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Friday 19 October 2018

A first of its kind programme taught by computer scientist and educational pioneer, Dr Andy Farnell, Solent is ground zero for testing some high powered Kung-Fu.

"There are many courses on cyber security appearing", explains the programme's author, "but these are designed to create professionals who will go on to work in our banks and businesses.  Civil cyber security, ordinary personal intellectual self defence is for everyone, no matter what your age or role, this is something new for our digital times."

For example, the second lecture looked at how not to give your email address to stores or 'officials' who ask for it. "Your email is worth a few quid, and much more when combined with purchase or demographic data, but we give it away two or three times a day to complete strangers", explains Andy. "If you give that homeless guy at the station what you give to Amazon and Google fifty times a day, well there's one less social problem. But we have no idea what our data is worth".

"How to gracefully lie and evade was considered by the Greeks as a fine art of life skill, called Arete", he goes on. Humans are naturally cooperative, and besides, we usually have no idea (about those very rare occasions) when we are legally compelled to give truthful data. Smart people change email addresses regularly and make up new ones on the spot, to track the trackers and monitor the monitors", he concludes.  Modern digital self defence is treated as 'a humanistic, interaction design problem' in this course. In a global world of ambiguous ownership, loyalty and 'post truth', the military metaphor of attackers, defenders, perimeters and assets is showing its limits.

Education is a lifelong interest for Dr Farnell, and trying to make very complex and difficult subjects accessible to wider audiences is one of Andy's particular interests.

But understanding hacking is really hard. Andy started in the 1970s at the age of 9, with home built computers and telephone lines, long before the world wide web.

"How do you go about teaching 10,000 hours of deep stuff about signals, packets, encryption, stack overflow exploits, and firewalls? You don't." 

For Dr Farnell the approach is to use metaphor, allegory, literature, film, theatre and archetypes to explain what is going on in the digital world, so that any intelligent adult can grasp it. Only towards the end of the course do things get technical.

Cultivating healthy scepticism, and appropriately cautious behaviour in the digital world is the core of this project.  Just as fairy tales and nursery rhymes teach children morality and dangers far in advance of their years, a humanistic allegorical approach to cyber-security has enormous power.

But don't be fooled, there's nothing easy, light or patronising about this work. The first lecture examines the meaning of 'Kung-Fu'. It has little to do with fighting, says Andy, but means, "hard work, earned skill". It requires you to draw deep into your own well of self-respect, responsibility, and stare into your psyche, to question your motives around 'convenience', loyalty and interpersonal relationships.  In fact the course comes with a slew of shock and trigger warnings, and contains some really hard hitting stuff. Don't come here seeking comfort and social justice. "This will press all your buttons and make many people very, very angry" says Andy. "Betrayal is a tough thing to deal with, and realising that the systems you love and trust are basically out to get you requires, shall we say... a little adjustment. With that understanding you can make technology your tool again, instead of your master".

Cyber-security is a fast moving target. Any book on it is woefully out of date. So part of the course is seminar style discussion of film clips and tech news articles. Lecture two started with us watching the start of Schindler's List. After the Sabbath prayer most people recall something violent, like shouting, or shooting.  In fact the first scene is a bottle of ink on a table, and a clerk asking "Name?". It is the innocuous face of malfeasance that we should really be vigilant about. Particularly things that are pushed as "helping you", but strangely are hard to refuse or do without. Attendance at this course is very strictly voluntary, and limited.

"Cyber security is everybody's business", says Dr. Farnell.  "We suppose that governments and corporations are going to sort it all out, and that is never going to happen. For many reasons neither economics nor regulation will have much effect. When you look at owning a smartphone or a computer as a social responsibility, and a responsibility to defend yourself, that's a more positive direction. The only way towards that is radical education".

"Everyone who learns self defence has an 'attack scenario' in mind. In your nightmares you are walking down a dark alley and someone jumps out and shouts "give me money!" In fact you are most likely to be assaulted by someone you know or love. Understanding threat models, evaluating risk and watching for behavioural patterns is an important part of Digital Self Defence. You are more likely to be harmed by an individual or company you trust than a random Russian Hacker."  Dark digital assailants always appear in the mass media wearing a balaclava and black gloves, holding a laptop. "Honestly, you try hacking your way into a bag of crisps wearing those gloves", says Andy.

Solent lecturer and Kempo black-belt Juan Battaner-Moro helped Andy to formulate the 'self defence' metaphor and supports the project. He has considered extending invitations to his womens' self-defence students, saying "The digital part of your life overlaps naturally with precautions for physical safety".

About the instructor:

Dr Andy Farnell holds a PhD in computer sound signal processing, wrote the foundational text on procedural audio for MIT Press, He took joint honours in Computer Science and Electronics Engineering at UCL, then worked in the music business, including for the BBC as a multi-award-winning sound effects designer, before coding server-side technologies for search and distributed storage. He is a long time free software hacker, visiting professor at many European universities, a veteran of the Shoreditch start-up scene, a live-coder, and more recently a dabbler in blockchain technologies.

As well as teaching at Solent, Andy is currently contracted via a 77 Brigade Pysops project to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office raising awareness of sexual violence in conflict, a project about which he is pleased to tell people that his boss's boss is, technically, Angelina Jolie, but has never met her and likely never will.