A polite difference of opinion- MIT Media Lab and PSN

Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and Ethan Zuckerman from the respected MIT Media Lab argue in Wired Magazine last week that the decentralised networks on which practical  Private Social Networks (PSN’s) would rely are wishful thinking. In their view the obstacles to the development of useful PSN’s mean they can’t be commercially competitive and therefore will never materialise.

We accept that if you’re expecting PSN’s to replace public global platforms like Facebook you will be disappointed. But that isn’t what we should be hoping for or trying to achieve. With all due respect, it’s silly to argue that private decentralised networks can or should replace public centralised ones: They are by definition different things that have different reasons for being. Even as the MIT team smash up this straw man, they actually have very few practical objections and it’s possible their reasoning is underpinned by a number of misapprehensions about people.

Platforms don’t own users, but users can own them

The principle objection is that private social networks face challenges acquiring and keeping users. There is a wonderful piece of circular reasoning that underpins this argument. The MIT group states that “we join them [social networks] because our friends are there, not for ideological reasons like decentralization”. Apart from leaving the fairly obvious question begging about how your friends got there in the first place, the onus is on them to explain away the fact of millions of pseudo private ‘networks’ that people create within existing public platforms.

Closed user groups exist for the purposes of organising everything from amateur sports teams and weddings to full blown ideologically driven political rallies. The desire to firewall out central public access is obviously a key motivator for setting up private networks of contacts. In the cases where we join or ‘like’ them without knowing any existing members, it is precisely because we identify with the group ideology whether that be social network platform disintegration or some other cause. If there were a button that you could press when setting up a private group to “Prevent Facebook and everyone else except members seeing group messages”, it’s fairly obvious that many of us would use it.

Profit doesn’t motivate social networking

The MIT group would be right to point out that just because people want easy to use platforms that provide truly private networking capabilities it doesn’t follow that they will flock to them in droves just because they exist. In the context of PSN’s its impossible to replicate the model that financed the exponential growth of the global sort we suffer from today: Namely snooping for profit by advertisers. This argument is however as tautologous as pointing out that you can’t have meat in a vegetarian diet.

Commercial profit isn’t the ONLY reason that people create and use sophisticated software tools. If it were I wouldn’t be writing this on a free open source content management system, accessed with a free open source web browser on a PC running a Linux operating system. It may not be for everyone but some people are vegetarians and some people with the requisite skills will implement private social networking tools for their customers, friends and ideological comrades to use; provided they exist, work well and are free to use.

Might regulation drive uptake?

In the context of increasingly proscriptive intrusiveness by authority into the sphere of private publishing on public social networks, organisations might decide that public content published by their users is a liability. Might they also decide that what happens on their PSN is best off staying on the PSN and, that when it does leak, plausible deniability of responsibility is perhaps legally essential? Is it possible that the sense of exclusive belonging that membership of a private organisation’s social network bequeaths on a user turns out to create the sort of genuine loyalty that Mark Zuckerberg can’t even dream about?

We’ll see.


The MIT groups closing argument that social media platforms are hard for new users to navigate and that managing keys is difficult looks more like constructive criticism of extant designs than a reason to declare it can never happen.

Thanks for the input Chelsea, Neha and Ethan but we think you may have jumped to a conclusion based on questionable assumptions. Against the sweep of human history, the challenges to society at large presented by for profit corporate social network platform monopoly have arisen in the blink of an eye. The grown ups may be a bit slow but it’s premature to declare that no response is possible.




Posted in PSN Tagged with: , ,

Boomtown 2017 – Behind the Mask

This show is surely one of the most magnificent and beautifully crafted pieces of anarchic art in the world. Legions of volunteers sweat for weeks to build a psychedelic parody of a city on the wooded hills of Winchester, England. The place pulsates with music, light and laughter for a few long nights before being put back in it’s box and taken home until the next chapter’s been written.

The back story is a commentary on the complex dystopia we’ve built for our kids to live in; an ephemeral world that’s hard to understand, near impossible to own any of, where every attempt to make it better just makes it more tangled and the best way to deal with it is to keep smiling and dance. It was with some trepidation I took to a the stage on the relative peace of Whistlers Green to perform a meā culpā piece on behalf of my own generation of digital pioneers who started the process of making the world so frighteningly complex nobody knows who’s responsible for it anymore. I half expected scowls or millennial shrugs from glittery shoulders but got nothing of the sort.

I described an evolving world where corporations are the real superpowers who sell access rights for their information hordes to increasingly disconnected “democratic” regimes that are so scared of the very freedoms that are their raison d’être they keep trying to take them away. As I went on, more and more shiny faces came into the little tent at speakers corner and when I was done the Q&A had to be stopped for lack of time.

So much for millennial apathy.

My predecessors on the stage, the good people of Momentum (an activist group at the socialist end of the UK’s Labour Party) declined to stay and answer my questions about the lack of opposition in the UK’s parliament to increasingly draconian surveillance laws that seek to put the masses under the microscope of the rich and powerful few. No surprises there really, just those shrugs our leaders have come to mistake for apathy.

So, as promised, we will continue our work to draw attention to the erosion of our right to privacy. In private our culture foments dissent and to rails against the injustices of power and information hoarding. In private, we disagree with the view of the world presented to us by political orthodoxy and the BBC.

Our beautiful kids clearly intend to do something about it and I for one will help them. If you want to take legal, direct peaceful action to preserve our liberty this is what you can do

Posted in News Tagged with: ,

Are Tories more dangerous than terrorists?

The most intrusive, disrespectful and deliberately obtuse regime in the era of modern democracy is wounded and has announced it’s plans to lash out at it’s innocent people in retaliation for the bloody nose it’s been dealt. Poor people burn to death in patched up faux modern Dickensian slums, computer systems crash nationwide putting medical services under life threatening stress and the police warn of their lack of resources to control the riots they see coming.

The Conservative government crippled by its arrogance, would like you to believe that the visible consequences of starving public services of money, decimating council building budgets and refusing to pay down corporate America’s software service contracts aren’t the biggest threat we face. Like “Comical Ali” the Iraqi information minister denying the US invasion of Baghdad as tanks rolled into shot behind him, the UK government is standing in front of their burning and crumbling country telling you that “this isn’t the problem you’re looking for.”

The ONLY Policy

The only significant policy discernible in the thicket of Brexit themed platitudes that formed the Queens speech last week was another threat to liberty dressed up in a bare faced lie; the United Kingdom has “a world class regime protecting personal data” the Queen was forced to say and went on to inform us that there will be a new “Digital Charter” to protect this non status and thereby keep us safe.

As bitter experience tells us, a new Digital Charter means that the British Fuhrer plans to have Amber Rudd increase their already world shaming powers of surveillance in a bid to distract your attention. They wan’t you to believe that there is some technically sophisticated global Jihadi network that your right to a private life is getting in the way of them dismantling. They think that passing laws fit for fascist dictators makes them look hard and serious and they know that they can just claim their covert strategy “works” because counter terrorism operations are always hidden from public scrutiny: “Just trust us, we need to spy on you for your own good.”

Do they? Do you? I urge you to think about it hard.

The Body Count

Jihadi Terrorism of the sort seen in Manchester and London recently doesn’t even have a coherent political objective. It’s just nutters murdering people at random because they want to be viewed as terrorists. Sick, very very sad and stupid, but completely opaque to mass surveillance. Even if even greater surveillance of the masses could improve security from this sort of nutter – which it emphatically cannot – it isn’t anywhere near the biggest threat to our safety.

The UK Government is responsible for more death and large scale mayhem than terrorists this horrible month and they couldn’t stop them either. It was an ordinary kid with a computer that saved the NHS from the weapons grade viral worm exploit called wannacry. It was ordinary people that arrested the nutter in a van at Finsbury Park, it was ordinary people that supported each other when Grenfell tower burned and it is ordinary people who will have to start protecting themselves from intrusion by this overbearing, incompetent and dangerous government.

Posted in Politics

Return of the May queen, again

The architect of the UK government’s assault on the right to privacy has been battered. Though the beast is mortally wounded, she is so obsessed with creating the legacy of a Benthamesque digital panopticon the she felt the need to declare it as one of her dying intentions. Apart from some more vacuous nonsense about Brexit and fairness, it was the only thing she had to say after returning from the palace on June the 9th 2017.

“[This government] will work to keep our nation safe and secure by delivering the change that I set out following the appalling attacks in Manchester and London” –  “giving the police and the authorities the powers they need to keep our country safe”

Theresa May, 9-June-2017


Deception and Nonsense

Theresa May is talking utter nonsense. She “calculated” that saying this will make her look tough. She knows very well that the powers she proposes will be no impediment whatsoever to lunatic murderers who decide to attack random people in the street. Claiming that being able to read encrypted messages would somehow grant the police the power to magically see brutal low tech murder coming is patently absurd and insults our intelligence.

She has just lost an election she didn’t need to call and is making unconscionable political pacts to shore up her tattered legitimacy. She doesn’t understand the complex way in which the fabric of our modern world is all bound up in digital security and how important the integrity of our private communication has become in an era where social media companies can practically read the mind of an electorate and sell it to the highest bidder.

Why this blog is being written again

Theresa May is threatening to legislate against the right to be protected from intrusion by government and would like you to remain ignorant of the facts: She can’t ban encryption, she can’t defeat encryption, she can’t legislate it away and it would do nothing but damage to your security if she could. She can’t protect you.

Much more importantly, she has no intention of involving herself in debate about what it would mean for democracy if a magic wand existed that could let her have her way. She has to go now and her snoopers charter, an affront to human rights, needs to go with her.

This blog is calling her out and seeks to encourage the rational informed debate she will do anything to avoid.

Posted in Politics Tagged with: , ,

Friends of Civil Liberties in Strange Places

640px-Rand_Paul,_official_portrait,_112th_Congress_alternateWho would have thought that a champion of liberal values would emerge from the American Tea Party movement? Rand Paul, presidential hopeful from the right wing of the republican party in the United States, has successfully led a campaign to prevent extension of the Patriot Act. The legislation was rushed through on a wave of national anxiety following the terrorist attacks of September the 11th 2001 – before anyone had really read it according to Michael Moore’s documentary, Fahrenheit 911.

Stop bugging us

When Barack Obama’s White House is referring to the congressional refusal to re-extend this legislation as an “irresponsible failure”, one could be forgiven for thinking the world has gone mad. A black president spitting blood because a right wing Republican has scuppered his anti-civil liberties agenda? Go figure.

The objections arise because Paul and his fellow rebels believe that security is supposed to protect liberty and that the Patriot Act has conceded too much to those who would limit American freedom by force. When the American government has the power to conduct mass surveillance of its own citizens, it deosn’t feel like a free country anymore. While American citizens languish in exile because they blew the whistle on institutional crime, Barack Obama looks angry and rightly embarrassed.

Our freedom is dependent on our courage. This law was an act of fear – exactly what terror is supposed to produce. Well done Rand Paul for being brave enough to take it on.

Posted in Adrian, News, Politics

Return of the May Queen


The Guardian 27th May 2015 – What the ‘snooper’s charter’ means for business and the public

It’s Queens speech time, the annual British spectacle of making an increasingly tired looking monarch read out her new prime ministers legislative agenda; an agenda about which professionalism demands she have no opinion.

This year it included a promise to introduce a new Investigatory Powers Bill that the BBC calls “sweeping and vague”. It will make it legal to do many of the things that Edward Snowden is in exile for pointing out were being done illegally.

This was to be expected.

With the Liberal democrats made to go and stand in the corner with a pointy hat on, there is no parliamentary party in the UK that formally opposes making your internet service provider record everything you do. David Cameron has a majority of 12 so her majesty indicated his anti-liberal legislative agenda will be broken into two parts;

1. Pass the snoopers charter dressed up in a new name ASAP

2. Save breaking the UK’s human rights law relationship with Europe for later – perhaps a bone to throw to the anti Europeans in his party if they lose the in/out referendum now scheduled?

The Guardian sees the IPB as a legislative bag that will hold all of the stuff from the draft communications data bill, or “Snoopers Charter” if you prefer, that the new government is able get past the objections of technology giants at the negotiating table. If the only thing standing between the public interest in privacy and Theresa May is now a trade negotiation with Google, Facebook, Apple et al. – a.k.a. “the union of supra national corporate data miners” –  expecting the worst isn’t pessimism.

Perhaps the bills teeth will get extracted because the data dentists would charge too much to save them. If not, the public would need 12 out of 331 conservative MP’s to look like they might rebel.

Write to any Conservative MP today and politely ask them to do their job and stand up for your rights. Remind them, They work for you – not the police, MI5 or big data.

Posted in Adrian, Politics, Privacy

UK Election: What of liberty?


It was during this parliament that Edward Snowden provided incontrovertible evidence of the UK government’s active participation in an ongoing program of supranational surveillance state building. You’d have thought the fact that the United States routinely conspires with Whitehall to spy on her majesties subjects would “come up” during a general election campaign.

You’d be underestimating the awesome skill British politicians have in avoiding serious debate.

The Tories don’t want to talk about it. It blew up on their watch requiring the introduction of emergency bends in the law needed to keep themselves on the right side of it. This fig leaf doesn’t impress the Law Society whose response to the governments consultation on RIPA a few weeks back was scathing.

Labour still has badly singed eyebrows from the ID card scheme that blew up under the internal pressure of its expanding cost at the last changing of the guard. Left of them the newly boisterous SNP care little for privacy either; their Scottish Entitlement smart card is criticized as worse than Labour’s own aborted surveillance scheme. If Mr Milliband moves into 10 Downing Street next week we’ll just have to hope he’s learned his lesson, because nobody else on our new, colorful and fractured left has said much to note on the subject.

That just leaves the guys with “Liberty” in their name.

The Liberal Democrats have been proffering a Digital Bill of Rights as part of their manifesto – but nobody else will talk to them about it. Maybe the little bit they have achieved over the last five years on privacy issues is better than nothing; they certainly championed the death of ID cards. Unfortunately they also look like they’re going to get a kicking at the polls for buckling on tuition fees and this “Bill of Rights” doesn’t make their current list of non negotiable policies anyway. So good luck to the Lib Dems – they’re going to need a lot of it to make much of a difference.

What reasons for optimism?

Charlotte Leslie (Conservative, Bristol North West) made time to chat face to face during the early part of this campaign; she’s a popular constituency MP and is tipped to do well on Thursday. We wanted reassurance that producing technology in the UK that’s specially designed to make it very difficult to spy on users wont get us into legal trouble in future. Bristol is an increasingly important tech cluster and headlines about the PM including the words “crackdown” and “encryption” are a bit scary if you deal in cryptographic technology.

Charlotte raised our concerns with party HQ and in due course we received this letter from Ed Vaizey, the outgoing minister for Culture and Digital Communications. He is keen to point out that the PM had no intention of banning UK firms from offering crypto-tech to private customers and nor is there a plan to legislate against specific technologies. Mr Vaizey also seems to have more than an inkling of the intractable reality that strict privacy is an inevitable consequence of adequate security.

Read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

We think that any result on Thursday is going to return a government that is weak on privacy and civil liberties in general (sorry Ed Snowden, we’d offer you asylum if it were up to us).  We also think we are likely to remain free to trade in technology that offers privacy workarounds to those who need or want them.

There are no overt plans to outlaw keeping your communication private – just plans to make it difficult enough for professionals, businesses and ordinary people to keep investing in privacy technology.


Posted in Adrian, Politics, Privacy, Security

Can They See My D*ck? Not if you use Cloak!

I really enjoy John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight show on HBO.  In last Sunday’s show, John Oliver managed to take Government surveillance to a level everybody can relate to.  Not only is the show itself quite informative and interesting, but it has now spawned a number of interesting web-sites, the latest being:


While having a somewhat tongue-in-cheek title it actually link to a lot of interesting information.

Posted in Anonymity, Lars, Privacy

Warranty void?

Please August, can I have another Anonabox? Lars broke the last one – he soldered some stuff to it so he could get the open source code out.

“This is what happens when you combine amateur hour with money,” says Lord. “It’s not surprising Anonabox is trying to recall it and cover their tracks. It’s a total train wreck.”


Posted in Cloak, Humor, News, Tor

Bitten Hands

Sadness -we didn’t see the A Register in time to cancel our order.

Anonabox’s August Germar has told us the security shortcomings were addressed by March 20, 2015, after the upstart was acquired by Sochule.


Posted in Cloak, Privacy, Security, Tor