Category Archives: Conference Report

27c3 highlights: We came in peace

27c3 lands in BerlinThe 27th Chaos Computer Congress, which wound up yesterday in Berlin, was predictably fantastic. It’s the second time I’ve elected to flee the bosom of my family the day after Christmas to spend a few days in a basement with the world’s nicest hackers, and I have no regrets. This year’s congress not only had more snow (contributing to a not unpleasant feeling that I might be stranded in Chaos forever) but also, thanks to Wikileaks, better journalists AND better spies. Here are my highlights:

Rop Gonggrijp’s keynote speech

The big one. Rop opened the congress with an epic and thoughtful keynote that revisited his “We lost the war” speech at 22c3 five years ago, and plotted a courageous and critical path forward for the community in a post-Wikileaks age. By all means watch the video once, but you’ll also want to read the transcript Rop has posted to his blog. This speech will be a set text for students of the movement in years to come.

Jeremie Zimmerman demystifies ACTA

With the text of the dread anti-counterfeiting trade agreement (ACTA) finalised, La Quadrature du Net’s Jeremie Zimmerman set out what’s at stake if it gets adopted by the European Parliament in a vote scheduled for the first half of next year. Clear, precise and accessible, this is the video you should be sending your friends and relatives to in order to explain the issues and convince them to lobby their elected representatives. Speaking straight after Rop, Jeremie had a tough act to follow, but he brilliantly turned the mood from introspection to action.


Veteran hackers may have found this one a bit slow, but for me it perfectly demonstrates what CCC is here for. After detailing their experiments sending semi-random payloads via SMS to “feature phones” (those cheap, durable handsets beloved of Mums everywhere that sit in the middle of the spectrum between smart and dumb), Collin Mulliner and Nico Golde revealed the fatal and often incurable vulnerabilities they had found, and the almost universally mute response they had had from handset manufacturers in response. Having learnt about the work of OpenBTS and other grassroots GSM networking projects at the last CCC, it was gratifying to see that work applied. The talk was also a good reminder of how seriously the security community takes its responsibility as the public’s eyes and ears against vendors selling damaged goods.

Video available here.

Is the SSLiverse a safe place?

The talk I wish I hadn’t missed. My travelling tech support went to this, and reported it excellent. Using recently reported man-in-the-middle attack vulnerabilities in SSL based on corrupt SSL certification as a jumping off point, the EFF set out to survey the SSL certification landscape. Their diagnosis is frightening.

Video available here.

“The Concert”: A disconcerting moment for free culture

On top of the real spies and real journalists, 27c3 also had real musicians. “The concert” was my ultimate congress high point, and I’m sorry to say that the video is unlikely to communicate the magic that happened in Saal 1 on the evening of Day 2. But I predict that this isn’t the last time you’ll see Alex Antener, Corey Cerovsek and Julien Quentin put on this piece they premiered at 27c3. I wouldn’t be surprised if they hadn’t done TED by the end of next year.

Video available here.

Disco ball at CCC

Image credits: anders_hh@Flickr

And the meek shall inherit the Earth

I’m in Gdansk this weekend for Wikimania, an annual conference for all things wiki, but particularly for those who spend a good chunk of their lives editing Wikipedia. I’ve been to lots of international meetups for different digital communities – iCommons, FOSDEM, 26c3 – but this was my first time at a Wikimania. The thing that struck me early on and has more or less remained for the duration of the three-day conference was the advanced state of meekness. I’ve only met one Bastard Operator from Hell the entire weekend (and even he was fairly sweet). Most people have been shy, kind and intensely dedicated to what they are doing, whether they’re the bootstrap group for one of the smaller-language Wikipedias (like Tajik Wikipedia, which has around 9,000 articles), or the last barrier between the Wikipedia and the libel courts, working on policing Biographies of Living People (or BLPs as they’re referred to among the in-crowd) for English language Wikipedia. On the first day, I found myself scribbling a facsimile of Wikipedia’s planet/jigsaw puzzle logo in the front of my notebook, with the caption “And the meek shall inherit the earth”.

Continuing with the cod anthropology…On the first night there was a fantastic concert put on for conference attendees by the Gdansk Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra. The programme had all the serendipity of a Wikipedia article, in that it had a fairly populist starting point, in the form of some choice selections of the work of Władysław Szpilman (whose wartime experiences formed the basis of Oscar winning film The Pianist) but quickly went off in lesser-known and more interesting directions, featuring a piece by Witold Lutosławski, whose avant-garde work Szpilman championed, and Joanna Bruzdowicz, whose piece on the programme was a direct response to one of Szpilman’s that we’d also heard.

The evening was a major deal. The concert was intended to mark the 10th anniversary of Szpilman’s death and both his widow and son were among the audience. Bruzdowicz had written her piece specifically for the concert, and gave a little speech about it before it premiered. So it was with increasing mortification that I watched the Wikipedian’s apply their cultural nuance. People clapped between movements in the symphony – okay, so that’s just a snobby objection, but it gets worse. Geeks with big important-looking cameras (you know the sort) jumped out of their seats in the middle of performances and skulked around the orchestra taking photos. And perhaps worst of all, more than a dozen people exercised the law of two feet.

Such behaviour makes perfect sense in a geeky conference, but for an orchestral performance, it’s practically sinful. Between fearing for the morale of the musicians forced to play in such an environment, it got me thinking about just how different these two groups of people were. On the one hand, without total central control, and right-first-time professional expertise, the orchestra couldn’t have put on the magnificent show they did (and their performance was magnificent, despite the distractions provided by the audience). But without relinquishing these very disciplines, the Wikipedia community could never have achieved what they have.

In the end, I think the audience won the orchestra over with their tremendous enthusiasm for what they had just heard, which solicited two standing ovations and an encore. The conductor spoke directly to the audience, expressing his, and the orchestra’s, gratitude for Wikipedia, and pretty much articulating my own reflections that tonight the concert hall held not one but two groups of extremely talented individuals, with a lot to offer one another. It was love all round.

There’s much more to write about Wikimania 2010, not least the beauty of Gdansk, which has all the stunning architectural features you’d expect from a Hanseatic league port and then some, and which left me kicking myself that I didn’t bring my own over-spec’ed camera (enjoy this photo from Michael Cavén instead).

Gdansk, by Michael Cavén's

But that will have to wait, because I’m off to catch the World Cup Final…