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Friday, 23 November 2012

The IT 'community' - conspiracy and scandal for future decades?

A lesson from history?
There is a whiff of conspiracy in the London offices of global tech giants.

Policy advisers - senior guys - from several companies have in the past assured me over the years they are taking a more robust line internally towards protecting free speech online than they're prepared to admit in public.

On one hand it's sad that Jimmy Wales is one of the few tech giants who has consistently taken a stance protecting internet freedoms (e.g. campaigning against SOPA, Richard O'Dwyer extradition, Russian web controls, etc.)

On the other hand it's reassuring that many in tech, at all levels, are quietly working behind the scenes to defend freedom and human rights.

Or is it?

Will the duplicity, secret deal-making and lack of transparency over the "corporate line" end up threatening democracy?

And that's without considering the international angle - how the "corporate line" for China sits with the ethics and values of a company headquartered at the home of the first amendment.


Take the recent Twitterstorm over McAlpine libel madness.  Watching conversations on Twitter, blogs, etc I saw the beginnings of a conspiracy emerge along the lines of (not verbatim as I didn't capture logs):

"Twitter are about to strike a deal with McAlpine's lawyers as soon as the Met Police investigation gets underway..."

"No they're not, a friend actually works for Twitter, they're going to do all they can to stop this"

"Someone inside Twitter is on our side, they suspended that account for spreading unhelpful disinformation"

Of course the above is probably nothing more than idle speculation, but it did make me wonder whether the IT community would become tomorrow's "in club" to fear.

After all, the sysadmins at two of the companies I previously had association with were incredibly well-informed when it came to company gossip - on account of them reading my and presumably others' files and emails.

I established this by laying traps, sending private links to redirectors I controlled and checking when they were being accessed; plus, when possible, checking the "last access" time-stamp on my mailbox.  In one case many years ago I overheard a sysadmin telling a joke I'd just sent to two colleagues via email.


History has shown those who control a useful commodity become powerful.

The high priests of ancient Egypt controlled your spiritual destiny. Few questioned why when they suggested you must be buried with your most valuable possessions, at a location where only they knew...

Biblical "money-changers" were the early bankers and became powerful through controlling the supply of money.

And as the law became more pervasive and important to all sections of society, the lawyers who understood the complex instruments became powerful as the gatekeepers to justice (for all who could afford their fees).

Now data, or connected data, has rapidly become a commodity vital to us all. Our social lives lived out through Facebook, our entertainment through video download and our daily business conducted online.

One challenge for the future, as well as ensuring no one company or nation controls the majority of internet communications, will be to prevent those who understand the complex domain becoming the gatekeepers in order to subvert the power for their own gain.

Preventing rogue employees dipping into the data, playing their own power games on users whose accounts they control, etc, is challenge enough. But here technology can solve technology's problem through end-end-encryption, access controls, logs and safeguards to detect anomalous access patters.

The other challenge will be to ensure the minority with the skills to understand connected data systems - and it will always be a minority - is a sizeable and diverse minority and not one which closes ranks and forms shady select groups to profit from their access and cover each other's back.

The challenge is to ensure that freedom remains at the heart of the online agenda, and also in the heart of those who have become the gatekeepers to our data.


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