The Coconut Wireless

Last week’s column introduced a broad but important topic about current trends in technology. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take some time to look in more detail about the issues of privacy and access to information. What are the current trends? How are they going to affect us here in Vanuatu? What can we do to mitigate the worst effects and maximise the best of them?

Before we go into detail, though, it’s important to establish a bit of context. We’ve already described how people often make the wrong assumptions about the level of privacy they enjoy when using computers and the Internet. But let’s look at this issue in more practical terms.

Everyone in Vanuatu knows what ‘Coconut Wireless’ means. It refers to the lively rumours that spread via word of mouth concerning anything – or anyone – of interest to people as they idle away their spare time. In small doses, it’s generally unreliable, but when information is amalgamated from numerous sources, an assiduous listener can gather a good deal of interesting (sometimes deliciously scurrilous) and surprisingly accurate information.

The ability to benefit from such information requires a degree of skill. It’s important to understand one’s sources and to rank them according to their authority on a particular topic. You also need to know how to play the game. One never takes information without giving as well. Our most trustworthy friends receive the best, most detailed information, while those whom we don’t know – or don’t trust – often receive only vague allusions to the facts.

Sometimes, it’s convenient to spread information widely; sometimes it’s more politic to keep our own counsel and to repeat nothing at all. The system is therefore incomplete, erratic and occasionally wildly off-base. But every newcomer to Vanuatu soon comes to the realisation that it’s an important and remarkably efficient way to pass the news.

To this day, word of mouth remains the most common medium for transmitting the news. People listen to the radio for cyclone warnings and other critical items, but the vast majority of detailed information is transmitted face to face.

Recently, this writer’s employer decided to start offering Internet services through WiFi. The decision to name the service Coconut Wireless represented more than just a cute play on words. It accurately reflects the nature of the technology, its resemblance to age-old patterns of communication, and most importantly, the fact that this medium is a public one.

Computer users often go to great lengths to ensure that nobody can peek over their shoulder and watch what they’re doing. But they seldom think much about what happens when what they’ve typed is no longer on the screen. It’s a reasonable reaction, of course. Out of sight, out of mind.

If only it were that simple. Consider this story: Somebody sees a friend of theirs walking along the other side of the street. They smile and wave, as people here always do, and shout, “So blong yu olsem wanem?” (i.e. “How’s that nasty infection?”) It’s just a joke, of course, and the two of them laugh and continue on their way.

But everyone else has heard this exchange. Those who know the two don’t think anything of it, but what about those who don’t? Suppose someone has heard this exchange, then sees the recipient of the joke talking to a nice girl outside the church after service the next Sunday? Suppose they feel the need to inform this nice girl about her interlocutor’s dark secret?

The Internet is a public place. Any conversation we have there should be considered the same as a conversation in Port Vila market on a Saturday morning. The only difference is that the market only has a few hundred people present, whereas the Internet has millions and millions. There is always someone within earshot. Unless you take steps to hide what you’re doing, everything you do is out in the open, accessible to prying eyes.

Whenever you send information using the Internet, try to imagine that you’re having a conversation in a public place. That email you sent to your lover, detailing the ways in which you would unleash your unbridled passion when you were next reunited? Public. That forum you posted anonymously in, lambasting your employer? Public, and possibly traceable.

Wireless Internet services are even more ‘public’. Anyone with a mind to do so can watch every single byte being transmitted over such a network. You see, the only way to make such networks useable to the average non-geek is to open them up entirely. The moment you start to put protections on them – passwords and the like – they become cumbersome and awkward for someone who just needs to check their mail quickly, confirm a flight departure time, or chat for a few minutes in Skype.

It’s possible to talk quietly in a public place. It’s possible to have a private conversation using the Internet, too. Some effort and care is required, but it’s not so hard to do. All the rules that we apply to our conversations can be applied to computers as well. We can alter how loudly we speak, we can choose where to say certain things, we can choose who we talk to, and more importantly, who we talk near.

Here’s a simple exercise to help you better understand computer privacy: Whenever you write something, imagine you’re dictating it to a friend standing on the other side of the street. If you feel the need to cross the road and say something quietly, you should take measures to ensure that your message is transmitted safely, and only to the right recipients. If you don’t want to say it at all, and would rather whisper it in the privacy of your own home, then use encryption to hide the document from anyone but your most trusted friends and colleagues. We’ll talk more about how to do this in the weeks to come.

Every community has its prying busy-bodies, its gossip-mongers and tattle-tales. There is also the occasional fraudster or con-man who abuses people’s goodwill to his own ends. Most commonly, there are well-meaning but naive people who try their best to be useful to others but who don’t think enough about the consequences of their actions.

All of these exist on the Internet, too, of course. The only difference being that the numbers we meet in real life are dwarfed by the number we’ll encounter online. Spammers take advantage of our propensity to forward emails and sign up for ‘fun’ websites and services. They abuse our desire to build online social networks, and they steal from us when they can.

The governments of the US, China and many other nations are world-class busy-bodies. They record literally every bit of Internet traffic that crosses their borders. They store it, cross-reference it and use it to spot threatening patterns and trends. None of us in tiny, innocent Vanuatu are likely to be under suspicion, but nonetheless, consider that it might be unwise to shout “So blong yu?” too loudly.

In the majority, though, are the websites and services that mean well, but sometimes make mistakes. They gather all kinds of information about us in order that we can more easily find stuff that’s interesting and useful. They help us manage our time, our relationships, even our idle chatter and gossip. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with all of this, but it’s useful to treat sites like this as a well-meaning but slightly stupid friend who doesn’t always know when to shut up. By all means keep talking, but consider that what you say might get misconstrued, or just blurted out without forethought.

The Coconut Wireless is a useful – even essential – tool here in Vanuatu. The Internet is essential to communications now, too. But don’t let the gadgets fool you: We’re still standing on the sidewalk, chatting to our friends, catching up on gossip and making plans to meet.

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