Surveillance Valley – a review

Note: This post is a book review. I did not buy this book on Amazon, and if, after reading this post, you consider buying it, I strongly urge you not to buy it on Amazon. Amazon is a proprietary software vendor and, more importantly, a company with highly problematic business and labour practices. They should clean up their act and, failing that, we should all boykot them. 

Most of us have heard that the Internet started as a research project initiated by the ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency under the US military conducting advanced research, especially focusing on counter-insurgency and future war scenarios. A common version of this story is that the Internet was originally intended to be a decentralized network, a network with no central hub necessary for its operation, where individual nodes might be taken out without disrupting the traffic, which would just reroute itself through other nodes. A TCP/IP network may indeed work like that, but the true origins of the Internet are far darker.

In the 1940′s and 50′s, Norbert Wiener’s theory of cybernetics became very popular. Wiener was a mathematician who worked for the American military during WWII. The gist of cybernetics is that all systems maintain themselves through feedback between their elements. If one could understand the nature of the feedback that keeps them stable, one could predict their future behaviour. The beauty of this theory is that systems could consist of human beings and machines, and it did not in fact matter if a given element was one or the other; as the systems were supposed to stabilize naturally just like ecosystems, it should be possible to set down mathematical equations they’d need to fulfill to serve their role in the system.

This theory was criticized, in fact even by Wiener himself, for reducing human beings to machines; and the analogy to ecosystems has proven false, as later biological research has shown that ecosystems do not tend to become stable – in fact, they are in constant change. In the 50s, however, this theory was very respected, and ARPA wanted to utilize it for counterinsurgency in Asian countries. For that purpose, they started a detailed anthropological study of tribes in Thailand, recording the people’s physical traits as well as a lot of information about their culture, habits and overall behaviour. The intention was to use this information in cybernetic equations in order to be able to predict people’s behaviour in wars like the Korea or, later, the Vietnam war.

In order to do this, they needed computation power – a lot of it. After the Soviets sent up the Sputnik and beat the Americans to space, there was an extraordinary surge of investments in scientific and engineering research, not least into the field of computers. In the early 60′s, psychologist and computer scientist J.R.C. Licklider proposed “The Intergalactic Network” as a way to provide sufficient computation power for the things that ARPA wanted to do – by networking the computers, so problems might be solved by more computers than the user was currently operating. In doing so, Licklider predicted remote execution, keyboard-operated screens as well as a network layout that was practically identical to (if much smaller than) the current Internet. Apart from providing the power to crunch the numbers needed to supposedly predict the behaviour of large populations for counterinsurgency purposes, the idea that such a network could be used for control and surveillance materialized very early.

In the 1990s, the foundations of the company currently known as Google was created in Stanford Research Institute, a university lab that had for decades been operating as a military contractor. The algorithmic research that gave us the well-known Page Rank algorithm was originally funded by grants from the military.

From the very beginning, Google’s source of income was mining the information in its search log. You could say that from the very beginning, Google’s sole business model has been pervasive surveillance, dividing its users into millions of buckets in order to sell as fine-tuned advertising as possible.

At the same time, Google has always been a prolific military contractor, selling upgraded versions of all kinds of applications to help the US military fight their wars. As an example, Google Earth was originally developed by Keyhole, Inc. with military purposes in mind – the military people loved the video game-like interface, and the maps and geographical features could be overlaid with all kinds of tactical information about targets and allieds in the area.

More controversially, the Tor project, the free software project so lauded by the Internet Freedom and privacy communities, is not what it has consistently described itself as. It is commonly known that it was originally commissioned by a part of the US Navy as an experimental project for helping their intelligence agents stay anonymous, but it is less known that Tor has, since its inception, been almost exclusively financed by the US government, among others through grants from the Pentagon and the CIA but mainly by BBG, the “Broadcasting Board of Governors”, which originated in the CIA.

The BBG’s original mission was to run radio stations like Voice of America and, more recently, Radio Free Asia, targeting the populations of countries that were considered military enemies of the US. Among other things, BBG has been criticized for simply being a propaganda operation, a part of a hostile operation against political adversaries:

Wherever we feel there is an ideological enemy, we’re going to have a Radio Free Something (…) They lean very heavily on reports by and about dissidents in exile. It doesn’t sound like reporting about what’s going on in a country. Often, it reads like a textbook on democracy, which is fine, but even to an American it’s rather propagandistic.

One could ask, what kind of interest could the BBG possibly have in privacy activism such as that supposedly championed by the Tor project? None, of course. But they might be interested in providing dissidents in hostile countries with a way to avoid censorship, maybe even to plot rebellion without being detected by the regime’s Internet surveillance. Radio Free Asia had for years been troubled by the Chinese government’s tendency to block their transmission frequencies. Maybe Tor could be used to blast a hole in the Great Chinese Firewall?

At the same time, Tor could be used by operatives from agencies like the CIA, the NSA or the FBI to hide their tracks when perusing e.g. Al Qaeda web sites.

But, if the US government promotes this tool to dissidents in Russia, China or Iran as a creation of the US government – why would they trust it? And, if an Al Qaeda site suddenly got a spike of visitors all using Tor – maybe they’d figure it out anyway, if Tor was known as a US government tool? Wouldn’t it be nice if millions of people used Tor because they thought they were “sticking it to the man” and “protecting their privacy”, giving legitimacy with respect to the dissidents and cover to the agents?

And so, Tor the Privacy Tool was born. People were told that if they used Tor and were careful, it was cryptographically impossible that anyone should know which sites they were visiting. Except for the fact that Tor has all the time had serious (unintentional) weaknesses which meant that hidden services might have their IP exposed and web site visitors might, with some probability, be identified even if they were using Tor correctly. And using Tor correctly is already very difficult.

Yes, someone like Edward Snowden who knew about its weaknesses and had considerable insight into its security issues could indeed use Tor safely to perform his leaks and communicate about them, for a short while. But advising people in repressive societies with no technical insight who may have their lives at stake doing really serious things to rely on this tool might be … completely irresponsible. Like sending someone in battle with a wooden toy gun.

And maybe, just maybe, the American government was happy enough letting these pesky privacy activists run around with their wooded toy gun, courtesy of Uncle Sam, instead of doing something stupid like demanding effective regulations. And who better to evangelize this wooden toy gun but Jacob Appelbaum, the now-disgraced Tor developer who toured the world pretending to “stick it to the Man”, all the while working for a military contractor and netting a $100,000 paycheck directly from the American government? Maybe, in that sense, Tor as a privacy tool was always worse than nothing.

These are just a few of the topics covered in Yasha Levine’s new book Surveillance Valley. Levine’s idea is to cover the military roots of the modern computer industry, and he does that in gory and unsettling detail.  Apart from cybernetics, ARPA, Google and Tor he also covers the influence of cybernetics on the counterculture and its later history of WIRED magazine and the Californian ideology. It also offers a critical examination of the consequences of Edward Snowden’s leaks.

This is not a flawless book; Levine has a point he wishes to get through, and in order to get there, he occasionally resorts “hatchet job” journalism, painting people’s motives in an artificially unfavourable light or not researching his accusations thoroughly enough. For instance, Levine accuses Dingledine and the Tor project of giving vulnerabilities to the government for possible exploitation before making them public. The example he gives to prove that assertion is wrong, and I guess he makes the mistake because his eagerness to nail them made him sloppy, and because Levine himself lacks the technical expertise to see why the vulnerability he mentions (TLS normalization, detectability of Tor traffic) couldn’t possibly have been unknown to others at the time.

But, apart from that, I wholeheartedly recommend the book. It tells a story about Silicon Valley that really isn’t told enough, and it points out some really unpleasant – but, alas, all too true – aspects of the technology that we have all come to depend on. Google, the “cool” and “progressive” do-good-company, in fact a military contractor that helps American drones kill children in Yemen and Afghanistan? As well as a partner in predictive policing and a collector of surveillance data that the NSA may yet try to use to control enemy populations in a Cybernetics War 2.0? The Tor Project as paid shills of the belligerent US foreign policy? And the Internet itself, that supposedly liberating tool, was originally conceived as a surveillance and control mechanism?

Yes, unfortunately – in spite of the book’s flaws, true on all counts. For those of us who love free software because we love freedom itself, that should be an eyeopener.

Video of our talk on Baobáxia @ FOSDEM

Video link to our talk on Baobáxia, the Galaxy of Baobab Trees

Our talk is, of course, also on Baobáxia itself.

The talk was scheduled late Sunday and that did affect the attendance, but the people who were there displayed a lot of interest in the system.

On Saturday, we set up a booth and operated for some hours, which also gave some very interesting opportunities to share ideas about the system.

Links:

Update, conference, hackfest, etc.

I’ve been far too busy to write much here about my activities. What have I been working on?

Free software. And permaculture and other things, but mainly free software. The last weeks, we’ve been working on organizing this year’s LibreOffice conference in Aarhus. As part of that, we’re organizing Denmark’s first LibreOffice hackfest ever in Open Space Aarhus, our local hackerspace.

To quote what I wrote earlier today:

At the time of writing, there’s 42 registered attendees.

And the good news is: Everyone is welcome!

The event will focus on “C++11 in LibreOffice” and on bug triaging and bibisecting. There’s going to be drinks, snacks and dinner available.

  • The event is taking place at OSAA on September 24, starting at 17:30 hours.
  • Just before the event starts, the Aarhus C++ User’s Group will have a brief meeting in the space.
  • There will be non-alcoholic drinks,  beer and snacks
  • Concurrently, there will be a party for the non-hacking LibreOffice community in the Nygaard building just across the street, in the University’s Department of Computer Science.
  • Dinner will happen at 19:00 hours in the Nygaard building, for hackers and non-hackers alike. People will be on hand to show you the way.
  • Please register for dinner so we can order the food for you!
  • After dinner, hacking and socializing will continue until around midnight.

PROGRAM

  • 17:30 People arrive
  • 17:45 Welcome by a member of the hacker space board, introduction to the evening’s themes
  • 18:00 Hacking and socializing
  • 19:30 Dinner
  • 20:00-00:00 Hacking and socializing

Times are approximate.

Do seize the opportunity to work with the hackers from one of the world’s largest FOSS projects!

The hackfest is organized as part of this year’s LibreOffice Conference - and I’m happy that so many conference participants will be coming to meet our vibrant local hackerspace community!

If you’re anywhere near that day: Do come!

Baobáxia – the Galaxy of Baobab Trees

Baobáxia - the Galaxy of Baobab TreesYesterday evening, I gave a T³ (Tech Talk Tuesday) talk in our local, friendly hackerspace about the Mocambos network and their software project Baobáxia – a free software project to connect very widely distributed, often rural communities, namely the Brazilian quilombos.

Since my visit to Brazil in April, I’ve been involved in this project as a programmer, at least as far as my time has allowed.

Above, you can find a link the slides from my presentation – you can also read them in PDF format (with functional links) here.

Announcing the LibreOffice Conference for 2015 in Aarhus, Denmark

The LibreOffice Conference for 2015 will take place in Aarhus, Denmark, as a collaboration between the Document Foundation, the Danish LibreOffice community, the FSFE local group and the municipality of Aarhus. Also involved are the local hacker space and (hopefully) other local free software groups. I will personally  be involved as a community contact, i.e. as the person with feet on the ground in Aarhus, responsible for the contact to local NGOs. The event will be hosted by the municipality.

As the Document Foundation writes on its blog:

Aarhus Waterfront

The Document Foundation (TDF) announces that the LibreOffice Conference 2015 will be jointly organized by the Danish LibreOffice community in collaboration with local F/OSS groups and the Aarhus municipality, and hosted at the brand new Urban Media Space, from September 23 to September 25, 2015.

In addition, on September 22 the LibreOffice community will gather for several face-to-face meetings: Board of Directors, Advisory Board, Engineering Steering Committee, and Certification Committee.

Aarhus is a city of education, knowledge and research. Its university is internationally recognized for its contributions within, among other fields, social sciences, technology and science. Aarhus is known to attract talented students from around the world which also provides the city with a great diversity.

“Hosting the LibreOffice Conference will be an exciting opportunity for the entire Danish free software community”, says Leif Lodahl, a long time leader of the Danish LibreOffice community, a founder of The Document Foundation, and the architect of several large migration projects to LibreOffice. “We are looking forward to welcoming LibreOffice volunteers and advocates from every corner of the world”.

As the day comes nearer, I may well want to reach out to the wider FSFE community to ask for assistance and support. I’m certainly excited to see how it will  work out.

ownCloud and free software in the cloud: Meet Frank Karlitschek in Open Space Aarhus

I’m co-organizing this event, involving our hackerspace and the FSFE local group in Aarhus:

Frank Karlitschek, creator of ownCloud, will give a talk centering on ownCloud, free software in the enterprise and data protection in a post-Snowden world.

The talk will be followed by a discussion with the audience and a discussion panel consisting of:

  • Frank Karlitschek, Debian developer and creator of ownCloud
  • Christian Orellana, CEO of Cabo, a company that build enterprise clouds from free software
  • Carsten Agger, local group coordinator in Free Software Foundation Europe and software developer in Magenta, a company that specializes in free software mainly for the Danish public sector.

The event will take place in Open Space Aarhus on

Wednesday, October 1 at 18:00 hours

Do bring  a friend, this is going to be interesting!

 

Speaking against the European patent court

This afternoon, I will give a talk at Aarhus University School of Engineering, recommending a no in the upcoming referendum about Denmark’s accession to the unitary patent and the European patent court.

Our main motivation for working against the unitary patent is that the rules about software patents are very unclear, and given a closed-circuit patent-lawyer-only system as created by the European Patent Organization and the court in conjunction, we have every reason to fear the worst. I wrote more about this here.

Below, you can see one of the posters from our campaign. Basically it says that we have to vote NO to patent trolls, as the unitary patent risks creating a patent troll-friendly environment in Europe which did not previously exist.

A NO in the referendum will not immediately help the rest of Europe, but at least unitary patents won’t be valid in Denmark. And, if Denmark votes no because of software patents, and Ireland follows suit in a year’s time when they have their referendum, it may yet help us campaign to change things. And, hopefully, kill software patents (and bio-patents, but that’s another story) once and for all.

Opening the 1st International Festival of Technoshamanism

The festival opened informally by people turning up little by little during the day. At night we had a long and very interesting discussion about permaculture and the future of the planet where we also discussed the threats to the Internet and the importance on Edward Snowden’s revelation of the real extent of government surveillance.

The weightiest input to the discussion came from our host Jürgen Botz, who is a German software engineer who came to Bahia after working in Silicon Valley for 25 years, mostly with free software. Jürgen believes there is not much we can do to change the patterns of consumption and global waming on the large scale. We can, however, change them on the small scale, by using permaculture, sustainable agriculture, and generally form groups to live differently and simply stop contributing to the madness. This may not save the planets, but it may enable us to save our own souls, or at least our own integrity. This is why he has started the permaculture initiative which is currently hosting the festival in the middle of a  Bahian jungle.

If you understand Portuguese, you can listen to the discussion here, thanks to Livia Achcar who recorded and edited the conversation to turn it into a radio program.

The official opening of the festival was today, and I’ll write about it later.

Photo: Carlos Diego

Participating in the 1st International Festival for Technoshamanism

This Monday, I’ll be boarding a plane for Brazil in order to attend the First International Festival of Technoshamanism, which will take place from April 23 to April 30 in Arraial d’Ajuda, Bahia.

Which kind of raises the question: What is “technoshamanism”?

It can best be described as an attempt to unite science with religion, and to integrate the worldview of indigenous peoples like the South American Indians with modern technology. It is also about finding a new way for humanity in the era we could call the anthropocene, where not only indigenous people all over the world, but practically speaking all of us arfe threatened with impending destruction.

In that respect, and in integrating the indigenous worldview, technoshamanism is inspired by the perspecitvism introduced by the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. This includes an epistemological inversion, where the split between living, conscious human beings and the “dead” Nature inherent in European thought is replaced with a more general view of the world, where animals and things can be considered “living” and “conscious” as well, albeit usually in another way. In that sense, Viveiros’ perspectivism could be considered a formalization and generalization of an Amerindian philosophy.

There’s a more comprehensive explanation available in an article by Brazilian writer and pshychologist Fabiane Borges, which was the basis of her presentation at Transmediale 2014 (in Berlin). I’ve translated this article to from Portuguese to English, and it’s now available as a PDF here.

Borges describes Viveiros’ perspectivism as follows:

The difference between the evolutionary and the Amerindian perspective is that the former believes that there is one nature and many cultures, while the latter thinks of it as many natures and one culture. For the Indian, the only culture that exists is human culture. Everything that exists is human. A stone, the moon, a river, a jaguar, the deceased – all of these are human, but they are dressed in different clothes, behave differently and have different views on reality. For the Indians, a meeting of shamans may mean the same thing as that of a congregation of tapirs in a mudhole – each group is performing its own rituals.

Of course, if we delve into the differences between groups, we will find different priorities for each species and a particular creation myth for each of them, but the important thing here is to understand that the human foundation shared by all beings also serves to connect them and keeps them in a state of constant communication. This understanding is very important: behind the nature of a stone lies a human culture which is also the basis for inter-species communication. (…)

The shaman is a kind of diplomat who has the ability to assume several of these points of view. He is able to contact all those different forms; he can change his clothes and visit the points of view of many different beings. There may be a pact between him and those beings, a mutual affinity but also a repulsion. He is able to leave his own point of view behind and see himself from the outside and see the Indians of his tribe from the point of view of the tree or of the birds, the moon, the stars, or any other object or material. This ability means that the shaman has a deeper insight into the nature of things than most Indians, because he has improved this technique by intense training. That is why his madness, his schizofrenia and his perceptual deviation is considered to be wisdom.

Such a worldview, however, doesn’t always match modern society very well. Borges discusses the French sociologist Bruno Latour and his distinction between “humans” and “earthbound”, where the “earthbound” are those who are more bound to our planet and its well-being, while the “humans” are more dedicated to human society, not least its financial aspects:

On one side we have the poor, dirty bums: lazy, retarded, subjectivist infantile hippies, losers, misfits, spiritualists, barbarians. On the other side the urban people, committed to modernity, growth, development, enrichment, security, productivity, objectivity, and expansionism. These opposed camps are, in spite of not being very clearly defined, disputing modes of existence and ways of relating to Earth and to Life itself.

The point here is, that in the overall economic management of our Western societies (or of all the world’s societies, if we want to tell the truth) the “earthbound” are losing or being neglected, while the “humans” are dominating; “financial responsibility” dictates constant “growth”, i.e., we must burn down the planet in order to preserve it. But if we want to survive in the long run, we might do worse than starting listening in earnest to the earthbound, or at least to the scientists from the IPCC.

Technoshamanism, by following this thread, becomes a kind of spiritual search for everything for which there is no room in the harsh realities of modern industrial societies. It thus becomes a philosophy of garbage – of all the things we routinely throw away: Madness, hallucinations, nonconformity, the compassion for the unemployed and the sick and the poor in general, if and when they are perceived as obstructive to the juggernaut of growth. This means that even though the refuses of society are not necessarily healthy, we are obliged to search for our lost humanity precisely on the garbage heap.

Borges summarizes this position as follows:

This is equivalent to saying that technoshamanism apart from arising directly from a transversal shamanism is also dirty and noiseocratic. It belongs in the garbage dump, is unclean. A significant part of what technoshamanism affirms originates in the leftovers of scientific thinking, from precarious laboratories, uncertain knowledge, hacking, electronic garbage, workarounds, cats, originates from the recycling of materials, from the duplication of already thoroughly tested scientific results.

To this we may add particular questions from social movements related to feminism, to the movements of queers, of blacks, for free software, of the landless, of indigenous people, of river communities, of homeless people and the unemployed among countless others who also perceive through their own noises, their own dissidency, their own garbage.

The last paragraph also tells us what this has to do with free software. In fact, the festival is arranged in close collaboration with the local hacklab Bailux, whose volunteers for several years now have been working with the Indians from the nearby Aldeia Velha to do things with free software; precisely, among other things, helping the Indians preserve their ancestral knowledge using free software. The Brazilian hacker bus, one of the “crown jewels” of a local hacker movement which is completely dedicated to political change through free software, will be driving down to the festival from São Paulo. So, while the overall political and philosophical ideas behind the festival are not related to free software as such, they have everything to do with a culture where free software is completely ingrained. And that, one might add, is not without its own significance.

Links:

FSFE in the news

I’ve been quoted in the Danish newspaper Arbejderen (“The Labourer”) under the headline “IT Employees Launch Campaign Against the Patent Court“. The campaign is  about the upcoming referendum on the Danish accession to the new EU-wide Unified Patent and the related Unified Patent Court. The work of the FSFE and especially our Fellowship group is mentioned.

It is very important to campaign for a “no” in this referendum, since the Unified Patent will make the current problems with software patents from the European Patent Office much worse. If Denmark votes no, its businesses will be at least partially shielded from European-wide enforcement of software patents. The campaign is organized by PROSA and the IT-Political Association of Denmark.

This is more relevant than ever, as the EPO now openly admits that “technical software” can be patented.

See this, and this.

The quote is:

Carsten Agger is active in the IT-Political Association of Denmark and in  Open Space Aarhus, an association of people interested in technology[1].

He is also a coordinator in the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) which fights for the right to develop and distribute software freely.

This Friday, the FSFE joined a campaign to ask all  candidates for the upcoming elections for the European Parliament to join a pact which states that free software is a common good which is worth fighting for.

If you want to read the rest of the article, I propose you use Google Translate, as I don’t have the time to translate all of it.

Tonight, there’s going to be a public meeting in Aarhus to launch the new campaign against software patents and the Unified Patent. I hope there’s going to be a lot of people and that we can get the “no”. That could also help get the movement against software patent going in all of Europe.

Our local group in Aarhus will contribute as much to the campaign as it can. The patent court and the referendum will be the subject of our next fellowship meeting on February 20.

Notes:

[1]: Also called a HACKERSPACE. That’s the term we prefer.

[2]: Actually, the original article states that the FSFE launched that campaign. This is wrong and is not what I told the journalist. APRIL has launched it, the FSFE and specifically our local group wants to join it. The journalist has now fixed this in the online edition.