NSA cracked

On the NSA revelations

The Silent Writing Collective is all about the process of writing, not about the word count or subsequently publishing it elsewhere. Still, I wrote almost 2,000 words in an hour and felt what I produced was decent enough to post here (unedited, but with formatting improvements).


Ever since the revelations about the National Security Agency in the US hit a few months ago, I’ve been meaning to write about them. Ostensibly, I should be in a position to give some guidance. I usually know enough, conceptually speaking, about privacy and security to be able to give advice to others.

This time, however, things are different. There’s nothing much you can really do when a large, powerful country like the USA decide to wield its power in an undemocratic way. Not only have they got access to a bewildering array of technological innovations, but they’re doing so in a secret way. Just check out the statement on Lavabit’s front page:

I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations. I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. I feel you deserve to know what’s going on–the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise. As things currently stand, I cannot share my experiences over the last six weeks, even though I have twice made the appropriate requests.

Lavabit was the encrypted email service used by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Reading between the lines, it appears that the NSA wanted Lavabit to give them access to at least his email account, if not unfettered access to *everyone’s* account. This mixture of absolute power and secrecy is extremely worrying. Not only does it mean they are beyond the control of ‘the people’ in any jurisdiction, but I’m left wondering what kind of advice it’s even worth giving out.

I try to walk the walk in my technological life. I don’t recommend people use things that I don’t use myself. While others I’ve seen on Twitter, Hacker News and other online spaces have attempted to lock things down, I’ve felt a bit powerless. On the one hand, I too want to lock things down. While there’s no clear and present data of me being locked up for anything, I’m not a big fan of some bored NSA employee being able to find out more about me than even I know about myself.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. We know that. But the response to the revelations amongst the general public so far seems to be ‘meh’. Some have used the classic response of ‘if you’re doing nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to fear’. This is so wrong-headed it’s unbelievable. We all break laws every day – even though the laws of the UK are finally online. If someone has access and can dig through everything you do then of course they’ll find something incriminating. It’s so close to an Orwellian nightmare it’s untrue.

I already overshare on the Internet, it’s true. But that’s both a tactic and an expression of who I am. I believe in my right to free and openly express who I am – and more importantly, how I want to be seen – to the world at large. The thing that concerns me is that I don’t really know where the NSA’s knowledge of me and my actions starts and stops. Apparently they have the ability to eavesdrop on conversations by firing a laser beam at a plastic cup in the same room as their target. Or even a window. There’s a reason why we put curtains on our windows. The spaces in which we know we’re alone (or alone with significant others) are important for self-development and, dare I say it human flourishing.

So what have I done in response to the NSA revelations? Not much, really. I’ve talked a good game and explored various options. I’ve kept up with the news and various articles linked to from Hacker News and The Guardian. But I haven’t actually done much. Part of that is because I don’t want to take the hit on my productivity – many of the ‘more secure’ replacements aren’t as slick or frictionless – but partly for another reason: I don’t feel like my weaponry against governments should be extreme crypto. I feel that it should be democratic processes. If someone or some organisation is abusing it’s power, then the people should have some recourse against them. Even if it’s a different sovereign country, the people of my country should be able to put pressure on them to do something about it.

Some of the things I’ve considered doing include switching from running Mac OS X on my (or rather, Mozilla’s) MacBook Pro to a variant of Linux. The MacBook the machine I use most of the time. Only rarely – like now, actually, as I’m writing this – will I use a ThinkPad X61 running Chromium OS. I’ve tried to use Linux as my main operating system since 1997 when, as a 16 year-old, I bought a book on Red Hat Linux to try and get my head around it. I kind of know my way around some of the commands, but it greatly frustrates me when updates break really important things such as wireless networking. Macs just work in a way I hadn’t experienced before using them. I suppose this ‘Chromiumbook’ isn’t bad, but I just feel that everything I write is fuelling Google’s ad dollars.

I think there’s nothing much we can do from a technological point of view as individual users versus the might of the NSA. Indeed, it might make matters worse as apparently their default filter for ‘is this person dangerous?’ is ‘if they use encryption, yes’. That, of course, makes them not even worth parodying, but does make me want to throw my hands in the air. Instead, though, what I think it’s important to do is to think about security and privacy more generally. What is it that we want to be secure? Who do we want to protect our privacy from?

I’m only speaking for myself here, but I think it might be more widely applicable:

  • I don’t want to be the victim of identity theft.
  • I want to be able to surf the Web anonymously if what I’m looking at/for could potentially compromise me personally or professionally.
  • While I’ve pretty much given up on email ever being secure, I want other communications to be locked down and visible to others only if at least one of the parties involved wants this to be the case.
  • I want to be able to craft multiple, discrete pseudo-anonymous personas without being forced to reveal the connections between them.

I suppose, overall, I don’t want to be watched or feel that I’m being watched. This might seem odd coming from someone who seemingly tweets and otherwise shares a fair bit of detail from my life. The difference is that it’s under my control. You’re seeing glimpses into my life through the filter or lens that I choose to put on it. That’s autonomy. That’s freedom.

So I am going to make some changes, but I’m not going to go nuts. I’ll keep doing what I can to put pressure on the UK and US governments to do something about the NSA over-reaching. I’ll keep up to date and support organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation who campaign on our behalf (their Who’s Got Your Back 2013 is well worth a read). I’m going to see what’s available in terms of other services that may offer more privacy and security. But, instead of automatically jumping ship, I’ll attempt to weigh the productivity cost. If it doesn’t seem to be worth it, then I won’t do it.

For all I’ve written above about how important I see security and privacy, I’ve come to expect that the technological tools I use afford me a certain level of fluency and productivity. My job and professional reputation indirectly (and at times, directly) depend upon this. I suppose there’s a heavily performative notion in there: I have to not only be productive but be seen to be productive (at least in the construct that’s in my head).

Also, it’s important to have at least a connection to ‘the (wo)man on the street’. As soon as you look like, or come across as, a special case then people stop paying attention to you. I’ve experienced some of that because I wrote my doctoral thesis on digital literacies and/or because I now work for Mozilla. “It’s easy for you to say,” people exclaim. Well, it’s not actually. It’s difficult and tortuous and philosophically problematic. I spend far too long thinking about this kind of stuff.

What I think is important is that we build a bridge between those who think the NSA revelations show that western governments somehow have “got our back” and those who, in the words of Marc Scott, have glued a tinfoil hat to their heads. It’s important not to talk past one another on issues like these. After all, these aren’t issues around cryptography or terrorism but around freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, writ large.

The thing that concerns me to the point of lying awake thinking at night is the world that my six year-old son and two year-old daughter will inhabit. My formative years were spent growing up with the Web in its Wild West, frontier town-feel years. Being able to put up a website (in my case, as a sixteen year old, one about Monty Python) and have it accessible anywhere in the world was mind-blowing. But it wasn’t just that. It was the fact that people could connect with one another without boundaries relating to power, geography, class or skin colour.

That’s the Web we’ve lost – it’s well worth reading Anil Dash for more on that. The networked world that my children will inhabit (unless we do something about it) will constrain instead of liberate. It will be something to fear instead of something to embrace. And that greatly saddens me.

So beyond making relevant changes to my own personal setup I suppose I’ve got a responsibility to educate those around me. First, I need to scare them into taking privacy and security seriously. But then, second, I need to show them what appropriate steps look like to protect that. And if, as in the case of the NSA, appropriate steps on a personal level aren’t enough, then I need to encourage them to take appropriate (collective) political action.

I hope this goes some way to explaining why I haven’t got a 10 step guide on what to do to change your hardware/software setup to be NSA-proof. You can’t be. But you, we together can agitate for a better world. That’s not to say we should be complacent about our technological setups. Not at all. Now, more than ever, is a great time to review the information and details that may be unintentionally leaking out to the wider world without your knowledge.

In conclusion, then, I’ll not be breaking out my tinfoil hat anytime soon. And I’ll not be locking down my machines to a ridiculous extent. I’ll be trying out new operating systems, software and even hardware, but still want to be able to use someone else’s machine without huge amounts of hassle. And I need, especially for work reasons, to be able to communicate with others without being some kind of ‘special case’ that other people have to tolerate or, more likely, avoid.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Truthout.org

Etherpad

The Silent Writing Collective

TL;DR version: I want you to come and write for an hour with me every Sunday night. Go hereat 8pm UK time (currently 12pm PT / 3pm ET / 9pm CET) on Sunday:http://piratepad.net/silentwritingcollective


Introduction

Recently, I joined the Mentor Team at Mozilla. Each team has their own, slightly different way of working – even if we all tend to use the same tools. Something I really enjoyed during my inaugural Mentor Team call was the period of ‘silent etherpadding’ that it began with.

For the uninitiated:

Etherpad… is a web-based collaborative real-time editor, allowing authors to simultaneously edit a text document, and see all of the participants’ edits in real-time, with the ability to display each author’s text in their own color. There is also a chat box in the sidebar to allow meta communication. (Wikipedia)

At Mozilla we usually use an etherpad as an agenda for our calls. We use one for the Web Literacy Standard community calls, for example. I’ve found using etherpads usually makes for collaborative, democratic experiences.

The idea

I like writing. I like writing and commenting in real time even more. But I only ever do it for work-related things. So I had this idea last night:

How it works:

  • Every week there’s a new main etherpad where people sign in (being anonymous/pseudoanonymous is fine)
  • Each person creates a new etherpad and adds the link next to their name on the main weekly etherpad.
  • Everyone writes for an hour. Or more. Or less.
  • During that hour people can stop by other people’s pads and comment, chat, etc.(anonymously/pseudoanonymously if you want)
  • Only one rule: NO DELETING (of your own or other people’s stuff)

This is what it looks like:

While Stephen Lockyer kindly pointed me towards #SundayPost at attending.io (which looksamazing) it’s not quite what I had in mind for the Silent Writing Collective.

Conclusion

Perhaps you need to start blogging again. Maybe you want to be inspired by what other people are writing. It might be that you just need an excuse to write about something that’s on your mind.

Whatever it is, I hope you’ll join us this Sunday. If it works, then it’ll continue. If it doesn’t I’ll just have to go back to 750words!

Join us here: http://piratepad.net/silentwritingcollective at 8pm UK time on Sunday(currently 12pm PT / 3pm ET / 9pm CET)

Weeknotes

Weeknote 07/2013

This week I’ve been:

Next week I’m taking Monday as ‘Paid Time Off’ (PTO) – as they call it in North America. It’s President’s Day in the US and a national holiday and, over here, the first day of half-term for my son. I’ll be in London on Thursday and Friday as I’m speaking at the University of West London and meeting with Kate Stokes from Nesta to finalise our SXSWedu presentation.

On writing every day.

750words semantic analysis

There’s two books I read regularly. Both of those books are by authors who evidently love the written word but treat it quite differently.

The first is The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracian, a 17th century Spanish Jesuit. I read his short, pithy maxims every single day on repeat. When I get to number 300, I flick back and start at number one again.

The second, which I’ve read many times is Michel de Montaigne‘s Essays. This rambling, inconsistent and charming tome is by a 16th century landowner and reluctant public servant. I (and others who have read him) feel like I know him personally.*

Both works make me want to write not just about the kinds of things I write about on this blog, but just for myself. Not necessarily for an audience, and about anything I want.

Ideally, I’d write in the series of journals I’ve kept since turning 18. Realistically, I write in there sporadically, and usually when I’m feeling down. I want more regular outpourings and means typing instead of physically writing.

I’m a fairly fast touch-typist. I used to be up to the heady heights of around 100 words per minute (wpm), but nowadays I’m happy with 60-70 wpm. That’s obviously way more than I’d get if I was scrawling: I’d be lucky to hit 30 wpm, and even that would be illegible.

Thankfully, and you’ll be delighted to know there’s a point to this post, I’ve re-discovered a place that embodies this ‘private, unfiltered, spontaneous, daily’ element for which I’ve been grasping.

Not only is 750words.com extremely well-designed, but it’s got semantic analysis of what you write, co-operative style values and badges!** The image at the top of this post shows some of the analysis the site does. There’s more than the limited amount I’m sharing there. 😉

Read this for Buster’s (the site owner) reason for creating – and continuing to run – the site:

750 Words exists because of mutual good will between myself and the people who use it. The site wouldn’t exist without the generosity, patience, and humor of everyone involved. Rather than charge for the site, I want to keep the site free, and simply offer an opportunity for people who have the means and the desire to help keep things going. I don’t want to make a ton of money, I just want to have enough to justify the time, energy, and money it takes to build, maintain, and enjoy, while also keeping the spirit of it fun and friendly.

That’s my kind of site. 🙂

*I’m also greatly enjoying Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.

**Although not, sadly, of the ‘Open Badges’ variety.

Announcing my new e-book: ‘The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies’ (#digilit)

The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies
I’m excited to announce that I’ve decided to start writing another e-book. I want to communicate what I’ve learned during my doctoral studies in a way free from academic constraints. I want to empower educators.

The e-book is going to be called The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies and I shall be employing the OpenBeta publishing model I pioneered a couple of years ago with #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to personal productivity.

 


 

 

Invest now for £1 and get each chapter as it is completed FREE!

 


Can’t see anything above? Click here!

What are ‘digital literacies’? Why are they important? How can I develop them both personally and in other people? These are some of the questions that ‘The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies by Doug Belshaw seeks to address. Informed by his doctoral thesis and experience as an educator, ‘The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies’ Doug is producing a timely resource for those who are interested in both the theory and the practice of digital literacies!

FAQ:

When are you going to finish this?

It depends on many things, but here’s my proposed timescale:

  • v0.2 – April 2012
  • v0.4 – June 2012
  • v0.6 – August 2012
  • v0.8 – October 2012
  • v1.0 – December 2012

I’m erring on the conservative side here. I’d rather under-promise and over-deliver!

In what formats will the book be available?

The OpenBeta version will be available in iPad-friendly (and reasonably Kindle-friendly) PDF format. The finished version will be available in the following forms:

  • PDF
  • Kindle
  • ePub
  • (Paperback/Hardback depending on demand)

How much will the final version be?

£10 – around $15/16 at the current exchange rate

(this is subject to change without notice)

I still don’t understand the OpenBeta process?

More here, but this should help:

OpenBeta publishing model

How long will the book be altogether?

I’m envisaging each chapter being about 1,000 words, so about 11,000 in total. This is subject to change when I start writing but it will be at least 10,000 words.

Are there any refunds? How do I know you will complete it?

No refunds, but I have managed to write several e-books before and have much more free time now I have completed my thesis! You can always wait until it’s finished, but that will cost more…

Image in book cover CC BY { pranav }

Got a different question? Ask it in the comments below!

My new work blog and other RSS goodies.

Doug's Work Blog

Spurred by several things including our most recent JISC infoNet planning meeting and Will Richardson’s decision to quit long-form blogging at Weblogg-ed and move to Tumblr, I’ve set up a work blog at http://dajbelshaw.tumblr.com

The theme hopefully reflects how I want to use it – as a visual snapshot of my research. Rest assured that, unlike Will, I’ll still be blogging here as well. I love writing. My work blog is more for clipping and quickly commenting on stuff relating to Open Educational Resources, Mobile Learning and Digital Literacies (my 3 main research areas).

As a reminder, you can also find other posts by me at:

I’ve collated the RSS feeds for my research and original writing in two separate über-feeds (which you can also subscribe to via email if you click through):

Doug's Writing Feed Doug’s Writing Feed (http://feeds.feedburner.com/DougsWritingFeed)

Doug's Research Feed Doug’s Research Feed (http://feeds.feedburner.com/DougsResearchFeed)

I’ve updated the sidebar at dougbelshaw.com/blog to make these quick and easy to find. For those people wanting to do something similar, RSSmix seemed to be lot easier and hassle-free than fiddling with Yahoo! Pipes…

Quick overview: iA’s Writer app

So here I am, messing about with iA’s new Writer app. I’m writing this on the iPad version of the app but I rediscovered it after iA announced in the last few days that there’s now a version available via the Mac App Store. I prefer Scrivener on my MacBook Pro, but for shorter-form writing on the iPad it looks ideal.:-)

One thing that you can’t see in this text (but should be able to see in the attached screenshots) is the difference between Normal mode and ‘FocusMode’. The latter dims all but the most recently-entered text to focus on writing.

I think that, given the ability to work offline and sync with Dropbox, it could be a really useful tool to get down some thoughts on a topic. Indeed, when coupled with something that requires discipline like 750words.com, it could become an app that allows and encourages me to write in a whole new way!

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