standard The cold after the summer of Snowden

Dr Philip Garnett, a researcher on the Tipping Points project, reports on the 30th Chaos Communications Congress he attended in Hamburg, Germany in December that addressed topical issues such as mass surveillance, the future of the Internet and the Snowden affair.

Glenn Greenwald (Guardian) giving his keynote presentation at 30C3.

The 30th Chaos Communication Congress (30C3) was always going to have at its heart the events surrounding the leaks of NSA files by Edward Snowden. In some ways I was banking on it. Why else would I drag myself away from Christmas leftovers and warm fires to get on a plane to Hamburg in the cold and rain? I’m glad I did. Amongst the talks on automatic fermentation of beer, and the vacuum tube races around the conference building, was a rich vein of presentations and discussions around (to paraphrase the opening speaker) the nightmare reality to which the community has woken up to from a bad dream.

Despite this, there was still a sense of fun at the congress. There were many stalls where you could enjoy learning to pick a lock, program a board of LEDs with the message of your choice, or check out the latest DIY 3D printers. However there was also a punishing timetable of talks reacting to, discussing, and trying to grasp the new post-Snowden future. One thing they all shared was in common was a sense of disbelief, or speechlessness. It wasn’t the confirmation that we are being monitored exactly (we all knew that) it was perhaps the scale of it, and a sense that nothing can be done to reverse it.

I have always been interested in what the arts (and indeed art) have to offer the more scientific among us in understanding, and perhaps interrupting the world. I have often felt that the two never quite align. There is always something of a gap that I can never articulate, a sense that we are almost speaking the same language but not quite. The conference narrowed this gap considerably. The first presentation of the conference, entitled “You think that is funny?” by lizvlx struck a chord. Art that attacks the behaviour of the state is often of a satirical nature. However, as engaging this type of art is, there is something about the present situation, and what it might mean for our future, that really isn’t funny at all.

The sentiment was echoed by Aram Bartholl when after presenting a very funny video about a fake Google car that he drove around Europe. He tried to express how, funny though a fake Google car is, there is something about the ‘Summer of Snowden’ that requires more. What exactly that ‘more’ is, he didn’t know. He has been left artistically speechless. The shared inability of the scientific and technical, the arts and artists to process what the leaked NSA files mean provided the alignment I have failed to find and closed the gap. We are all left speechless together.

So where are we exactly? Underneath the outrage about what the internet has become, what it is being used for, is a sense of loss. A sadness that the very thing that was supposed to be the great leveller, a force for global democracy, has turned into a nightmare of surveillance. This is a personal loss to the community represented by the delegates of 30C3, they built the internet and they love it (or perhaps did). Now they have lost control to mega-companies and state backed intelligence agencies. Organisations that have made it into a monster that has removed our privacy, and created a reality out of George Orwell’s worst nightmares.

Something else that came through the presentations, including from Glenn Greenwald’s keynote and Julian Assange‘s attempt to rally systems administrators into action, was the unnerving truth that the great eye of the world is now firmly focused on the Geeks. What are they going to do? Many are looking to them to fix it, or at least stop helping to make it worse. The problem is the Geeks don’t know how. How do you roll back to a time when the internet was free? How do you extract the tentacles of the NSA and GCHQ from every corner of the internet? The size of this problem was made plain by two talks on the militarisation of the Internet: ‘Protect and Infect parts 1 and 2′.

Claudio Guarnieri and Morgan Marquis-Boire started the horror story by detailing how agencies are developing advanced technologies to monitor our every click. This was then taken to the next level by Jacob Appelbaum who took us through a leaked NSA catalogue, a veritable sweet shop of surveillance hardware. A talk that got more surreal as it continued to the point where you couldn’t help but find the hopelessness of our situation funny. Prompting Mr Appelbaum to ask at the conclusion of his talk if anyone in the audience wasn’t surprised, there was only one person cynical enough to state that they were unsurprised by what they had seen.

So is that it then? Game over? I don’t really know the answer to that question. What seemed clear to me is that most people at the 30C3 still have hope that the freedom of the internet can be restored. We should also not put down to malice what could as easily be explained by incompetence. Perhaps our governments really are just trying to keep us safe in a world where they too feel they no longer have any answers. It’s strange that the deeper difficulties facing the future of the internet and our privacy reflect so much of the problems we see throughout our society. We are now at the point where something could change. What exactly that change is, and whether we can get enough momentum to make it happen, I don’t know.

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