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Defend yourself in this digital world. No one else will do it for you

~ Arjen Kamphuis

May 9, 2018

The talk in text

“In late May 2008, a decade ago, there were many small supermarkets in Amsterdam that were out of fresh milk. This was not because of a cow strike, but because the mobile phone network had been down in the most of the Netherlands for two days. This was just after the introduction of the first iPhone – it seems forever ago – so most people didn’t even notice. But many small supermarkets and small retailers were already using mobile data to run their logistics. So when the network failed, so did their logistics. No 3G, no fresh milk. This was not the first time we had big failures like that and it would also not be the last and I won’t be the first one to tell you how important technology is.

System failure

When computers and networks fail, everything stops today. We have been very depended on electricity for decades, but certainly over the last 15 years computers and computer networks have become just as vital to keep us safe, healthy and of course in cat videos. 😉

A how-to protection

So, we need to be able to protect ourselves and the people around us and the places we love. This is one of the reasons why with a journalist friend (Silkie Carlo) I wrote this book, which is a free download online, to help train people to use open source security tools, to have privacy and anonymity when you need it and to keep a secret. I am a digital-defense instructor and I train activists, journalists, lawyers and people around the world who need to be able to keep a secret and to communicate securely to save lives. The book is intended to help non-technical people to be able to do that on their own. It’s a free download in several languages and you are also allowed to reuse the text. So, if you want to make a version for 12-year-olds, go ahead, you don’t need my permission.

Paying to be spied upon

To go a little bit into the problem, Europe buys the vast majority of it’s IT we run our lives on from abroad. US software and services. Chinese hardware. Not only this is costing us something like 250 billion a year – which is a couple of million jobs we don’t have in Europe – it also means that we buy technology that is vital to us every second of every day what we have no control over, we don’t know what it does on the inside and all kinds of bad things could happen and indeed have happened. Thanks to a series of courageous whistleblowers, of which Snowden was one of the more recent ones, we know now for sure that this stuff is being abused against us. All the time. China, the USA and many other countries have espionage interests against Europe, so these things are being abused against our political and social interest. Of course there is also a lot of economic espionage, meaning more money, more economic growth and wealth that we don’t have in Europe.

Bad slides & backdoors

So this is one of the slides that Snowden gave us and it shows how, in this case the NSA thinks about this stuff. They have backdoored most major IT-products. So, that’s the stuff in your home, but also the stuff that you never see but you do depend on nonetheless, to get fresh milk for instance. If you work in IT you will know most of these brands, many other people will at least recognise some of them. It tells us that all these things have been backdoored, by design, intentionally, and that makes spying a lot easier. So collecting information about the fact that you are all here now with your phones, listening to me., the NSA knows that now. If you are listening on YouTube, the NSA knows this now. Sorry. It also tells us that the NSA with the budget of a small nation, makes really bad slides. They need some help with that.

Digital weapons lost

But it gets worse. The NSA also makes digital weapons to attack the systems we do try to secure and then it looses those weapons and other people may covert them. This happened a couple of years ago when somebody turned one of these things into a weapon and took down 40 hospitals in the UK, amongst other things. That was in May 2017. A month later another computer virus, also based on this lost weapons toolkit took out, among other things, a container capacity in Rotterdam Harbour. This is one of the biggest harbours on this side of the planet. And that meant no new car parts, no new clothing, no feedstocks for those cows that make the milk for you. This brings us the stuff that we need to survive. So the NSA’s wish in this case to spy on the world, apparently mostly for economical en political reasons, has made us all a lot less safe. This is a very big problem.

Zero effect on terrorists

Regrettably none of all this spying has done the thing it was supposed to do, which is: prevent terrorist incidents. Zero effect. This is researched by both the US Congress and several other academic institutions. So, it is not doing what it is supposed to do, it is just causing lots of other problems. Despite all of this being “out” – it has been in many newspapers for a couple of years now, it is no longer a secret, everybody knows – this does not mean that it stops. In fact, the recent US government has sort of doubled down on the policy of ‘collect everything’ and we wil sort it out later. In order to collect everything, we need everything to be insecure. The fact that then we are all insecure, that’s just bad luck for us.

Encryption and open source

Also thanks to Snowden, we know what does work. That gives us the path forward to get out of this big mess. There is light at the end of the tunnel and that is what we need to work on. We know it works:

  • we need strong crypto systems and
  • we need new kinds of computers that are built in Europe, for us and ideally by us – as close as possible to us – on the open source philosohpy, whether the computer you own that is in your home, or the one in the hospital you visit, which is accountable to you as an end-user. Not to some American company and/or the NSA.

New is easy

It may seem like a big task to start using a completely new computer that today does not even exist yet and that you’ve never seen and that you’ve never used, but I am absolutely certain that all of you can use, learn to use this new computer. That is because you all have a smartphone and they did not exist 10 years ago. You are all using those and nobody got a special course in it. So it is completely obvious that you can all learn to use a new computer that did not exist 10 years ago, because you already did it. Never underestimate your ability to learn new things when it comes to things like computers or many other areas.

Open standards work

Some people might say that it won’t work with all the other stuff, if you have all these new computers that are different from the other ones. I call BS on that and my proof is the internet. The internet is billions of computers, produced by tens of thousands of different companies and it all works together. Why? Because of open standards, because of a common language that makes everything talk to each other even if different parties make it. For the techies … I know the internet does not really look like this, but let’s keep that between us.

Before or after?

If there are lots of fires, of course we should buy lots of firetrucks. It is great if firetrucks come screeching down the road if there is a fire, but that is after the fact. This is what many security products like virus scanners and other things do: it is solving the problem when it is already exploding in your face. If the problem is that there are a lot of fires, maybe teach people not to smoke in bed, or other forms of knowledge and behavioural change that allows us to make slightly other choices and not get into trouble. Referring to the presented slide with Marilyn Monroe smoking in bed: “Marily, please don’t smoke in bed.”

I have deep faith in the idea that knowledge is power and that knowledge empowers people. That is why I teach digital self-defense. It is not about the boxes and the technology products, it is about the knowledge that people have in their heads and that they share with others that allows them to protect themselves and protect people around them.


Everybody can contribute to this problem. And we are going to need everybody. If you are a software engineer, amazing, you can work on making the software better. If you are a graphics designer, you can make it maybe more shiny and more beautiful. If you are a linguist, help translate documents, if you are a writer you can maybe make them better. If you are a marketeer, we need to make this desirable for people, even sexy, hopefully. If you are a teacher, we are going to need a lot of teachers. Everybody can contribute a little to this problem. It may seem that taking on the spying powers of global superpowers is a very daunting task. However, you should never shy away from daunting tasks, that’s what really makes things worthwhile to do.

I have full faith that we can do this and I invite you to be part of that solution. We can do this, together. “

Headings suggested by Helma de Boer