitical, you are almost certainly working for an organization that exists in a great part to prop up existing companies and existing power structures.”

In response to this, Saitta lays out her own politics, noting that the increased surveillance we’re seeing these days is an inherent function of the state as it exists today:

if we want to have something that resembles democracy, given that the tactics of power and the tactics of the rich and the technology and the typological structures that we exist within, have made that impossible, then we have to deal with this centralizing function. As with the Internet, so the world. We have to take it all apart. We have to replace these structures. And this isn’t going to happen overnight, this is decades long project. We need to go build something else. We need to go build collective structures for discussion and decision making and governance, which don’t rely on centralized power anymore. If we want to have democracy, and I am not even talking about digital democracy, if we want to have democratic states that are actually meaningfully democratic, that is simply a requirement now.

Conversations which make this their starting point are incredibly important right now. It’s necessary, but not sufficient, to talk about decentralising political power. We need to also be talking about what that means in practice, how it will work, what kinds of tools and systems will support it.

The protections of statehood and hacker armies

June 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

This has also been posted to the Geek Feminism blog.

Lately, I’ve seen quite a few claims that hackers are persecuted minority floating through my streams. It’s not hard to believe, when we’ve seen the affects that the aggressive prosecution of Aaron Swartz had, that one of the hackers who helped to bring attention to the Steubenville rape case could end up with more jail time than the rapists, Barrett Brown remains in prison, Matthew Keys was threatened with 25 years in prison for aiding hackers, and more. Weev, one of the hackers currently imprisoned, has written a short essay comparing hackers to other persecuted minorities, including Jewish people in Nazi Germany.

In response to this persecution, weev writes:

Hackers need statehood. For self-preservation against ethnocidal states, for control of our destinies and for the liberties of billions. No nation now protects Internet speech, privacy, and commerce rights. If but a single well-armed nation did, those rights would be a VPN or SSH session away for the whole planet. General computation and the free Internet are as important advents in human rights as the abolition of slavery. Let our electronic freedoms not sway in the shifting whims of dying governments.

I’ve also seen this argument bouncing around Twitter a bit, the idea that hackers need statehood.

Obviously, what is being talked about here is not citizenship alone: most hackers already have that, unless they are stateless for other reasons. This also seems to move beyond a call for existing states to provide better protections for hackers (or cease their attacks) – this is not an appeal to Iceland or one of the other states which are currently being seen as potential havens for leakers, hackers, torrenters, etc. It’s a call for hackers to get a state of their own, and one with a powerful army.

I want to start by discussing this within the standard narrative around the liberal democratic state, which is based on the assumption that states are the legitimate protectors and upholders of human rights. What would it mean to have a state that was somehow ‘for hackers’ (rather than just be a state that protected human rights generally, including those of hackers)? The liberal democratic state, as an ideal (leaving alone the reality for now), doesn’t allow a whole society to be set up almost entirely to support one class of people. Who will be part of the army that protects hackers’ rights? Who will produce food? And more importantly, how will the political system retain protection hackers’ rights while simultaneously being based on democratic participation by all citizens? Given geek communities’ frequently-poor record on misogyny and racism* (including weev’s harassment of Kathy Sierra, who nevertheless supports attempts to free him), would a ‘hacker state’ really be a beacon of freedom and liberty for all? Israel, unfortunately, gives us a very good idea what a state might look like if it was set up primarily to protect a persecuted group, and how well the rights of those not in that group might be protected.

Even without the problems associated with trying to jam ‘statehood for hackers’ into the model of the ideal liberal democratic state, it’s worth questioning the assumption that the best way to build safe, just, communities is through the state. States are, unfortunately, frequently responsible for precisely the persecution  we’re seeing today – as well as for attacks on women’s rights and bodily autonomy, massive rates of incarceration for marginalised communities (including people of colour in the US and Aboriginal people in Australia), and other such issues. In seeking an alternative, community-based attempts to build secure systems may be more useful than calling for a ‘hacker state’ (for more on this, read my post on Anarchism Today, and particularly the references to Rossdale’s work).

Calls for hackers to gain a statehood of their own is only one step up from the libertarian streak which runs through many tech communities. They fail to connect the struggles of hackers with those of other communities, fail to understand that the persecution hackers face is only a microcosm of broader problems, that other communities have suffered this and more for generations. There are, thankfully, people within geek communities who connect their struggles with those of others, who see themselves as embedded within broader systems. A  better world for hackers can only come as part of a better world for others, including more marginalised groups.


* I also remember reading other stories about more overt racism in tech communities (not necessarily hacker communities), but I’m having trouble finding them at the moment. Jamelle Boui’s article, linked above, is an excellent summary of some of the more subtle structures that exclude people of colour from tech (and other) communities. If you have recommendations for people writing from an excellent, informed, perspective on race and tech communities, please feel free to share in the links. I also don’t have a very good idea how well geeky communities do on other issues, like ableism and homophobia, so feel free to share links (including positive stories of awesomeness).

[Edit: Joseph Reagle cites this in his post on Sierra's comment.]

Free and open source software and ‘the anarchist-libertarian ethic’

February 5, 2013 § 6 Comments

Joseph Reagle’s recent paper on sexism within the free and open source software (FOSS) movement, ‘Free as in sexist?’: Free culture and the gender gap, makes an important contribution to our understanding of FOSS, and particularly to those who want to build a movement which is more diverse and welcoming. However, I do feel that at least one aspect of his argument needs further development. Reagle sees the movement’s ‘anarchist-libertarian ethic’ as playing a significant role in sustaining a hostile environment, outlining this ethic as follows:

This personal-freedom ethic is not only intact in the free culture movement, the movement is now its most vital and popular manifestation. For example, Richard Stallman, geek exemplar, has “campaigned for freedom since 1983” (Stallman, 2010). Eric Raymond, famous for a number of technical and cultural contributions (e.g., fetchmail and as a progenitor of “open source”), is a self–described anarchist and libertarian (Raymond, 2003; 1999). Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, which lauds the autonomy of self–interested behavior and laissez–faire capitalism, had a significant influence on American libertarianism and early Internet culture. At Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales is reported to have named his daughter after a character in one of Rand’s fictions; Larry Sanger, too, was fond of Rand’s The Fountainhead and is a self–described libertarian (Deutschman, 2007; Schneider and Sanger, 2011). Mark Shuttleworth (millionaire entrepreneur, self–funded astronaut, and Ubuntu founder) was a “fan of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and great admirer of Ayn Rand’s vision” though he now identifies as a more tempered “fan of regulated capitalism” (Shuttleworth, 2008). In short, while there are significant differences in the political philosophies of these men — and each would be adept articulating their differences — they are creatures of the Internet’s ethos of freedom.

The Really Really Free Market (RRFM) movement is a non-hierarchical collective of individuals who form a temporary market based on an alternative gift economy. The RRFM movement aims to counteract capitalism in a non-reactionary way. It holds as a major goal to build a community based on sharing resources, caring for one another and improving the collective lives of all.

Really really free market, Perth

There are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, while key figures within the movement such as Torvalds, Raymond, and RMS certainly do play a role in shaping the movement’s politics, they don’t fully determine them. Neither their politics nor those of participants in the movement more broadly are as simply encapsulated as Reagle makes out here (as I’ve discussed elsewhere). The second problem with this is that ‘anarchism’ and ‘libertarianism’, while sharing a concern with individual freedom, are quite distinct political philosophies, and are associated with very different community ethics. Libertarians tends to privilege an extreme individualism, failing to acknowledge the role of structural oppression in creating inequality, and seeking to diminish (or extinguish) the role of the state in favour of more freedom for the market. Anarchists, on the other hand, tend to place individual freedom within the context of community, acknowledging the role of structural oppression, and critiquing both the state and the market as systems for allocating resources.

Reagle’s conflation of anarchism and libertarianism is more than a minor niggle for political scientists (and anarchists) – it also influences his discussion of potential solutions to the problem. Reagle argues, drawing on Herring’s work, that the alternative to the current open, ‘anarchic’  system is a more structured form of community, including a ‘group leader’:

the anarchic–libertarian ethic requires a significant tolerance for adversariality that may be alienating to some participants. Such participants may actually feel freer to participate under a more structured form of community governance, including community leadership or conduct guidelines. As Herring (2003) writes: “While this result may appear initially puzzling — how can women be ‘freer’ to participate when they are ‘controlled’ by a group leader? — it makes sense if the leader’s role is seen as one of ensuring a civil environment, free from threats of disruption and harassment”. (And a preference for a friendly and civil environment is not limited to women.)

A long list outlining safer spaces policy

Safer spaces policy

This binary between ‘openness’ and governance is problematic. It’s quite possible for a non-hierarchical community to develop codes of conduct: many anarchist communities do just that, often in the form of safe spaces guidelines. It’s also not necessary for structure to imply hierarchy. Not only is it possible to build non-hierarchical structures, but some form of structure is often necessary in order to sustain non-hierarchical organisation. Anarchist communities, as well as many other communities that oppose hierarchy (including many feminist groups), have long experience with building spaces and organisational forms that are non-hierarchical (or at least, less hierarchical).

This is not to say that these experiences have gone smoothly. There are plenty of critiques of anarchist, feminist, and other supposedly non-hierarchical collectives which end up with invisible hierarchies based on race, gender, class, or even just more dominant personalities. Many groups on the left have acted to marginalise already marginalised groups: women had to (and still have to) push hard for equal inclusion within left-wing communities; women of colour have challenged mainstream white feminism; lesbians have challenged the primacy of gay men within ‘gay and lesbian’ communities.

What this history means, however, is that there’s a wide range of experience and practices to draw on when it comes to building decentralised, relatively-open communities in which there are structures in place to deal with ‘difficult’ people and behaviours, and with existing structural oppression. The problems which Reagle describes are by no means limited to the FOSS community, and in characterising them as such he neglects to draw on some of the solutions already available.

He also passes rather lightly over existing attempts within FOSS to challenge misogyny and other forms of structural oppression. Just as marginalised groups within other communities have pushed for greater inclusion, cultural change, and better processes, people of all genders within the FOSS community are pushing to create a safer and more welcoming environment. LCA 2013 was just one example of a FOSS space which had a code of conduct and a diversity officer, as well as providing childcare and taking other steps to ensure a safe and accessible space. Debian woman was founded in 2005 and was wholeheartedly embraced by the predominately male project. Python has for years an incredible diversity project and list in existence for years, and the CCC, one of the largest hacker groups also has an anti-harassment policy for their events. This is not to say that misogyny doesn’t still exist – it does, just as it does in most communities. But the answer is not more top-down control; initiatives that come out of the community and are lead by those who have previously been marginalised are far more likely to provide sustainable long-term solutions.

[Edits: I'm well aware that historically 'anarchism' and 'libertarianism' have been used interchangeably, and that people sometimes use terms like 'socialist libertarian' to mean more or less the same thing as 'anarchist'. This is a rather simplified version of a more in-depth discussion which would require more space than a blog post.

Joseph Reagle has replied here.]

Linux Conference Australia: Haecksen

January 29, 2013 § 5 Comments

After Radia Perlman’s keynote talk, I spent today at the Haecksen miniconference, which focuses on women in open source. It was great to see a mixed audience, rather than an all-woman audience.

While much of Radia Perlman‘s talk on networks was focused on technical systems that are beyond me, it was still interesting because she talked a bit about the reasoning behind the adoption of different network protocols. She emphasised that the protocols which are widely adopted are not always those that are best, and made it clear that the development of network technology doesn’t always follow a ‘rational’ path of development. I also liked that she illustrated her talk with references to her children: it’s good to have people talk about their work in ways that acknowledge that it’s just one part of their lives.

I gave the first talk at Haecksen, critiquing ‘open-source politics’: you can find my slides and the abstract here.


A bee and a bee-mimic.

One of these is a bee. One of these is not. It’s doing just fine anyway.

Denise Paolucci‘s talk on Overcoming Imposter Syndrome was great, and happily included quite a few tips:

  • Watch your language: don’t reinforce the problem, for example by saying that you’re “just” or “only” a beginner (or a researcher, or whatever it is you are); avoid “I think” – this is implied by what you’re saying; avoid saying that you “should have…” done things a certain way; you could try a ‘self-deprecating language’ jar.
  • Teach what you know, even if you think you don’t know it. Explaining something will help you to realise what you know.
  • Question corrections (especially nitpicking about small details, but also larger criticisms). Have faith in your own work, and remember that not all criticisms are legitimate.
  • Ask questions.
  • Ask for perspective checks from a friend.
  • Keep a list of your accomplishments.
  • Get background information for comparison: if your boss or colleague is being very critical, for example, there’s a chance that it’s not you. Talking to other people who have worked with this person might give you more of an idea of what’s going on.
  • Remember that you are awesome.

Denise also talked briefly about how helping other people overcome their imposter syndrome: by providing appropriate support and encouragement, Dreamwidth has ended up with contributions from a much more diverse range of people than most other projects.

Mortar damage to a road, filled in with red concrete.

A Sarajevo Rose, marking a fatal mortar attack. Joh used this image to emphasise the difference between real war and ‘cyberwar’.

Next up, Joh Pirie-Clark gave an excellent critique of ‘cyberwar’ rhetoric, Cyberwar: Mo’ Metaphor, Mo’ Money, Mo’ problems? She argued that the analogies we use to describe the world shape how we respond, and the language of ‘cyberwar’ is problematic because it applies terms that refer to massive damage and loss of life to digital attacks which, for the most part, don’t. For example, NZ laws around “making, selling, or possessing software for committing crime” are clearly modelled around drug and gun laws, whereas it would be far more appropriate to base them on dual-use tools (like crowbars) that have legal uses. The cyberwar narrative is building a million-dollar industry, particularly in the use, and contributing to a sense of states under siege by vague and shadowy sources.

After lunch, there were a couple of talks looking at cool geeky craft stuff: Kathy Reid talked about integrating the Arduino Lilypad with knitting projects, and Ruth Ellison spoke on laser-cut jewellery (including some cool climate data visualisation jewellery).

Fee Plumley‘s talk on Open Source Cities raised some interesting points about how we think about cities, diasporas, and nomadic living. I was quite uncomfortable with the use of the term gypsy throughout the talk (more about this here). I’m always nervous about raising issues with problematic language at conferences, but happily Fee was open and asked for more resources to read up on: always a good way of responding if you get a call-out, even if you ultimately don’t end up agreeing with what’s said. We all make mistakes, including me, and I’ve had some great moments of learning when people have pulled me up.


A room full of young women sitting at computers and smiling.

Click on the image to see Kate Miller’s slides.

Katie Miller spoke on programs for teaching school-aged girls how to use FOSS, using FOSS programs. She had some good suggestions on specific lessons learned, including the need to break up large chunks of text and to include examples. Jacinta Richardson’s suggestions on getting your conference talk accepted had helpful tips, especially for those starting out: think about how difficult it is to get accepted to a particular conference; make sure that you write well, because organisers are likely to use this is a shortcut to guessing whether you’re a good speaker (including using clear language good paragraph structure); skip titles like “x for fun and profit” and “making x sexy”; consider asking for help from people who know the area, including people from the papers committee.

While the technical content of Mary Gardiner and Breanna Laugher’s demonstration of py.test didn’t make much sense to me, I liked the format of the talk. Breanna gave instructions to Mary (who hadn’t used py.test before) on how to use it for various tasks and Mary typed up her work on the screen. This seems like a useful way to make discussions less abstract, as well as to ensure that issues an experienced user might forget to cover are made visible.

A crocheted toy robot.

(Not this robot.)

Finally, Samantha Cheah and Lauren Hassall talked about the Robogals project, which uses university volunteers to run robotics workshops for highschool students. These workshops are designed to introduce girls to engineering in a fun way, with positive and relatable role models. The project’s been very successful, with several chapters in the Asia-Pacific (including Perth), UK, and North America.
Despite some initial worries that my knowledge base is too far away from the focus of Linux Conference, it’s been great so far. Even talks where I didn’t get all the technical detail were useful in other ways, and of course it’s lovely to meet new people, as well as meeting people in person who I usually only see online.

Upcoming talks: ‘Free and open source software and activism’ and ‘feminism, anarchism, and FOSS’

January 24, 2013 § 1 Comment

Next week I’ll be heading over to Canberra for Linux Conference Australia, where I’ll be giving a couple of talks. These will have a slightly less academic focus than many of my conference presentations: while they still draw significantly on my research, I’ll be giving a freer rein to my activist interests. During the main program I’ll be talking about free and open source software and activism:

Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement have made the need for user-controlled digital technologies clear, as activists have used the Internet and mobile phones to organise and to communicate with each other and with potential supporters. The consequences of failures in these systems, particularly security breaches, can be extreme: activists may face fines, jail time, or even death. Free and open source software (FOSS) provides one potential solution to these problems, as it is focused on users’ needs. FOSS communities also already overlap significantly with many other activist communities, and are working to develop cross-movement connections as well as useful tools. However, many FOSS communities, and particularly those defined by a commitment to open source, rather than than free, software, are reluctant to take overt political stands. Similarly, many activists on both the left and the right have an aversion to digital technologies for both ideological and practical reasons. This means that there are frequently significant barriers to increasing the links between FOSS and progressive political movements. This presentation explores the connections between FOSS communities and the broader activist landscape. It looks at the politics of FOSS, the ways in which global movements and FOSS communities are building links, and the potential benefits of actively seeking cross-fertilisation of ideas and politics between FOSS and progressive movements.

I’ll also be speaking at the Haecksen mini-conference that runs alongside the main programme. Haecksen, organised by the Oceania Women of Open Technology group, will “feature women speakers and panellists on technical and community topics related to free software and women in free software.” I’ll be talking about feminism, anarchism, and FOSS:

The language of open software is increasingly being applied to politics, as people talk about and develop “open government” projects. However, much of this discussion does not unpack the politics of “openness”, instead taking for granted that it involves a technologically-enhanced model of existing liberal democratic ideals. However, there are other ways to interpret what free and open source politics might look like. One is to more thoroughly apply the politics espoused by key figures within the free and open software movements, such as Stallman and Raymond. Another, more radical, route is to take the commitment to decentralisation of power that lies at the heart of free and open source software and apply it not only to an analysis of politics, but also to the existing free and open source software movement. This route demonstrates that there are useful lessons to be learned from looking at the interaction between free software principles, anarchism, and feminism.

This will be my first time at Linux Conference, and the mailing list has made it clear that the conference has a vibrant community around it. I’m also really happy to see that Linux Conference has a great Code of Conduct and is offering free childcare. While I don’t have kids, things like this seem like a good sign that the conference organisers are taking active steps to being an inclusive space that allows space for parents and supports groups that might otherwise be marginalised. I wish more academic conferences did this. If you’re going, please feel free to say hi to me!

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