HOPE New York 2014: Observations & Remarks
Snowden, North Korea and iOS, these could be seen as the finalising or resulting “menage a trois” from the HOPE conference in New York 2014. It was the most populous meeting as they reported, due to the first thing mentioned here, perhaps, but also maybe because of some other matters. After all, one of the main organisers of the conference did connect from Verizon network, which is known to have its domestic ties. There were many recruiters and other informants onboard the audience, not to forget the political motivations some of them have in the American setting.
All in all, the conference was pure pleasure, despite the flu of my life which started right after landing on the 2nd day. Just a side note it is to be taken into account that reserving a couple of days ahead of a conference, especially when it's located on the different timezone is a good idea, to accommodate to any unexpected incident such as a virus or other acute syndrome showing its ugly faces. This won't always be enough, as in this case, but it did provide an excellent opportunity to touch the local culture more than any of the other participants ever could have done when they just stayed in the venue hotel in at the Pennsylvania Railway station middle of Manhattan. In there, they did enjoy their own private parties and whoever what, but they surely did not learn any new spots in the broad and diverse city, nor learnt how it reacts to various patients or had the possibility to bond themselves in the times of the difficulties. However bonding via joy and pleasure might be more fruitful and support the social reproduction, it does not necessarily encourage the development of post-national and truly global it security scenery.
When I booked my seat to the conference, I decided to volunteer too as such an opportunity was given. However at the venue, I only did run one of the three turns booked for me, and the turn consisted of carrying ice to club mate sales point and thrashing away paper boxes. As I was not very well due to the acute flu syndrome, I found it was better to rather attend the sessions instead or just lay down in the hotel, to cure the illness. However this way to participating and volunteering is the best way to actually feel the conference from within, I would claim, after having volunteered many other non-IT conferences before and with some effort. Just for an example during the pauses at the entrance, when volunteering, you are more easily networked with other volunteers to hear their stories behind the scenes, which are not always reflected on the surface nor on the agenda. In this case, I had the pleasure to discuss shortly with an AV volunteer colleague, well a kind of, who seemed to be annoyed and when discussed with her she explained that they had all analogical AV equipment there and that people were doing very short volunteering shifts. In this way, each did not have the possibility to learn and develop as the turn shifted right away, and she clearly did speak for longer real work shifts and dedication where one, the volunteers, could take their task seriously and accumulate the competence and hence be more effective. I strongly encouraged her to hold some kind of a feedback session to provide that to the organisers, whether or not it matters at all is a question, but at least she could have her voice heard. I bet she is not the only volunteer having good ideas on how to develop their efforts delivered in this and in any other conference too!
Luckily there was a somewhat active IRC channel for the conference and the volunteers (and they even hosted their own radio channel having its IRC tag too) so that one could very well participate remotely from the hotel room when not feeling well. This does not correlate directly to the case which one could imagine that to participate in the whole event from home since you have the possibility and temporally actual also meeting in real life.
The conference venue itself was perfect, well almost, for the purpose. This must be because on one level the cost structure (as well as the actual structure) of the hotel was not so modern or too posh and on some level the architecture was very old-fashioned (as is the whole idea to expect legacy national governments to secure the modern cosmopolitan citizens or implement anti-surveillance legislation to do so). On the other hand, the venue suited perfectly because it did have all the rooms located nearby on the same floor, minimising the need for the participants to wander around the venue. And as there were only three tracks, not many people had to switch their room inflight. Also very well suited was their decision to locate the vendors' booths and other group tables to another level, so that their hustle did not disturb the sessions themselves. The only thing to complain was the fact that the hotel, as noted, was very old, and seemed to be on the death row to be demolished, as this kind of topic could maybe have expected to receive some other more high-class setting. Again, this needs to be put in align with the audience and participants themselves.
The first day started with an odd Duetto of one session about something called “repair movement” and another about SIP protocol. As usual, I had chosen the session which was not so popular, the SIP protocol, whereas for some reason the repair movement to which I did attend the last minuted, had encouraged large crowd to attend. The SIP talk did not bring much new about, when when the title of the talk did imply something new as it rhetorically asked “Are you ready for…”. Basically it was a sales pitch to learn and use more SIP, and what the heck, why not? To contrast the final words of the repair movement seemed to stress that something post-industrial is developing alongside or together with the hacker movement. To repair stuff, instead of produce final and good enough product processes was their motto and aim. And in there they are right; the world is moving, has already moved, out from industrial settings to somewhat handcrafted tailor culture where the economy is maybe losing its focus from the benefits of the scale to the miracles of the small and rare (hence repair movement, I would guess).
Right after the first session, the matter started to live and grow! The next three talks did matter persecutions, Anonymous, Whistleblowers, Spies, CSI effects and hacker wars, to put a long story short. This isn't any short or narrow topic, and on the agenda there were four hours reserved for it. Maybe one of them to mention here was the Thomas Drake, who faced the love from the NSA in connection to one of their subprograms. Strangely enough, he or any other case presented in the conference did not pay attention to the fact that when some martyr goes into public with some juicy detail of theirs, the so-called whistleblower actually at the same time serves more the host himself than the whistle. This is because not many players in the cyber world want or can go public with their capabilities, but they are happy, at least internally, when someone goes out and says what they are able to do. This leaves a nice gap there between the truth and the facts, and also upholds neat non-accountability and threat factor (what else they could then do?). Of course, then we need some heroes to blow the whistle and say what is happening, but is it always a good thing to do, at least with narrow and short perspective?
In this previous sense, it only serves the interests of the host to label the blowers as spies, declare war and start persecution, in order to legitimise their own actions, in order to top up the value of whatever they might publish. The image of the possibilities and capabilities requires that it has been blown by some spy, it requires, as its messaged to be the core capability, to be waged against in the terms of the persecution, etc. The whole thing is not what they actually can do or what they do, but what people think they can and are able to do. This was also the core component in the cold war era of competition, and it has not changed. In the world of cybersecurity, the various players are demonstrating their capabilities by using an imaginary scale of means and methods. In his talk on the next day, Snowden seemed to sense some of this, but could not completely speak out yet.
In the case of Anonymous, they were presented as a somewhat distinct, maybe even crazy and violent, inhuman, setting of some non-persons to avoid and turn back to. This could also have been described as a part of the development of post-national social structures, identities and loyalties, even khalifs. While the session was labelled to be presented from the point of view and from the role of one individual, Barret Brown, it did not understandably go too deep in the internals of that person nor the Anonymous itself. However one could argue here, that it should have done so, not maybe trying to cross the limits of the free speech, but to present the phenomena from the academic point of view. They could have done as some of the traditional secret services and agencies do when they cannot face the subject itself; study the peers and similar, parabels, and as they are by some likelihood possessing similar features, they might find something useful from there which can be applied without ever touching the real subject. Of course, this was a conference for the nerds, but still, to the new postmodern and postindustrial connects deeply the need to not to limit the knowledge based on the level or hierarchies. Tell me what I need to know, not what you think is suitable at this moment -pedagogy and conference background strategy. However, it should be warned here, that this could challenge some of the core social structures, which are built upon the idea of limited, distributed, controlled and managed knowledge. However, it might be a good thing to challenge too, as there might not be future for the society organised round “we know this and you know that” basic formula, together with its reproductive systems which create the appreciation and appraisal, and in fact it itself, the wisdom as it calls often minimising it to something like predictability, stability, logicality and at the same time elitist creativity monopolised and owned by those who benefit its reproduction, and thus uphold it.
The final session for me to attend this first day, before my flu took over me, was a very interesting technical talk on iOS backdoors, as the presenter did call them. While having participated earlier various iOS security sessions, this was one good on top of them. He demonstrated in essence that there are running RAT (Remote Access Toolkit) on every iOS device, whether or not that has been taken part of the corporate management infrastructure and without users consent. This toolkit is in essence part of an advanced persistent threat system set up, where an oligarchy has the potential to access at will any of the users' devices. In this sense, the author did not say so though, but it's here analysed, spreading the penetration of iOS and digitalisation overall can be seen as part of the process of constructing new Khalifa and empires to continue and formulate the governance in the postnational ages. However, this audience seemed to see the issue rather technical and questioned more that if and why the vendor did not “do it right” instead. To be honest with you, not many people nowadays if ever thought that their handset is somehow their own domain and only under their control, quite opposite. However what needed to be discussed was the freedom of the people to choose who to let in, to to be their sovereign. At the moment legacy and often incompetent national authorities are claiming that authority without giving people practical or even theoretical option to choose their authorities, to move from place a to b, instead they try to glue you under their domain more forcefully than ever done before. People did leak some documents yes, but who has the courage to present the uphold the proper question and bold analysis? These could be the future whistleblowers, who are up there to present not only fact they found and saw, but the conclusions which are normally and by the house rules not allowed to be made. Finding out those conclusions requires more travelling, more cross-cultural experiences, deep thought, concentration, compassion and courage to speak out of course!
The second day was the prime day for the sessions since famous Edward and Ellsberg took the stage. This was an epic moment when the whole crowd set themselves to watch the show, and even three rooms were not enough. It was a bit like waiting for Santa to appear, as half an hour delay was over and Ellsberg started his session. What did bug me was that during the delay, it was announced that the delay is due to they are setting the six proxies, but then at the end of the announcement the master of ceremony himself leaked that they are setting up the stream to one of the rooms instead! Also while Mr Snowden is in Russia, during his talk he referred the issues in the matter as “here in America”, in the middle of his emotional speech. While people are in a stressful situation like this, they normally are not so good to uphold their stories and tend to leak out some bit and pieces. A bright audience should keep on eye on these and always pay attention when something unusual happens, or something which does not fit to the surroundings, like the black cat crossing the isle twice — was it the same cat?
The other thing with the dialogue was that Ellsberg tried to impose himself to Snowden, clearly, he tried to adopt him, if not done earlier, as a follower, and Edward hesitated a bit like a bride on the altar. This highlighted the politically, or even domestically of the whole Snowden story. While in Europe it is many times seen as an issue of national independence or cohesion, in the States it seems that it is more and more used and maybe also born from clashes between two main ideologies, parties, ideas. Creating worldwide spectacle of one of the parties and encouraging mistrust and shame towards the other only highlights the fact that how the politics and its motivations have outgrown the legacy national borders which more or less used to be its core settings.
During the final phrases of the talk, Snowden did take distance to Ellsberg and showed somewhat postmodern attitude highlighting the need to each person to develop their character and ability rather than prove one or the other side to be wrong or right. It remains to be seen how and who does stick and pay attention to this and how people will react. While referring to the building of the capacity of the self, he still did not say it clearly, while however at the same time represents one of the good icons of the movement from representation to performance. He did leave out, understandably, the question about the regulation of the global performative governance. Performances are more addictive than national identity narratives ever could globally be, and the same time completely unregulated and at many times not even acknowledged or identified. And cyber is the core part of the stage for the global performance.
The prime session of the last day was a story of a visit to North Korea. During this session, the presenter showed a wide range of pictures on site and explained what he understood was and had been happening. A however deeper analysis of the political or social issue remained on the level of they vs us joking and laughing, which somewhat reminded of some U.S. Army spirit cheering session before the battle to cure the motivation to face the enemy. He mentioned that he can receive North Korean TV and Radio home in Australia via satellite dish, as their signal was transferred via satellite. Again he made populist notions such as assumptions that the factories he was shown were not factories what they were said they were for but for some evil plan against others, or that the country is most odd of them all. However in order to understand something you really would need to pay more effort than just browse from the outside, look what things look alike, and also you would need to understand that people do by intention but without being mean, hostile or evil, present things in a “visitor friendly” way. And again, his simplistic analysis towards the symbolisms did lack the intelligent comparison to our symbols and presentation of objects of ideology. There is no reason to claim that our way of presenting and putting the objects of devotion was somewhat better than theirs, from the personal and social settings, to exclude here all opinions on the political side against or for anyone. Just stressing that as we all are unable to see our own beauty and quite often won't sense our own manoeuvres of attraction, it could be compared to harassment to provoke hate or disrespect towards someone's contractions or upholding of objects of ideology (see Zizek for example). However at the same time, it was good world education for most of the audience, very rare to occur and something to encourage more and more, as the presenter did, to travel here and there, to engage, involve and participate. Insha-allah!
Kristo Helasvuo, Guest Author.