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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, 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.

A Shift in the Wind

I think that Exolymph is ready to change. In retrospect, I’ve been getting bored with my “dystopia is real and we’re living it” thesis since writing “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” last October. (Luckily I didn’t call the project A Cyberpunk Newsletter, so the inscrutable name will stay. Besides, it’s more like I want to zoom in on a particular niche topic, not ditch everything.)

“Cyberpunk is now” was an exciting revelation a year ago — at least to me, although I certainly didn’t come up with the idea. Now it feels banal. The mainstream press is covering cyberpunk themes more and more, and other blogs are doing my schtick better than me. I talked around this when I made a list of cyberpunk content sources back in February.

Most of the publications that I mentioned then don’t delve into the sociopolitics of cyberpunk, but anecdotally the topic is more prevalent than it used to be. Today someone posted on Hacker News, “Would you be interested in a ‘cyberpunk’ inspired news site?” In the comments people pointed out that Wired covers a lot of this territory, as do fringe outlets like those I listed months ago, and N O D E.

So anyway. Like I said, the dissatisfaction has been simmering in my head for months. But reading David Auerbach’s latest essay on the Trump regime is what flipped the switch and made me realize that I need to change Exolymph’s editorial mandate. (No, I’m not going to join #TheResistance and write about Trump all the time — let me explain before you roll your eyes.)

In his essay, Auerbach laid out the relationship(s) between the American overculture (his preferred term) and the country’s surging undercultures. “If you went on 4chan in 2016, you were part of the underculture. If you read about 4chan in the news and believed what you read, you were part of the overculture,” Auerbach quipped.

As it happens, I tend to bounce between these realms more than the average person. Subcultures have long fascinated me, since I’m an incorrigible drama voyeur (like any good journalist). That’s what I want to concentrate on now: How subcultures relate to the mainstream in the twenty-first century.

The internet has transformed the way that social information (memes, if you will) travel up and down between subculture and mainstream. Traditionally, the elites of the mainstream directed the grand narrative. The geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths of subcultures provided the components that were used to compile that grand narrative. But now the elite gatekeepers have lost so much of their power — not all of it, but enough for Auerbach’s underculture to shake things up.

These are the questions that I want to explore:

  • Who is able to travel up and down the cultural stack?
  • What do they bring with them?
  • Do the messages that they carry change along the way?
  • How much do they change?
  • Is it on purpose?
  • When are travelers able to make the trip safely, and when are they hijacked?
  • How do the different levels govern themselves?
  • How do they govern each other?
  • Which factions are able to go vertical, encompassing cross-sections of multiple strata?

On a concrete level, the newsletter probably won’t feel very different. For example, here’s an issue that I would have covered before that will be even more relevant given the new focus.

And now, an abrupt ending! I have an early flight tomorrow and honestly that’s all I have to say.

Header artwork by Albert Ramon Puig.

Pointillism of Failure

One of the most interested things that happened this week was an AWS outage. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Amazon Web Services is a sophisticated cloud host for websites and apps. It is very widely used, especially among startups. When it goes down, as it did on Tuesday, many tech workers can’t do their jobs. At least Twitter was still available, providing a convenient location for complaints. (Additional discussion took place on Hacker News.)

I wrote about the incident for work, first summing up reactions from Twitter and then making the case that AWS is not a monopoly and shouldn’t be regulated as such. In response to that argument, my friend Adam Elkus pointed out that decentralized infrastructure was a founding ideal of the internet. The beautiful new world of http://www was supposed to empower individuals at the expense of institutions, be they governmental or private.

It has done that — but as usual, the reality is more of a complex onion than the idealists seemed to expect. In my first Ribbonfarm essay, I wrote:

The internet enables more individual opportunity than ever before — how would my words manage to reach you otherwise? And the internet is more meritocratic than the landscape it took over, because anyone can distribute their own work to a potential audience of millions, but of course age-old power dynamics can’t be erased in one fell swoop. It also enables winner-take-all businesses, like Amazon’s dominance in ecommerce and Facebook’s reign over news media.

Centralization wins because it’s efficient, given the constraints and affordances of the internet. And yet this centralization can be penetrated — not dismantled, but surface segments can be peeled back. That’s what hackers do when they leak a database or whatever.

One of cyberpunk’s central insights, as an ethos, was that the internet gives individuals more power at the same time that amoral, corporatized institutions build up their strongholds. It’s funny that some of the same people — the cypherpunks, say — explicitly bridged cynical cyberpunk and sunny techno-utopianism.

In John Perry Barlow’s “Independence of Cyberspace” manifesto, presented to “Governments of the Industrial World” at Davos, he said:

The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish. […] We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.

No one can arrest our thoughts, unless they’re hosted on AWS — a factory of the information economy if there ever was one — in which case someone fat-fingering a command kicks your thoughts into the inaccessible nowhere of a disconnected server farm. It’s impossible not to be at someone’s mercy.

Header artwork by Igor Kirdeika.

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.

Very Virtuous Circumvention

Remember Erik Prince, the ex-Blackwater mercenary who seemed to be building a private army? He’s up to his usual hijinks, this time expanding in China:

Former associates of the 47-year-old Prince told BuzzFeed News that the controversial businessman envisions using the bases to train and deploy an army of Chinese retired soldiers who can protect Chinese corporate and government strategic interests around the world, without having to involve the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. […]

In an email to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for Frontier Services Group [which is Prince’s current company] provided a statement and strongly disputed that the company was going to become a new Blackwater, insisting that all of its security services were unarmed and therefore not regulated. “FSG’s services do not involve armed personnel or training armed personnel.” The training at the Chinese bases would “help non-military personnel provide close protection security, without the use of arms.”

And to that I say ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ because who knows what the hell is actually happening.

My previous impression was that Prince is a bumbling idiot. The BuzzFeed article doesn’t disabuse me of that notion. But! Apparently being a bumbling idiot is not much of an obstacle to paramilitary success. More likely, I’m underestimating his abilities.

Still, one of the parts of the ~dystopian future~ that I never would have anticipated is the way that people can hack their way to the top. This has probably always been true to varying degrees — think of the old pop-culture meme about women sleeping with their bosses to get promoted. It probably didn’t (and doesn’t) actually happen often, but to the extent that it did, those women were doing an end-run around the established decision-making structures.

Maybe I’m more of a Silicon Valley idealist than I realized, imagining a system based on meritocratic principles. But hey, you can even make the argument that people who figure out how to circumvent procedural checks and balances (not just the legal kind) are displaying a certain kind of merit. A certain kind of competency.

Is it the good kind?

Artwork by Icarus Hall.

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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