net.wars: Computers, Freedom and Privacy, Mk XII

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 26 April 2002

So: nine years of CFP (http://www.cfp.org). The official count is twelve, but I missed the first three, starting my run in 1994 at Chicago. "What did you think of CFP this year?" people ask ...

Wendy M Grossman

And the truth is I don't really know. CFP is many things. Among them, it is one of those extremely rare occasions when for four days you never want to finish anyone else's sentence. It's also a source of fuel. You don't ask what you thought of the gas this year; you just appreciate the warmth.

Well, I can't really say what I thought of CFP this year; I just appreciate the ideas. The people who can say what they thought of CFP usually have a built-in point of view anyway. Europeans always say it's too American, for example. And this year, at one of the post-conference parties I heard Wired News correspondent Declan McCullagh who's got some good photos from CFP up on his Web site, says he thought the conference was rather left-leaning ... not enough Libertarians. Quite a few people complained that the speakers didn't get enough time, but that's like complaining that the serves are too fast at Wimbledon: it's generic.

There are, however, some definite trends at CFP. It started as the first time law enforcement and hackers ever sat down together to hash things out. As perennial program committee member Bruce Koball says, afterwards it felt like something had really happened: law enforcement saw the need for better education and a new set of practices for handling electronic evidence, and a group who met at the conference sat down and actually wrote them.

Hackers haven't attended the conference much since 1994, when one of the visiting FBI agents arrested a conference bystander named Lee Nussbaum under the impression that he was really Kevin Mitnick. Law enforcement persisted in 1995, but then they slowly disappeared, and it's several years now since they came in any great numbers.

The big crackling issue in the mid 1990s was crypto – the Clipper chip, PGP, export regulations (ITAR), restrictions. In this period, the raw meat thrown to the conference lions tended to be hapless government officials who had no idea anyone cared – until they had to face a room full of 500 heavy-metal crypto heads quivering with passion and outrage.

One UK official was so shaken by the experience that in 1997 he staggered out of the workshop he'd sat in on and grabbed the nearest Englishman to have a nice, safe, restorative beer with. The Englishman in question nodded sympathetically to everything the civil servant said. And then grabbed me to tell me all about it because he was one of the UK's most passionate crypto geeks, and he wanted the government's plans for a bill (later the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) to be publicized extensively so people would campaign against them.

But even the crypto folk are melting away now: no mad mathematicians with long hair in the halls disquisiting on how they're setting up a bank where both bank and depositor will be totally anonymous and all the cash will be digital while White House spokespeople insist that crypto must be restricted from export and that they would never support any regime that oppressed its own citizens. (Yes. At CFP 1996 in Boston the Clinton administration's Special Assistant for Information Technology Mike Nelson actually said this. They rolled in the aisles.) To a large extent, that battle, too, was won: crypto is now free to go where it likes.

Today's bad guys are the RIAA and MPAA, Senator Hollings and the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, the people who want to turn computers from general purpose tools into protected content delivery environments. Other issues are too diffuse for black hats and white hats: privacy of medical records, the digital divide.

One of this year's conference heroes was Dewayne Hendricks, who is trying to make an end run around some of the FCC's antiquated regulatory policies about spectrum and bandwidth by setting up wireless networks in the Indian nations, since they have their own sovereignty. "Don't get wedded to 802.11," he warned, "because there are already better technologies."

What's odd to remember at this CFP, where easily a quarter of the audience brought their laptops and everyone is wirelessed up in the conference hall courtesy of sponsor Proxim, is that CFP pre-dates mass involvement in the Net. Although the first CFP had a good bit of its genesis on the San Francisco-based conferencing system The WELL, a lot of the crowd weren't even online. If I were picking a direction for future CFPs to ponder, it would be to remember that the intersection of computers, freedom, and privacy is not only the Net. Next year's villains may be Big Pharma, instead of Big Media.

If you missed the conference – which is most of you – there are several places to find contemporaneous notes. Roger Clarke, a long-time CFP recidivist, has posted his notes - which are rather extensive. There's a discussion on The WELL. And Bruce Sterling's traditional closing rant is also online.

Like the man says, Long live the Net.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).