Albania: OpenLabs, a hackerspace to protect and unlock the digital

Interview by Eric da Silva

open lab hackerspace

Co-founded by Redon Skikuli in 2012, Open Labs is an independent, self-funded organization dedicated to training citizens in the proper use of new technologies. Its members intervene in schools, train journalists and political activists, and most recently collaborated with the Tirana City Council to develop a free and sovereign cloud project.

After the controversial leak of a large amount of identifiable personal data from the public website e-Albania during the Spring 2021 legislative campaign, Open Labs has announced that it will be working for the surveillance section of art collective DebatikCenter’s manifest hijacking project. Facilitated the organization of CryptoParty.

Meeting with activists Mariana Barra and Boris Budini.

Le Courier des Balkans (CdB): How can Albanians recognize the challenges of free and controlled digital technology?

Boris Budini (BB): We are just getting started. It’s hard to explain why digital freedom is so important, because Albanians don’t really have access to digital tools. Nevertheless, the digitalization of public administration with e-Albania has made our job easier. Albanians are keenly aware of the importance of protecting their rights and personal information in both physical and digital societies.

Mariana Barra (MB): We have also translated the software into Albanian to make it more accessible. We also work in schools in Tirana and Baler, cities with little economic means. Students do not have access to computers, but we will provide them for the workshop.

BB: These workshops will raise awareness and promote free alternatives such as Linux instead of Windows and Libre Office instead of Microsoft Office. We also aim to influence public policy to develop tools that are accessible to all.For example, campaign Public money? Audience Code! It was launched across Europe in 2017 with the aim of establishing Free Software as the standard for publicly funded software.

CdB: A major digital issue concerns the protection of personal data. Albania experienced two major data breaches in 2021, his in April and his in December. A database collected by the ruling Socialist Party during the election campaign contained classified information on the political opinions of some one million citizens…

BB: There were so many leaks, including a few in April 2021 alone, that it’s hard to give a number. The Edi Rama government has decided to close reception and switched administrative procedures online. In July 2022, an entity (Edi Rama specifically accused Iran of being behind this cyberattack, editor’s note) hacked into his government-to-government digital infrastructure and exfiltrated all data in the system. claims to hold This made the public e-Albania website unavailable for service. I remember having to travel, but I didn’t get a Covid passport, for example. Then, in late August, some phone numbers were leaked.

mother: In the event of a data breach or service downtime, agencies first blame the company they hired to provide security. The hack was reportedly caused by a Microsoft vulnerability. We are frustrated by the failure of public debate to highlight the issue of leaks. But the debate has shifted from “good or bad.” “Is my salary higher or lower than yours?”. We need to ask ourselves the following questions: How did this happen and what should we do from it?

CdB: Have you learned any lessons since then?

BB: The entire database of citizens of this country was already leaked in 2008. It’s illegal to have a copy, but it’s pretty easy to get one. At that time, people were unaware of the problem of personal data and information about names, addresses and family members was freely available. What happened next was basically his April 2021 update of this database, which included license plates, salaries, phone numbers, and who was most likely to vote.

When the leak happened, the Digital Rights Commissioner countered that it was happening in other countries as well. In Albania, the debate tends to veer in favor of partisanship. It is difficult for the public to understand that something could be wrong from a civil society point of view and that it has nothing to do with the parties in power.

You can call your phone operator to obtain your SIM card and access your e-Albania account.

MB: Many Albanians suffer from a digital divide. They don’t have computers or don’t know how to use them. These people use free-access computers, for example, in libraries and internet cafes. For 500 lek (about 4 euros) you can access the e-Albania account creation service. However, these accounts are not disconnected after use. Additionally, the user often does not have an account, so the caregiver may create an account using her email address. This also leads to access and data protection issues.

BB: At best, you will lose access to your account. Worst case scenario, someone can handle the administrative process for you. No real double authentication. You can connect with a username and password or an ID card. You can call the phone operator to get the user’s girlfriend’s SIM card and access the e-Albania account. OpenLabs should start leading the discussion on the issue of digital rights for all.

CdB: What do you think is needed to improve Albania’s cybersecurity practices and data protection legal framework?

MB: Albania has laws, but the problem is their implementation. For example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) introduced by the European Union in 2016 should be adopted. This is a requirement if the country wants to join her EU one day. We still have a long way to go to improve our digital rights policies, especially in terms of digital inclusion. However, on our scale, we are noticing a growing awareness among Albanians.

2018 Oscar International Conference
cc BY-SA 4.0 / Andis Rado

CdB: In 2017, Tirana City Hall became the first capital city in the Western Balkans to switch to Nextcloud, a free software hosting site and collaboration platform. what changed?

BB: Companies and administrators use their own non-free tools because they need the technical and logistical support these tools provide. Open code and a high-quality interface are not enough. IT maintenance services are also required. Or you need to show them how to easily do their own IT maintenance services.

MB: Another problem is the resistance of city officials to change. They already know the interface and want to focus on their work. You have to differentiate between the decision maker and the end user, take the pulse of the end user and accompany him to change tools.

CdB: Do you work with organizations in neighboring countries?

MB: Yes, we work with many organizations such as Free Libre Open Source Software Kosova (FLOSSK) and Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). This especially happens during OSCAL, the international conference on free software that we hold annually in Albania. The goal is to promote software freedom, open knowledge and liberal culture empowerment. At the end of August, in Pristina, I attended a workshop called “Geotaggers” for women to learn how to contribute to geodata using Free Her software.

BB: It is good to maintain international relations, but we must also establish our local standing. We strive to work with journalists and political activists. With them you will learn how to organize cryptographic parties to encrypt communications between them or with their sources.we are also participating in the project Preservation of Tiranawhose aim is to map villas and old buildings in Tirana that are threatened by major projects initiated by the City Hall and the government. can list these demolitions and raise public awareness.

CdB: In 2013, the Open Labs founder explained in an interview that the association “doesn’t want it.”[ait] Don’t build relationships with local or national government until you have a strong community. ” In recent years, your organization has signed memorandums of understanding with several institutions. So has the community managed to strengthen itself?

BB:: Of course. We were able to open the space this month in August. We are coming out of a difficult time where we were unable to host events related to the pandemic and had to incur significant rent and other expenses. There is a real sense of solidarity among the members and a desire to work together more.


This article is published with support from the Heinrich Bell Paris Foundation.


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