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Dec
26

OggCamp 2013 – Free software, free culture & mass surveillance

by Richard Smedley

At OggCamp, the largest UK gathering of free software and open hardware community, 450 geeks met under the shadow of the Snowden revelations

Since the first issue of Linux User appeared at the end of the last century, the free software community has grown and evolved – bringing in open data, free culture, open hardware – and the nature of its events has changed. The Linux Expo, and Linux User Expo, events of the past were huge corporate affairs, but the coffers of the big companies enabled the .ORG Village to run alongside, providing space for dozens of FOSS projects and organisations.

The members of OggCamp 13 assemble. Picture Credit: Patrick Fenner www.deferredprocrastination.com
The members of OggCamp 13 assemble. Picture Credit: Patrick Fenner www.deferredprocrastination.com

When IBM cut off the money supply to Linux Expo, a gap was left for some event to facilitate an annual meeting of projects and activists. Despite mailing lists, and then the growth of social networks and social media, nothing works to help foster community like putting hundreds of people in the same place with opportunities to learn new things and talk to new people. Free software folk missed an annual get-together.

The first event to really begin to fill the gap was LugRadio Live which, harnessing the popularity of the LUG Radio podcasts, brought international speakers to a community venue in Wolverhampton, and a chance for groups like ORG (the Open Rights Group) to inform the community about threats new and threats ever-present. When LugRadio Live reached the end of its run, the mantle of community-led event was taken by OggCamp, bringing both a wider free culture crowd and the broader content resources of dedicated unconference tracks. This autumn, OggCamp brought together 450 people to Liverpool John Moores University’s Science Park, under the banner of ‘Learn, Teach, Play’.

From the community

This year’s OggCamp also assembled stalls and demonstrations from great open hardware projects; speakers on everything from automotive Linux to the Intercontinental Music Lab; live editions of several podcasts; and rooms of memorable unconference talks and discussions. LUD brings you a snapshot of OggCamp’s free software community magic, but first we catch up with event organiser, Dan Lynch – speaking to us after the event – to find out what makes OggCamp work so well.

OggCamp has become the biggest community FOSS event – what’s the secret of building such success?

Dan Lynch: Well, I’m pleased that you say ‘community event’ because community really is the key thing here. As organisers we strive to make the event the best it possibly can be, but we’d be lost without the great people who show up and run workshops, give talks and share ideas. The first ever OggCamp took place the day after the final LugRadio Live and I think that helped bootstrap us quite a bit. We had 130 people turn up and, with the barcamp format, this is what really makes a good event.

Having said that, there are always basic things you can do as an organiser to help foster a good atmosphere. Secure a good venue, the appropriate size, comfortable and well connected to public transport routes. Conference Wi-Fi is always a challenge, but the last three years we’ve been in good venues that could deal with the amount of visitors and devices.

We try to make our event as inclusive and friendly as possible. One of the most satisfying things for me is when people tell me it’s their first OggCamp and they weren’t sure what to expect but had a great time and made new friends. We often get people saying “I’ll come back next year and bring all my friends!” That helps massively.

This year’s event seemed to have everyone in the corridors talking about security and privacy…

DL: I don’t think there was any deliberate effort… we did have a couple of pre-scheduled talks in that area, but only two out of the eight on the main track. Most of the talks on the NSA… came from the barcamp schedule, so it’s obviously what people wanted to talk about. I’m not surprised at all. We’ve all been shocked by the extent of government intrusion into private communications and it’s even more worrying when it’s not even your own government but another nation where you have no rights or protection under law.

Crowdsourcing agenda

DL: One of the great things about running a barcamp event is the agenda is set by attendees and we get to see what they’re interested in. We’ve always tried to make OggCamp about more than just technology. We encourage art, politics and more. So it’s good to see people talking about important matters like this. I’d like to say it was part of a grand master plan on our part, but the attendees have to take credit. It’s an important and timely subject right now.

Balancing free software, open hardware and open culture, do you find that OggCamp attracts a certain sort of person?

DL: I think originally it did. We followed on from the final LugRadio Live and that definitely attracted a certain demographic of Linux user, but we’ve since expanded. We promote the event as a free software and free culture barcamp. I’ve always been keen to promote the idea of open source and sharing knowledge in art, politics, craft, cookery and more, not just technology. I think the philosophy can be applied to so many other areas.

This year was our most diverse for attendees and workshops, I think. We had T-shirt printing and a lot of craft activities for people to take part in. I’ve had great feedback on that and getting more artists involved is important to me. One of the best moments was the closing session where one guy commented that his girlfriend had said, “I think I finally understand your people now”. There are also more kids year on year. That’s the goal, expanding our audience.

I know these things require planning a long time ahead. What have you got in mind for next year? DL: Hah, the million dollar question. I honestly have no plans at all right now. Perhaps we’ll move back down South for a year, or perhaps somewhere else, who knows? I’m open to suggestions.

They’re watching you

Security and privacy talk started with Javier Ruiz of ORG’s intro on ‘PRISM and Mass Surveillance: a turning point’. PRISM gives the NSA direct access to data at Google, Facebook and other sites. Ruiz also spoke of GCHQ’s Tempora, giving security agencies access to the last three days of every connection made through internet connections to the UK; Bullrun/Edgehill, breaking encryption and security protocols, possibly weakening even open source security; and XKeyscan, extracting and indexing metadata into tables which can make the metadata as informative as the actual data.

Some shocking figures were given: millions of iPhone address books copied; and 850,000 people in the USA with clearance to see your data, but no oversight. The UK is seen by the rest of Europe as “not safe”, with some visitors not travelling to the country with a laptop containing their private encryption keys.

Some information-gathering by intelligence services is necessary – it would be absurd to say otherwise – but the key issues, Ruiz said, include:

• No transparency – a lack of democratic debate, with even ministers in the dark until the Snowden revelations appeared in The Guardian.

• No proper oversight – from judges, and a lack of technical resources for the committee which oversees the process.

• Transnational, population-level surveillance – not about “individual privacy vs collective security”, but a fundamental threat to democracy.

BBC Backstage’s Ian Forrester was gathering opinions on transparency, data, privacy and the Internet of Things – with all its mix of proprietary protocols and forgotten devices. You could use something like Wireshark to find out what all of your devices are up to, but there needs to be a simpler, default way of being aware of what your personal network of devices is saying. There was some fascinating debate in the room, but no definitive answers. There should be a video out from the BBC before the ink is dry on this issue.

Thanks to the tricopters and quadcopters the event really was buzzing!
Thanks to the tricopters and quadcopters the event really was buzzing! Image by Peter Stean

PIN = ‘1234’

The talk from Freaky Clown on ‘How I rob banks and why YOU should be scared’ hit home on just how weak security is around our data (particularly that of the banks, and so our money). Recording devices had to be switched off during this talk, but we can tell you that it was proven how easy it is for anyone to walk straight into so-called secure buildings and walk out with pictures of login screens, and sacks full of paper supposedly secured for safe disposal. Freaky Clown’s job is to help banks find weaknesses in their security, but there are many finding weaknesses for their own, criminal purposes. Perhaps putting the money under the mattress is the safe option, after all?

Many attendees were seen later making online purchases of scan-proof card wallets, and vowing to forsake ATMs for cashback at the till.

Stuart Coulson’s unconference talk ‘Security is Dead, long live the hacker!’, on security and social engineering, complemented Freaky Clown’s wake- up call. Once again, the figures are alarming: 50 million successful attacks, causing a £27bn hit to the economy; 51 per cent of children unprotected online. Coulson spoke of “security apathy”, the pervasive feeling that it is all “somebody else’s problem”. “Security is a fireproof safe,” he said, protecting to a certain temperature and time.

These two talks left many attendees resolved to make immediate changes to the security of their networks and online activities, but Jon Spriggs’s talk on SQRL, the new draft open standard for secure website login and authentication, was a welcome positive antidote to the security doom and gloom. Snowden revelations also fed into the Panel Discussion, but this also had a breadth of coverage from Adrian McEwen’s suggestion for “digital civics” classes for all, through positive praise for recent changes in coding in schools, to praise for OggCamp’s family-friendly atmosphere.

Open Hardware Jam

Last year the Open Hardware Jam had a whole floor to itself. This time the stalls sat next to the cafe, so everyone got to see the interesting projects. Speakers included Nathan Dumont on ‘Forking Hardware!’, on the advantages to using version control systems to keep track of changes – and use diff to compare circuit layouts – and to share progress. Alex Wilmer’s ‘Tricopters and quads: a primer’ introduced flying (and crashing) multi-rotor helicopters, even on a modest budget.

Popular open-world game Minecraft can be extended into the real world through Raspberry Pi and its sensor connections, then used as a teaching aid for Python, as Dave Potts demonstrated. ‘Ubuntu for phones vs Firefox OS Top Trumps’ saw Alan Pope and James Hugman respectively in a friendly comparison of two mobile projects, with a chance for attendees to play with the OSs on real phone hardware. Alison Chaiken’s ‘Developing Automotive Linux’ showcased Linux success on a different sort of mobile hardware.

Beyond hardware, other stalls included the Free Software Foundation, where you could find discussion on open BIOSes; and ScraperWiki, whose CMO, Aine McGuire, told LUD: “OggCamp is a wonderful example of a great community event. Dan’s a great resource, and a funny guy.” She told us that ScraperWiki is keen to support anything to “make Liverpool more attractive [to developers] and evolve the tech community.”

On-demand talk

Sometimes a talk is requested, or even demanded, and many people new to Git asked for such a talk – ‘Git Basics’ was offered by Jon Spriggs (who wrote the Campfire software used for OggCamp’s scheduling), Lorna Mitchell (who leads the JoindIn project – open source event feedback – used by OggCamp), and Mark Johnson (who also gave a talk on ‘How to do an OggCamp’, aimed at encouraging more people to get involved).

The lightning talks covered everything from Werewolf (a game of legendary popularity on the barcamp circuit), through after-school Code Club, to building a clone of the IT Crowd’s ‘Internet Box’. Particularly striking was Alex Wilmer’s talk on developing extreme rationality; “You are a brain,” he told us. “Your senses lie to you… you build up maps. The map is not the territory.” Wilmer rounded off his call to awareness with resources to help overcome cognitive biases, from Daniel Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking Fast and Slow, to lesswrong.com and its spin-off Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

Events that pack in such a diverse range of information and thoughtful views of the world are few and far between, so LUD would like to thank everyone involved in making OggCamp such a great asset to the free software community. Here’s looking forward to next year.

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