Thursday 8 April 2010

Digital disasters

There have been many disasters in the dark and sometimes gloomy recesses of the internet, but last night the most recent one was hauled into the hard glare of geek scrutiny, thanks to live BBC Parliament streaming and commentary on Twitter.

Everyone reading this will be aware of the Digital Economy Bill. It passed 3rd reading last night, it now only has to pass once more through the House Of Lords in its now final state for it to become an Act and thus legislation which can be used to prosecute you.

I bought The Hacker Crackdown by Bruce Sterling last weekend. It tells a story of the National Security Agency in the US trying to stop people accessing networks illegally, both government owned and private sector. It reads like a hollywood film. It's not. It was reality 20 years ago. It's still reality now thought the nationality of those hacking the networks and getting caught has changed.

You would think that in 20 years, the security of networks would have moved on. You would think that in this shiny world of technology, I, as a self confessed geek, would be able to secure my wireless home network properly, so that no one could sit outside and leach bandwidth from me and run illegal downloads across it.

I can tell you now, I (or rather my epically geeky boyfriend) can secure our network. But we are geeks. We live in two worlds, the real one and the virtual one (I hate that word but there isn't a better one for now). We breathe this stuff, it's what we work with, how we are wired, what we are used to.

We are in a massive minority. Most people do not know how to secure their network. Most people do not have a clue what an IP is (as ably demonstrated by assorted Right Honourable Gentleman last night). Most people don't know the difference between a static and dynamic IP and they certainly don't know how to custom configure any firewall software that may have shipped with their shiny Netbook/Laptop/Desktop PC. These people are vulnerable, and the government has just passed a Bill which will take advantage of 90% of this countries ignorance. It leaves that 90% open to abuse, confusion, court hearings where no one will understand any of the concepts or tech speak coming out of the prosecutors mouth, and where innocent people will have convictions for things they did not commit or condone.

You would think that the US's experience with 'hackers' would have been studied, learned from and ultimately that a Bill would have been written which encompassed those things. Instead we have an Act which gives some one, hitherto unspecified, the right to convict people because their IP might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because they did not study IT in depth at university. How on earth is a Magistrate going to understand the Bill, never mind the technical details of the prosecutions evidence placed in front of him? Will the prosecutors even understand it? Will magistrates be given technical advisors in every Court, on call to explain the ins and outs of something so incomprehensible to most?

No. Instead 90% of the UK population will be at risk of floating unknowingly and unwittingly into the mire of the Criminal Justice System at a time when it is under massive strain as it is.

The simple fact is this, and I'm sorry but there is no way to say this without being harsh - the UK is run by geeks, monitored by geeks, innovated by geeks, created by geeks and pushed forward into the advantages and opportunities that IT can offer us by geeks. And I have a deep suspicion that this is the ultimate driver of this Bill and the others which will inevitably follow. People fear that which they cannot understand. And so, instead of asking geeks to explain to them the ins and outs, they blindly push forward in backing a Bill which has so many flaws that there will have to be amendments to it within the next year or the Criminal Justice System simply wont cope.

And what of those geeks? The people who the Bill was probably aimed at, in truth?

Well, I give it exactly 2 weeks before all the Torrenting software is on the next version up with an additional option in the Settings menu to allow you to mask your IP from your ISP. That setting will allow anyone who knows of its existence to become invisible. Again, I am not telling anyone reading this anything new. It is the way it is.

You cannot fight smart, passionate, intelligent and enthusiastic people on their own ground if you do not understand the ground you are standing on. Instead, you must bring those people into your own playground, to a place where you are comfortable and know the rules, and you must learn a new set of rules. If you do not, you will be left out to dry. You will be humiliated and embarassed at every opportunity, because people give no respect to those who barrel through delicate situations with no thought or care for the long term implications of their decisions. They are derided, and quite rightly, for attempting to discuss things they know nothing of, in a timescale which does not allow them to learn, under the glare of scrutiny which is unforgiving.

Now. Will someone please tell me who is advising this government on matters ICT/IT/security/networking/routers/IP's/ISP's? I need to have a word in plain English. Something they're obviously not talking.


  1. I know I responded to you on twitter, but I'll reply here in case other read this looking for the same answer.

    Assuming you mean who advises the government whilst in the process of making laws (as I'm sure every gov department has it's own IT team) then the answer seems to be "anyone who wants to, including us".

  2. Departmental CIOs, GCHQ & OFCOM. None get close enough to Ministers for long enough to really educate them, Tom Watson excepted (and he quit as a Minister)

  3. Tom Watson quit? Hmmm. Would be interesting to know why. I suspect Tom is going to be a key person in the future.

  4. If you haven't read The Cuckoo's Egg by Cliffor Stoll, you really should. Fascinating true story of tracking down hackers and the resistance from those being hacked to believe it or do something about it.