Parameters of Social Interaction

What does equality look like? How do we know if we are getting there?

This is the question I asked to open my talk at SHA 2017. It is also the question carried with me as I walked into CtK.Campfire. Both aimed to look at how to mitigate the polarization of human interaction in a digital age. The talk looked at the infrastructure of human interaction, and the retreat embodied some of the best ideals towards action. I’ve written two blog posts – one about each event – but they occurred temporally and intellectually adjacent. You can find the post about CtK.Campfire here.

The talk at SHA2017 (the Dutch hacker camp) was called “Weaponized Social.” WeapSoc is a project in which Meredith and I invested heavily through 2014 and 2015. She has gone on to write for Status451 on an extension of the topic area. I’ve continued to frame bits of my work in this context but have generally not kept up. It’s some of the most intellectually stimulating and emotionally draining work I’ve ever done, and that includes disaster response in the field.

A background assumption for this talk is that the effects of violence become less and less apparent to an observer of a single instance as we push the edges of “acceptable behavior” into being more aligned with human rights.

Violence is defined by the World Health Organization as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation”, although the group acknowledges that the inclusion of “the use of power” in its definition expands on the conventional understanding of the word.

Example: seeing one person hit a non-consenting person is (pretty) easily defined as violence. Seeing one person say “your a dumb bitch” online to another non-consenting person isn’t as easily defined as violence (it’s often instead categorized as “conflict“). We have to zoom out to see that the receiver isn’t able to be online any longer due to thousands of similar messages in order to see it as the violence (in the form of depravation to opportunity or psychological harm) it is. Here’s just one example:

I don’t want to limit what this person says, but I also have a right not to experience him saying it, if it detracts from my ability to be online. As the quote says, “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” How can we bridge this sort of contention at scale?

To zoom out like this, and to take action at a systemic level, we luckily have Lessig’s four forces for social change. As the infosec crew which was the audience at SHA is largely skeptical of law (excepting the EFF), of social norms (“don’t tell me how to act”), and that I’m skeptical of markets being able to solve problems of inequality, we are left with architecture/code.

In the talk, I asked this question:

“Do we want to take a scientific approach to equality, where we tweak our infrastructure in explicit ways to see if it changes how people are interacting?”

We, as the creators and maintainers of online spaces have a responsibility to strive towards equality in the ways available to us. How can we do this without surveillance and control of speech? We change the architecture of the spaces. The crew of Weaponized Social (namely, TQ at the SF event in May 2015) started to lay out what the different parameters of social interaction are. Such as, how many people can one account be connected to, how far a message can travel (through timeouts or limits to re-broadcasts), of if an element of serendipity is introduced. These are toggles which can be changed, sliders which can be moved.

If we change these things, we can see how/if architecture changes the way we interact. The social sciences point to us being deeply (tho not solely) affected by our environments. By changing the architecture of online spaces, we could see how it changes how we interact. Who feels safe to speak by taking part in the act of speaking. We can then make better choices about our individual instances and realities based on those results. We now have one more set of tools by which to examine if we are progressing towards equality, without impinging on the individual right to speak. I hope you make use of these tools.

Topic: Revolution and Technology

Livebloggers: Sasha, Nathan, Erhardt

Today, we’re joined by Stephan “tomate” Urbach from the activist group & think tank Telecomix, which works to circumvent surveillance, and to promote internet freedom and human rights. During the 2011 uprisings in North Africa, Telecomix activists helped to bypass technologies of censorship and communication-interruption. They currently work to shuttle videos and other information safely out of Syria. Urbach is a Telecomix member, and has acted as their de facto spokesperson. He was a member of the Pirate Party in Germany, and worked for the Berlin Pirate Parliamentary group from 2011 until February 2014.

Vizthink by Willow Brugh

Tomate joined telecomix in 2010, during the uprisings in Egypt and Syria. He worked in parliament for 2 years. He begins with an overview of Telecomix:
Telecomix (read about them here) isn’t a formal organization, it’s a network of activists who convene and disperse as needed. They’ve done this several times over the last few years. In 2006 in Sweden, there was a telecommunications bill, people gathered and formed Telecomix. After the telecom package was stopped in Sweden, they fought the data retention directive across the EU. At this stage, many people joined to do research and activism work. When the Egyptian uprising kicked off, Telecomix was galvanized into action: specifically, when Mubarak shut off the internet. They decided to figure out how to get access to folks in Egypt even in that context. They set up phone lines that people could use for dial up access. They set up around 300 lines for people to connect to the Internet. Weeks after the net went back up, tomate got an email from a young man in Egypt thanking them for providing access to be able to share their thoughts. This is the kind of thing Telecomix loves.

They see censorship, and internet blocking, as a crime.

Some people have asked them whether the regime might have used their lines. That’s possible, but they don’t know that. Back at the time, Telecomix talked about technology as neutral, although today tomate doesn’t believe that anymore. Then Syria happened. They found that internet surveillance in Syria was planned since 1999. They also found that Blue Coat, Siemens, and other companies were involved in providing surveillance technology. When they released this information, Western countries were publicly enraged. Telecomix suggested export controls, but no one was willing to go that far. The US department of commerce did investigate Blue Coat and their affiliates for selling to Syria after the trade embargo. ComputerLink a middleman company was fined $2.8 million by the department of commerce.

Telecomix found that every message, on every network, was monitored, and every phone call was recorded, both mobile and land line. They also found that people went missing after writing posts on SNS. Telecomix was in touch with Syrian activists on the ground. At the time, they felt clear about who was ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ now it is much less clear. They provided secure networks, software, and servers for activists on the ground. They made comms “as secure as possible,” but never promised 100% security: “whoever says this is a jerk,” tomate tells us. Some Anonymous people apparently promised full security, and local activists believed them. That’s a problem. Phone lines were then blocked in Syria. Calls to tomate’s personal number were blocked (listed online), calls to other Telecomix numbers were also blocked. When Telecomix released the Blue Coat files, revealing how it worked, the blockade system became better: Iranian telcos joined the Syrian telcos.

Around this time, Tomate received a call from German intelligence warning him to watch out for Syrian activities in Berlin. They found that the surveillance toolbox was installed in Syria, Egypt, Beirut, and Kazakhstan. But it was not always correctly configured. Telecomix has evidence, although not enough to publish, that Western companies are selling to dictatorships. They think that’s wrong, and want to generate a public outcry.

Throughout this process, Telecomix has learned a lot. Access blocking, traffic monitoring, deep packet inspection, laws that forbid certain kinds of speech on the internet. These are things that dictatorships are known for doing, not “free” countries. They also learned that hacking the backbone in Syria was great and everyone loved it. But if someone from Africa hacks the EU backbone they’re a ‘terrorist.’ So it depends on your point of view.

Telecomix also learned that the surveillance methods used in the West are the same tools dictators use. Everything from everyone is monitored. In Germany, they started to scan mail at the post office: front and back side. Started to scan postcards, and not sure what they’re doing with the scans. In EU, there’s a fight against data retention, and we won, since a court said data retention can’t be performed like that. It’s not a full victory: the court said data retention is OK, just has to be bounded in certain ways. In Europe, public is not ‘public.’ For example, Tomate thinks if he posts on his FB wall, it’s public. But many think that publicity is platform bounded.

Germany has one of the hardest privacy and data laws, the EU is potentially adopting this. It may be good for users, but not so much for companies providing services. For example, when Google did Street View, many houses are blurred based on people saying ‘not mmy house!’ But the same houses are available on Bing, and on other services. So Google now isn’t updating street view Germany, and the images are several years old. So Europeans think about data as ‘mine,’ even when it’s been posted publicly. We have a database of people’s personal information including salary, and we deleted it because of privacy concerns.

Snowden documents revealed that the ‘conspiracy’ of surveillance was actually true. For example, in 1998 we knew that the Echelon program might exist. Hackers knew it existed, but were called conspiracy theorists. Now there’s a public outcry for EU action against the NSA. tomate doesn’t think it makes sense: what should we do? Embargo trade with the USA? There’s an initiative to ban intelligence services from. In Germany this was specificaly because of an national intelligence failure to capture (neo)Nazis.

German intelligence, The exterior intelligence, supports the NSA, then gets internal surveillance on Germany, which they are not allowed to collect domestically. These exchange programs exist all over the world in contravenience with privacy laws. The only proposal they can think of against surveillance is to make it more expensive. The more encryption people use, the more expensive it will be, for example. One idea is to create as much spoof data as possible, such that intelligence agencies will spend all their time processing the spoofs. Another idea is to rebuild networks with new hardware and new protocols that will be less amenable to surveillance.

But as in all places, no one wants to pay for something. If you get paid as an activist, no one will consider you a proper activist, which means that activists have to work for free. If you look at what the NSA, Brits, French, Germans, and everyone else are doing, it’s the same as what the dictatorships are doing. What makes a democracy? People can say they don’t want this surveillance, but the government does not listen. Tomate is focused on the European debate about surveillance, not so much the NSA debates in the US. But he hopes that some day we can ban intelligence surveillance in democracies.



Ethan: Tell us about how Telecomix thinks of itself differently than other organizations in the space. During the blackout in Tahrir Square, lots of organizations got involved like Tactical Tech, also based in Berlin. Telecomix has always had a certain amount of secrecy around it. How did this come about and how does Telecomix see itself fitting amongst other organizations in the space?

tomate: Telecomix does not see itself fitting into anything. This is important. It is a space for exploring things. At the point, people can join Telecomix. The aura of secrecy is wrong; it’s one of the most open/transparent groups I’ve worked with. The problem is that many journalists struggle to understand Telecomix—they group us in with Anonymous, which is wrong. They builders and rebuilders, rather than attackers—they don’t take sites down using DDOS. One characterizing is the Yin to Anonymous’ Yang. We also do a lot of theoretical work in the space, differing us from other activist organizations. We are also not people that work in public wearing masks. We do try to secure our members who are not in a position to go into the public because of the work they do, and others take the role of the public face of the organization.

Sasha: How do you make decisions as an organization? Like who represents the organization to the public?

Tomate: We do not use formal consensus-building processes because they don’t work. We run an IRC do-ocracy. Admins do have too much power.

Willow: Can you tell us about Cameron?

Tomate: We have a bot named Cameron. We can ask her questions and get responses. We sometimes make her the public face for interviews, including a few that were published in Swedish newspapers. They asked for a photo and we sent a picture of the old mac that she was running on. She is crypto-sleep because we forgot the password to the harddisk. But now we have no one to ask what we should do. She was a symbol for us for a long time.

Cameron Kerry : (former General Counsel, US Dept f Commerce) I was encouraged by the data of a “Data Schengen” but over a month ago, the EU parliament voted that the European Commission should come up with a protocol for keeping EU data within national borders? How do you change that strong sentiment?

Tomate: Currently, Deutsche Telecom markets itself as keeping your data in Germany, which is false, it doesn’t. The idea of keeping the data national is nice, but it doesn’t solve the problem anyway. The privacy activists in Germany and Europe believe that if a law says something like this then it works, but that’s not right. They always ask the state to handle it, but they can’t. We are working on new protocols and projects ourselves to handle privacy. We rely on infrastructure form the 70s and we can’t rely on it much longer. We hear in Europe that the US created the internet and they can control it.

Ethan: In response to surveillance people are looking for many paths. But HTTPS (Heartbleed) was broken for years, and it was open source code. Tell me why you are optimistic that we are going to solve this problem with better network design.

Tomate: People in Germany are being paid to do open source code audits. They are funded through donations right now to work on this issue. We need to do more audits and pay people to do them, multiple audits for software are needed.


Tomate: We need export controls on technology that can be used as a weapon. We also need to rebuild our networks with the state. But these are two different things, building the network and sending out products to dangerous people.

Ethan: Who would you want to enforce those export controls? I think the export sanctions push is a really messy one. We’ve seen a lot of cases for export controls are taking really useful tools out of people’s hands.

Tomate: I don’t have solution for that question. For instance, my country is selling tanks to dictators. So I wouldn’t trust them to sell any hardware to countries.

Eleanor: The only reason we have strong crypto is because we regulate code as speech and thus it can’t be sanctioned under export controls. The only way we got PGP out there was a loophole in ITAR rules using a free speech definition. I would rather use a limited liability laws rather than export controls.

Sands: Is there a lot of discussion at Telecomix about mesh networks for activists?

Tomate: As I said, Telecomix is not really active right now. I live in Berlin, which is the main city for mesh networks. There are discussions for how to activate local networks and then bring them online later.

Dalia: I think the public is missing in this discussion. What I’m not hearing is how we can have people change things. I’m hearing that it’s happening in IRC channels. But many people aren’t adopting the necessary technology or talking about it.

Tomate: In Europe, we have many crypto parties currently. It’s amazing how many people are coming. People get the tool as well as the explanation for why we need to do this right now. We show them how they affected by the surveillance. It helps that we now have the evidence of this, so people are listening.

Yu: After hearing about the decision-making process, how do you manage your brand?

Tomate: Don’t break anything. If you break down communications it is not a Telecomix thing. We don’t try to manage it, but we explain what we do to new people in the IRC channel, explain it is we try to do, the same we respond to the media. Anyone can use the logo, and people do, but it hasn’t failed yet.

Co-opting and Saturation

I read this study recently, about the inequality of online contributions. You should go read it as well, and then come back here. It’s easy to digest, and a quick read. You can even just skim it.

The first step to dealing with participation inequality is to recognize that it will always be with us. It’s existed in every online community and multi-user service that has ever been studied.

I wonder if there are studies on off-line communities, and if they show a similar trend. If you know of any, please post to comments.

Imagine if we could push people up this pyramid. What an incredible world we would live in, were more people to be creators, or at least to actively contribute in some way! Or at the least, we would be less fucked. I sincerely believe many of the problems facing humanity could be addressed if more people took an active role in their lives. Blame my socialist upbringing if you like. It’s why I worked (and continue to work) so hard at Jigsaw – creating an entry-level environment for n00bs to get their hands around a soldering iron before facing what can be rather intimidating robotics and the like. I gave a talk at Berlin-Sides in 2010 about hackerspaces being extroverted, and how it was an absolute necessity. Not for every group, but for at least some. We can’t just serve the people who already know, and request, what they want. We can’t just create a new class of elite. We have to welcome, and actively invite, lurkers to become editors; and editors to become creators. (Or do we? I am sad to question this assumption)

So while this pyramid might hold true for online communities, what about communities which simply do most of their interactions online? Makerspaces have become A Thing. Tech conferences are blowing further and further past their capacities (On what feels beyond an expected progression. I would love actual numbers on this if anyone has them). What is causing this? People wanting to have an active role in their lives? Is consumption finally not enough? Or is it just the new shiny?

Insert plug for the totally rockin’ Brainmeats podcast on Co-Option of Subcultures here. (Download mp3)

Regardless of the reason for the shift, one of the strengths of these movements has been that we all KNOW each other. We’re engaging in things that, while sometimes not inherently dangerous themselves, bring upheaval and unrest. And now that things are gaining traction and the public eye, we’re gaining mass like some sort of burgeoning star. How do we encourage the engagement of more people while not diluting the vision of what we are? As Johannes said at HOPE, “isn’t being elite part of being a hacker”? So how do we balance that necessity and functional form of seclusion with a wider vision of the world? How do we infect memetics without turning into homeopathy? Meaning: how do we actually change larger culture as it gobbles us up, while holding onto our ethos? Becoming diluted will not increase our impact.

This was my third DEFCON. Saw old friends, actually went to a few talks, and got into bed before 3a both nights (no lie!). This year was massive – over 10 thousand people. And we talked a lot, in continuation of HOPE, about what to do when your community gets huge. We’ve been way past Dunbar’s number for awhile now, but still broke into manageable group sizes. But now… there’s a worry, just like at Congress… what is “too big”?

Something I’d like to see: specialized, smaller conferences happening in tandem across a city. See the tracks that interest you, speak to the people who share your background. But at night, visit the people you know well and share what you’ve learned. You likely already work closely with friends who share your interests. Now see what patterns exist across interests.
Another thing I’d like to draw on: there are now more medical journal articles coming out than anyone could ever read, for many individual fields, and still have time to work. So what’s started happening is there will be academics who just read a bunch of those papers and pull out the meta aspects of them. Then practicing folk read those meta articles.

A small group of friends and myself hope to try out these methods next year in July. I’ll post about it soonish.

One of my favorite things is to meet someone who is inspired, brilliant, driven.. and realize that we have no overlap. That we aren’t going to be working together. I love that because there are so many things that need to be worked on, and I am but one person. That someone I can grow to trust, and who I respect, is working on one of those myriad aspects gives me a bit more hope for the world. We can continue to break down silos through communication, sharing, and transparency. We can balance that with diving deep into our specialized areas.

When conversing about all this with a dear friend, this was their response:

Profitable problems will always explode with magic-seekers. Computer hacking is now a profitable problem, and participation is accordingly weird.

There will always be too many interesting problems in the world and never enough people connecting to solve those problems. Valuing hacks over hackers helps, as does creating opportunities to gain social status by teaching others. I’m not worried about losing a unified vision because I don’t think there should be one. As for maintaining a community, decentralized networks of curious and creative people scale well. – Kaleen


I spent yesterday morning drinking amazing coffee out of a sparkle cup, sitting at kitchen table with a Pirate Parliamentarian. We talked about motorcycles (he’s getting ready to ride along the coast of Italy for the weekend), the SOPA/PIPA blackout (it hadn’t started yet, as it was still pre-midnight in America), and me moving to Berlin. Oh man, do I want to. I mean, as much as I care to move anywhere besides Seattle. And then the nail in the coffin – if I only have bases from which I travel, why not just add Berlin into the mix of those bases? Seattle and Berlin. As the plane comes in over these fair cities, I look down and think “I could stay here.”

And then the SOPA blackout unfolded, and I saw my friends laugh and pontificate and fight. Seeing @herderpepedia did it for me the most – the people for whom information has been democratized to such a degree that they don’t even think about it, how they freak out when their oxygen is removed. It made me think about the fights my parents have been a part of, and what sorts of impacts were made. Dad as one of the main organizers against the Vietnam “War.” Mom fighting for feminism. Both fighting for Unions, and Sex Ed in schools, and for alien rights. They did huge, amazing things in Ann Arbor and in Chicago. And then, when those fights were “won,” they went back to the town my father grew up in and are still fighting there. Often for the same things, the news that those fights had been won never reached these “pockets” which are actually most of America.

I began to wonder where I would be most useful in life. Is it better to do great things with the choir, or teach the people who don’t get it yet? The hacker scene in Berlin is amazing. They have a fucking Pirate Party, for fuck’s sake. They have a massive hackerspace community. They have grass-roots ISPs and are actively working on getting Satellites into space so everyone can have free internet. I have dreams here about a (not so strange) future where Berliners wage information wars against other countries while the city is bombed for ensuring everyone has a voice. (I’m wary of using the term “information war” here, as communication is both a human right but also a political act. Bombing is certainly an act of war.) I would do great things here, be amongst amazing people, and completely fail to reach all but the most involved. Sure, our combined impact might create ripples that reach far and wide. But I’m wary of the assumption that things will “get there” without direct involvement.

So I’m going to continue what I do, for now, traveling and evangelizing and throwing my brain and my charm at a Past that is Broken, dragging the Future kicking and screaming into the fray. But later in life. When there are people who are crazier and more energentic and smarter than I am… then I will move to a tiny town (maybe the same one I grew up in – the same place my father was raised and he and my mother live now) and become a teacher. Corrupt the children. Teach them that It Gets Better, because they will make it Better.

Now, let’s extrapolate this idea a bit more. What about organizations? What about groups of people that are from The Past, who are Fat Cats, who are disconnected from reality and humanity? Are they worth talking to, or do we distain them, leave them to wither and die in the dregs of their own morals? Do we talk to them, influence them, bring the Future with open hands and hearts to them? We forget, in our Bubbles of Awesome, that many folk listen to what is said by these (non-awesome-kind-of) Dinosaur Leaders. If we can influence them, we do create ripple effects. Gaining status and the trust associated with it, and Having Things to Say means you are listened to, not just by your own choir. And isn’t that the point?

Think about this in regards to SOPA, and Dan talking to Congress. Think about this in terms of Telecomix talking to Guttenberg. Think about this in regards to DARPA wanting to fund hackerspace projects. These lines are blurry, but it is irresponsible of us to simply take the people who already “get it” and leave the rest in the cold. That is intellectual class war. It is also a more standard class war, as it assumes access to computers, an environment which encourages breaking and learning, and the free time to participate in this culture. No one knows you’re a dog on the internet, but you have to 1) have a computer 2) know how to type 3) know how to get on a social platform 4) know how to not be a dog.

I end this entry sitting with my laptop, listening to music from a member of my Post Geographic Tribe. Stickers are strewn across the floor, shadows are cast on the walls, and tomorrow is full of adventure. Selfishly, I know I’ll enjoy this fight, whether or not we win. But I hope we do. Are you fighting?