This Is Not A Call To Arms: A Hackers On Planet Earth Post-Mortem

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!

3 Years

Hotel Pennsylvania,
July 19, 2011-July 19, 2014

Three years ago yesterday, I sat in the Jeffrey S. Gould Welcome Center as a representative of New York University talked to about 100 prospective students about what NYU was life. I remember sitting through the talk twice over two or three days, the second time flanked by my parents.

Zero years ago yesterday, I sat in the Hotel Pennsylvania as Thomas Drake and his lawyer spoke about how privacy is a fundamental human right. Later, I spoke briefly about the work I was doing on-campus raising awareness of students’ digital rights. Last night, I met some of my best friends in the East Village for dinner. As we all sat together, I turned to one and told him about the job I had gotten with NYU’s LGBTQ center as a student educator, organizing panels and workshops. He nodded once, saying nothing as he fist-bumped me. Knowing how much he’s advocated for LGBTQ rights over the last two decades, it was an intensely gratifying moment

As I walked around Washington Square Park in the oppressive heat of July 2011, I was struck by the realization that, without even beginning to bring grades into the equation, I would be incredibly lucky to go here. Now that I’ve finished first year, I like to think that I used the opportunities given to me, both inside and outside the lecture hall. If you had approached the too-hot-but-too-excited-at-NYU-to-be-miserable ginger around the park that July in 2011 and told him that, in three years time, he’d be an activist representing NYU’s LGBT community and teaching people about why their rights ought to follow them online, I would’ve thought you were crazy.


Here’s the text of the 5-minute lightning talk I gave at the Hackers on Planet Earth conference in New York City this weekend. Video to come.

When April Glaser, a staff activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, threw down the gauntlet and charged me and two other NYU students to write a letter raising awareness of mass surveillance on college campuses, I was a little apprehensive.

Was a letter really going to change things? Would anyone actually care? All I knew about the EFF was from their site — they were a digital rights group that fought so that your rights followed you online. Well, that seemed great, and the project seemed more interesting than, y’know,
actually studying for finals.

And so I registered the domain Students Against Surveillance dot com two days later and we set about writing the letter. We only had two rules as we revised it, line by line:

One, was this something we could imagine someone with a tinfoil hat saying? If it was, we cut or rewrote the line. We had to appeal to people on the fence. (It’s interesting to note that after Snowden and Wikileaks, we really had to revise what sounded tinfoil-hat-ish to us. Before now, if you told me of a plan where the world’s remaining superpower tried to collect biometric data on foreign diplomats, I’d say that that sounded like a great James Bond plot, and you should definitely pitch the screenplay to MGM.)

Two, was this something students would care about? We needed this letter to be a call to action.

Using my HTML 101 skills and my unparalleled skill at yelling at computers at 3am when they didn’t work right, I designed and launched the site. The first month we were up, about 600 students and faculty-members signed their name. I had some friends at other universities who took an interest in this, my latest hair-brained scheme, and wanted to sign the letter. I charged them with writing a letter petitioning /their/ universities. Soon, we had 18 university letters up and running, including Stanford and UC Berkeley. Around the same time, NYU officially responded to our own letter, affirming their support of open communication.

As introductions to college rabble-rousing go, this was a pretty good one. On the back of the awareness the letter raised, I’m planning a slew of events next year — a crypto party, a digital rights expo, and getting an ACLU lawyer in to talk to us.

From a technical standpoint, I’m most interested in talking to journalism students right now. Most of the ones I’ve talked to don’t seem to realize yet that their job of keeping sources anonymous has gotten exponentially harder in the last 10 years.

Most people think that millennials are apathetic and selfish, but in 2012, 75% of us were active members of a non-profit. We’re the lawyers of tomorrow, but we’re also the Jake Applebaums. We combat mass surveillance with the laws of physics and the laws of man. I’m just trying to start the conversation. Thank you.

Tommy Collison is an activist and writer. He studies at New York University and tweets as @tommycollison.

We Ask You Not To Do This With Long Words and Dire Warnings

Gate 46, SFO
July 17, 2014

I like to think I share certain characteristics with my older brothers, but a bravado when it comes to arriving at the airport before flights is not one of those things. I arrive at the gate 90 minutes before take-off, rain or shine.

It’s a good time to do e-mail, at least, and since I was mostly doing company stuff today, I was reminded of something. You all know the confidentiality notice tacked on to the bottom of corporate e-mails is almost certainly not legally binding, right? I got one this morning that read, in part, that any use, dissemination, forwarding, printing, or copying of this e-mail is strictly prohibited. What constitutes “use” of an e-mail? Reading? Replying? How does printing it for storage purposes differ from keeping a copy on my hard drive? I’m being slightly facetious, but it does show a certain lack of understanding about how these bytes work. The people who write these are the same type of people who talk about “getting data back”.

The confidentiality paragraph sounds all very official and everything, but the receiver hasn’t agreed to do so yet — receiving an e-mail doesn’t constitute agreeing to a contract, and so they’re rarely going to be legally binding, especially since the disclaimer’s usually attached to every single e-mail sent. In effect, these notices are imploring the receiver not to share, with a mix of politeness (“please be advised”) and dire warnings. Ooh, they must be serious if it’s seriously prohibited. Except that legal types are implying that there’s something binding about these footers, when in reality they’re more like a Scout’s honor.

This weblog message, including any attachments, is for the sole use of the intended reader(s), may contain confidential and privileged information, and that [REDACTED]. Please be advised that, if you have received this weblog message in error, any use, dissemination, forwarding, printing, or copying of this weblog message is strictly prohibited. If you received this weblog message in error, please notify the administrator immediately, delete the blogpost from the internet, and return any hard copy print-outs.

Renewed Hope

Somewhere over South Dakota.
July 18, 2014

Headed to the Hackers On Planet Earth (HOPE) conference for the rest of the week. Am actually writing this the night before because I reserve plane journeys for getting through my stack of non-urgent-but-looks-interesting browser tab and academic journal collection. Giving a try for the first time and also I found that one of my media professors at NYU next year has a copy of his book online, so I might check that out too.

HOPE promises to be really great, especially with the keynote on Saturday being given by Daniel Ellsberg. I don’t know how much connectivity I’ll have, but I’ll definitely try and tap up some reports.

Oh, almost forgot — I’m giving a 5-minute lightning talk at 4pm on Friday in the “You” conference room on the 18th floor of the Hotel Pennsylvania. I’ll be talking EFF and and how to get students involved in advocacy (although that’s subject to change since I haven’t actually written anything yet — I only learned I’d be doing it this morning). Come say hi if you’re around!


I’m up in Sonoma this weekend, and breaking in a new pair of shoes. This week marked the third time I’ve bought the exact same model of shoe, and since being disabled means scrutinizing every such purchase, I thought this repeated purchase worthy of a blogpost.

I’ve always been wary of recommending things I’ve found good at alleviating problems related to my cerebral palsy. Disabilities are broad conditions and no two are alike — I don’t want to suggest  I have the authority to say what products are “good” for disabled people just because I found something useful.

That said, once in a while, a product comes along that really impresses me. Instacart was one, and my thrice-bought New Balance 501s are another.

Disabled people have to look at different criteria in buying things like shoes: because I wear orthotics (SMOs, if we’re getting technical), shoes I wear have to fulfill certain criteria:

    • Be padded, since the orthotics themselves are plastic and not always comfortable.
    • Be wider than average, since I have big feet to begin with.
    • Have supportive soles. This is actually something everyone should look for in footwear, but I think able-bodied people can get away with not doing so more easily than I can.
    • Not look like “disabled people shoes”.
    • Lace easily, for those of us without amazing fine-motor control.

On the Venn diagram of disabled footwear, the area of overlap between these 3 criteria is actually pretty limited. I spend most of my time as a casually-dressed college student, and so I usually opt for sneakers rather than formal footwear. If I want to forgo orthotics, I’ll have to get orthopedic shoes which resemble normal sneakers about as much as a leaky faucet resembles a Biblical deluge.

The prerequisite of being supportive is also surprisingly hard to fulfill. Basically all canvas shoes are out, since I have reconstructed arches and I need shoe soles that aren’t flimsy. I fell in love with the look of Converse All Stars as a teenager and so it was sometimes hard to balance conflicting needs.

The first time I needed shoes in America (because my gait wears out the soles of any shoes I have, I tend to need new shoes about once every 3/4 months), I went into a store and saw a pair of shoes that didn’t feel too flimsy and looked relatively normal. I tried them on and was immediately surprised at how padded they felt. They were New Balance 501s and I’m on my third pair in a little under a year. They’re supportive, lace easily, and are incredibly cushioned, which makes them comfortable to wear for 12+ hours.

When someone asks me what it’s like living day-to-day with a physical disability, I try and describe what it’s like constantly having to plan more if I’m going walking somewhere. will the places I go have enough room to maneuver? Will I get home early enough that I’m not completely zonked by tiredness? [1] Being disabled means you’re constantly planning and reorienting yourself, and not having to worry that your shoes will cause the soles of your feet to ache is a big weight off your mind on a micro day-to-day level.

photo 2

One of the things I liked about Converse was that the high-tops covered my orthotics and, with jeans, they were completely hidden. The New Balances don’t, but I don’t find myself minding at all. This probably aligns with the fact that I was a teenager and was more self-conscious about being disabled. Since moving to America and starting college, I’ve become markedly less so.

And so with the usual caveats of what-works-for-me-may-not-work-for-you, I tentatively recommend New Balance 501s as great disability footwear. From browsing their site, they seem to come in a billion combinations, but I’ve stayed with the 501s thus far.

[1] On this note, it’s interesting to point out that in all the coverage of new ride-sharing apps like Lyft and Uber, nobody seems to be talking about the incredible piece of mind they give to disabled people: at any point in a city, if I get too tired and don’t feel up to getting public transport home, or if I feel unsafe, I can call a car to collect me and drop me off somewhere else.