Manchester Cryptoparty on Dec 7, 2013

Many days have passed since my first visit to Manchester, England, where I visited a cryptoparty organised by FSFE Manchester group and Open Rights Group Manchester. On our side this meant mainly Anna Morris; I was simply interested in observing a functioning Fellowship, or local, group in action and meeting a few UK Fellows in person as they tend to provide rather nutritious food for thought. This is probably enough background information for the time being, so I shall now proceed to the age-hazed memories of Manchester.

As the coach took me relatively close to MadLab, I did not spend too much time trying to find the venue. However, being slightly sleepy upon my arrival, I had trouble finding a functioning entrance, so I set my steps boldly towards a lady I had identified as the event mascot. Although the community officer in question was able to direct me to the correct entrance, I later found out to my regret that she was not the event mascot, and that instead she was supposed to be checking vehicles for parking violations. Even though the event was every bit as cool as you would expect an event with a mascot dressed up as an LEO to be, I am still a bit wistful about the truth in this matter.

However, I had no reason or time to wistful at the time when I had just entered the building and met Anna. She showed me around, and offered me cake and tea, which I graciously accepted as it had been a bit chilly outside. Having settled down and, and set to observe, I was treated with the most intuitive way to explain public key cryptography I have ever seen: actual locks and keys. A set of identical locks played the role of a public key (those were distributed to the participants in the game); a unique key played the role of a private key (this was given to a participant the others could communicate with); and a diary, which could be locked with one of the “public keys” played the role of a message. Several scenarios were then demonstrated to the cryptonovices, including a man-in-the-middle attack occurring when the locks were obtained from an untrusted source. As I have already said, this approach struck me immediately as intuitive, and appeared to be effective; hence, I urge other organisers of cryptoparties to try this with their participants.

Following a short introduction, it was time to help the participants install GnuPG and the necessary plug-ins required for GnuPG to be able to interact with their e-mail clients. I ended up with some Mac OS X users in an inexplicable manner; as only two of the three of them needed any help, I had plenty of time to cover key signing and exchange with them in some depth. I hope I was able to convey that key signing based on government-issued ID-s is moronic. Fortunately no such activity took place at the cryptoparty; whether this was due to lack of time or intent, I know not, but it was sane and good.

The introduction to GnuPG was followed by an impromptu discussion on ‘Free Software’ vs. ‘Open Source’. The overall consensus was that ‘FS’ was somehow better than ‘OS’, and while the discussion was not concluded with the Stallmanian distinction of a philosophy for the people vs. a development methodology, it came surprisingly close to that proposition for those who cared about terminology; I kept myself purposefully observing.

The philosophy break led the event to an overview of TLS, including an explanation of the CA infrastructure and web of trust security models. While the presentation was not as nuanced as I would have liked, it most likely provided the participants with a basic understanding of the principles involved.

BitCoin and monetary policies of fiat currency issuers were up next, and I found it much more interesting than the previous presentations, although I do not use BTC and I have no short-term intentions to change that. Interestingly, once again I found the non-technical explanations of value characteristics far more captivating than the cryptographic information, even though I was equally familiar with both. Hence, I suggest including them in any cryptoparties dealing with BTC.

When the dense day of relatively sparse presentations came to an end, we headed out to a few catering and entertainment facilities with some people to spend the evening, which turned out to be really enjoyable. Spending time in a more relaxed atmosphere after events is important to have a chance to make sense of the day, new relations, and one’s own conduct. I met a few of our Fellows, handed out some business cards, and discovered some really interesting and friendly people – not bad, but I could have done better. Although I set out to observe, I should have probably spent more time networking, especially with our Fellows. I hope that I did not miss anything they would have wanted to discuss, but I intend to ask them to tell me their views on Free Software and FSFE the next time I will be in Manchester. It is not enough to wait for input, but input must be actively sought. This lesson for the future brings me to finish by thanking everyone I met and did get input from, as eagerness and willingness and enthusiasm are the best phenomena someone working for a cause can observe. I am also very grateful to Anna, both for pulling the event off on FSFE’s side and taking care of me. Thanks!