New project site up and running

The concept note site is now live at


A PGP key and a couple emails addresses
We’ve set up contact email addresses and PGP keys. More easy to use forms coming from these two ingredients soon, but in the meantime. Find both here.

779D 75C4 3CEE 7ADA 9E86  1049 0334 9543 55AA 9797

On Github
It’s just a few markdown pages for now.

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Digital protest

Now and again, I submit secret text in blog posts using different steganography software found around the web.

I’m a fan of steganography. It’s a really quick and often easy way to quickly share a private message without having to set up a lot of kit and learn how it works. You can use images to send all kinds of  notions that may or may not be worth a 1,000 words. If people acted as much as they talked about being irate over mass data collection, then they’d be communicating this way more often. Use anything. Use silly, stupid methods and really strong ones. Use them for important messages, but use them for inane ones as well.

There’s an ever increasing industry of privacy workshops, seminars, talks and miscellaneous shin-digs.  In one session put on by the New Yorker,  everyone’s favourite live-streaming attendee, Edward Snowden offered a reminder of his quick tips to get more privacy online. It’s good stuff, but the threat is that it all becomes a bit to niche.

Data privacy isn’t just a privacy advocate’s thing, it’s any activist’s concern. Most targeted spying isn’t aimed at people banging on about privacy, but at environmental activists, political activists, human rights activists and people stomping around for actual change. Good people, but I’ve noticed most of them practice awful security. It’s like handing over tactics without a battle. Even if you think your adversary will get it in the end, you at least should be making them earn it.

Some protests look like this:

(April 1, 2009 - Source:
(April 1, 2009 – Source:

The protest against governments scooping up your private messages looks like this, though:


Generally, I work with some of these tools as part of training and helping journalist and various nice NGO types use them to keep from being tracked, arrested and worse. Dissidents need to be using them as well. Some are. A lot aren’t. There’s this idea that “they’re going to watch me anyway.” This is, of course, why they should be taking the situation more seriously. The use of Firechat in Hong Kong was inspired. Firechat + encryption is more inspiring.

The same methods that can help that important work stay secure are also the main protest march routes.  What are we supposed to be protesting? Pop-up ad creator Ethan Zuckerman offers a good, recent explanation/admission:

“I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services. Through successive rounds of innovation and investor storytime, we’ve trained Internet users to expect that everything they say and do online will be aggregated into profiles (which they cannot review, challenge, or change) that shape both what ads and what content they see. …  Users have been so well trained to expect surveillance that even when widespread, clandestine government surveillance was revealed by a whistleblower, there has been little organized, public demand for reform and change. ” — Ethan Zuckerman, The Atlantic

That effects you, even it it’s not your exact cause de jour.

On the street, protest routes look like this:

Here’s a well documented route, approved by police and heavily monitored, but hey, you got your message across, right? Right?

On the internet, the protest route looks like this:

So randomized that the police, government and you don't know how you got from A to B, and (if used right), only you know what B you got to.
So randomized that the police, government and you don’t know how you got from A to B, and (if used right), only you know what B you got to (but I’m not sure what Jane’s up to in this chart, though. Tetris?).

There’s another crucial difference here. On the street, people are politely requesting change when demonstrating along a well-marked route. They’re demanding change when they protest and occupy spaces.

But when it comes to anonymity or privacy rights, you’re already living the change by simply using it. You don’t tell someone else to stop monitoring you, you actually make it more difficult for them to do so.

Top photo is from this Guardian story about how Turkish protesters combined protest and crypto.

How to end a democracy in just eight days

We had a span of eight days from announcement to parliamentary approval for UK’s Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (aka #Drip on Twitter). It’s now the law of the land, or whatever constitutes United Kingdom borders in telecommunications.

This is how liberty dies. Not with thunderous applause, but rather something on the order of less than 20 members of parliament bothering to stick around for a debate about it. (Skip to the end, to see what’s to be done.)

This was the height of the action during a recent debate over instant government access to your private communications. No cloaks of invisibility were used, it was reported.

What DRIP does: It mandates that service providers keep records and copies of your communications, and allows police or other government agencies access to them. This would be your phone calls, mobile texts, Facebook chats, emails, Skype calls, etc. If you do it with buttons and a screen, then anyone who answers to Theresa May gets BCCed. This happens before a warrant is needed. Before any guilt of a crime is alleged. It’s automatic and all the time to both British and non-British citizens.

If you think this is only about people “with something to hide” then you’re not thinking. Do you have curtains over your window? Do you have a pass code for your online banking? Do you trade family pictures of your children with other members of your family? When a stranger accesses these things, does it really matter if they work for GCHQ or not? The chances of your private information being misused doubles each time its copied onto a different system. Where is your data, really?

It was passed as emergency legislation. Were terrorists and paedophiles threatening to launch a joint attack on Hamleys? No. Is it Syria? No, people are going there to become militants, not here. What’s the emergency? The European Court of Justice ruled against it. Yes, it’s illegal for a European Union member government to require that service providers store customer data and surrender it on demand. How do you feel about being in the EU now?

In our post-Snowden world, a few ISPs are tepidly starting to baulk. Now there’s a court ruling to help them resist. That’s a huge emergency for the likes of the NSA and its intern, GCHQ.

What about when the threats are over? They’re never finished. We’re told this is a temporary measure. MPs like the Liberal Democrats’ own Julian Huppert  enthuse that DRIP will automatically expire at the close of 2016. It will also automatically be extended by a vote of parliament, as easy as they vote on their own pay raises.  Governments seldom reduce their own authority willingly; the tendency is to expand control.

It’s not unusual. Earlier this month in the U.S., President Obama’s appointed panel on mass surveillance gave the practices a civil liberties thumbs up. DRIP is keeping with the British government’s tradition of repeating what Washington D.C. does within a fortnight.  But these countries are far from alone.

Read John Schindler’s #EverybodyDoesSIGINT Twitter stream from earlier this week. Mass data collection policies and practices in India, China, Canada, North Korea, Austria, Iran, Russia, Israel, Cuba, France, etc. are all quite similar; invasiveness is kept in check by budget and capacity rather than a respect for citizens’ rights. Beating UK to making the U.S. happy by a week, Mexico passed an almost identical law.

People may be accustomed to the notion that North Korea or Iran would be spying on their own people, but the digital surveillance structures used in those countries is not so different from GCHQ, except that in the UK it’s more sophisticated… though still lagging behind in the overt displays of repression. On a long enough timeline, though, who’s to say what’s in store.

What’s it about? The first thing to remember is that this isn’t about safety, or security, at least for a population. Mass data collection is horrible at that.  It is about control, though not that kind. It’s about having data and access to it. It’s not about finding needles in haystacks as the old refrain went, but about being able to scrutinize and interrogate the hay. This is useful when you’re having a lot of social and economic problems that cause increased social unrest.

What’s to be done? Vote, sue, encrypt, repeat.

1) VOTE: I don’t hold much hope for political solutions, because politics is about power, which is about control and that’s what mass surveillance provides. Still, why not vote for candidates friendly to civil liberties and human rights and opposed to sweeping mass surveillance?  See what happens, I guess.

2) SUE: I’ve got moderately higher hopes for legal solutions, because the mechanism is still somewhat in citizens’ favour. Support Open Rights Group’s lawsuit against the UK government over DRIP.

3) ENCRYPT: For technology and habits, we’re in an area of haves and have-nots. Not everyone has the luxury of money or time or access to take the measures best suited for themselves. Good VPN costs money. Even the best free open source privacy software requires the time and awareness to learn and the dosh to afford the technology to run it on.  That said:

  • As much as possible, use internet services based in privacy-friendly countries such as Iceland.
  • When you access those services from UK, use strong proxy services like Tor or a good VPN.
  • Check out the Tails operating system, and novel uses of Tor, like Onionshare, to post a document to someone without it being nabbed by monitors in-between.
  • Use end-to-end encryption for communication in emails, chat and (to the extent possible) VOIP.
  • Use open source software that does the encryption on the client side (your machine).
  • Run Tor exit nodes and help make the system faster.
  • Attend and organise Cryptoparties to pass the knowledge on.
  • Support projects that enable whistle blowers and leaks in the public’s interest.

Make it more costly to see what you’re doing, and more problematic to hide what they’re doing. That’s how you protest.

Profile of a #TORrorist

Technology has automated a number of tasks required of a secret police state.  Consider how things used to be: The likes of Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover had to employ teams of people to  infiltrate groups, run blackmail and sting operations, threaten and pay off a load of people to maintain paper records of folks who may or may not have been communists, most of them in the latter category.

Modern methods aren’t any more precise, but you can employ far fewer people to create much bigger lists in a shorter amount of time and scare the shit out of many more people much faster. Miracles of the new age.

Will Potter says green is the new red.  He may be right, but I think the onion is actually the new hammer and sickle.

The onion is the new hammer & sickle.
This is the Tor projec’s aim that’s currently freaking out the United States. Pretty scary stuff, eh?

The program XKeyscore is an excellent case study in America’s schizophrenic attitude towards the internet, and more specifically, the Tor Project. I’m not going to go into how XKeyscore works, because Wired has done that.  And there are scads of resources explaining Tor.

More interesting is how XKeyscore is being used against Tor. This has been a fascinating week of revelations about America’s global data hoovering efforts, at least if you know German. XKeyscore is all over the news in Germany, where its source code has been leaked and analysed. It automates how people can be listed as potential threats simply based on which websites they visit. You could be up for automatic targeted surveillance if…

Hoover or McCarthy could have only dreamed of  such a toy. There’s bound to be more information on who gets listed in the source code that seems to have been released by an NSA whistleblower who may not be Edward Snowden.  “One of the biggest questions these new revelations raise is why?” asks Kyle Rankin on the Linux Journal blog. I thought it may have come down to beards. A lot of Linux users and Jihadists are known for them. Maybe it’s confusing.

The now infamous NSA powerpoint slide that launched a thousand Tor bridges.
The now infamous NSA powerpoint slide that launched a thousand Tor bridges.

Kyle points out: “the Boing Boing article speculates that it might be to separate out people on the Internet who know how to be private from those who don’t so it can capture communications from everyone with privacy know-how.” This is about activists. Who’s hosting, creating and teaching how these things work… and to whom? This reason seems to be backed up by testimony in Germany by two former NSA staffers.

It shouldn’t be surprising. A couple of weeks ago, we learned how the NSA remains able to access and retain American citizen private communications without a warrant. Earlier this week the NSA’s practices were endorsed by President Obama’s own appointed “privacy board” which reported finding “no trace of any such illegitimate activity associated with the program, or any attempt to intentionally circumvent legal limits.” Of course they didn’t.

XKeyscore itself has been known about for almost a year now. This new information only offers a bit more insight into some of the interests it targets. You’re interests, for example, if you’ve actually read this far. May as well keep going at this point.

America is far from alone in creating innovative ways to list people. In UK, the government wants internet service providers to block content unless users specifically ask to see it. Described as a porn filter, people wanting to opt out would also have to tell their ISP they want to access information on various topics, not all of them related to watching people shag in innovative ways. You’d also need to let your ISP know you want access to sites featuring web blocking circumvention tools, esoteric material, web forums, extremist material, and so forth. The ISP puts you on lists for each category. The government decides whether something is esoteric, extremist, pornographic, or the rest. How convenient.

Meanwhile, a group of seven international ISPs popular amongst human rights, environmental and civil liberty activists are taking GCHQ to court over attacks against their networks. There’s good reason to think they should have success in the lawsuit, though I’d be skeptical that it results in a shift of GCHQ practices.

This all fits nicely with my Bailing Hay thesis. Governments are in panic mode. We can see this elsewhere in Europe as well. The Index on Censorship and Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso are using Ushahidi to  crowdsource a map of attacks on free expression and investigative journalism across Europe. It includes threats, intimidation, violence, censorship, detention against journalists and bloggers alike. It’s getting to be a pretty full map.

It’s not only media types who are facing more intimidation in countries that would rather be better known for civil liberties and democratic principles.  Increasingly across Europe unlawful monitoring and methods of coercion are being aimed at environmental activists and human rights advocates. Not exactly ISIS, but then the U.S. can’t seem to track them at all and they’re on Twitter.

Article 19’s report: “A Dangerous Shade of Green: Threats to Environmental Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in Europe,” documents how most nations across Europe are using laws ostensibly created to fight terrorism are re-interpreted to go after GreenPeace and other entirely non-violent activists and trying to portray them as terrorist threats. Safety isn’t the main concern. Stopping disruption is. That’s not easy, really, because back in the U.S. you have a government that wants to simultaneously stir things up and shut things down.

The meme trending  on Twitter is #TORrorist. Someone’s already make a T-shirt, so you know it’s got legs. We’ve got a bizarre situation in which the NSA is attacking  users of an open source project originally sponsored by (though no longer related to) the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory that is still receiving funding from the State Department. Talk about your mixed messages. What’s important, though, is that it works.  Properly set up and used, Tor can make it much more difficult to track your online doings.

Be a #TORrorist

When it comes to production, America’s longest tradition is in producing its own adversaries. The profile of a #TORrorist is you. Happy 4th of July, all.

Hitting the reset

The internet is made for sharing, but it does try to over do it. For Reset The Net day, here’s a dump of some useful ways to share more specifically than the NSA, GCHQ, Unit 8200 or other government spook agencies might prefer…

“We have the technology, and adopting encryption is the first effective step that everyone can take to end mass surveillance. That’s why I am excited for Reset the Net — it will mark the moment when we turn political expression into practical action, and protect ourselves on a large scale… Join us on June 5th, and don’t ask for your privacy. Take it back.” —  Edward Snowden

Surveillance Self Defence by EFF

Rory Peck Trust’s Digital Security Resource for Freelance Journalists

Tactical Technology’s Security-in-a-Box

Article 19’s Iran Online Video Series

CyberArabs (Arabic)

Frank Smyth’s Digital Security Basics for Journalists

Manual de Segurdad Digital Y Movil (Spanish)

Take this survey on digital safety, then take these steps

Information Security by CPJ

Small World News Guide to Safely Using Smartphones (PDF)

The Journalist Survival Guide (English and Arabic)

Online Survival Kit from Reporters Without Borders

Speaksafe: Media Worker’s Toolkit for Safer Online and Mobile Practices by Internews (PDF in English, Spanish and Arabic)

Manual de Seguridad Digital y Móvil by Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists (Spanish).

ifree security tools

Encrypt All the Things

PRISM break

We Fight Censhorhip’s Online Survival Kit


Technical solution to political problems

“The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” John Gilmore

Meanwhile, the internet interprets surveillance as something needing a big hug. The same quality that makes the internet difficult to block also renders it easy to tap. It was made for sharing. It’s difficult to imagine a lobbying effort that would incentivize  governments to ignore this when it comes to how much data they can get on their populations this way. Likewise it’s difficult to think of too many marketing companies who will ignore the opportunity of big data. What’s good about the most recent flavour of the month, Reset The Net, is that it focuses on what people can do that circumvents the dead-end of policy.

We know disruptive technologies are real because people have made charts about it.
We know disruptive technologies are real because people have made charts about it.

We stand a better chance of influencing governments by changing the reality, not by asking them nicely to stop eavesdropping.

This is where disruptive technology and development come in. It changes the playing field. Instead of requesting that mammoth data centres be mothballed, let’s either turn them into empty husks or bloat them with enough encrypted data that trying to crack one week’s worth of it takes the next century.

One thing that’s always bothered me about your typical petition drive or all those “email your senator” campaigns are that they put We the People on the back foot. E-petitions, by in large, don’t work. Mass-based interest groups have no influence in Washington, DC. The June 5th campaign sidesteps all this with practical measures that empower individuals to simply be more in control of who accesses something they’re putting online. Put more plainly: Even if it has no policy impact, you’ll still be better off for taking part.

Here’s how:

Privacy Tools: Encrypt What You Can

by Julia Angwin ProPublica, May 6, 2014, 3 p.m.

In the course of writing my book, Dragnet Nation, I tried various strategies to protect my privacy. In this series of book excerpts and adaptations, I distill the lessons from my privacy experiments into tips for readers.

Ever since Edward Snowden revealed the inner secrets of the NSA, he has been urging Americans to use encryption to protect themselves from rampant spying.

“Encryption does work,” Snowden said, via a remote connection at the SXSW tech conference. “It is a defense against the dark arts for the digital realm.”

ProPublica has written about the NSA’s attempts to break encryption, but we don’t know for sure how successful the spy agency has been, and security experts still recommend using these techniques.

And besides, who doesn’t want to defend against the dark arts? But getting started with encryption can be daunting. Here are a few techniques that most people can use.

Encrypt the data you store. This protects your data from being read by people with access to your computer.

  • Encrypt your hard drive so that if you lose your computer or you get hacked, your information will be safe. Most recent Apple Macintosh computers contain a built-in encryption system called FileVault that is simple to use. Some versions of Microsoft’s Windows 7 also contain a built-in encryption system called BitLocker. Another popular solution is the free, open-source program TrueCrypt, which can either encrypt individual files or entire partitions of your computer or an external hard drive.
  • Encrypt your smartphone’s hard drive. Yes 2014 your smartphone has a hard drive much like your computer has. In fact, your phone probably contains as much 2014 or more 2014 sensitive information about you as your computer does. Apple doesn’t let you encrypt your smart phone’s hard drive or the files on it, though it allows encryption of your phone’s backup files on iTunes or iCloud. You can also use Find my iPhone to remotely “wipe,” or delete the data on your iPhone or iPad if it is lost or stolen. Google’s Android operating system lets you encrypt your phone hard drive.
  • Encrypt the data you store in the cloud. I use the SpiderOak encrypted cloud service. If an encrypted cloud service were somehow forced to hand over their servers, your data would still be safe, because it’s encrypted using a key stored only on your computer. However, this also means that if you lose your password, they can’t help you. The encrypted data would be unrecoverable.

Encrypt the data you transmit. The Snowden revelations have revealed that U.S. and British spy agencies are grabbing as much unencrypted data as they can find as it passes over the Internet. Encrypting your data in transit can protect it against spy agencies, as well as commercial data gatherers.

  • Install HTTPS Everywhere on your Web browser. This encrypts your Web browsing sessions, protecting you from hackers and spy agencies that scoop up unencrypted traffic across the Internet. Not every site works properly with HTTPS Everywhere, though an increasing number do.
  • Use encrypted texting apps with friends who install the same apps on their phones. On the iPhone, Silent Circle and Wickr offer apps for encrypted texting. On Android, the TextSecure app encrypts texts in transit and when they are stored on your device.
  • Use the Off-the-Record Messaging protocol to encrypt your instant messaging conversations. You can still use your favorite instant-messaging service, such as Gchat or AIM, though you’ll need to use a software client that supports the Off-the-Record protocol. On Macs, free software called Adium can enable OTR chats, and on Windows, you can use Pidgin. Once you’ve set up OTR and gone through a simple verification step, you can IM as you usually do. Both parties have to use OTR for the encryption to work.
  • Use Gnu Privacy Guard to encrypt your email conversations. Like OTR, if you’re using GPG you’ll need the people you email with to use it as well in order to encrypt your conversations. I use free software called GPG Tools with Enigmail and Postbox. GPG Tools also works directly with Apple’s built-in Mail program.GPG has some shortcomings 2014 it’s difficult-to-impossible to use it with the mail program built into most smartphones, and you can’t use it easily with webmail like Gmail. (Although there are some new web-based mail programs that use GPG called Mailvelope and StartMail that I haven’t had a chance to try yet.)The most difficult part of GPG is that, unlike the encrypted texting and instant messaging programs, you have to generate a secret key and keep it somewhere secure (usually on your computer or on a USB stick). This often means you can only send GPG mail when you have your key with you. Even so, it is incredibly satisfying once you send your first message and watch it transform into a block of numbers and letters when you click “encrypt.”

Technical agitation

It’s been a while now since I’ve heard or read anything interesting or original on efforts to counter, um, over-reach on the part of the NSA, GCHQ, et al. The common pundit meme on the market is that there is no technical solution, only a policy, or political one. While I applaud the many earnest online petitions and poignant debating points made by various minority party leaders out there, let me just ask: what the hell have you been paying attention to these last decades? A policy solution? Really? Drafted by whom? Voted into law by whom? Enforced by whom? Check and balanced by… you get where this is going. Before descending into a bout of solutionism, let’s look at the problems of policy.

Problem the first: The majority of incumbent policy makers have a defacto bias against weakening government surveillance. It doesn’t work in their favour. Replace them? Ha. Obama the candidate had all sorts of ethical issues about government spying that evaporated once he became Obama the president. Candidates earn their living by rhetorically challenging issues that suddenly become more complex when they actually wield power.

Problem the second: When we’re talking about a policy or political solution, what we’re actually referring to is a legal solution. Or, in other words: ‘There ought to be a law.’ There are a couple of issues with this. The first is this: Laws are themselves technical solutions, and ones fraught with problems. In both network security and safe locks there’s a common truism: You can only create a thing that you can’t break into yourself. A more clever hacker or locksmith will come along and show you what you missed. Lawyers are the technicians in any political solution. What they specialise in are technical challenges. Any law can become circumventable, with the right legal team.

encrypt all the thingsProblem the third: Laws and oversight are laughed at by the agencies we’re talking about. They break them with complete impunity all the time. Copy-and-pasting TechDirt: “NSA analysts have abused their power. Multiple times. The agency has illegally spied on journalists, broken wiretapping laws, viewed President Clinton’s emails and recorded calls from American soldiers back to America, passing around tapes of ones containing ‘phone sex’ or ‘pillow talk.’ That’s just a few instances that we KNOW about.” And they get away with it.

Problem the fourth: If you look at any of the literature made by the companies that peddle spy software to government, one stunning similarity jumps out: It’s all incredibly simplistic and designed for people who don’t understand what they’re looking at. Our elected officials, their appointed advisers and even the people who vote them into office, are amazingly ignorant about both the legal issues involved and the technology used in online surveillance.  When asked about the potential for the NSA to abuse its power, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein had this to say: “I am not a high-tech techie, but I have been told that is not possible.” Rest easy, public.

Problem the fifth: Intelligence agencies don’t seem to know how it works, either. The NSA’s use of MUSCULAR generated so much junk that analysts told them to start collecting less. If what you’re looking to do is find proverbial needles in hay stacks, then you might not want to dump a bunch more hay on top. It’s still not known what threats, if any, these software solutions have thwarted. It seems like the major coup has been to find out if someone on an anti-U.S. jag ever glanced at some porn.

New tech, old strategy
New tech, old strategy

Still, we have Bruce Schneier, possibly the most super powered of the technical solution set telling us: “The solutions have to be political. The best advice for the average person is to agitate for political change.” Let’s not disagree with that out of hand, but instead look at the key word here: Agitate. And on this particular issue, what are the effective means of agitation?

Maybe it’s a public demonstration, along agreed routes and with cooperation from the local authorities and some chanting and clever signs and accompanying an angry petition. That’s got such a proven track record. Or, maybe we look at the adversary for what it is, and take efforts to actually challenge it. This leads us back to technical solutions, but with a cause. It’s not enough to tell government agencies you don’t want them to see your private communications. You’ve got to show them you don’t want them to see it. Likewise, telling a government you should have access to content is not the same as showing it that you have access, and that you’ll continue to and that its efforts are not just brutish, but futile. This is agitation. It doesn’t require a petition.


If there’s going to be a petition, it should come in the form of millions of people choosing to send messages to one another that look like they don’t want some government agency reading. The political solution is that people need to decide what they want government wonks knowing about them and then act on it.

How to (or not) deal with Religious Education in school

For the last few days I’d been trying to work out an op-ed on UK’s fixation with Religious Education as a school requirement, and how it doesn’t work. I have a 5 year old in school, and on occasion he comes home with fantastical tales of this character called Jesus who could apparently walk on water, come back from the dead and do all sorts of other things that would make him a good candidate for an X-Men character. These stories come from the same source he’s meant to rely on to learn maths, spelling and various facts about the natural world. How’s he supposed to be able to tell when the information being passed on is factual, or when the instruction session has deviated into the mythical?

The sticking point is that I can’t can’t seem to find any arguments that haven’t already been made by others, quite possibly better than I’d do myself. So I’m moving on and dumping some things I found here in the o’le blog. For example: Terry Sanderson asked (via the National Secular Society) earlier this year: “How do we keep religious education out of the hands of the evangelists?” The short answer is that you can’t. Slightly contextualized: You can provided you don’t have Religious Education as part of a school curriculum, but leave esoteric matters of a “soul” up to individuals. But this point has been made by others…

As Terry of the first paragraph points out: “Religious education so easily morphs into religious instruction and thence to religious propaganda and evangelising. Enthusiastic believers who are drawn to teaching sometimes cannot stop themselves. This week I was on a radio phone-in show in which parents told horror stories of their own experiences: how a five-year-old had been told by the RE teacher that if she didn’t believe in God she would go to hell, or how a nine-year-old asked in class ‘if God made everything, who made God?’ and was told to shut up.” (bold added by yours truly). “The only way to stop this kind of abuse of a child’s intellect is to abolish the concept of ‘religious education’ entirely.”

Religious Education can’t be reformed. As a member of the Pirate Party UK, I’m happy to be part of one political entity interested in scrapping it. Let’s briefly take a look at the trap and how it’s set: You have UK wide curriculum requirements, then how the different local authorities interpret them and how each school applies them. The requirements fluctuate based on which party is running each government at any particular time.

The Department of Education says Religious Education is compulsory in maintained schools for all students from age 5 to 18 and must include “a daily act of collective worship that should be broadly Christian”… or some other faith (if the school has applied for and received an exception). The caveat here is that it has to be a faith of some sort. The school must prove that there’s a broad interest in some other religion if they’re to substitute one for another. How does one go about determining which faith the majority of a primary school’s population requires in order for their little souls to avoid the alleged fires of hell as mentioned teachers like the one Terry references?

More locally, Lewisham Council muddies the the already swampy waters created by the National Curriculum. Here’s what it says under the heading “Why children have religious education”…

  1. Religious education encourages pupils to learn about different religions, beliefs, values and traditions while exploring their own beliefs and questions of meaning. (Except that it’s predominantly Christian, with a mostly Christian advisory committee. I haven’t heard any reports about tales of Vishnu’s battles with demons, or the Buddha’s transcendence.)
  2. It challenges pupils to consider and discuss issues of truth, belief, faith and ethics. (Children at age 5 want to believe that people can be magic and defy death. I don’t get any reports from school that these stories may in fact not be true.)
  3. Religious education encourages pupils to develop their sense of identity and belonging. It enables them to flourish individually within their communities and as citizens. (Peckham teacher Caitlin Prentice clearly illustrates how this is not the case. Religious Education highlights division and in-group/out-group thinking. Children are taught by their respective faiths that others are going to hell. Invited to talk about this at school, they quickly decide which of their classmates are saved, and which are damned. It’s incredibly distressing to children not yet burdened with this awful, and false, concept.)
  4. Religious education has an important role in preparing pupils for adult life, employment and lifelong learning. It enables pupils to develop respect for and sensitivity to others, in particular those whose faiths and beliefs are different from their own. It promotes discernment and helps pupils to combat prejudice. (Though, as we can see from Caitlin’s example above, it doesn’t do any of this. More troubling is mentioning the notion that it helps with employment. In a secular society, religion should have no baring on that at all. At some age children should become aware that some people believe things that may or may not be true. If they are to successfully navigate the world it’s in critically thinking about these beliefs and an understanding of how evidence and informed skepticism can help determine what’s real from what’s not.)

Children are defacto atheists until members of the previous generation start informing them they have a non-tangible appendage called a soul, that there is an unseen creator of things, and that unless they pray to this thing, their fragile little soul is in serious peril. How brilliant a time it is until they’re stuck with that kind of conceptual baggage from the past! It’s too much to expect that there would be a lesson that essentially said all that is false, kids, no worries. But it would be great if they just left it out of the classroom, where it has no observable place.

So the case has been made by others. I’m adding my bits to the movement here. This blog isn’t about bitching or pretending things are something other than they are, though. Schools still preach god. How to cope with that fact…

  • The direct approach seldom works. Talk about it when your kid brings it up, and be interested. Raise parallel, entertaining comparisons. Point out stories about other gods as well. Thor, for example. The goal is to embed the idea that there have been lots of gods people have believed in over the ages.
  • Find others working on creative ways to deal with it.
  • Encourage facts. When your kid learns a new neat factual thing, have a natter about it. If it happens to be the case, mention how it’s interesting that people held some other belief until that fact was learned (the earth being flat, etc.). It’s not directly related, but encourages interest in things that are real and observable.
  • Know time is on your side. Some schools are upping their RE sessions because Ofsted found the more than 50% of schools aren’t meeting the government’s required regular allowance of holiness. That’s happening because Christianity is declining in UK faster than previously expected and the Church of England is in a snit over that fact. Focusing on RE is an easy win for school’s Ofsted inspections, so when the scores are discussed at school meetings, attend and keep the focus on the non religious parts of Ofsted that actually matter.
  • Know what’s in the curriculum, what the law says and follow any campaigns challenging it.
  • Support changes to the requirements, such abolishing “collective worship” at schools as mentioned in the Pirate Party UK manifesto.

Always end on a pirate note.

The #safetystream tubes

The other day I worked with Rory Peck Trust, Frontline Club and the Frontline Freelance Register on a series of live talks around safety while reporting in conflict zones. The chat continued for a while on Twitter (see below) and there’s another chance to catch more about digital security next week with FFR and the Helen Gurley Brown Institute.

See more at my other blog post.

The Skype security conversation is interesting, and worth having. I ranted more about it over here.