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28c3 highlights: Behind enemy lines

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, hackers looked at each other and said : “w00t! Only two days to go until 28c3”.

Lego play at 28c3, courtesy of johnflan@flickr

This was the first year I went to the Chaos Computer Club’s annual Berlin shindig without taking my dictaphone. I was officially on holiday, hooking up with old friends from across the internet, and meeting a few new ones. This really is one of the finest, funnest events for computer obsessives in the whole world. Here are my highlights.

Roger Dingledine and Jacob Applebaum on TOR

For me, this talk illustrates the central role the hacker community is now playing in world events. The conference opened with a set piece from Evgeny Morozov on the perils of networked, digital surveillance, but it was this talk on Day 2 about the experiences of the TOR community with national network control infrastructures that felt like it united people at 28c3 against surveillance as a concept and a technology, in free societies as well as oppressed ones. The tub-thumping and the casual allusions to the technical vulnerabilities of state censorship technologies were tempered by the pair’s obvious expertise and considered ethical attitude. Gold.

Defending mobile phones

Two years ago, at 26c3, Karsten Nohl announced that the GSM encryption protocol had been cracked. This year, he detailed how network operators should be securing their networks while they upgrade the encryption, and asked the community to help him keep track of how the operators perform. He also previewed a new project, CatcherCatcher, which will track the activity of IMSI catchers on behalf of phone users. IMSI catchers are thought to be increasingly used by law enforcement agencies to track people via their mobile phones.

The coming war on general computation

An expertly delivered talk in which Cory Doctorow reminded congress that “information appliances” (like iPads, Kindles and all the rest) are simply fully functional computers with spyware in them out-of-the-box: “All attempts at controlling PCs converge on rootkits and all attempts at controlling the network converge on surveillance”.

Sovereign keys

The EFF’s Peter Eckersley proposes a way to fix the broken Certificate Authority system.

Towards a Single Secure European Cyberspace?

A beautifully constructed lecture cross-referencing the rhetoric used by European legislators to erode internet freedoms with the character of the new, networked activism which I ruin at the end by asking a stupid question no-one understands.

The hallway track

Random cool stuff I found out about from talking to people in and around the conference: the Open Source Next Generation Multicopter; the Hackerbus and Code Hero.

Photo courtesy of johnflan@Flickr.
Link to roundup of 27c3.

2011 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 26,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Fresher than ever.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A helper monkey made this abstract painting, inspired by your stats.

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,800 times in 2010. That’s about 7 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 43 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 68 posts. There were 8 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 1mb.

The busiest day of the year was November 25th with 137 views. The most popular post that day was Social bibliographies and collaborative reading: you’re doing it wrong .

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were,,,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for becky hogge, aids visualisations, barefoot technologist, stewart brand monsanto, and what happened to ntk.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Social bibliographies and collaborative reading: you’re doing it wrong November 2010


About Becky Hogge June 2009


Data dot (dot, dot): the story of open government data May 2010


Stewart Brand January 2010


Portfolio July 2009

Shift Run Stop NTK reunion FTW

NTK ASCII header reimagined as a jpeg Danny O’Brien sez:

Shift Run Stop is one of the best-edited and hilarious geek podcasts out there. If you really are jonesing for an NTK-like fix in your modern 21st century life, you should subscribe, donate, floss, whatever to it. There will be no regrets.

I myself have been gagging/jonesing/clucking for ever since its demise in 2007 (and for a while before that, too). And so it was with warm ears that I listened to the latest edition of Shift.Run.Stop where NTK’s founders, Danny O’Brien and Dave Green, look back on the UK’s greatest ever webzine and share some behind the scenes moments. As promised, no regrets. Here’s a taster:

Dave (on reading back-issues of NTK): What’s strange is that the late nineties seem much further away, because there aren’t things like mp3s, or digital cameras, or broadband to the home, or Region 2 DVDs. It’s an incomprehensibly primitive world.
Danny: But the funny thing is that when we started it, we kind of assumed that we were in the tail end, that all the interesting stuff had already happened and we were these horrible late-comers who were going to bury the corpse. That it had all failed and it was all going to be very miserable from now on and we should have a Blitz-war spirit kind of laugh about it. And actually, most of the stuff that people associate with the internet changing people’s lives happened after it.

Listen to the whole thing here for more NTK history, complicated jokes about Haskell, and Dave circuit bending a sandwich. I’d never come across Shift.Run.Stop before, but I will be subscribing from now on. Their frontwoman, Leila Johnston, sounds like Holly Walsh. Which I count as a good thing.

Data dot (dot, dot): the story of open government data

The TAAI Open Data Study

Don't judge a book by its cover: the open data study

When, earlier this year, the Ordnance Survey announced it would open up (most of) its mapping data for remix and reuse, my first thought was to check the calendar. Sure enough, as with EMI’s announcement in 2007 that it would drop DRM, it was 1 April. But – also as with the EMI announcement – this was no April Fool. After years of campaigning by a grassroots of the digitally-savvy and dedicated, a major organisation had agreed to change its business practice. This was for real.

William Heath and I had already agreed over a rather delicious lunch at the October Gallery that someone needed to tell the story of how open data had proved – as a campaign issue at least – such a success. I’ve been following the rise of mySociety since I interviewed mySociety’s Tom Steinberg about what all this “civic hacking” was about in 2004, the year TheyWorkForYou launched (with, ahem, “borrowed” data). Obama’s “” portal of reusable federal data was released in 2009, and, the UK’s own (superior) open data portal, was publicly released this year. I’d be hard pressed to think of an idea that has permeated as quickly as open data has from the fringe to the centre. What did the open data people do so right?

Tim Berners Lee gets the audience chanting at TED 2009

I was delighted when the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (a consortium of funders and NGOs, including DfID, the Omidyar Network, Hewlett, Ford and OSI) approached me in April to answer just that question. Their motivation was to find out what the strategy was, and whether it could be repeated in middle income and developing countries. The result is this report, nattily titled Open Data Study (yes, the title sucks, all the ingenuity went into the text itself). I really enjoyed writing it (especially getting to interview Tim Berners-Lee over video phone) and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

Not all of it is easy reading. Digging into the subject meant confronting quite a few of my own misconceptions of the open data story. Here are just a few of the points that surprised me:

  • This is not a story of the plucky grassroots winning out over all. “It has to start at the top, it has to start in the middle and it has to start at the bottom”, as Sir Tim puts it. Without a sleeper cell of dedicated and skilled civil servants who could see what open data was about and how it could help them, this project would never have gotten off the ground. And without a good political reason to open up government data, the project would never have soared to the heights it did.
  • You can’t just fly Sir Tim around Africa and expect him to leave a trail of glistening open data portals in his wake. There are capacity issues. Not everything is computerised. Sometimes, data sets we would regard as core don’t even exist on paper, let alone online. And pockets of corruption are sometimes so intense that releasing data openly could be a life or death thing. There’s good news too – multilateral and bilateral donors could play a strong role in getting data open, and they can start by leading by example.
  • The open data project was sold on its potential and not on its proven impact. I write “More often, it was the utility of applications (in contrast to the resources expended to produce them) and not their broad user bases, which seem to have inspired officials further up the line to engage with the open data agenda.” Of course, this is neither good nor bad: lots of things are sold on their potential, including the ID cards scheme (on second thoughts, maybe that was sold on fear), the NHS data spine…and probably some good things too.

As well as Sir Tim, the report contains interviews with the lovely Ory Okollah of Ushahidi, Jonathan Gray of the OKF, Tom Steinberg, Ethan Zuckerman, and many, many more. It’s already attracted comment from Glyn Moody, and Ory’s done a very kind write-up.

I hope you enjoy it, and do leave your thoughts in the comments.

This seems apt today:

TMobile - Life's for sharing

Read all about it.

Tory health plans – some thoughts

The hoo-ha surrounding this week’s announcement of Tory plans for the NHS IT project begins to look rather misplaced once you actually read their report. The media’s over-emphasis on the role Google or Microsoft might play in future provision of the electronic patient record shows that we persist in understanding state service provision using the defunct paradigm of public versus private. It is only if we adopt a new paradigm – that of centralised versus decentralised information management and service organisation – that we will be equipped to critique the Tories’ plans in any detail.

The nearly 200-page report that spurred the headlines was commissioned by shadow health secretary Stephen O’Brien, and overseen by the former British Computer Society Health Informatics forum chair, Dr Glyn Hayes. Its references to the participation of Google, Microsoft and other commercial information service providers take place in a short, two page section. The mention is designed to illustrate the potential of a much larger reform – that of decentralising the provision of the electronic patient record and other information services – to lead to the twin goods of cost reduction and patient-centred care. It does not wed the British citizenry to relinquishing its medical secrets to Silicon Valley. Quite the opposite – it has the potential to give power over sensitive medical data back to the people who have traditionally been that data’s custodians – practitioners and patients.

The report calls for a balance between centralised standard setting and grassroots commissioning of IT services. If it works well, this approach would result in technology, commissioned by the people who are actually going to use it, that nonetheless allows systems across the NHS to communicate with one another. This at once avoids the disruption caused by the current one-size-fits-all policy of the NHS PfIT, where the needs of frontline practitioners collide with new systems they didn’t ask for and had no say in building, while also preventing the information silos of early digitisation projects within the NHS.

Rather than work with two or three suppliers to design the system top to bottom, healthcare practitioners and policymakers could, the report imagines, come together with information architecture experts to agree on a set of open standards that would make decentralised systems sufficiently interoperable, then let whatever appropriate mix of commercial, state-sponsored and civil society groups design the systems practitioners needed to manage information in their particular clinical setting. A high profile example of the successful application of this methodology already exists. It’s called the World Wide Web.

Crucially, this methodology, when attached to the electronic patient record, removes the argument for all our health details to be stored centrally. Instead, GPs and local health practitioners will be the natural guardians of this sensitive data once more. That means that individually, we can come to decisions about how we want to access our own health data, whether that be by storing it electronically with Google, Microsoft, the health service’s own fledgling “HealthSpace” patient access system, or simply under digital lock and key at our local surgery. And it means that collectively, the debates about if, when and how we let scientific researchers or civil servants access our data en masse in the name of medical advance or efficiency, can be had on their own terms, without the distraction of a juicy centralised database just waiting to be mined.

None of which is to say that if you vote Tory in the next election, you’ll be guaranteed a better NHS IT system. Such a radical change of direction for an IT project that is already partially implemented and at the same time four years overdue, will be a mean feat to pull off, both politically and pragmatically. But to understand if we are getting closer to the vision set out in this report, we must first understand what that vision is. That means embracing slightly more informed mental framework than “it mentions Google and Google [is/is not evil], so that [is/is not] okay”.

Some good coverage of this issue by Micahel Cross

“Identifying gleefully with the anti-government techie culture may become a problem once they actually are the government.”

I haven’t worked out how far I travel with Rafael Behr in last Sunday’s Observer. But he does have a tendency of coming up with really excellent writing on technology and politics. Here he is on the ultimate fate of the Tories enthusiastic embrace of the web ethos:

The Tories are sailing towards power on a strong technological tail wind. But for Cameron and Co to think that translates into a long-term political advantage, let alone a cogent ideology, is delusional. They look admiringly at the energy of social networking sites and at the voluntarism and entrepreneurship that characterise web innovation and they see in it a vast store of civic power. If only, they think, that could be harnessed to meet the social obligations that Labour thinks belong to the state. This is the Holy Grail of so-called compassionate conservatism: to pull back the tide of government, confident that civil society will grow organically into the gap. But there is no substance to it, no evidence, just wireless faith.

What will actually happen is that chunks of the public sector will be parcelled out to online providers, but instead of mass privatisation it will be called post-bureaucratisation. And when it emerges that Facebook and Mumsnet are not quite equal to the task of supplanting the welfare state, social policy will be back to the old, analogue drawing board.

Read the full article here.