04 September 2011

Information wants to be... D'oh!

Apparently Stewart Brand, who we've mentioned a few times here at Booming Back, is the originator of the phrase "Information wants to be free". According to John Brockman, founder of Edge.org, the phrase arose during a panel discussion with Steve Wozniak at a hacker conference in 1984, where Brand replied to Woz with the following:
"On the one hand, information wants to be expensive because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is lower and lower all the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other."
At an Edge conference in Munich earlier this year Brockman elaborated further:
"That remark was picked up by Kevin Kelly in the CoEvloution Quarterly, published in 1985. And somehow, all of you forgot half of it, and information wants to be free became a mantra, it became an ideology, for some it's a religion, for others it's a cashbox for stock or speaker fees. But I've always been wondering about the tension of the two fighting against each other and what happened to one half of the fight?"
These exchanges, both Brand and Wozniak's original and Brockman's more recent rhetorical challenge, came to mind as the figure of Julian Assange loomed large in the media once again.

When Assange feared for his safety during last year's the Swedish police investigation and this year's extradition hearing in London, he threatened to release all the leaked US diplomatic cables in an unredacted form, saying that he had given the full file to supporters and if anything happened to him it would be released to the wildes of the internets, the hyperbolically named 'nuclear option'. Unfortunately it seems that neither Mr Assange nor his supporters have ever suffered through Uncle Vanya long enough to realise that the gun introduced in Act One must surely be used by Act Three (if only to free one's self from the misery of enduring yet another three hours of Chekhov), and so the world woke up on Thursday to discover that somewhere, somehow, the full unredacted files had been released to the world even though Mr Assange was sitting comfortably in the stately pile of Ellingham Hall in the rolling Norfolk countryside, and not, for instance, rotting in a Swedish jail waiting for the masked men with the spare orange jumpsuits to bundle him through Shannon on his way to a permanently undisclosed location without even letting him out for a quick bit of Duty Free shopping along the way.

Information, it would appear, does indeed want to be free.

Twelve hours earlier I was sitting in the Science Gallery at an excellent workshop on 'Data protection and communication security', given by Wojtek Bogusz from the NGO Frontline, a group that specialises in supporting Human Rights groups around the world. Bogusz's current project is 'Security in a Box', a pretty comprehensive tool-kit for those working in the human rights field to protect their online and offline communications from interception, tracking or unwarranted exposure. Over the course of two hours he gave a whistlestop tour of the tool-kit which, while pretty comprehensive, was definitely targeted at the novice or non-technical audience, which is exactly the level most human rights activists would probably be at.

On the subject of passwords, the 'Security in a Box' toolkit offers this fairly straight-forward advice: "Make it long", "Make it complex", "Make it practical", "Don't make it personal" and then it advises the user to "Keep it secret", adding:
"Do not share your password with anyone unless it is absolutely necessary. And, if you must share a password with a friend, family member or colleague, you should change it to a temporary password first, share that one, then change it back when they are done using it. Often, there are alternatives to sharing a password, such as creating a separate account for each individual who needs access."
and then to "Make it unique":
"Avoid using the same password for more than one account. Otherwise, anyone who learns that password will gain access to even more of your sensitive information."
and finally to "Keep it fresh":
"Change your password on a regular basis, preferably at least once every three months. Some people get quite attached to a particular password and never change it. This is a bad idea. The longer you keep one password, the more opportunity others have to figure it out. Also, if someone is able to use your stolen password to access your information and services without you knowing about it, they will continue to do so until you change the password."
Pretty basic stuff I think you will agree.

Unfortunately Mr Assange, it would appear, has read as many books on internet security as he has seen plays by Chekhov, for according to The Guardian:
"Earlier in the year... Assange gave a copy of the cables file to the Guardian, one of the news organisations with whom he had agreed to work to publish the cables in redacted form. He provided the Guardian with a password and access to a special online server, on which he said he would place a copy of the cables file, which would only remain in existence for a short time. What Assange did not reveal was that he had not followed conventional security practice and created a new password for the transaction. Instead... he had merely reused the existing master password, already known to others within WikiLeaks"

That sound, by the way, is the gun from Act One being loaded as we move slowly through Act Two, or 'February' as the Guardian likes to call it, when they published a book on the Wikileaks incident which included the password to the file that they had been given by Assange, assuming that he would have followed basic security precautions and changed it.

Double-plus oops.

The wonder of this all is that the file has been sitting on Pirate Bay since December, and the password has been out in the wild since February, and we are only hearing the first outcry about the unredacted data being freely available now in September. I suppose the media and/or the State Department had a lot on their plates these last few months what with the summer holidays, and Libya and the last Harry Potter movie being released (I'm being unfair to the State Department, in truth nobody cared about the last Harry Potter film, not even Hillary).

And thus we wake up on Thursday morning, the curtain rising on our own unseemly Act Three, with the revolver of Assange's 'Nuclear Option' well and truly fired and yet no-one seems to have their hand on the trigger. Its a good thing that something like this could never actually happen with a really nuclear 'Nuclear Option'.



Almost certainly never.

The moral of all this (for there must be one at the end of four hours of 19th century Russian theatrical misery or why the hell did we sit through it all when there were literally a million other things less painful that we could have been doing, like Pancreatic surgery perhaps, which I can highly recommend as a pleasurable alternative to Three Sisters, having endured both but recovered much faster from the surgery) would appear to be that information wants to be free, and human beings are fecking morons.

Wojtek Bogusz's workshop in the Science Gallery was organised by film-maker Aoibheann O’Sullivan at Distilled Ideas (and good friend to us here at Booming Back), and Gavin Sheridan of The Story - keep an eye out for the next in what will hopefully be a long series of workshops, which should see Sheridan talk about Freedom of Information Requests in Ireland, a topic on which he probably knows more about than anyone else in the country.

The 'Security in a Box' toolkit can be found on Frontline's site here, and their main human rights defenders website is here.

And if after all this you are still not sure what an 'Assange' is, I can offer you no better series of explanations than those provided by the sharply loquacious Mr Sean Lock.



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