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Snoop Unto Them As They Snoop Unto Us

Abruptly returning to a previous topic, here’s a guest dispatch from Famicoman (AKA Mike Dank) on surveillance and privacy. Back to the new focus soon.


The letter sat innocently in a pile of mail on the kitchen table. A boring envelope, nondescript at a glance, that would become something of a Schrödinger’s cat before the inevitable unsealing. The front of it bared the name of the sender, in bright, black letters — “U.S. Department of Justice — Federal Bureau of Investigations.” This probably isn’t something that most people would ever want to find in their mailbox.

For me, the FBI still conjures up imagery straight out of movies, like the bumbling group in 1995’s Hackers, wrongfully pursuing Dade Murphy and his ragtag team of techno-misfits instead of the more sinister Plague. While this reference is dated, I still feel like there is a certain stigma placed upon the FBI, especially by the technophiles who understand there is more to computing than web browsers and document editing. As laws surrounding computers become more sophisticated, we can see them turn draconian. Pioneers, visionaries, and otherwise independent thinkers can be reduced to little more than a prisoner number.

Weeks earlier, I had submitted a Privacy Act inquiry through the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act service. For years, the FBI and other three-letter-agencies have allowed people to openly request information on a myriad of subjects. I was never particularly curious about the outcome of a specific court case or what information The New York Times has requested for articles; my interests were a bit more selfish.

Using the FBI’s eFOIA portal through their website, I filled out a few fields and requested my own FBI file. Creating a FOIA request is greatly simplified these days, and you can even use free services, such as getmyfbifile.com, to generate forms that can be sent to different agencies. I only opted to pursue the FBI at this time, but could always query other agencies in the future.

The whole online eFOIA process was painless, taking maybe two minutes to complete, but I had hesitations as my cursor hovered over the final “Submit” button. Whether or not I actually went through with this, I knew that the state of the information the FBI had on me already wouldn’t falter. They either have something, or they don’t, and I think I’m ready to find out. With this rationalization, I decided to submit — in more ways than one.

The following days went by slowly and my mind seemed to race. I had read anecdotes from people who had requested their FBI file, and knew the results could leave me with more questions than answers. I read one account of someone receiving a document with many redactions, large swathes of blacked-out text, giving a minute-by-minute report of his activities with a collegiate political group. A few more accounts mentioned documents of fully-redacted text, pages upon pages of black lines and nothing else.

What was I in store for? It truly astonishes me that a requester would get back anything at all, even a simple acknowledgement that some record exists. In today’s society where almost everyone has a concern about their privacy, or at least an acknowledgement that they are likely being monitored in some way, the fact that I could send a basic request for information about myself seems like a nonsensical loophole in our current cyberpolitical climate. You would never see this bureaucratic process highlighted in the latest technothriller.

About two weeks after my initial request, there I was, staring at the letter sticking out from the mail stack on the kitchen table. All at once, it filled me with both gloom and solace. This was it, I was going to see what it spelled out, for better or worse. Until I opened it, the contents would remain both good and bad news. After slicing the envelope, I unfolded the two crisp pieces of paper inside, complete with FBI letterhead and a signature from the Record/Information Dissemination Section Chief. As I ingested the first paragraph, I found the line that I hoped I would, “We were unable to identify main records responsive to the FOIA.”

Relief washed over, and any images I had of suited men arriving in black vans to take me away subsided (back down to the normal levels of paranoia, at least). It was the best information I could have received, but not at all what I had expected. For over ten years, I have been involved in several offbeat Internet subcultures and groups, and more than a few sound reason enough to land me on someone’s radar. I was involved with a popular Internet-based hacking video show, held a role in a physical hacking group/meeting, hosted a Tor relay, experimented openly with alternative, secure mesh networks, sysop’d a BitTorrent tracker, and a few other nefarious things here and there.

I always tried to stay on the legal side of things, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t dabble with technologies that could be used for less than savory purposes. In some cases, just figuring out how something can be done was more rewarding than the thought of using it to commit an act or an exploit. Normal people (like friends and coworkers) might call me “suspicious” or tell me I was “likely on a list,” but I didn’t seem to be from what I could gather from the response in front of me.

When I turned back to read the second paragraph, I eyed an interesting passage, “By standard FBI practice and pursuant to FOIA exemption… and Privacy Act exemption… this response neither confirms or denies the existence of your subject’s name on any watch lists.” So maybe I was right to be worried. Maybe I am being watched. I would have no way of knowing. This “neither confirms or denies” response is called a Glomar, which means my information has the potential to be withheld as a matter of national security, or over privacy concerns.

Maybe they do have information on me after all. Even if I received a flat confirmation that there is nothing on me, would I believe it? What is to prevent a government organization from lying to me for “my own good”? How can I be expected to show any semblance of trust at face value? Now that all is said and done, I don’t know much more than I did when I started, and have little to show for the whole exchange besides an official request number and a few pieces of paper with boilerplate, cover-your-ass language.

If we look back at someone like Kevin Mitnick, the cunning social engineer who received a fateful knock on his hotel door right before being arrested in early 1995, we see a prime example of law enforcement pursuing someone not only for the actions they took, but the skills and knowledge they possess. Echoing Operation Sundevil, only five years prior, government agencies wanted to make examples out of their targets, and incite scare tactics to keep others in line.

I can’t help but think of “The Hacker Manifesto,” written by The Mentor (an alias used by Loyd Blankenship) in 1986. “We explore… and you call us criminals. We seek knowledge… and you call us criminals,” Blankenship writes shortly after being arrested himself. Even if I received a page of blacked-out text in the mail, would I be scared and change my habits? What if I awoke to a hammering on my door in the middle of the night? I still don’t know what to make of my response, but maybe I’ll submit another request again next year.

Knock, knock.


Header artwork by Matt Brown.

Speculative Revolutions

"this is how every revolution goes in one image" — @corpsemap

“this is how every revolution goes in one image” — @corpsemap

The revolution will be televised! Mainly on surveillance cameras, with footage piped live to police sitrooms. The official streams will be shoddily tapped by the guerrilla IT unit. Police HQ won’t especially mind, because keeping the riot scenes exclusive isn’t necessary.

As we’ve discussed previously, every camera is a surveillance camera when you’re a cop. People reflexively post their footage online, sometimes even helpfully geotagging it. At some point, captions will be run through sentiment analysis automatically, pegging possible insurgents.

So that’ll be fun. (Will be? Or is already being?)

Here’s a semi-related thought from Nils Gilman (who wrote “The Twin Insurgency”):

That the existing system is patently illegitimate alas does not mean that there must exist some self-evidently better alternative Order

He’s talking about US politics — who isn’t, these days — but the point applies in other contexts. Just because things are bad in a given situation doesn’t mean that there is actually a better option. Sometimes things are just bad.

It especially doesn’t mean that your speculative scheme would definitely work better. We’ve already implemented all the ideas with obviously minimal tradeoffs; the rest of the arguments aren’t one-sided (or at least they shouldn’t be).

It’s sort of grimly funny that so many utopian revolutions devolve into police states. Oh, the irony.

Nothing Clever, I’m Just Scared

Warning: I’m only equipped to gradually wind my way around to the point.


I’ve been trying to write down my feelings all day. I reread Cat Marnell’s Amphetamine Logic columns and pondered oblivion. Did you know that I’ve basically never done drugs? It’s silly to be a teetotaling transhumanist, no matter how passive. Maybe shooting up would Show Me the Way. Perhaps I’d be a better advocate for total bodily autonomy (AKA trans rights).

My partner gave me the corner of an edible once and I just felt like I had a fever. That’s the closest I’ve gotten to “doing drugs”. Alcohol, on the other hand. Well! I do have an appropriately addictive personality, and my therapist is so concerned when I admit that I drink as much as any other formerly depressed twenty-something.

On the subject of depression, I felt more anguished today than I have in a long time. The SFO protest helped in the moment, but comedowns are always painful. Venlafaxine fixed my brain chemistry. But as far as I know, neurotic personalities can’t be fixed. BEING YOURSELF IS PERMANENT.

I reread Marnell’s essays, and I reread my post-election blog post. Then I second-guessed myself. Back in November I wrote, “I don’t believe we’re on the edge of a national apocalypse,” but what the fuck did I know? What the fuck do I know now? How can I pull away far enough to judge my own capabilities?

You could call this liberal tears. Please, feel free. Here in the United States, we’re close enough to my pre-committed “total resistance” threshold — the Muslim registry — that I’m pondering the best strategy of, uh, total resistance. Tips welcome. If you live in an authoritarian country you might be laughing at me, and that’s fine.

At the protest last night, I cried once, and wished the crowd would sing “This Land Is Your Land” even if most of us are colonizers because I need some kind of harmonious resistance in the present. I need an identity politics that is able to unite people instead of sectioning them off into boxes and imposing baroque rulesets.

Last year on Tumblr I coined the term “femmencholy” and that’s how I feel. I’m never more ladylike than when I’m sobbing. Not that I’m literally sobbing — it’s more of a symbol. A concept.

Image by @greatartbot.

Image by @greatartbot.

What does this have to do with techno-dystopia?! You may be wondering. It does and it doesn’t. You see, this is where we are:

As a result of many related factors — difficult economic conditions, the recrudescence of nationalism and tribalism, weak and uncertain political leadership and unresponsive mainstream political parties, a new era of communications that seems to strengthen rather than weaken tribalism — there has emerged a crisis of confidence in what might be called the liberal enlightenment project.

They don’t mean the lefty type of liberal, they mean the “believes in representative democracy” type of liberal.

The “new era of communications” is what enables me to contact you and also what enables everything that scares me.

We’ve found ourselves here as well:

The Internet was supposed to liberate us from gatekeepers; and, indeed, information now comes at us from all possible sources, all with equal credibility. […] The belief in the corruptibility of all institutions leads to a dead end of universal distrust.

How very Russian of us, comrades!!!

Liberal tears, I know. I know, okay? I suspect many of you have an anarcho-libertarian bent, which is my preferred brand of radical. I hope you will forgive me for being partisan.


Header artwork by Magochama.

I Hope You Like the NSA Because the NSA Sure Likes You

Today’s news about the NSA feels a little too spot-on. I hope the hackneyed scriptwriters for 2017 feel ashamed:

In its final days, the Obama administration has expanded the power of the National Security Agency to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 16 other intelligence agencies before applying privacy protections.

The new rules significantly relax longstanding limits on what the N.S.A. may do with the information gathered by its most powerful surveillance operations, which are largely unregulated by American wiretapping laws. These include collecting satellite transmissions, phone calls and emails that cross network switches abroad, and messages between people abroad that cross domestic network switches.

The change means that far more officials will be searching through raw data. Essentially, the government is reducing the risk that the N.S.A. will fail to recognize that a piece of information would be valuable to another agency, but increasing the risk that officials will see private information about innocent people.

Really? Expanding the NSA’s power, so soon after the Snowden plotline? A move like this might be exciting in an earlier season, but at this point the show is just demoralizing its viewers. Especially after making the rule that no one can turn off their TV, ever, it just seems cruel.

At least the Brits have it worse? I dunno, that doesn’t make me feel better, since America likes to import UK culture. (It’s one of our founding principles!)

Now is a good time to donate to the Tor Project, is what I’m saying.

In other news, researchers can pull fingerprints from photos and use the data to unlock your phone, etc. Throwback: fingerprints are horrible passwords.

Remember, kids, remaining in your original flesh at all is a poor security practice.


Header photo via torbakhopper, who attributes it to Scott Richard.

Reclaiming the Panopticon

The following is Tim Herd’s response to the previous dispatch about sousveillance.


A tech executive was quoted saying something like, “Privacy is dead. Deal with it.” [According to the Wall Street Journal, it was Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems. He said, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”]

I think he’s right, for most working definitions of “privacy”. I think that security professionals, privacy advocates, etc, are fighting rearguard actions and they will lose eventually.

Less than a year after Amazon rolls out Alexa, cops pull audio from it to get evidence for a conviction. That microphone is on 24/7, and in full knowledge of this people still buy them.

Why?

Information is valuable. The same technology that lets me look up photos of your house for shits and grins, or to stalk you, is what powers Google Maps.

Privacy and these new technologies will, and have already, come into conflict. The value of the new tech is way, way more than the value of the privacy lost.

This can devolve into 1984 lightning fast. On the other hand, think about this: “Probably the best-known recent example of sousveillance is when Los Angeles resident George Holliday videotaped police officers beating Rodney King after he had been stopped for a traffic violation.” [From the Steve Mann paper.]

The same surveillance tech that makes us spied on all the time, makes other people spied on all the time. I can’t get up to no good, but cops can’t either.

It’s a tool, and it all depends on how it’s used.

Take me, for example. With a handful of exceptions that I am not putting to paper, there is nothing in my life that is particularly problematic. If the government were spying on me 24/7, it wouldn’t even matter. I have nothing to hide.

(I understand the implications regarding wider social norms. I’m working under the assumption that That Ship Has Sailed.)

The people who do have things to hide, well, we made that shit illegal for a reason. Why should I care when they get burned? That’s the whole goddamn point of the law.

(Aside: I believe that the more strictly enforced a law is, the better it is for everyone overall, because consistency of expectations is important. I bet that the roads would be much safer and more orderly if every single time anyone sped, ever, they automatically got a speeding ticket. Always. No matter what. No cat-and-mouse games with cops, no wondering which lights have speed cameras. Just a dirt-simple law. Here is the rule. Follow it and we are fine. Break it and you will always lose. So many problems are caused by people trying to game the rules, break them whenever possible, and follow them only when they have to.)

(Continued aside: Obviously shit would hit the fan if we started automatically 100% enforcing every traffic law. But you better believe that within a month of that policy being rolled out nationwide, speed limits would rise by at least 50%.)

The reason we care about surveillance is that a lot of things are more illegal than we think they should be.

Obvious example: In a world of perfect surveillance, 50% of California gets thrown in federal prison for smoking weed.

All of this is build-up to my hypothesis:

  • The fully surveilled world is coming, whether we like it or not.
  • This will bring us a ton of benefits if we’re smart and brave enough to leverage it.
  • This will bring an unprecedented ability for authorities to impose on us and coerce us, if we are not careful.

Which brings me to the actual thesis: Libertarianism and formal anarchy is going to be way more important in the near future, to cope with this. In a world of perfect surveillance, every person in San Francisco can be thrown in prison if a prosecutor feels like it. Because, for example, literally every in-law rental is illegal (unless they changed the law).

The way you get a perfect surveillance world without everyone going to prison is drastic liberalization of criminal law, drastic reduction of regulatory law, and live-and-let-live social norms that focus very precisely on harms suffered and on restorative justice.

A more general idea that I am anchoring everything on: A lot of people think tech is bad, but that is because they do not take agency over it. Tech is a tool with unimaginable potential for good… if you take initiative and use it. If you sit back and just wait for it to happen, it goes bad.

If you sit back and wait as Facebook starts spying on you more and more, then you will get burned. But if instead you take advantage of it and come up with a harebrained scheme to find dates by using Facebook’s extremely powerful ad-targeting technology… you will benefit so hard.


Header artwork depicting Facebook as a global panopticon by Joelle L.

Controlling the Opposition to Some Extent

This quote is often attributed to Vladimir Lenin: “The best way to control the opposition is to lead it ourselves.” He speaks of puppet movements and useful idiots. (The latter term is also Leninese, as it happens.) There is a less-popular companion statement, which seems to have bubbled up from the frustrated id of anonymous extremists:

"All opposition is controlled opposition." Made with Buffer's Pablo.

“All opposition is controlled opposition.” Made with Buffer’s Pablo.

The idea behind this maxim is that the state allows a certain amount of opposition to exist, and often infiltrates protest movements or steers them from afar. (Anarchist groups have developed what they call “security culture” as a way to guard against this.)

Dissidents are permitted to bleed off tension without actually endangering the regime. People with the savvy and energy to organize real trouble are swallowed up by doomed groups fighting for doomed causes.

For example, the “controlled opposition” interpretation of the #NoDAPL protests would be: The activists feel like they’ve won a victory, but the pipeline will just be slightly rerouted, built eventually, and imperil the groundwater in due time. The tribe’s supposed success serves to placate the public. Behind the scenes, the state and its capitalist cronies do whatever they want.

Some observers interpret mainstream political parties as controlled opposition en masse. Show contests orchestrated by the deep state in order to keep the voters occupied. Wars are engineered by corporate interests. According to this paradigm, we don’t just swoop in and crush ISIS because the military-industrial complex thrives on hot wars.

I think “all opposition is controlled opposition” is a bit like “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Both sayings are nonsense when interpreted literally, but they’re catchy ways to encapsulate an emotionally compelling idea.

Yes, clearly controlled opposition does exist. But genuinely disruptive fringe groups also exist. The English government didn’t benefit from the IRA, and the French Revolution managed to behead a couple of monarchs (plus many unfortunate members of the aristocracy). Mao Zedong’s rise to power was not controlled opposition.

In general, I think people tend to see conspiracies where there are actually incentive structures. Of course the state has to strike a balance between crushing dissent entirely and allowing it to enter society’s memetic bloodstream. If the politicians and bureaucrats err too far in either direction, the state loses its power.


Header photo via the euskadi 11.

A Grand Theory of Cyberpunk

Today I’m supposed to disseminate my steadfastly cyberpunk take on empires. Conveniently, today is also the pub date for my Ribbonfarm guest essay, “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” — it lays out the philosophy that I’ve been developing via Exolymph for almost a year. Unsurprisingly, that philosophy has plenty to do with government. A taste:

Protesters’ advantage is their ability to take over the news cycle, simultaneously in every part of a given country, because the internet means information travels instantaneously. Many of us have smartphones that ding us every time something new develops. “Did you see… ?!”

But the police and other fiat institutions have the same advantage they’ve always had — the ability to lock people up, sometimes justified but often not. What’s new to the law enforcement arsenal is being able to sort and target high-impact targets at scale. […]

Cyberpunk highlights the power of vigilante hackers, sure, but it also points to the power of institutions, whether stultified or moving fast and breaking things. The balance between these two types of entities is what’s fascinating and crucial to watch.

So go read that! I’m quite happy about how it turned out, but I’m also very interested in your feedback. (As always!)


Header photo by Spencer.

Hinting at Globalism

In response to my floundering last week, reader Michael Dempsey suggested:

I think that you could take a look at a weekly concept and go deeper as to the best case, worst case, and cyberpunk outcomes in each. Would allow you to avoid constant negativity while also writing about how our future very well could splinter based on outcomes.

And reader Jan Renner suggested:

Several millennia in the past Europe was the cradle of innovation and cultural development. In my opinion this came to be by chance, since the climate was always very balmy in middle Europe, which made survival much easier compared to other parts of the world. Alongside with some easy to domesticate animals this gave early Europeans a lot of free time for thinking, innovating and developing in all areas of life. This resulted in rich kingdoms and such, which lead to colonization of most of the world, which lead to various other things in turn.

So, I don’t agree with this entirely. Europe and its offspring did end up being globally dominant — see Guns, Germs, and Steel plus current American hegemony — but European empires weren’t the first of their kind and there were other large-scale powers concurrently. Many scientific and cultural advances originated elsewhere before being coopted by Europeans. That said, Renner is broadly correct. (This isn’t a reflection of the quality of European people, but rather luck and first conditions snowballing into surprising end results.)

Tying the two suggestions together, this week I’m going to look at the best case, worst case, and cyberpunk case of today’s empires. I am definitely coming at this from an American perspective, since that’s where I live and what I know best. YMMV.

Image via Salon; originator of the ~cyber~ edit unknown. This is Frank Underwood from House of Cards, played by Kevin Spacey.

Image via Salon; originator of the ~cyber~ edit unknown. This is Frank Underwood from House of Cards, played by Kevin Spacey.

Let’s start the week on an optimistic note, eh? I actually think we’re pretty darn close to an optimal setup, assuming we can keep multinational trade deals intact. That may reflect my cynicism re: what the best-case scenario can be.

On a macro level, political outcomes are largely important to the extent that they affect economic outcomes, and I expect Hillary Clinton (the overwhelmingly likely winner, but please still vote) to be pretty pro-trade, whatever her stump-speech rhetoric. She’s a neoliberal and from what the disgusted leftists tell me, neoliberals like free markets.

The great thing about trade is that it’s win-win for the parties who are directly involved. From Nick Szabo’s long essay about the origins of money:

Because individuals, clans, and tribes all vary in their preferences, vary in their ability to satisfy these preferences, and vary in the beliefs they have about these skills and preferences and the objects that are consequent of them, there are always gains to be made from trade. Whether the costs of making these trades — transaction costs — are low enough to make the trades worthwhile is another matter.

One of the useful effects of the internet is pushing transaction costs lower and lower. Transaction costs are intimately tied to distribution, of both goods and ideas. The internet has “disrupted” the geography-bound analogue world in which distribution was slow and full of gatekeepers. We all bounce together so much more often now.

The unfortunate things about trade are 1) environmental externalities and 2) HR externalities.

Manufacturing wreaks a lot of environmental havoc that the perpetrating companies are never held accountable for, often in countries with nonfunctional governments. (Think mineral mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) And then from the human resources perspective, a corporation moving to [insert country with lower labor costs] is good for both the corporation and the workers in the place they relocate to. But it’s hard for the place they relocate from, at least in the short term.

I don’t see a quick solution to either of these problems. We need strong governments so that we can pressure large companies not to do the heinous things that they love to do absent regulation, and we need free trade to fully express comparative advantage.

What’s really missing is easy movement of labor — if individual humans were able to migrate at will, they could go to wherever the jobs were until we reached a supply-and-demand equilibrium.

I said a few paragraph ago, “political outcomes are largely important to the extent that they affect economic outcomes” — this is an example. A pro-immigration, not-explicitly-racist president is crucial because that kind of executive may ease restrictions on workers’ ability to relocate according to their financial prospects.

Does all of that make sense? Am I too callous, zooming out to focus on economics?


Reader JM Porup disagrees with me re: multinational trade deals. He previously wrote an article about his thoughts on the matter, which you should read if you’re interested!

Uninformation Campaigns

So, this is fun! A black-hat “reputation management” firm seems to be filing illegitimate lawsuits in order to get judgments that will force Google to take down unflattering search results. The case-by-case details are worth reading, but here’s a taste of what Washington Post reporters Eugene Volokh and Paul Alan concluded:

Google and various other Internet platforms have a policy: They won’t take down material (or, in Google’s case, remove it from Google indexes) just because someone says it’s defamatory. […] But if they see a court order that declares that some material is defamatory, they tend to take down or deindex the material, relying on the court’s decision. […]

Who is behind these cases? For many of these, we don’t know. As we mentioned, many of the plaintiffs might well not have known what was happening. They might have hired a reputation management company, expecting it to get the negative posts removed legitimately (e.g., through a legitimate libel lawsuit, or through negotiation with the actual authors).

(Bold in original. Story via @counternotions on Twitter.)

Mostly I find this amusing, but I also feel a touch uneasy. For one thing, the courts appear to have verified nothing. So this is a case of slimy lawyers tricking the state into suppressing free speech, solely because their clients paid them to. The state went along with it happily (except for one skeptical judge). Systems that only work when everyone acts in good faith… well, those systems are easy to break.

You can argue that Google is not the government and it’s not a legal free speech issue for them to exclude whatever they see fit from their search results. And to be honest, I don’t know where the official line falls. But I do think it’s notable that Google is only deindexing this material because a government entity has instructed them to, however indirectly.

I guess that wouldn’t be a problem if the court were acting competently?


In other news, some modern humans find themselves in this situation: “Still haven’t had a first cup of tea this morning, debugging the kettle and now iWifi base-station has reset. Boiling water in saucepan now.”


Header image by Sean MacEntee.

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