• Monday, March 16, 2015 - 05:30

Anisha Sheth | The News Minute | March 14, 2015 | 6. 30 pm IST

The internet has broken down traditional hierarchies of information control. All it needed was someone who knew how to work the virtual ropes. John Little is one such person, who knows how to work the virtual ropes and uses it to create a stream of information that over 77,000 people rely on.

Since April 2008, Little has been operating Blogs of War , a Twitter handle that is a hub of conflict related information that comes from all over the internet. The Twitter handle is almost a real-time conflict update mechanism, thanks to Little’s capacity to hack together digital tools to trawl through information and also spend several hours a day doing various things to keep up this information flow.

An IT professional in his 40s, Little first began a blog called "Blogs of War" in 2002, after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in the United States. Beginning as a blog, Little later shifted his platform to Twitter as the micro-blogging site actually became the space for real-time exchange of news.

Little began using computers in the late 1970s and describes himself has being “fascinated with how information flows and communities form since the early pre-internet BBS (bulletin board system) and IRC (internet relay chat) days”. 

Over the years, he has become the focus of much attention, earned a mention in several books and media research projects, besides being included in Time magazine’s list of 140 best Twitter feeds of 2014. Although he says he has often thought of giving it up, he writes on his website Blogs of War: “These things are all nice but I’m most proud of the quality of my core audience. You’re the reason I keep doing this year after year.”

Little spoke to The News Minute about starting the Twitter handle, his interest in conflict, the internet, hacking, intelligence and spying. An edited interview:

You’ve named your Twitter feed “Blogs of War”, which you’ve said comes from Shakespeare’s “dogs of war”. In what way does war interest you, and what prompted you to start your blog initially and then move on to create a twitter handle for real time war / conflict feeds?

I was interested in terrorism well before 9/11 but the events of that day, and the global shifts that resulted, brought focus to my efforts. I was also frustrated with the pace of the media, at least online, at that time. Online news properties were updated infrequently and journalists made poor use of the internet to discover and source content. Blogs of War wasn't planned, and I certainly never thought I'd be doing it fourteen or fifteen years later. I just started sharing what I knew, or could find, in an attempt to help people educate themselves.
There are several sub-feeds but they are all experimental. I am not currently maintaining them so they are closed.

How do you define war and conflict, and how do you choose which ones to cover and which ones to leave out?

Any conflict on the planet is fair game. There's no formulae and what appears on Blogs of War could be determined by world events or my shifting interests.

You have said in the past that what you are trying to do is at best an attempt at achieving the impossible. You’ve also said that you have a full life away from your blog. Hasn’t it been difficult for you to continue with this for so many years?

Yes. It is very difficult. I've come close to quitting many times but running Blogs of War keeps life interesting - sometimes too interesting.

You have spoken about your interest in “war dialing. How would you describe the present-day hacking? Is there any type of hacking that interests you today?

Hacking and hacker culture interests me - and at heart that's what I am. At its best hacking is about intense curiosity, discovery, innovation, and creativity. Of course, I don't participate in anything that is illegal or even unethical. The barrier to entry for that type of hacking (if you want to escape arrest) is very high now. Few people can do it for long. Although, If someone is into that aspect there have never been more opportunities to use those skills legitimately and for good.

There is so much happening on the hardware side these days. Tremendously capable devices can be built for next to nothing. Power requirements are plummeting as well. When I see this and the ubiquitousness of communication pathways (wireless or otherwise) I have to believe that are interesting devices that we could be putting into the hands of the oppressed, the poor, and those in conflict zones. I wish more hackers (whatever their politics) would come together and look for creative ways to apply their skills to unsolvable problem areas - North Korea for example.

Governments, internet companies, private groups, terrorists, and other types of hackers have made the internet increasingly insecure, and data has become unsafe. Could the world wide web have taken any other direction?

Not really. Of course, freedom could be restricted but the people who create those restrictions, the technical people, would also find or build creative ways around any limiting technology. This layer of technology in our lives will continue to be a battlefield for many movements and ideas. It does seem to me that states have the edge. I'd bet on them going forward too. That doesn't mean that individual actors or hackers won't have success but the deck is stacked against them. One thing is certain however - the average person doesn't stand much of chance if either governments or hackers target them.

As someone who keeps a track of intelligence, what are your views on technological surveillance carried out by governments?

I'm both sympathetic and concerned. Spies need to spy and at the end of the day they have to go to wherever the information they seek is stored. That being said, for many, our entire lives revolve around technology. This leaves us vulnerable to the possibility that governments might not always use this intrusive power for good. In the long run the best way to deal with this tension is to have open and frank discussions that lead to acceptable legal frameworks. This is where I break with a lot of privacy advocates. I don't think demonizing all governments and intelligence agencies is productive just as I don't think the intelligence community's lack of communication or public education is productive. We have to do a better job of discussing this.

There is a view that internet has made the world a faster place, especially for journalism. Would like to comment on that?

There is no doubt about it. I created Blogs of War at a time when major news sites updated their websites just a couple of times per day. As bloggers, we pushed that pace forward significantly and the media responded. Twitter then came along and shortened that cycle to near real time. It made bloggers look like old, slow media. It's fascinating to take part in this and to watch it unfold. And while it is interesting I don't know if the overall impact on society will be positive. We certainly haven't adapted to it completely. Every human tragedy, hateful act, or atrocity can unfold on your computer or phone in real time now. It is having a profound impact on communications, propaganda, conflict, and the individual's ability to project power and destabilize much larger forces.