Saturday, April 23, 2011

UniLeaks: wikileaks for education

I just came across a new website called UniLeaks, which solicits...
restricted or censored material of political, ethical, diplomatic or historical significance which is in some way connected to higher education, an agency or government body working in partnership with an institution, e.g., a University.
As yet, I do not see the point in creating a system targeted at particular institutions. Maybe this is a way to attract specialists who would be interested in these documents. However, my first suspicion is that this is the work of anti-intellectuals who are digging for any possible dirt on academia.

In part, this is because I can't imagine that they would find particularly interesting documents that are distinctive of universities. The most likely "dirt" will relate to fund-raising, resource allocation, and employee relations -- just like with any large institution. My fear is that these people will be digging for documents like the stolen* emails at the center of Climategate, which they can then pass to the right-wing noise machine for selective quoting.

As I suggested in Privacy and Transparency at the University, this strategy seems to be increasingly common among some political factions. Michael Mann suffered legal harassment as a result of the Climategate brouhaha, and Frances Fox Piven was singled out and demonized by Glenn Beck at the height of his popularity. This may be a strategy of attacking soft targets -- mid-level public figures who will never wield political power and do not have a mass-audience.

With that being said, I am cautiously optimistic about the establishment of UniLeaks. I am deeply interested in maintaining transparency and accountability (but also political independence) among universities. I am also hopeful that the proliferation of Wikileaks-style organizations will help to move these whistle-blower systems into the political mainstream, and reduce the risk of retaliation.

Update: I found an article about UniLeaks in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The rhetoric used by the (Australian) administrator of the site seems to be a mixture of academia-idealist (e.g. students are not clients), and government-accountability (e.g. universities get a lot of state money). Also, some articles noted that this is just one of many specialized WikiLeaks clones.

*I say that these emails were stolen rather than leaked, because a leak requires that someone had legitimate access to the documents being leaked. Since no-one should have had access to the email database at the center of Climategate, that data must have been stolen.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Iceland: the friendly rogue state

Iceland's voters have rejected a plan by their government to cover the losses of Iceland's banks (and their foreign creditors). This is creating tension with the British and Dutch governments, which will probably keep Iceland outside of some of the main international financial systems; as such, Iceland will not participate in the heavily regulated and subsidized regime that defines modern global capitalism. They seem to be rejecting the speculation-driven growth that had created an illusion of great wealth, only to leave them with a shattered economy.

Having told the foreign economic powers to "shove off", Iceland has also freed themselves of any need to appease them in its other activities. Perhaps the next conflict will come over the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, a set of laws that will help journalists and dissidents to criticize the powerful with less fear of retribution. Before long, the champions of corporate capitalism may start pointing to Iceland as a "rogue state" that refuses to play by the rules. If that should be the case, we need to remember that their only "crime" would have been to decide to live as free and equal members of a political community.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Privacy and Transparency at the University

The Mackinac think-tank has filed a broad Freedom of Information Act request for the emails of professors of labor studies at three universities run by the state of Michigan. This appears to be nothing more than political harassment, similar to the harassment of climate researcher Michael Mann by Virginia's Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, following the "Climategate" brouhaha. It is specifically to avoid this type of political pressure that we have the notion of "academic freedom", and that universities jealously guard their independence from the state.

The heavy use of the Internet by university professors has clearly opened them up to new forms of encroachment by political actors. Universities should dedicate some serious thought to how they manage their data, so as to keep private communications private, and properly document and release any information that should be made public.

I propose that, by default, all internal communications of university staff and students should be considered private, and should be handled in a way that maintains confidentiality. To accomplish this, university IT departments should develop encryption standards for individual email accounts and encourage their universal adoption. This is not a terribly difficult technical issue, as strong encryption systems have already been developed and deployed, such as Pretty Good Privacy. One of the big hurdles to adopting PGP encryption is to establish a network of users with trusted encryption keys; universities are in a perfect position to accomplish this.

This idea of secure communication within universities probably scares a number of people -- I've repeatedly heard mumblings about universities being sinister, oppressive forces in society (for example, view the first comment on this blog post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians). You don't have to be an anti-intellectual conspiracy theorist to insist that universities develop a high level of transparency. Universities provide some important public services where the quality of the final product (e.g. research results, student certification) cannot be easily evaluated without knowledge of the process by which it was produced. To maintain public trust, universities should develop a process that provides relevant information to anyone with a legitimate interest.

Documents relating to student evaluation should be available, both to administrators and to each student or their representative. If encrypted emails are among these documents, the student should keep a copy, and perhaps the university could keep a copy of the student's encrypted emails (at least, any from a professor), which could be recovered if the student provides his decryption key. One nice side-effect of widespread encryption would be widespread signing of electronic documents (using the same key), so that if a document is deemed relevant to an accusation, its authenticity can be easily validated.

Finally, we have the raw data that goes into research publications. The issues here are complicated, and many extend beyond individual universities. For instance, data accessibility has been a major source of contention in climate research, but much of the raw data is treated as a commercial asset by non-academic institutions, so there is little that universities can do. Additionally, scientists will always hesitate to release data until they have had a chance to analyze it themselves. Each field of research probably has to develop its own process for making raw data accessible. For instance, biologists have developed a massive database of DNA sequences (Genbank), and all major journals require that any sequence discussed in a publication be submitted to the database. There is currently a push to mandate the publication of the source code for any program used in an analysis. There has even been some frivolous dispute over accessibility to the raw data from traditional microbiological techniques (which is rarely digitized).*

The complete archiving of research data is an unreachable ideal, though it may become more common with the increasing automation of data collection. Every innovation in data collection and data storage will require researchers to develop new systems for archiving data, possibly leading to the loss of older data archived with obsolete systems. University IT departments (and perhaps librarian/archivists) may be able to provide resources that enable researchers to record their data in an accessible form, but ultimately the focus and extent of archiving and distribution will be determined by the value of the data to other researchers, not curious laymen.

*Addition: There are also experiments relating to transparency in the peer-review process.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Books: Inside Wikileaks

Daniel Domscheit-Berg (DDB), a hacker and member of the Chaos Computer Club, had been keeping an eye on Wikileaks for over a year, nursing a suspicion that it was some sort of front for an intelligence agency. That suspicion fell away in November of 2007, when Wikileaks published the Guantanamo Bay handbooks. Shortly thereafter, DDB invited Julian Assange to speak at the December meeting of the Chaos Computer Club, and began collaborating with Assange on the Wikileaks project, becoming a major coordinator of Wikileaks activities in Europe. By September of 2010, DDB had fallen out with Assange, and left Wikileaks to establish a competing system, called OpenLeaks (I've added the blog to my list).

This book is a description of DDB's experience working with Wikileaks. The main theme of the book is the unstable genius of Assange, which provides the context within which all of the technical, administrative, and political problems of Wikileaks had to be addressed.

DDB obviously has a bone to pick with Assange, and is using this book to publicize his own competing project. Like everything, it should be read with a skeptical eye -- this is simply the story that one man is telling. I actually had trouble finding independent information about DDB. His Wikipedia entry is sparse, and I only found one news article describing the release of this book. ( has posted a video of a recent interview.)

Anyway, this book provides some insight into what drives an entrepreneur like Assange. Wikileaks was a visionary project, and perhaps such a project can only be pushed through by someone with an exaggerated sense of his own importance. Based on DDB's story, not only did Assange essentially dedicate his life to this high-risk project, but he also had the charisma to convince several volunteers and journalists to make substantial contributions to Wikileaks. This type of achievement is not possible for people with a healthy sense of their own limits.

DDB's thesis is that Assange's egocentrism* is destroying the project. DDB presents Assange as insisting of keeping total control over the project, while also being a completely inept administrator. I suspect that many visionary projects encounter this type of problem. The entrepreneur basically has to get the project off of the ground on his own because no-one else understands what he is trying to achieve, or they doubt that it is possible. Once the project has demonstrated success, the visionary entrepreneur will suddenly have collaborators, but he will not necessarily have any ability to manage a team. Even worse for a visionary project like Wikileaks, the entrepreneur cannot assume that his team-mates actually have a clear understanding of his own goals for the project -- after all, there are no examples from which they can derive shared expectations or even terminology. The visionary project has to deal with all of the problems of any start-up, plus the additional burden of having to deal with issues that no-one has dealt with before.

DDB sees three major core objectives for a project like Wikileaks:
  1. Maintain the anonymity of the source (while possibly enabling further communication)
  2. Organize and filter the documents, perhaps removing information about private persons.
  3. Publicize the documents.
These objectives can conflict with each other, especially when resources are scarce. DDB describes these conflicts, how Wikileaks tried to balance these objectives, and how the conflicts led to arguments among volunteers on the project.

Ultimately, DDB decided to start a competing institution, OpenLeaks. I wish him luck in this endeavor. This represents a maturation of the industry that Wikileaks established. Now we know what an institution like Wikileaks can accomplish. Now some people (like DDB) have first-hand experience tackling the problems of these anonymous leak systems. The only question now is how many of these institutions can be supported, and how will the public interact with them. Should a leak-source provide documents to both Wikileaks and OpenLeaks? Will that increase the chance of being identified? Will it assure prompt publication, or would it just waste resources with duplicate effort? How can a new institution gain the trust of potential sources? How does it demonstrate its ability to maintain anonymity?

It appears that the Wikileaks revolution has only just begun, and at some point it may be able to continue even if Wikileaks itself fails.

*my word, not DDB's; not meant as a psychological diagnosis