linux.conf.au 2017 Hobart – The future of open source

This year, linux.conf.au 2017 headed to the picturesque state of Tasmania, to Hobart’s Wrest Point convention centre, and the theme of the conference was ‘the future of open source’. My key takeaway from the conference was that:

The future will be built on trust, and trust takes many forms –

  1. Trusting that data and systems have confidentiality, integrity and availability – traditional security
  2. Trusting that digital experiences will be pleasant, safe and as frictionless as possible – user experience and community experience
  3. Trusting that people will build the future that they want – agency and empowerment

This blog post is going to explore some of my picks from the conference through these lenses.

Security, privacy and integrity

Security, privacy and integrity was a recurring theme of the conference.

Michael Cordover – The Future of Privacy

Michael Cordover‘s talk, ‘The Future of Privacy‘, was perhaps the most thought-provoking talk around privacy. Michael provided a history of privacy, underscoring how technology has shaped notions of what it means to be left alone, and what it means to have personal data remain private. In our ubiquitously-connected, always-on world, it’s becoming harder to delineate what informed consent means – given that data can be inferred by association (which is exactly how Tapad‘s technology is designed). It’s also harder for people to be aware of how apps and platforms are using data – terms and conditions are hard to read, and detract from usability. Practically, it’s hard to own your own data – you essentially have to run your own services. Open systems, decentralisation, federation and non-permissive by default are Cordover’s answers to these problems – but these all pay a usability price. In Cordover’s words,

There’s no easy path forward that ordinary people can take.

David Bell – In Case of Emergency: Break Glass – BCP, DRP, & Digital Legacy

As a first time linux.conf.au Speaker, David delivered a solid presentation covering business continuity planning, disaster recovery planning and digital legacy. His focus was on ensuring that appropriate planning was done before business interruption events. He also covered personal digital legacy – an almost-unexplored topic – for example – would the people you leave behind when you die know how to access your passwords?

George Fong – The Security and Integrity of the Internet

George Fong (previous Chair of Internet Australia, current Deputy Chancellor at Federation University) delivered a very strong presentation which advocated for the defence of security and integrity of the internet, largely because governments and other non-technical actors in the ecosystem don’t trust the internet – the “cybers”.

The key takeaway from George’s talk that continued to resonate for days afterwards was:

Trust is the byproduct of integrity

Using examples such as Dirty COW and Heartbleed, Fong opined that we as an opensource community need to make sure that Linux – which the foundation of the internet rests upon – is trustworthy. Bugs are only shallow if many eyeballs are on them, and all too often there aren’t enough eyeballs. Using the analogy of seatbelts, and how few of us would ever feel safe and secure driving without one, he articulated how the internet in many ways is still a frontier, devoid of strong security measures and protocols that ensure safety and integrity – and therein, trust.

Touching on another key theme of the conference – agency and empowerment – he urged the audience to grasp that they, we, the open source community are the voices of the internet. Fong encouraged us to use those voices to better educate the public on what we do – we need to promote our activities to strengthen integrity. Things are broken – and we’re not helping. It’s up to us to fix the problem.

On a side note, as the recently-elected President of Linux Australia, I’m looking forward to working with George, and recently-appointed Chair of Internet Australia, Anne Hurley, to identify how we can work collaboratively together on some of these aims – as Internet Australia and Linux Australia have some overlap in mission, values and remit.

Jon Oxer – Network Protocol Analysis for IoT Devices

Nowhere is security, privacy and integrity more pressing that in the field of Internet of Things. There were several IoT related talks this year, but two that stood out. Firstly, Jon Oxer‘s talk on Network Protocol Analysis for IoT Devices was an eye-opener into the history of the radio frequency spectrum, how some of it is unregulated, but moreover how device protocols can be reverse engineered with simple equipment and a penchant for code-breaking. Oxer showed how simple it is to launch a man-in-the-middle attack on IoT devices on the RF 422 MHz band by intercepting their transmissions, decoding their protocols and then using a playback attack. We definitely need better encryption in IoT.

Christopher Biggs – How to Defend Yourself from your Toaster

Christopher Biggs also gave an excellent security talk around IoT – ‘How to defend yourself from your toaster‘, however he tackled it from the perspective of an IoT device manufacturer or developer – clearly articulating what features and functions should be included in new IoT devices. Although he didn’t frame it as such, his talk was basically outlining a maturity model for IoT devices. For example, devices with low maturity have poor user interfaces, no provision for maintenance, and employ poor security practices – such as having insecure protocols (such as telnet) available. He provided useful advice for improving maturity, for instance port-scanning devices to see which ports are open, and what data is being transmitted. One of the key takeaways here was that if you are designing an IoT device, or managing a fleet of IoT devices, that you need to get someone else to do the hard parts. Apple, Amazon and Google all now have SDKs available for IoT, but the drawback is that most of them are not open sourced.

Biggs spoke of a metric that I hadn’t heard before in this space – MTT1C – mean time to first compromise – or the length of time it takes an IoT device to be compromised once it’s placed on the public internet. This got me thinking that I haven’t seen anywhere a capability maturity model for enterprise IoT – for instance the practices, support, metrics and continuous improvement that would be used in a large organisational deployment of IoT. Perhaps this is something that the standards bodies in this space – Open Connectivity Foundation, BITAG and Resin.io – will develop in time.

Dr Vanessa Teague – Election Software

Dr Vanessa Teague gave one of my favourite talks of the conference on e-voting systems, and the general problem of end to end verification. Using a number of examples of how companies have (or have not) implemented verification, she articulated a number of anomalies with current e-voting systems in NSW, which are soon to be used in both WA and Victoria. Given the recent controversy around United States elections, this talk was particularly timely, and gave rise to a number of uncomfortable questions – such as just how many votes does it take to change an election result, and possibly the course of history?

One of the most resonating points within Dr Teague’s talk was the rejection of an e-voting system – V-Vote – which had superior verification capabilities, but poor user experience and usability qualities. This touches on the second theme which emerged from #lca2017 – it is not sufficient for a product, tool or platform to be functional – it must also have form. People are persuaded by the shiny – and rather than scoff at this – default behaviour for a lot of our community – we need to recognise and respond to this.

Dr Teague was an engaging, humourous and articulate speaker, and I’d really like to hear more from her in future conf lineups.

User experience and community experience

It may be unusual to relate user experience and customer / community experience to trust, but I see it as fitting. Our experience with a task, a process, or an interaction either enhances or erodes our trust in the organisation, platform or person with whom we’re interacting.

Donna Benjamin – I am your User, why do you Hate me?

Donna Benjamin‘s excellent talk aimed to bring a user experience / human-centred design element to open source developers by questioning some of the fundamental ‘defaults’ we tend to hold. Using project onboard experiences as a lens to explore how we treat newcomers, she demonstrated that our actions are turning people away from opensource – exactly the opposite effect that we’re aiming for. She outlined how contributions in triage, review and testing are not valued as highly as code contributions, again presenting a barrier to increasing participation and diversity. Benjamin argued for the open source community to see users not in terms of what they can’t do – develop software – but as people – with needs and emotions.

This talk highlighted for me the lack of design thinking, human-centred design and user experience practices that are adopted not just on open source products, but to communities in general. Lowering ‘friction’ – the antithesis of good user experience – is something that both open source products and open source communities need to get better at.

Rikki Endsley – The proper care and feeding of communities and carnivorous plants

Rikki Endsley‘s talk likewise touched on how managing communities is a complex task, often fraught with pitfalls. The key takeaway was that you can’t change everything at once – you need to change elements of the community carefully, then have the metrics available to measure the impact of the change.

VM Brasseur – The Business of Community

VM Brasseur‘s talk was a practical guide for people working inside companies to ‘sell’ support of open source projects to management. This talk was framed along three key topics – benefits, costs and implementation. Benefits such as word of mouth marketing, stronger brand recognition, and more effective upstream support are all selling points. One of the strong points of this talk was the recognition of in-kind / non-monetary support to open source communities by business, such as the provision meeting space, marketing, guidance, leadership and mentoring. In particular, Brasseur cautioned that businesses should ask the community what it needed – rather than making assumptions – and providing, for instance, unwanted promotional goodies. Although implementation plans will vary across companies, Brasseur provided some generic advice, such as having clear goals and objectives for community support, setting expectations and being transparent about the company’s intentions.

Nadia Eghbal – Consider the Maintainer (keynote)

Nadia’s keynote brought to the fore many simmering tensions within the open source community. Essentially, the burden of maintaining open source software falls to a few dedicated maintainers, who in some cases may be supporting a product with a user base of tens or thousands of uses.

Eghbal set out four freedoms for open source producers / maintainers, being:

  • The freedom to decide who participates in your community
  • The freedom to say no to contributions or requests
  • The freedom to define the priorities and policies of the project
  • The freedom to step down or move on from a project, temporarily or permanently

Whether these freedoms are embraced and used to support open source maintainers remains to be seen.

Nadia Eghbal keynoting linux.conf.au 2017
Nadia Eghbal keynoting linux.conf.au 2017

Agency and empowerment

The third key theme that was reflected in the conference programme was that of agency and empowerment – being the changes that we want to see in the open source world.

Pia Waugh – Choose your own adventure

Pia Waugh kicked off this theme, delivering the first conference keynote, where she gave a retrospective on human evolution, and then extrapolated this to the future of open source, articulating how we’re likely to see a decentralisation of power in order to strengthen democracy. She went on to challenge a number of existing paradigms, calling them out as anachronisms as the world has evolved.

This talk was full of Waugh’s trademark energy and vibrancy, and was an excellent choice to open the conference.

Dr Audrey Lobo-Pulo – Publicly Releasing Government Models

Dr Audrey Lobo-Pulo’s talk extended the open data movement by advocating for the public release of government open source models – financial and economic models used to assess public policy decisions – in essence, virtual worlds to explore the implications of policy.

The key takeaway from her talk was that industry and business also stand to benefit greatly from the release of these models, as they could then be combined with private data – in a unique public private partnership. Lobo-Pulo put forward the four components of government policy models (shown below) – and how each contributes the accuracy and validity of the model.

Karen M. Sandler – Surviving the Next 30 Years of Free Software

Karen‘s sensitive and tactful talk recognised the fact that as a community, many of our pillars and key contributors are aging, and that over the next few years we are likely to bid goodbye to many in our community. Her talk explored the different ways in which copyrights can be assigned after death, and the key issues to consider – empowering us to make informed and well founded decisions while we are in a position to do so. Few presenters could have handled this difficult topic with such aplomb, and as usual Karen’s grace, wit and wisdom shone through.

Closing thoughts

Again, linux.conf.au delivered engaging, thought-provoking and future-looking talks from a range of experienced, vibrant and wise Speakers – and again it was an excellent investment of time. The diversity of Speakers this year was excellent, if perhaps erring on the non-technical side.

Open source still faces a number of challenges – the ecosystem is often underfunded, maintainers are prone to burnout and we still haven’t realised that UX needs to be a key part of what we’re all about. But that’s part of the fun – we have the power to evolve just like the rest of the world.

And I can’t wait for a bit of history repeating at Sydney 2018!

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My talk picks for #lca2017 – linux.conf.au

linux.conf.au 2017 heads to Hobart, where it was last held in 2009. I absolutely love Tasmania – especially its food and scenery – and am looking forward to heading over.

So, here’s my talk picks  – keeping in mind that I’m more devops than kernel hacker – so YMMV.

Executive Summary

  • Monday 16th – Networking breakfast, possibly some WootConf sessions and / or Open Knowledge Miniconf sessions.
  • Tuesday 17th – Law and policy Miniconf, Community Leadership Summit
  • Wednesday 18th – Future Privacy by Michael Cordover, In Case of Emergency – Break Glass by David Bell, Handle Conflict Like a Boss by Deb Nicholson, Internet of Terrible Things by Matthew Garrett.
  • Thursday 19th – Network Protocols for IoT Devices by Jon Oxer, Compliance with the GPL by Karen Sandler and Bradley M. Kuhn, Open source and innovation by Allison Randall and Surviving the next 30 years of open source by Karen Sandler.
  • Friday 20th – Publicly releasing government models by Audrey Lobo-Pulo

Monday 16th January

I’m keeping Monday open as much as possible, in case there are last minute things we need to do for the Linux Australia AGM, but will definitely start the day with the Opening Reception and Networking Breakfast. A networking breakfast is an unusual choice of format for the Professional Delegates Networking Session (PDNS), but I can see some benefits to it such as being able to initiate key relationships and talking points early in the conference. The test of course will be attendance, and availability of tasty coffee 😀

If I get a chance I’ll see some of the WootConf sessions and/or Open Knowledge Miniconf sessions (the Open Knowledge Miniconf schedule hadn’t been posted at the time of writing).

Tuesday 17th January

The highlight for me in Tuesday’s schedule is the excellent Pia Waugh talking ‘Choose your own Adventure‘. This talk is based on Waugh’s upcoming book, and the philosophical foundations, macroeconomic implications and strategic global trends cover a lot of ground – ground that needs to be covered.

As of the time of writing, the schedule for the Law and Policy Miniconf hadn’t been released, but this area is of interest to me – as is the Community Leadership Summit. I’m interested to see how the Community Leadership Summit is structured this year; in 2015 it had a very unconference feel. This was appropriate for the session at the time, but IMHO what the Community Leadership Summit needs to move towards are concrete deliverables – such as say a whitepaper advising Linux Australia Council on where efforts should be targeted in the year ahead. In this way, the Summit would be able to have a tangible, clear impact.

Wednesday 18th January

I’ll probably head to Dan Callahan’s keynote on ‘Designing for failure’. It’s great to see Jonathan Corbet’s Kernel Report get top billing, but my choice here is between the ever-excellent Michael Codover’s ‘Future Privacy‘ and Cedric Bail’s coverage of ‘Enlightenment Foundation Libraries for Wearables‘. Next up, I’ll be catching David Bell (Director, LCA2016) talking ‘In case of emergency – break glass – BCP, DRP and Digital Legacy‘. There’s nothing compelling for me in the after lunch session, except perhaps Josh Simmon’s ‘Building communities beyond the black stump‘, but this one’s probably too entry-level for me, so it might be a case of long lunch / hallway track.

After afternoon tea, I’ll likely head to Deb Nicholson’s ‘Handle conflict like a boss‘, and then Matthew Garett‘s ‘Internet of terrible things‘ – because Matthew Garrett 😀

Then, it will be time for the Penguin Dinner!

Thursday 19th January

First up, I’m really looking forward to Nadia Eghbal’s ‘People before code‘ keynote about the sustainability of open source projects.

Jon Oxer’s ‘Network Protocol Analysis for IoT Devices‘ is really appealing, particularly given the rise and rise of IoT equipment, and the lack of standards in this space.

It might seem like a dry topic for some, but Bradley M. Kuhn and Karen Sandler from the Software Freedom Conservancy will be able to breathe life into ‘Compliance with the GPL‘ if anyone can; they also bring with them considerable credibility on the topic.

After lunch, I’ll be catching Allison Randall talking on ‘Open source and innovation‘ and then Karen Sandler on ‘Surviving the next 30 years of open source‘. These talks are related, and speak to the narrative of how open source is evolving into different facets of our lives – how does open source live on when we do not?

Friday 20th January

After the keynote, I’ll be catching Audrey Lobo-Pulo on ‘Publicly releasing government models‘ – this ties in with a lot of the work I’ve been doing in open data, and government open data in particular. After lunch, I’m looking forward to James Scheibner’s ‘Guide to FOSS licenses‘, and to finish off the conference on a high note, the ever-erudite and visionary George Fong on ‘Defending the security and integrity of the ‘Net’. Internet Australia, of which Fong is the chair, has many values in common with Linux Australia, and I foresee the two organisations working more closely together in the future.

What are your picks for #lca2017?

Learning Bitcoin and the blockchain with the 21.co bitcoin computer

Digital currencies have been gaining traction for some time now, and although I had a broad sense of what they did and how they could be used, I hadn’t had an opportunity to utilise them in a real world setting. So, I set some personal learning goals and set about achieving them:

  • To learn the terminology associated with digital currencies, in particular Bitcoin, and the blockchain, which would serve as a foundation for building my knowledge
  • To undertake some practical exercises involving the actors, methods and marketplaces for digital currency, allowing me to explore limitations, current and future applications, and understand the enterprise use cases for the blockchain.

Buying the 21.co bitcoin computer

The initial research indicated that the 21.co bitcoin computer would be a good place to start. What drew me to it was that it was backed by some big names in the industry, and its approach to a digital currency marketplace was unique; leveraging micro payments for micro transactions such as sending an SMS or an email. Based on Raspbian and running Linux also gave it bonus points 🙂

The first problem encountered was that it didn’t ship to Australia. Challenge accepted.

Having already set up an Australia Post Digital Mailbox, it was super easy to establish a ShopMate account. The experience here was seamless, and for an additional $AUD 43 my 21.c0 bitcoin computer was shipped from Portlandia to Australia. Win!

The cost of the computer was a bit steep at $USD 399, which worked out to just under $AUD 600 with the woeful exchange rate. Still, I figured this was cheaper than say a formal course on bitcoin or blockchain.

Initial steps

Unboxing, as many fellow geeks will resonate with, is a ritual, and an integral part of any large tech purchase. The 21.co didn’t disappoint. The packaging was sleek, black, minimal and beautifully put together. The Raspberry Pi-based computer was nestled comfortably in black firm styrofoam, with the power cords and accessories stashed underneath.

Inside the box was the 21.co bitcoin computer itself, power cord, and USB cable to connect the board to your computer for initial setup. The USB cable actually had four connectors, but the 21.co board has three pins. The unneeded connector (red) had been cut off, to make setup easier. This was a small detail, but indicative of the thought that had been put into the product. A USB wireless adaptor was included in the box, without which the product would have been almost unusable, so this was a great inclusion. Perhaps the only improvement suggestion here would be to use a WiFi adaptor that supports both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz ranges – my router runs two SSIDs, one on each range, and the included WiFi adaptor was only able to connect to the 2.4GHz SSID.

The only component that wasn’t initially included that I had to hunt up was a US -> ANZ power adaptor, which is forgivable considering 21.co don’t technically ship to Australia.

Behold! The first three @21 Bitcoin Computers in The Netherlands. Want to join the hackathon? Let me know!

The next step was to connect my Ubuntu 14.10 LTS-based laptop to the 21.co and run some setup software. This was excellently documented, with instructions inside the box itself, and also prominently displayed on the 21.co website. What I really liked about the setup was that there was an automatic version, and a manual version if you had more experience on a Linux CLI. There were also options for other operating systems.

I got a little bit stuck on the initial setup, and couldn’t get the setup.py script to run. Initially, I wondered whether I’d triggered an unsafe shutdown of the device, and it was trying to re-index the database, so I let it run setup overnight. This didn’t fix the issue, so I jumped on to the 21.co support Slack (about 0700hrs Australian Eastern Standard Time – so GMT +1000hrs), thinking that no one would be online. Not only was support readily available, it was helpful, polite, friendly, and assumed that technically I knew what I was doing – an excellent support experience. In the end, it was a total n00b issue – the microSD card in the 21.co computer wasn’t seated correctly!

#21co first steps with #bitcoin and #blockchain

A photo posted by @kathyreid_id_au on

 

Learning a bit more

Once I had run setup successfully, I was able to mine my first Satoshis (sub-units of Bitcoin currency). Because it’s now difficult to mine Bitcoin directly, due to the computational complexity, a single machine has a very low probability of successfully mining a Bitcoin block. To work around this limitation, 21.co facilitates a collective approach called buffered pooled mining. In this scenario, many 21.co computers work co-operatively to mine Bitcoin, and collectively distribute the rewards. This means that you may only receive a few thousand Satoshis per day, but it’s sufficient to learn the concepts involved and start to prototype applications and ecosystems that leverage Bitcoin and the blockchain.

The next challenge was to see if I could set up a simple application that utilised the 21.co infrastructure to provide services for micro payments of Bitcoin. Using the tutorial, it was reasonably quick and easy to do. I found all the tutorials were written in really clear, simple terms, and stepped you through the different concepts being demonstrated in a very logical way. There were a few glitches along the way, mostly to do with package management and dependencies, so having at least a basic grasp of apt and pip was very useful.

I’m not sure where I’ll go next with this hardware – perhaps a micropayment webservice or too, but even with the initial steps here I’ve got a much better understanding of how Bitcoin and blockchain concepts can be applied more broadly. I could choose to run the 21 Bitcoin computer as a full Bitcoin node, but my internet connection is so slow that it probably isn’t worth it.

Use cases for the blockchain

The foundation of digital currency – the blockchain – has implications far beyond monetary transactions. The blockchain itself models provenance – the ownership of an asset (in the case of digital currencies, monetary assets) over time. Could it be applied to the physical as well as digital world, for instance to record the change of ownership of physical assets? I’m not so sure.

Physical and digital assets have different properties that may limit the blockchain’s applicability to the physical world – for instance physical assets such as cars, houses and jewellery can both be destroyed, or reconfigured. For instance, I could take piece of clothing and burn it, thus destroying it. The blockchain – or at least the Bitcoin blockchain, cannot easily handle such a use case, and the protocol would need to be extended to do so. It also cannot handle the reconfiguration of assets. Let’s say that I have a string of pearls, with 100 pearls on the string, that was given to be my by mother. The blockchain could record the change of ownership from my mother to I, but let’s say that I cut the string of pearls in half, creating two shorter strings with 50 pearls each, and then I gift one of the 50-pearl strings to my sister. The blockchain could handle this monetarily – splitting one value into two values, each distributed to separate owners, but it could not handle this physically – but recognising that two separate assets had been created where one previously stood. Of course, it’s possible that in time extensions or additions to the blockchain would address these shortcomings – it will certainly be an interesting thread to track.

Privacy and identification in the blockchain are also of interest. The blockchain itself doesn’t identify participants in transactions, which is great for privacy, but not so great for transparency. I suspect we’ll see the rise of services such as OneName which help to identify participants. For instance, imagine if government transactions were on the blockchain – you’d want them to be transparent.

Of course the blockchain itself also represents a unique big data source. As the use of Bitcoin evolves over time, it would be an interesting exercise to observe trends or changes in the patterns of transactions – such as average value, the frequency that BTC was transferred to or from particular addresses and so on.

Another interesting application of blockchain could be in content management and for handling versioning – as essentially a content management system is a series of assets that are mutative via known transaction types. Using blockchain for content management would also help to solve some of the problems around “what did a particular asset or collection of assets look like at a point in time” – as the blockchain contains an entire historical record.

A fascinating area.