Event Summary: “Hacktivists, Cyberwarriors and International Relations”

In recent weeks, the International Relations Society hosted a conference on Hacktivism at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. Given the event’s focus on social action via the Internet, a few members from the Boler Research Team attended. Here is a quick summary of some of the highlights.

How secure are we online?
The keynote address from the Citizen Lab‘s Ron Diebert, emphasized how we must not take technology at face value. Diebert urged that citizens in the digital age need to question where their data goes (when you send an email, who can see it, besides just you and the recipient?) Increasingly, Diebert concluded, this will mean questioning the authorities who control these systems of information and content-sharing platforms.

Along with his talk, he provided URLs to further demonstrate the current status of cyberspace. Some of the URLs presented are as follows:

  • Wired Magazine – Do the Ends Justify The Means?
    Article on Internet Censorship and the Internet Censorship Explorer developed by Deibert’s team to bypass Internet-blocking schemes
  • Yahoo Terms of Service Agreement
    Highlighted that Yahoo service agreement grants foreign countries with permission to collect and use personal  data: “You understand that through your use of the Service you consent to the collection and use (as set forth in the Privacy Policy) of this information, including the transfer of this information to the United States and/or other countries for storage, processing and use by Yahoo! and its affiliates.”
  • Who Has your Back (by the Electronic Frontier Foundation)
    Non-profit that analyzes major provider including Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Skype for their commitment to defending our personal digital rights by evaluating the following 4 criteria: tell users about data demands, be transparent about government requests, fight for user privacy in courts, fights for user privacy in congress
  • The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook
    An info graphic depicting the changes in default profile settings over time
  • It’s 2AM. What Are Your Apps Doing?
    An info graphic depicting the activity of apps behind the scenes; approximately 97% of users do not know the risks associated with their apps
  • Behind Blue Coat: Investigations of Commercial Filtering in Syria and Burma
    Recent report released by the Citizen Lab on the use of commercial filtering products in authoritarian regimes

Hacktivism and Democracy-Building. Good or Bad? 

One of the panels featured Dr. Gabriela Coleman, and Dr. Stefania Milan discussing the pros and cons of  Hacktivism for a democratic society.

Dr. Coleman started things off with a presentation that was more performance art than panel chat, on the “Aphorisms of Anonymous”. Her presentation briefly tracked the history of Anonymous, the now-infamous loosely-associated hacker network. She then drew on aphorisms by Nietzche, like “Nothing succeeds if prankishness has no part in it,” to describe different elements of Anonymous as a movement (a massive movement of tricksters, when looking at it in this context).  Her talk really brought to life the different ways in which “trollish” behaviour might also be powerful, important for democratic aims, but also the paradox in that Anonymous seeks to expose state secrecy, but is a highly secretive movement in itself.

Next, Dr. Milan took the podium, explaning how hacktivism is not only “good for” democracy, but might be seen as a form of democracy in itself, as it could be conceived of as a method of “protest”. She spoke about the way in which hacktivism was challenging prior assumptions about political activism, especially by decoupling the notion of “resistance” with physical presence. According to Dr. Milan, there is much to be learned from such groups as Anonymous, as they point the broader public to a new model of cyber activism.

**The real takeaway for our purposes from this panel, was, as Dr. Milan put it “we cannot afford to raise our kids without the knowledge of these systems”. Here, she was referring to a more intimate knowledge of how the Internet functions and also what benefits and risks are associated with using it for activist purposes. Dr. Coleman emphasized that computing knowledge is power and this led to a discussion around the importance of teaching coding especially, so that the next generations stay connected to the languages that make up the internet.**

Written by Averie MacDonald (@averiemac) & Jennie Phillips (@drchangelove)

AT&T: Thanks Dems!

Last night at DNC, AT&T threw a lavish thank-you party for the dems who let the telecom off the hook for working with the bush administration in helping them spy on people without warants.  Salon’s Glen Greenwald tried to infiltrate the party and get some of the names of the dems who had blindly helped the telecoms.  Met with evasion, Greenwald was not able to get any names but he did film the party and is hoping the online community can help identify the dems.

Greenwald was also on Democracy Now this morning.

via boingboing

Watching Big Brother

Citizens have been using lo-fi digital technology to call into question police accounts and to government practices:

Sous-veillance” will see video sharing sites such as YouTube used by citizens to shine a spotlight on things such as deadly hygiene lapses in hospital wards and uncollected rubbish, according to the European Information Society Group (Eurim).

Recently during a New York critical mass, a biker, Christopher Long was shoved off his bike. The video of the now famous shove was posted on YouTube has had over 1,000,000 hits. According to the NyTimes:

Officer Pogan composed a story of his encounter with Mr. Long. It bore no resemblance to the events seen on the videotape. Based on the sworn complaint, Mr. Long was held for 26 hours on charges of attempted assault and disorderly conduct.

The availability of cheap digital technology — video cameras, digital cameras, cellphone cameras — has ended a monopoly on the history of public gatherings that was limited to the official narratives, like the sworn documents created by police officers and prosecutors. The digital age has brought in free-range history.

via /.

Virgin plans to spy on users

Virgin Media plans to spy on users in order to curb illegal downloading. It will begin by sending letters to households suspected of hosting P2P files. This is a joint venture with the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), which has been pushing ISPs to implement a “three strikes and you’re out” rule when it comes to file sharing.

I suspect that there will be many confused British parents receiving letters from Virgin Media in the next while…

via /.

NSA: Domestic Spying Increase

Wall Street Journal: “WASHINGTON, D.C. — Five years ago, Congress killed an experimental Pentagon antiterrorism program meant to vacuum up electronic data about people in the U.S. to search for suspicious patterns. Opponents called it too broad an intrusion on Americans’ privacy, even after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But the data-sifting effort didn’t disappear. The National Security Agency, once confined to foreign surveillance, has been building essentially the same system.

The central role the NSA has come to occupy in domestic intelligence gathering has never been publicly disclosed. But an inquiry reveals that its efforts have evolved to reach more broadly into data about people’s communications, travel and finances in the U.S. than the domestic surveillance programs brought to light since the 2001 terrorist attacks.”

Proposal to Investigate Spying

House Democrats are proposing a bill to investigate the rampant spying by the gov’t since the 9/11 attacks: “Not only shouldn’t companies that helped the government’s warrantless spying on American citizens be given retroactive amnesty, the government should establish a national commission — similar to the 9/11 Commission –to subpoena documents and testimony in order to find out — and publish — what exactly the nation’s spies were up to during their five year warrantless, domestic surveillance program.” (link)