technology solutions | MIT Center for Civic Media

Technology solutions can be software or hardware or even new ways of using old processes. They are tools that assist individuals and communities to engage with each other, share information, and take action.

How To Party Online

How do you party with a group of people across four continents? As a trustee of Awesome Knowledge, I'm looking for great ways to celebrate our community and congratulate our grantees. Every month or two, we give $1000 to an awesome project that spreads knowledge (learn more, and unlike most Awesome Foundations, we're a distributed group who have no shared geography. Most chapters conclude each grant cycle with a party, where a wide community is invited to celebrate as the grantee receives a big cheque or bag of money. After weeks of grant reviews and hard decisions, it's this party that often keeps the foundation Awesome.

Awesome Knowledge can't easily party in one place, so we're looking for ways to celebrate online.

HOPE X: Themes and Reflections

Image by Willow Brugh.

Over the weekend, I attended HOPE X, the 10th Hackers on Planet Earth conference, organized by 2600 Magazine. HOPE is my favorite hacker conference, and a strong contender for my favorite conference overall, because although content is tech-heavy, it's not really about technology. HOPE is a conference by and for those interested in the hacker ethos of free information, understanding the world, and empowerment to fix what is broken— including keynote speakers Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg. So HOPE is a great place to think about the intersection of technology, journalism, and activism. Throughout the conference, I noticed several recurring themes.

Code Is Not Enough

HOPE X: When You Are the Adversary

Liveblogged at HOPE X.

Quinn Norton

In the past year, there has been a lot of attention towards major adversaries, like the NSA. Most of the time, we're actually up against small adversaries. Most adversaries are just jerks. Small adversaries target everyone, with whatever technology they have. It might be gossip around the water cooler. It might be local law enforcement, or your IT department, in schools, corporations, or NGOs. They're honor killings, partners committing domestic violence, friends who mean well, stalkers who don't mean well, or random interactions.

What are the tools of small adversaries? A common one is making someone give you their password to email, Facebook, etc. Hacker tools can be used in negative ways. The people Quinn works with as a journalist need security tools that work practically, not academically. How do adversaries get access? Usually through email. More and more tools are becoming available. The tools used by small adversaries, are modeled after those used by large ones.

HOPE X: Community Infrastructure for FOSS Projects

Liveblogged at HOPE X.

James Vasile, Open Internet Tools Project

Infrastructure is any mechanism that helps developers and users engage. OpenITP believes that community infrastructure should come from the community. We're used to infrastructure like roads: someone else builds and maintains it. A lot of FOSS projects build their own infrastructure and wind up repeating efforts and not doing a great job of it.

OpenITP tries to find a middle ground between building infrastructure and everyone fending for themselves. They do this by coordinating between projects with similar needs.

Projects need more than just code to succeed:

HOPE X: Ethical Questions and Best Practices for Service Providers in the Post-Snowden Era

Liveblogged at HOPE X.

Nicholas Merrill, Calyx Internet Access, @nickcalyx
Ladar Levison, Lavabit
Declan McCullagh, @declanm

FBI Agents asked Ladar to turn over his SSL key. This meant 1. that the SSL key belonged to the provider, not the user; 2. that they would need to decrypt everyone's communication to find what they wee looking for; 3. that was beyond what he felt he could morally do. It was even worse, that he was prevented from telling anyone about the request.

Question: Could you talk to an attorney?

Ladar: Because the request was tied to criminal investigation, I was able to consult an attorney. If it's a classified warrant you need permission from the FBI before contacting a lawyer. He wanted to talk to others to get more information about these types of requests, but he couldn't.

Question: If you start a big company. What do you do when a government agency asks to tap your metadata, you appeal and you lose?

HOPE X: SecureDrop: A WikiLeaks in Every Newsroom

Liveblogged at HOPE X.

Garrett Robinson, Security and Privacy Engineer, Mozilla
William Budington, Developer, EFF
Yan Zhu, Technologist, EFF

The Freedom of the Press Foundation processes payments for WikiLeaks and raises funds for encryption and free speech initiatives. Secure Drop is their open source whistleblower platform.

Thomas Drake leaked info on the NSA's Trailblazer program. He was indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage act in 2005. The act wasn't meant to be used on journalists, but that's what it's been used for. In recent years, Shamai Leibowitz, Stephen Kim, Chelsea Manning, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou, Edward Snowden have been prosecuted. There's an attack on whistleblowers, and there haven't been good tools to communicate with reporters.

HOPE X: Ask the EFF - This Year On the Internet

Liveblogged at HOPE X. The speakers have cautioned that this talk is not legal advice.

Nate Cardozo, Attorney
Kurt Opsahl, Attorney
Adi Kamdar, Activist
Peter Eckersley, Technology Projects Director
Eva Galperin, Global Policy Analyst

It's been a busy year at the EFF. They've been focusing a lot on the national security space over the last year.

Kurt Opsahl works on NSA cases. Jewel v. NSA has been going on since 2008, related to AT&T's involvement with NSA wiretapping. First Unitarian v. NSA is focused on the right of association, and your right to anonymity in who you associate with. Just earlier this week, the EFF and ACLU joined Smith v. Obama. Kurt also works on a case arguing that National Security Letters are unconstitutional and is defending the decision against appeal.

HOPE X: Building an Open Source Cellular Network at Burning Man

Liveblogged at HOPE X.

Johnny Diggz, Geeks Without Bounds
Willow Brugh, Geeks Without Bounds

VizThink by Johnny Diggz.

Geeks Without Bounds holds hackathons to match people with skills with humanitarian groups that need those skills. In times of crisis, communication is one of the top priorities. But those channels are usually for "first responders" rather than residents.

Johnny Diggz is a cofounder of Geeks Without Bounds and many tech companies. Most recently he is the Chief Evangelist at Tropo. Willow Brugh is one of our own at the Center for Civic Media, as well as a cofounder of Geeks Without Bounds and an affiliate at the Harvard Berkman Center.

HTTP Must Die

Liveblogged at HOPE X.

Yan Zhu, EFF
Parker Higgins, EFF

VizThink by Willow Brugh.

Why is HTTP bad? HTTP touches everything we do. Agencies such as the NSA can use this to see everything we do online.

Even if you support HTTPS, not using it all the time exposes you to vulnerabilities. The NSA's QUANTUM intercepts requests to services like Yahoo and redirects them to NSA-operated FOXACID servers to infect them with malware, before a secure connection is established. The NSA also uses unencrypted cookies to determine who to target.

HOPE X: Can You Patent Software?

Can You Patent Software?

Liveblogged at HOPE X.

Ed Ryan, Patent Attorney

Will be talking about the Alice v. CLS Bank decision. So can you patent software? Short answer: yes.

In the US, the power to issue patents comes from the Constitution, and is meant to encourage innovation. Patents involve a trade: you get a monopoly on making something for a limited amount of time, but you have to tell us how you made it. It's common wisdom that patents are good, but Ed asks if that really holds up for software.

He argues that being secretive over ideas in tech is wasteful and that the main benefit of software patents is to allow people to talk about their ideas without the need for secrecy.

Software is usually patented as a "process" or a "machine." However, laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas can't be patented. When you patent the basic building blocks of an industry, you in effect own that industry. Software patents go against the long-held ideals of sharing in open source.