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[liberationtech] openness and transparency Re: Deconstructing the security risks narrative of Haystack

Brandon Wiley brandon at
Sat Sep 18 09:43:52 PDT 2010

Hi Zooko, nice to see you as always. :-)

I am disappointed by the response to Haystack because I think it will have a
negative effect on young activists. In addition to the lesson about openness
(which is a good lesson, to be sure), there is an implicit lesson that if
you try to do something innovative the risk of failure is being vilified by
bloggers and becoming an object of hatred and disdain. This is probably a
true lesson, but it's not the sort of thing I think we should teach. If I
had witnessed this exchange back when I was working on Freenet, I think I
would have been scared to death of receiving the same treatment if I didn't
do everything according to some possibly unknown or misunderstood community

Haystack had a lot going for it. It had an export license, a grant, a
501(c)3, plenty of free marketing. the only problem was that it didn't work
at all. It's a shame to throw away all that infrastructure and all the good
people that believed in it and were working on it. I fear that now people
will be very skeptical of funding, contributing to, or using similar
products because of the bad press that Haystack received. I favor mentorship
over ostracism. Haystack was trying to solve a hard problem, not an
impossible problem. It could have been fixed, or even replaced under the
hood with something that works, even just a rebranded Tor. I'm not involved
with the project, so maybe there are details of which I'm unaware. Maybe the
CRC was uncooperative in fixing their product. Whatever the situation, I
think it's an unfortunate outcome.

While I totally agree that secrecy should be discouraged, I'd just like to
advocate the approach of offering an alternative, so that the message is
"Secrecy fails, try openness!" instead of "If you try secrecy, you will
never work in this industry again." Anyway, what's done is done. I think
that one good thing that's come out of this is some posts by various people
clearly articulating community guidelines. That's good stuff, no matter how
you look at it.

On Sat, Sep 18, 2010 at 11:18 AM, Zooko O'Whielacronx <zooko at>wrote:

> Hi folks:
> I've been hacking on security, decentralization, and freedom tools
> either for money or for love for around 16 years now. I've been
> following this discussion but not speaking up because other computer
> security experts such as Jacob Appelbaum and Alec Muffet have already
> said what I would have said: that the conventional wisdom in the
> computer security community is Kerkhof's Principle--keeping the
> security mechanism secret damages the overall security of the system.
> I'm just jumping in now to point out something else: violating
> Kerkhof's Principle damages not only on the technical security of the
> tool itself, but also damages the community around it. It damages the
> relationships between its developers, its users, developers of
> alternative or complementary tools, the media, political communities
> that are related to it, etc..
> If Haystack had been developed in openness and transparency from the
> beginning, then the mistakes and misunderstandings would long ago have
> been cleared up, letting everyone learn from them, instead of
> festering and leading to worse mistakes and misunderstandings.
> To my ears (as one long steeped in the cultures of computer security
> and of Free/Open Source software development) this observation sounds
> too almost obvious to mention, but maybe it is not so obvious to
> everyone.
> The benefits of openness and transparency, and the dangers of secrecy
> and insularity, apply to us just as well as they apply to others.
> One consequence of this observation is that it is very important, in
> my humble opinion, not to give the people responsible for Haystack a
> break--not to refrain from blaming them just because they were
> well-intentioned.
> I assume that they were all well-intentioned. But it doesn't matter if
> they were. Whether they were well-intentioned or self-aggrandizing,
> whether they were honest or duplicitous, skilled or incompetent--none
> of that is important. What is important is that other young activists
> who might choose to engage in actions like this in the future hear
> about the Haystack debacle and hear that the people behind it were
> irresponsible when they chose the path of secrecy and insularity, thus
> condemning the project to do more harm than good. This is an important
> lesson for others to learn, and it isn't obvious, so we need to be
> clear about teaching it.
> Regards,
> Zooko Wilcox-O'Hearn
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> liberationtech at
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