Monthly Archives: August 2013

Speaking Truth to Power: Integrity in the Mainstream Media

RT Front page

Yesterday I watched a public discussion (last link in Dutch) on Sargasso between Jeroen Wollaars, NOS reporter, and Arjen Kamphuis, futurist, writer, and co-founder and CTO at Gendo. During his talk at OHM2013 (titled: Futureshock), someone asked Arjen a question that went somewhat like this: “If we cannot trust the mainstream media anymore to supply us with the information we need to act as informed citizens, what is the alternative?” To which Arjen replied that, if you want to be better informed about what happens in the Western world, RT (Russia Today) is pretty good.

Now it is important to be very nuanced here. You probably shouldn’t believe the RT reporting done on stuff that is happening in Russia, as RT is, just like any media organization, selective in the information they broadcast, and probably won’t be objective when it comes to Russia, just like the Western media aren’t objective on Western subjects. But on Western issues, and informing us about all the stuff the Western governments are doing, the RT reporting is very good because unlike the Western mainstream media, the Russians dare to ask the questions that need to be asked. Questions that you won’t hear from the Western mainstream media, and the Dutch media in particular.

So many questions..Collateral Murder

Why are the people who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in an attack helicopter during the Iraq War under the Bush Administration still allowed to walk free, whereas Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years for simply exposing those very same war crimes? How come Manning was sentenced to 35 years, while Anders Breivik was sentenced to just 21? Isn’t that a bit off? A man who ruthlessly and pointlessly murdered 77 people gets less years in prison than someone who exposed the dirty laundry of the powers that be?

When exactly did Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende know about the contents of the Downing Street Memos? Remember, these were the memos that proved definitively that “facts were being fixed around the policy” and that Governor Bush was set in his ways on provoking a war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. His administration claimed that Saddam had WMDs (which was a blatant lie, even then), and they even tried to connect Saddam to Al-Qaeda.

AIVDWhere is the coverage about our own intelligence agencies, like the AIVD, MIVD etc. in relation to the revelations on PRISM? Do they have the same capabilities, do they request data on Dutch citizens from their UK and US partners? What kind of data sharing is done with these inter-agency cooperations? We know the Americans spy on Dutch citizens as well (just like they do on every person on the planet connected to the Internet or phone networks), but where are the critical questions from the media? Where are the tough talk shows and debates that really question a few high-ranking politicians about these very important issues? The Germans have at least asked these questions to their politicians.

What is the underlying reason for the massive nation-wide push for the RFID OV-chipkaart public transport ticket (at the expense of normal paper tickets), the ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) cameras above the nation’s highways (which are also used by police), or the fingerprints on the RFID chip on our passports? The government seems intent on tracking our every move.

And these are just a handful of questions the Dutch media didn’t bother to ask and issues they didn’t bother to cover.

The problem with the Dutch mainstream media

The Dutch mainstream media are unfortunately excruciatingly bad at journalism. For instance, the whole Manning case is barely on the news here, but whenever the American presidential elections draw near, the whole Dutch mainstream media press corps gets their knickers in a twist in trying to report on the American ‘elections’ in excruciating and nitty-gritty detail.

There are more important things going on in the world than reporting on an election that is principally undemocratic to begin with. After the 2000 presidential election, Governor Bush squatted the White House for 8 years, while Al Gore won the popular vote. It sure was convenient that Bush’s brother Jeb happened to be Governor of Florida when the electoral votes for that state were the deciding factor in who would win the presidency. And there’s stuff like voter suppression and gerrymandering going on in the US as well, which can influence elections quite substantially. But this fixation the Dutch media has with the US elections has always surprised me, given the fact that the coverage is almost on par with our own elections!

The Dutch media stopped asking the critical questions, and are now almost exclusively broadcasting propaganda from Washington. No questions asked, no background stories, no critical analyses, no audi alteram partem. They now mostly copy-paste the press releases from PR departments, and I really miss the critical tone. Most articles are less than 3 paragraphs long.

I will gladly watch the NOS and other Dutch media again (online, for free, not behind a paywall, and using open standards to provide streaming video) when they start being critical of the government which decides on their budget, and start speaking truth to power.

And this is the main reason why I use RT (among others) to keep me updated on the stuff our Western governments are doing. Unlike the Western mainstream media, RT is asking the questions, they currently speak truth to (Western) power. And again, nuance is important: you shouldn’t believe RT too much when it comes to Russia, just like you shouldn’t believe the Western media too much when it comes to the West. It’s both propaganda, one way or the other. The Russians are at least open and frank about where RT gets their money from; in the West they are much more indirect and subtle about these matters. It’s always best to get your news from as many sources as possible, and make your own decisions on who is more likely to tell you the truth.

At the Crossroads: Surveillance State or Freedom?


When I went to OHM2013 last week, it was great to see such increased political activism from the hackers and geeks at the festival. I truly believe we are currently at a very important crossroads: either let governments the world over get away with crimes against the people’s interests, with programs like PRISM, ECHELON, TEMPORA and countless other authoritarian global surveillance schemes, or enter the path towards more freedom, transparency and accountability.

A good example of what not to do is Google Glass. A few weeks ago I came across the story of a hacker who modded Google Glass as to allow instant facial recognition and the covert recording of video.  Normally you need to tap your temple or use voice commands to start recording with Glass, all of which are pretty obvious gestures. But now people can record video and do automatic facial recognition covertly when they wear Glass. I even saw that there’s an app developed for Glass, called MedRef. MedRef also uses facial recognition technology. This basically allows medical professionals to view and update patient records using Glass. Of course having medical records available on Glass isn’t really in the interests of the patient either, as it’s a totally superfluous technology, and it’s unnecessary to store patient records on a device like that, over which you have no control. It’s Google who is calling the shots. Do we really want that?

Image above © ZABOU.

Image above © ZABOU.

As hackers, I think it’s important to remember the implications and possible privacy consequences of the things we are doing. By enabling the covert recording of video with Google Glass, and also adding on top of that, instant and automatic facial recognition, you are basically creating walking CCTV cameras. Also given the fact that these devices are controlled by Google, who knows where these video’s will end up. These devices are interesting from a technical and societal standpoint, sure, but after PRISM, we should be focusing on regaining what little we have left of our privacy and other human rights. As geeks and hackers we can no longer idly stand by and just be content hacking some technical thing that doesn’t have political implications.

I truly and with all my heart know that geeks and hackers are key to stopping the encroaching global surveillance state. It has been said that geeks shall inherit the earth. Not literally of course, but unlike any other population group out there, I think geeks have the skills and technical know-how to have a fighting chance against the NSA. We use strong encryption, we know what’s possible and what is not, and we can work one bit at a time at restoring humanity, freedom, transparency and accountability.

These values were won by our parents and grandparents after very hard bloody struggles for a reason. They very well saw what will happen with an out-of-control government. Why government of the people, for the people, and by the people, is a very good idea. The Germans have had plenty of hands-on experience with the consequences as well, first with the Nazis who took control and were responsible for murdering entire population groups, not only Jews but also people who didn’t think along similar lines: communists, activists, gay people, lesbians, transgenders, etc. Later the Germans got another taste of what can happen if you live in a surveillance state, with the Stasi in the former East-Germany, who encouraged people to spy on one another, exactly what the US government is currently also encouraging. Dangerous parallels there.

But you have to remember that the capabilities of the Stasi and Gestapo were only limited, and peanuts to what the NSA can do. Just to give a comparison: the Stasi at the height of its power, could only tap 40 telephone lines concurrently, so at any one time, there were at most 40 people under Stasi surveillance. Weird isn’t it? We all have this image in our minds that the prime example of a surveillance state would be East-Germany under the Stasi, while they could only spy on 40 people at a time. Of course, they had files on almost anybody, but they could only spy on this very limited number of people concurrently. Nowadays, the NSA gets to spy continuously on all the people in the world who are connected to the internet. Billions of people. Which begs the question: if we saw East-Germany as the prime example of the surveillance state, what do we make of the United States of America?

The Next Step?

I think the next step in defeating this technocratic nightmare of the surveillance state and regain our freedom is to educate others. Hold cryptoparties, explain the reasons and need and workings of encryption methods. Make sure that people leave with their laptops all configured to use strong encryption. If we can educate the general population one person at the time, using our technological skill and know-how, and explain why this is necessary, then eventually the NSA will have no-one to spy on, as almost all communication will flow across the internet in encrypted form. It’s sad that it is necessary, really, but I see no other option to stop intelligence agencies’ excess data-hunger. The NSA has a bad case of data addiction, and they urgently need rehab. They claim more data is necessary to catch terrorists, but let’s face it: we don’t find the needle in the haystack by making the haystack bigger.

My Privacy by Design Talk at OHM 2013

OHM2013Last week I’ve given a talk about privacy by design as it relates to websites at Observe, Hack, Make (OHM) 2013, a quadrennial geekfest and hacker/maker event held in the Netherlands. It’s one of the biggest hacker festivals out there, with 3,000 people that have descended on the festival grounds, and it’s great fun and a great place to meet people, hackers, makers, thinkers, and media people. It’s been somewhat of a Dutch tradition to hold these events every 4 years.

The video will be uploaded as soon as it becomes available.

I’ve designed and developed Annie Machon’s website in May 2012. This site used to run on a closed-source Typepad solution, and Annie wanted to move her website to a more open solution, for which we’ve settled on WordPress. Also, she wanted to move away from the .com domain for reasons of domain jurisdiction. You see, when you operate a .com, .net, .org etc. these domains can be easily seized by the American government if you’re doing something that may upset them. This has happened to MegaUpload, to Richard O’Dwyer’s TVShacks, the examples are legion. This can be really damaging for your reputation, so it’s important to make sure that you’ve set up your infrastructure to resist attacks like these as much as feasibly possible.

I’ve also modified Annie’s WordPress site as to prevent browser tracking as much as possible, allowing people to visit her site without fear of their movements being tracked. Normally, your website visits get tracked if the websites you visit implement things like Facebook Like buttons, etc., which reference Trackingexternal scripts and images that will tell these third-party services what your surfing behavior is. This is obviously not something that we would want, we want an open, free web, that’s easy to use, by which it’s easy and natural in fact to share information, without having to fear that we get tracked and profiled. With browser tracking a lot of information about your browser gets sent to companies like Facebook. Things like IP address, browser brand and version, the country you’re coming from, etc. These parameters are all used to connect this data together and build up a profile in this way.

Synopsis of My Talk

This talk is about the possible conflict between getting your message out there, and trying to maintain your site visitor’s privacy. This talk will highlight some of the issues that need to be taken into consideration when building websites for whistleblowers with high security & privacy needs.

This talk is about the conflict that can arise between getting your message out there, and trying to maintain your audience’s right to privacy. In the last couple of years, with the dramatic increase in the use of social media, often one of the most effective ways of spreading your message to a large group of people has become to foster a community using existing social networks, like Facebook or Twitter.

The problem with using these services is that, while convenient, they also snoop on your audience’s private data. These companies make their money by creating and selling detailed profiles to marketers, to that they can effectively target their ads. Often these services run their own ad service as well, as is the case with Facebook and Google. Later on, this data can come back to hunt you. Let’s say you’ve been searching on Google for some serious illness or disease. You can imagine what your health insurance company would do, had it access to this information. Up the premiums or deny you insurance altogether.

Sander Venema was asked by Annie Machon to redesign her website in early 2012. We took special care in avoiding common traps that can compromise the security and privacy of the site’s visitors when designing the new site.

In his talk, Sander will talk about the special considerations that come with building websites for whistleblowers with high security & privacy needs, both for the owner/operator, and the visitors of the site; discuss what the problem points are, and how we worked around them to create a website that is both pretty, usable and as safe as possible. He will also talk about domain security and governments claiming jurisdiction over a domain name, even if the actual server is not located in their country and the site isn’t aimed specifically at their citizens. There have been several cases in the past where websites have been brought offline because of this.