New York City
July 21, 2014
“Everyone is welcome at HOPE events, regardless of race, class, gender identity or expression, [...], text editor choice, and other aspects of who we are.”
– HOPE X Code Of Conduct
If you were following my tweets about the Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference this weekend in New York, you probably have a good idea what I got up to and how I enjoyed it. Otherwise, here’s a summary.
Since this was also my first conference, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. My understanding of HOPE was that it was a conference for those interested in areas of intersection between technology and social change. This made it very much of interest to me, since I’ve recently become very interested in (and am trying to change my major to study) how politics and new technology interact.
With recent events like Wikileaks and the Snowden files, technology is very much a hot political topic, and so it’s unsurprising that this HOPE conference (the 10th one held) seemed to focus on dissidents and information security. Barton Gellman, Harlo, and Aure Moser held a panel discussion on how journalists can secure their communications, and Alexander Muentz gave the rather self-explanatory talk entitled Bless the Cops and Keep Them Far from Us: Researching, Exploring, and Publishing Findings While Staying out of Legal Trouble.
Obviously, the most talked-about part of the conference was Daniel Ellsberg’s keynote and his conversation with Edward Snowden. One of the most interesting parts of that talk was Snowden throwing down the gauntlet to people attending the conference. It’s up to you, he said, to interpret technology and make sure the less tech-savvy people are still secure. (See also: Quinn Norton’s talk on “infosec needs of the 99 percent” — security tools don’t have to be perfect, they just need to be used.)
Christopher Soghoian of the ACLU made the same point in his talk Blinding the Surveillance State — the calibre of people who go to HOPE are the knowledgable ones who should be informing congresspeople and lobbyists on tech issues. We had the Office of Technology Assessment in Congress up to 1995, which, according to Wikipedia provided “objective and authoritative analysis of the complex scientific and technical issues of the late 20th century”.
The conference cemented my belief that there’s space for someone knowledgable about tech issues to explain the importance of these issues to people who don’t yet understand them. Such people will literally shape public policy, if they’re listened to. The tech community can make fun of people calling the internet “a series of tubes” or shake their head in disbelief at a judge thinking that having two cellphones is suspicious.
To me, this represents a failure case on the part of tech advocates in educating people who don’t have the same evangelical zeal for this stuff — nothing else. Sure, in a perfect world, we would have congresspeople who knew enough about the technological aspect of bills they were debating that they wouldn’t have to suggest that they “bring in the nerds”. But that isn’t the world we live in. We need to adopt the language congresspeople and lobbyists are using and get through to them that way. We can’t be puritans on the high moral ground laughing at people who don’t realize the connotations “cyber” have to people under 30.
As Soghoian said in his talk, we (the tech community) need to figure out what rhetoric politicians and policy-writers are using. They call for more secure digital communications because they’re afraid of the real or imagined threat of foreign hackers stealing US business secrets. The tech community is calling for more secure digital communications because of the NSA, and if more people start to use encryption, then both groups get what they want, even though they had different motives. It’s hard to sell anti-surveillance moralizing to government committees, not least because it’s probably hard to get one branch of the government to rebuke the NSA, for example, in any meaningful capacity. Basically, digital rights activists need to change their tone and adopt the words that other people, people more in a position to effect meaningful change, are using. Here’s what Soghoian had to say (transcribed from a video of his talk and edited for clarity):
What this means: [The Tor browser] is not an anonymizing service that hides you from the NSA. Tor is a cybersecurity solution that protects US private information from foreign threats. Silent Circle and RedPhone [two apps that provide end-to-end encryption for phone calls on Android] are not secure technologies that blind the NSA or wiretap-proof technologies that keep the FBI out. They are cybersecurity technologies which stop foreign governments from stealing US secrets. The WhisperSystems TextSecure app [which provides end-to-end encryption for text messages on Android] is not a tool for terrorists or criminals. It is a cybersecurity solution, and we should all be pushing “cybersecurity solutions”.
After Jesselyn Radack, Thomas Drake’s lawyer, spoke at HOPE I tweeted that my urge to go to law school was rising. I’m considering law school because, as Radack says, someone who speaks computer and legalese is going to be well-placed in the next few years as we navigate things like network neutrality and dragnet surveillance.
Except that a lawyer who speaks tech is only one possibility — we would also benefit from technologists who understand law. Going to law school is 3 years that I could be doing something else, and also includes a lot of information that, while useful, is unrelated to my area of interest. Part of me thinks that my time would be better spent reading a ton about law in this area and becoming acquainted with organizations like the ACLU. As always though, I’ve only just finished freshman year and I have ages to figure this out.
In any case, roll on HOPE 2016!