Kiev on #Jan25

Submitted by Jon on Sat, 01/25/2014 - 04:51

Human Rights not found

I spent this past week in Kiev. You may have heard something about the protests, and possibly even about some of the policy changes and new laws that sparked them. I was working with colleagues, journalists and human rights activists, supporting and training them as quickly as possible on digital security basics, and making sure they had contacts to reach out to for timely support.

It was a trip that was scheduled many months ago, when Ukraine was on the cusp of joining the EU. Things, to put it mildly, changed. Obviously, the violent protests have been featured widely in the news, but those capture only the most visible challenges the country is facing. Legislation pushed through with no regard for legal proceedings last Thursday promise to have a chilling effect on free speech, tight limits on media, even citizen journalists, and will devastate the civil society organizations, labeling them as "foreign agents" and taxing them as for-profit corporations if they take any international aid funding.

In the few days I was there, we experienced a "test" of new censorship capabilities as twitter and facebook -- critical messaging and coordination channels for activists -- went dark in Kiev for almost half an hour. People near the protest areas received ominous SMS messages on their phones telling them that they had been registered as present at the (illegal, under the new law) protest.

One note of import - there are two main areas of the protest - EuroMaidan is the months-long, Occupy-on-steroids encampment in Maidan Square. Though well barricaded off, it is a peaceful protest, with daily concerts and speeches on a well-equipped stage, a huge jumbotron, laser-light projections and more. Businesses - from a Nike storefront to a local brewpub to a carousel - are going on with business as normal within the barricaded-off area. The scenes of burning tires, tear gas and molotov cocktails is from the nearby Grushevsky St, where protesters gathered to confront Parliament after their "passage" of this Black Thursday law.

It is inspiring to see the passion and focus of people working to protect and expand their rights, and it is humbling to be able to lend support in any form. However, the challenges aren't getting any easier. The digital tools which provide the most security are also difficult to use, and more difficult to use correctly. They still "stick out" as unusual, and face an uphill battle against popular systems with little if any security.

This has to change. Privacy is not some abstract concept in these situations, it is the economic well-being, and too often, the pure survival of activists, journalists, and their contacts. When we allow policies and practices that undermine security and privacy, we're not just revealing embarrassing factoids about our call history, or even the three felonies a day you're probably committing as a US citizen - we are undermining our global dream of a world of nations with democratic rule, where their citizens can enjoy basic human rights without fear.

The world is ready for this, but when the current Ukrainian government points at American domestic policies as models of their newly crafted censorship and surveillance laws, it's a sign that we as Americans are not drinking our own koolaid (with a hat-tip to the many dedicated civil servants who are working hard to further human rights).

Distributed Solutions for Distributed Attacks

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 10/21/2013 - 17:50

Google has been making headlines with their shiny Project Shield which wraps PageSpeed with other tools to defend sites against denial of service attacks. The history of the denial of service, however, runs deep, and underlines that no centralized response to it will ever be able to cost-effectively scale against a distributed attack.

Let's rewind back to the 90s. Denial of service was a very, very different thing then - it was a tool for free expression, not one used to mute dissenting opinions as it is today.
In the dot-com boomtimes of the late 90s, I was absolutely fascinated by the digital protests that sprung up in reaction to Mexico's treatment of the Zapatista Movement. Floodnet was an activist art project by the Electronic Disturbance Theater. Floodnet was simply a website you could visit and it would direct your browser to constantly reload pages on the website of the Mexcian government. In addition to overloading the website with thousands of requests from you and our fellow programmers, you could add in a political message with each page load, to force the government's server to fill their log files with messages like "human rights not found."

"The FloodNet application of error log spamming is conceptual Internet art. This is your chance to voice your political concerns on a targeted server. [...] The server may respond to your intentional mistake with a message like: "human_rights not found on this server." So by creatively selecting phases, you can make the server voice your concerns. It may not use the kind of resources that the constant reloading uses (FloodNet automatically does that too), but it is sassy conceptualism and it invites you to play with clever statements while the background applet is running." (via

Floodnet used DoS attacks to protest the Mexican Government
Floodnet used DoS attacks to protest the Mexican Government

This original "denial of service" attack was seen as the digital mirror of a classic "sit-in" protest. It was a way for a David to strike back at a Goliath through technology. However, this, ahem, "sassy" political activism began an arms race that today is dominated by Goliaths alone. Instead of a tool of protest, denial of service attacks are today tools of retribution and ways to mute dissenting voices. They are massively automated and distributed, and are run not by rowdy bands of dissidents, but by well-organized for-hire groups ( and even from government infrastructures.

The only defense, so far, has been equally massive, and centralized, commercial services. This is a growing industry with its own round of disruptive innovators all to itself. This current business innovation is helping to move from the monolithic services protecting online infrastructures at high costs to a more scalable model, with services that smaller websites can benefit from. Still, back-end models are the same - providing shelter from DDoS attacks by having sufficient servers and bandwidth to absorb whatever their proprietary tools and filters cannot outright block.

Open source models to fight back have been conspicuous in their absence - until now.

The Deflect Project, created by the technology collective based out of Montreal and Dublin, is responding to that gap. They focus on providing protection for activists and journalists around the world, who are subject to DDoS attacks from those who disagree with their views all the way to their own governments. Thanks to grant funding, Deflect is able to offer their services for free to independent media sites, NGOs and non-profits -- but the technology model under the hood is the real game-changer.

Jam Echelon Day, Redux

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 10/11/2013 - 16:52

(Or, how to remind anyone snooping your email of your fourth amendment rights)

So clearly we have a situation here where we failed to learn from the past. Fourteen years ago (Exactly in a few days - Oct 21!), we were protesting ECHELON, which was (is) a "worldwide computer spy network [that] reportedly scans all email, packet traffic, telephone conversations, and more in an effort to ferret out potential terrorist or enemy communications. Once a communication is plucked from the electronic cloud, certain keywords allegedly trigger a recording of the conversation or email in question."

In response (along with a short burst in activity around people trying to figure out how to use PGP), hackers added amusing bonus keywords in the parts of emails that humans rarely see (where junk like the path the email took, listserv details, and so on goes) - many, including myself, added the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution, as well as participating in "Jam Echelon day," when everyone added what we presumed at the time were these mythical "trigger words:"


As an aside: maannnnnn, do you remember the 90s? Was that an unpleasant walk down memory lane or what?

Anyhow, this amusing idea that this would work for more than a few minutes just doesn't seem to die, and someone's trying it with a new "security" tool called ScareMail that "takes keywords from an extensive US Department of Homeland Security list used to troll social media websites and utilizes them “to disrupt the NSA’s surveillance efforts by making NSA search results useless.” "

While that's ... well, whatever. It's a nice thought, right? Probably not very useful overall. Anyhow, it gives me a small boost of civic pride to tweak my email settings and put the fourth amendment text back in to almost every email I send out. This requires an actual email client (Thunderbird works nicely), and some configuration hacking:

  • Go to Edit → Preferences → Advanced → General → Config editor
  • Right click, new, "string"
  • For 'Enter the preference name' use "mail.identity.id1.header.header1"
  • For the string, add "X-Fourth-Amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
  • If you have multiple mail accounts, you'll have to do this for each one, using id2, id3, etc. and header2, header3, etc.
  • Restart thunderbird, make sure you didn't break anything. For more details, peek at

Commercial OLPC Sales‽ Five years late, but great!

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 07/18/2013 - 08:56

I'm glad that OLPC has finally released what was originally put out as the vapourware-ish XO-3 concept three and a half years back. At the end of the day, though, that's "just" a change in technology (though a huge shift in hardware and underlying software!).

What I'm actually very excited about is commercial sales. This is something I've been arguing in favor of for only around five years or so:

The bottom-of-they-pyramid microfinance approach doesn't even have to drop the education focus. While the returns on education are much to slow to repay loans effectively in most cases, grant programs or other implementations could focus on child usage. For example; the XO could be on sale for anyone; but only young entrepreneurs could qualify for the micro-loans, and they'd have to provide some explanation of how this would fit into their learning. Schools or education-oriented civil groups could to buy on credit in bulk, provided they could support both an educational aspect and a profit-making aspect. Grants could be available to even younger children participating in educational programs, skimming profits off of the loan system and successful entrepreneurs in a new G1G1 style program.

Stop doing Technology for Good So Badly.

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 04/12/2013 - 09:29

I've been reflecting on some of the challenges I've faced across multiple organizations trying to leverage the power of technology to create positive social change. This reaches way back to my work as a Peace Corp volunteer, up through grad school, my time as a contributing editor at OLPCNews, and through multiple NGOs balancing tech, impact, and budgets.

Obviously, there's no definite one-size-fits all approach to implementing technology in any sector, much less the world of the international NGO that stretches from hip online platforms to how to best use dusty Nokia feature-phones.

Here are the principles I've come up with to date. I took these to Twitter in a lively discussion, and want to expound upon them a bit more:

  1. Build for sustainability. Minimize what you have to build yourself, and leverage existing platforms

    This means giving strong preferences to open source platforms or at least existing services that meet a set of criteria (their service meets your needs, you own your data, shared values, track record...) For any service, someone, somewhere has already built a powerful framework that will be constantly updated and improved, and bakes in thousands of features (security, translation, powerful content management, mobile interfaces, etc.) which will be effortless to turn on when you discover you need them. Focus your precious software development budget on the much smaller number of things that are custom to your work and don't exist. This greatly reduces the initial dev costs as well as ongoing maintenance costs.

  2. Seriously, don't build it yourself.

Cyber-Security and ICT4D: Notes from the Info Security Tech Salon

Submitted by Jon on Fri, 03/29/2013 - 12:36

Cross-posted at the Tech Salon site:

First off, please thank the Internets for creating this site, which can serve as a guide on when you should use the prexif cyber:

The tech salon on security and privacy was a predictably raucous debate on finding a sane balance between using 30-character passwords with symbols, numbers, and mixed-case letters that must be changed every month for your timesheet systems ... and taking basic security measures to protect super-private data. How and where do we build in information security in ICT4D? When is it unwarranted, and when is it irresponsible to not address it?

There are the obvious cases, ones with a clear adversary -- be it a repressive government or a group working aggressively against your goals. When you have this clarity, there is an awareness of the need for information and communication security, and

The problem is when there is no clear adversary - when no one actively hates your work. In ICT4D, we normally see this as a good thing, but it means that building in security becomes one more extra, annoying and costly piece of your overhead costs, defending against an unspecified threat - and it often gets dropped.

On Pragmatism and the OLPC

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 01/07/2013 - 10:02

has a hands-on photoshoot with the revolutionary XO-4 convertible tablet/laptop.  It has an infrared touchscreen, has refocused its interface to run on top of a standard Linux distribution instead of a customized and tweaked version, and... um... it looks rather familiar. I mean to say, it's almost indistinguishable from the XO-1.  

And that's a very good thing.  What has happened to the OLPC program is, in many ways, what I'd hoped they'd intentionally choose as a path forward-  thoughtful and efficient development focused on impact over glitz, using existing projects and tools where available, and not re-inventing things that weren't broken, but using incremental improvements.  Of course, that approach doesn't catch headlines as well, but it does work.

The Anti-Halo Effect

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 11/19/2012 - 12:51

Jail App

Create pro-consumer mobile technology and open up a new market of multi-platform and platform-agnostic users who want the best devices.

The Washington Post ran a great article on the increasing problems of vendor lock-in with tablets and mobile devices. In simple language it boils down the problem around why buying an app for one device doesn't give you access to that app anywhere else; if you switch from an iPhone to an Android phone, you'll have to re-buy your apps, and your iTunes content. This partially is lock-in, but there's also a halo-effect - you can transfer an app from on iPhone to a new iPhone, or content from your desktop iTunes to your iWhatever - and the more devices from the same vendor, the better the system works.

But this is a horrible direction to take, and why I rarely buy apps or content from locked-down stores like iTunes. My desktop computer runs Ubuntu Linux, my tablet Android, and my phone is an iPhone. The media server for our house is a Mac Mini, and I finally retired my hold-out Windows computer last year. I refuse to buy music that I can only listen to on one of those myriad devices any more than I'd buy a CD that only plays in my car, but not in my home, or food that I could eat in the kitchen, but not in the dining room or on a picnic.

By and large, I'm a good target demographic - some discretionary income, a gadget afficionado, and generally plugged in to fun new technologies, but my market is rarely well served.

Scaling Social Entrepreneurship, New Economics, and more!

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 09/24/2012 - 16:02

Here are the video links for my presentations from Campus Party Europe:

GeekEconomy with Don Tapscott (Author, Speaker and Advisor on Media, Technology and Innovation) and Simon Hampton (Director Public Policy EU, Google)


Scaling Social Innovations

My slides and notes here:


Choice is the Challenge - Mobiles for Data

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 09/24/2012 - 15:53

Read my write-up from the Mobiles for Data Collection Technology Salon:

You might think that the topic of collecting data via mobile devices would be a rather dry discussion of data management and statistical methodology. You would be very, very wrong. The Technology Salon all but came to blows as we wrestled with privacy issues, total costs of ownership, and other elephants in the room.

When you combine some of the brightest mobile-for-development minds from projects stretching from agriculture to health to democracy, all of whom are facing increasingly common problems, perhaps that's to be expected. Stories were shared around the basic challenges of data collection, picking the system to use, and the complications of different sectors.

Read more:  Mobiles for Data Collection Technology Salon

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