CISPA: Act now

April 26, 2012 | 3 comments

The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act just passed in the House, during a vote that was moved up a day and staged during the NFL draft. It vastly expands the already onerous act into one that allows significant domestic surveillance.

As TechDirt notes:

Basically this means CISPA can no longer be called a cybersecurity bill at all. The government would be able to search information it collects under CISPA for the purposes of investigating American citizens with complete immunity from all privacy protections as long as they can claim someone committed a “cybersecurity crime”. Basically it says the 4th Amendment does not apply online, at all. Moreover, the government could do whatever it wants with the data as long as it can claim that someone was in danger of bodily harm, or that children were somehow threatened—again, notwithstanding absolutely any other law that would normally limit the government’s power.

This bill must be blocked in the Senate. If you’re a US citizen, you need to call your Senator now. This action list over on Reddit is fantastic, or, once again, Grassroutes makes this easy. Just click a button below:

(If you’re reading the feed, you probably won’t see the Grassroutes widget above. Click here to see the buttons, and to get the code to paste the widget on your own site.

Activity streams: not just for the cloud

April 24, 2012 | 7 comments

At the end of last year, I was asked to contribute my wishlist for Linux on the desktop for an issue of Linux Format magazine. Here’s what I submitted:

I want an activity stream for my activity on my local computer, and across my network. When, for example, I make a change to a document, I want my PC to record it on my activity stream as “Ben Werdmuller edited ‘Linux Format wishlist’ in LibreOffice Writer.” By default, those changes are private to me only, but I can set access permissions per file, application, location on disk and type of update (“status update”, “text file”, etc). In a network environment, I can share my activity streams across the network, and see the updates that other network users have allowed me to view. This stream is at an infrastructure data level, so I can choose a number of applications to view it with – although I can easily imagine Ubuntu, for example, shipping a beautiful default app.

Then, I want to be able to program against the activity stream, and the activity streams I can see on my network, using a simple API. This would allow me to sync files, status updates and other things, while not being bound to any one application or utility. It also could provide an interesting underlying basis for social web applications running on Linux servers.

This is a little convoluted, so let me explain: I want my activity on my computer, my activity across my enterprise network, and my activity on the web to be saved to a single activity stream that I control. I want to be able to conditionally share and have access to the entire activity stream – and then do stuff with it, using tools like the excellent ifttt.

Consider the following unified stream:

  • Ben Werdmuller saved Technical white paper to Work out tray 3 seconds ago
  • Ben’s mom sent you an email: A little family news to 15 minutes ago
  • Ben’s cousin sent you a message: I’m engaged! on Facebook 1 hour ago
  • Your task: Finish technical white paper is due 3 hours ago
  • You were tagged in a photo: ElggCamp San Francisco 2012 on Flickr 4 hours ago

In the example above, the act of saving something to the folder Work out tray could automatically cause it to be uploaded to Basecamp, or emailed to a few people for review. Similarly, my being tagged in a photo on Flickr could cause it to be automatically downloaded into my local Photos folder.

Why should my activity stream just contain stuff that happened on the web? Now that we have apps like Google Drive, these separations are arbitrary at this point. What matters is that I did something, not where I did it.

Mission: Explore puts the fun back into checking in

April 16, 2012 | Leave a comment

For the past few years, my friend Helen Steer has been working with the Geography Collective on Mission: Explore, a new way to promote exploration and curiosity:

Mission:Explore is a game, but not as you know it. There are two aims to the game. One is to collect points and unlock rewards. The other is to experience the world in new ways by doing vitally important random and warped challenges. The more missions you do the more rewards you’ll unlock and the more fun you’ll have during your stay on planet Earth.

Mission: Explore’s web application is an inventive take on the geo-gamification meme we’ve seen for years with the likes of Foursquare and Gowalla. Rather than checking in with brands and getting offers, participants are encouraged to travel 100 metres without being seen or put on a show for a security camera controller. And of course, they get rewards and an endorphin rush for doing so.

Because the site’s mostly aimed at kids, there’s less community or real-time interaction than there could be – what if one of the missions was to join up with six other people and solve a puzzle or make a shape? – but I love the humanity of the intention behind it. And the execution is great, although I find myself wondering what it could be with Geoloqi‘s geofencing.

Mission: Explore offers bespoke challenges for private groups, as well as a dead tree version. It’s all been done with a lot of love, and is great fun – to the extent that I wish more adult geo-apps would take a leaf from its book. If I had kids I’d be all over it.

Web, the people

April 15, 2012 | 2 comments

Armenian ParliamentIf there was any doubt that the Internet is radically changing democracy, check this out:

Spain’s new political party, the Partido de Internet, is a policy-agnostic political party that makes its decisions based on the will of a community based on Agora, a virtual parliament platform.

PDI is a policy-agnostic political party that does not have, nor will ever have, a political ideology. It has a single and radical proposal: PDI elected representatives will vote in congress according to what the people have previously voted through the internet using Agora.

[...] Agora is a software project with a clear aim to improve our democratic system. The project is well underway but still not complete, and is driven by voluntary work donated generously by members of our team. We welcome anyone, developers, researchers, security enthusiasts, designers, or anyone else who shares our vision, to collaborate and help bring this vision closer to reality.

Representative democracy as we know it today emerged because it was unfeasible for each citizen to participate directly. The Internet fundamentally changes that, and reveals political parties to be gatekeepers: unnecessary levels of organizational abstraction that are unduly influenced by capital rather than the will of the people they declare themselves to represent.

This is a sea change in how government works, and incumbents can see it coming. It’s worth examining the UK’s Internet surveillance plans in this light. David Cameron said that monitoring emails, web use and phone calls would protect against “terrorist threats that [...] that we still face in this country”. Could that include citizens peacefully organizing to push for greater democracy?

I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to also look at policies regarding anonymity and privacy online in this light. Tracking doesn’t just relate to advertising; it’s also always been used to monitor political dissent (alongside agent provocateurs). This is a subject that relates to how we are governed and – though it sounds almost insanely melodramatic to say it – the balance of world power. Owning and controlling your own data needs to be a democratic right.

I’ll be watching the PDI with interest; together with the Pirate Party, they represent a very interesting new phase in how technology and society interact. And just as news, publishing, entertainment and retail have been disrupted, the incumbent political parties had better take notice.

Photo of the Armenian Parliament by PanARMENIAN Photo, released under a Creative Commons license.

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