You can’t ban cryptography.

Even before the recent attacks, Theresa May has been keen to “regulate cyberspace”.  One of the ways in which she wants to do this is by ensuring that there is a backdoor in any internet security system.  Just to give an idea of scope, every site you visit, every service you register for, mailing list you sign up to is encrypted to prevent hackers, thieves of various stripes, and other malicious agents from accessing your computer.  Through May’s back door, government security agents would be able to get into any system to investigate what information is being exchanged.  Your search history is already logged with your service provider as of the Snoopers Charter from November 2016, available to the police.

Aside from sounding like an Orwellian nightmare, let’s just think this through for a second.  If there is an inbuilt way for the government to access your various accounts and look at what information you are sharing, it means that there is one point of failure for malicious agents to exploit, which they know is there and eventually – inevitably – will find ways to break into.

If only for this reason (and there are all sorts of others, like that pesky free speech and privacy stuff), I’m convinced of three things.

  1. We shouldn’t.
  2. We probably can’t in any meaningful way.
  3. It would probably make things worse.

Here is an excellent blog post by Cory Doctorow about why it’s not feasible.  In summary, he’s saying that the sort of implementation necessary to make it work is impossible given the scale of the task, and that a reduced version is basically not even worth doing because it would leave plenty of other ways for perpetrators to act.  More ambitious means of restricting might involve something like the systems that China uses, by controlling what operating systems can run on your computer, which have built-in ways of restricting what you can access via the internet.  This would be extremely intensive (and expensive) to set up and it would be impossible to let you run any operating system that allows you to install programs freely (i.e. any system that currently isn’t on a hand-held device – goodbye Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux).

If this all seems a little divorced from the future of careers, we need only remember that the internet is inextricably embedded into the way we live, communicate, and work.

We submit personal information all the time on the web, including payment information, names, addresses, telephone numbers  – effectively all someone would need to steal your identity.  Let’s say you are a young entrepreneur and you set up your internet business with an option to pay through Paypal, or you set up your own payment system.  A back door would not only mean that there is a potential vulnerability for a malicious agent to exploit, but (and here’s the big problem) also every person who has access to the backdoor has to be trustworthy.  (And there’s not much hope of that; we’ve already seen examples of abuses of the Investigatory Powers Act to use surveillance to catch perpetrators of minor infractions.)  We have no way of knowing who those people are, how many have access, or how they have been selected.  We also have no way of knowing how people are deemed to be a risk.

Aside from the ethical and safety issues associated with these courses of actions, the main problem is that this won’t do what Theresa May wants it to. If the internet torrenting site Piratebay has taught us anything, it’s that trying to stop anyone from doing anything on the internet is more or less impossible without fully embracing totalitarianism.

There are already plenty of ways in which the internet is not free; our data is constantly for sale.  It would be better if we didn’t sell it wholesale down the tube.

inspector_clouseau

Raspberry Pi

RaspberryPi

In 2012, the first Raspberry Pi was released.  For those who haven’t encountered one, the Raspberry Pi is a credit card-sized computer, which you can plug into a monitor or a screen, attach a mouse and keyboard.  Originally invented in the UK, it is designed as a learning tool for young people to learn how to program (not exclusively, though; you can use it for lots of other things.  Someone’s turned one into a retro-gaming console, and someone else has turned one into an FM transmitter).  It’s cheap (the top end ones are about £35) and very portable, though you do need several peripherals to get it working.

This is where it’s important not to go all dystopian or utopian.  It’s great that this bit of tech is cheap and handy to use, but I’m not going to say that this device will end social inequality, because plenty of young people are worried about getting basic Maths and English under their belts before they even think about tinkering with a bit of kit like this.  And the causes of technological inequalities aren’t restricted to cost, and not really anything to do with access to a computer anymore; most households at least have one, even if it’s shared.  The difficulty is a much more complex one.  For a start, how does a young person get inspired to program?  Back in the 80s, computers were pretty basic; someone at home could learn how to program one.  Now they are so complex and the training to use it (apparently) so advanced that working with technology has become a bit of a rareified activity.  So rareified that I wouldn’t be surprised if the very idea of taking the technology apart might be suppressed as a result; the interior workings of mobile phones and computers can remain something of a mystery to many.  So this inspiration is a big part of the questions that surround technological inequality.  Who has access to role models to inspire them to program?  Who lives in areas that might be covered by outreach programmes that promote inexpensive pieces of technology that can be used independently?  I’d guess that cities are much more likely to have vibrant creative programmes because that’s where the main markets are for organisations to promote and sell their products.  But once you get to rural areas and small towns, challenges multiply – self-stereotyping according to gender, for example, and lower participation of women in STEM subjects.  The image of programmers mostly as white middle-class men is hard to get away from.

I will, however, come down on one side of the fence and say that it’s probably a good thing that young people can have access to something like this, so that their interaction with technology isn’t purely unidirectional – so that they don’t simply consume, and instead have the option to participate in creating (Raspberry Pi runs competitions and challenges for young people to stretch their programming wings).  I think it’s good, too, that young people can envision themselves as programmers, so that the idea of programming isn’t a halcyon state of post-graduate career choice, but down-to-earth – something achievable.  Even if not all young people are exposed to it yet, at least the age barrier is starting to be broken down.

I’m going to get one.  I’ll tell you what I think when I’ve played with it, but I’ll tell you this for free: it runs an operating system called “Raspbian”, which apart from being a wonderfully geeky name, is a Linux-based OS.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a Linux nut – not because I have mad programming skillz (I don’t), but because it’s open source, incredibly stable for the most part, and I find Apple’s user interfaces to be difficult and restrictive.   I also grew up slightly after the Commodore 64 and similar machines were available to tinker with and self-teach programming, so I feel I’m of a generation that missed out on the opportunity.