Lost wars and collateral damage

At the 22. Chaos Computer Congress, an impressive record of data protection and surveillance was achieved

At the 22. Chaos Computer Congress in Berlin once again brings together the computer nerd and hacker community. The Chaos Computer Club, founded in 1984, enjoys unbroken popularity among mainly young hackers dressed in black. Until Friday, you can catch up on the latest news from science, technology, politics and the community on four parallel panels around the clock, or try out the latest code in the Hack Center and meet like-minded people. "Hacking is about freedom and understanding technology and the world," Tim Pritlove called out to the assembled community at Tuesday’s opening address. Nevertheless, the first day was marked by critical tones and a rather depressing balance sheet in terms of privacy and monitoring.

"Private Investigations" is the motto of this year’s congress, which attracted more than 3000 data travelers from all over Germany and neighboring countries. They flocked to the renovated domed building of the Congress Centrum Berlin on Alexanderplatz, whose utopian 1970s architecture is reminiscent of a Stanley Kubrick science fiction film.

However, the congress does not want to be particularly progress-obsessed or future-oriented. The days of happy utopias and digital promises of salvation are apparently over. Topics such as "Biometric field tests in Europe", "Electronic health card and health telematics – 1984 reloaded" or "The technology in the new ePassport" now set the tone and make one aware that the present has long been caught up by the future and has been confronted with facts whose consequences can at best still be limited.

The keynote address by Joichi Ito, an active computer veteran and member of Creative Commons, among other organizations, already looked at the much-vaunted open society, including its barrier-free networks, from a detached perspective. Economic monopolies had again regulated the hard-won free access to the delights of the information age and want to make it pay for itself. The power of economic monopolies in the information age has been completely underestimated, Ito said, referring to Microsoft and the usual suspects: "Money is lonely and likes to go where other money is."Ito used profiling activities in the U.S. to show the dangers to democracy and privacy posed by such information technologies.

On the political level, too, many of the civil society battles in which the Chaos Computer Club, not least, has participated can be considered lost. Biometric passports, electronic health cards, data retention – the political decisions and their implementation in the last year alone almost read like a worst-case scenario. In the slipstream of the hysteria that followed the events of 11. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York, civil liberties in many countries have been sacrificed to the security needs that have arisen in the process.

"We lost the war – Welcome to the world of tomorrow" was the unmistakable title of a lecture by CCC veteran Frank Rieger and Dutch activist Rob Gonggrijp on the first evening. The lecture struck a decidedly defeatist note and painted a less than benign picture of a world whose political systems have become little more than "democracy shows" and whose actors are being blown out of the markets by the winds of globalization. Precariously, this is connected with an information technology that once wanted to provide for more democracy, participation and freedom. Stattdessen wird von ihr heute Rationalisierung, uberwachung und Kontrolle in grobem Mabstab mitverantwortet.

Traditional democratic values have been eroded to the point where most people don’t care anymore. So the loss of rights our ancestors fought for not so long ago is at first happily accepted by a majority that can easily be scared into submission. "Terrorism" is the theme of the day, others will follow. And these “themes” can and will be used to mold the western society into something that has never been seen before: a democratically legitimated police state, ruled by an unaccountable elite with total surveillance, made efficient and largely unobtrusive by modern technology.

Frank Rieger

And now – what to do?

The dystopian scenario did not go unchallenged at the congress. The two speakers themselves gave recommendations for action, which mainly revolved around anonymity and privacy and ranged from encrypted communication, closed user groups, decentralized infrastructure to the careful choice of one’s own Internet provider according to privacy criteria. Others saw a strengthening of open networks, alternative media and public domain content as an appropriate way forward.

Many of the presentations at the congress also dealt with the inadequacy of surveillance technologies. For example, the BioP-II study, which looked at the usability of biometric features (finger, face and iris) in travel documents, showed an extremely high error rate in iris recognition of elderly people or in facial recognition of people wearing glasses (97% with dark-brown glasses are not identified!).

Dutch IT journalist Benno de Winter pointed out the absurdity of data retention as envisaged by the recently adopted EU directive: While communication and transaction data of telephony and email traffic will be stored, other widely used forms of communication such as instant messaging, P2P, bulletin boards, VoIP and picture messaging will not be taken into account at all. Through the Dutch provider XS4ALL alone, an estimated 53% of the traffic flowed through the Internet this year.600.000.000.000 data packets requiring 46 million CDs of storage space. However, only a part of it falls under the control of the new law. Nevertheless, de Winter also saw the need for anonymization when surfing and recommended, for example, the email platform www.epostmail.org, with which anonymous mail traffic is guaranteed.

Jorg Tauss, a member of the Bundestag for the Social Democratic Party (SPD), considered the meeting held on January 1 of this year a success in terms of official transparency. January 2006, the federal Freedom of Information Act (Informationsfreiheitsgesetz kommt), whose protracted as well as turbulent genesis he vividly described. Every citizen will be allowed to inspect the files of the authorities. (text of the law). Manchen der Zuhorer wird der mit viel Verve gehaltene Vortrag allein schon wegen seiner positiven Botschaft gefallen haben, aber auch, weil Tauss gut vermitteln konnte, dass hartnackiges Einmischen sich lohnt. Joi Ito did not want to detract from this when he called on the hacker community to continue to intervene in all socio-political matters: "Voice is more important than votes".

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