Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Making the Internet Safe for Anarchy

[En français] [In italiano]

Suppose you wanted to achieve some significant political effect; say, prevent or stop an unjust war. You could organize gigantic demonstrations, with hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets, shouting slogans and waving anti-war banners. You could write angry editorials in newspapers and on blogs denouncing the falseness of the casus belli. You could write and phone and email your elected and unelected representatives, asking them to put a stop to it, and they would respond that they will of course try, and by the way could you please make a campaign contribution? You could also seethe and steam and lose sleep and appetite over the disgusting thing your country is about to do or is already doing. Would that stop the war? Alas, no. How many people protested the war in Iraq? And what did that achieve? Precisely nothing.

You see, the slogan “speak truth to power” has certain limitations. The trouble with this slogan is that it ignores the fact that power will not listen and the fact that the people already know the truth and even make jokes about it. Those in power may appear to be persuaded or dissuaded, but only if it is to their advantage to do so. They will also sometimes choose to co-opt, and then quietly subvert, popular movements, in order to legitimize themselves in the eyes of those who would otherwise oppose them. But, in general, they cannot be shifted from pursuing a course they see as advantageous by mere rhetoric from those outside their ranks. Some weaker regimes may be sensitive to embarrassment, provided the criticisms are voiced by high-profile individuals in internationally recognized positions of authority, but these same criticisms backfire when aimed at the stronger regimes, because they make those who voice them themselves appear ridiculous, engaged in something futile.

Using rhetoric to shift those in power from their positions is like trying to win at chess by persuading your opponent to sacrifice his pieces because it is a reasonable, just and fair thing for him to do. As with chess, victory is achieved by moving in a way that restricts your opponent's choices. And, as with chess, the winning strategy is neutralized if your opponent is aware of your strategy ahead of time. Thus, attempting to enter into a dialogue with your opponent is a sure way to weaken your position by giving away your game plan.

In confronting the powerful, the need for secrecy is strengthened by the fact that, unlike chess, which is an overt game, the game of shifting those in power from their positions is best played covertly: it is advantageous to make game-changing events appear as accidents or coincidences, spontaneous rather than organized, and difficult to pin on anyone. Since a scapegoat is always found anyway, it is advantageous if there isn't any identifiable organization with which he can be associated. Where an organization is required, it's best for it to be transitory, fluid and anarchic in nature, and to appear to be ineffectually engaged in some trivial, innocuous pursuit. In CIA parlance, it should at all times maintain plausible deniability.

Such a strategy just might be conceivable, provided the whole thing stays off the Internet. In previous, less networked eras, the work of the secret police was challenging and labor intensive, but the Internet has changed all that. Anything you say on the Internet, whether in a private email, an unpublished document, or posted to a blog, can now be used in evidence against you, or anyone else.

Back in the USSR, to spy on your conversations, the KGB had to come and install a bug in your apartment. That was quite a job in itself. One agent was assigned to track each of your family members, to find a time when there was nobody home. Another agent had to then stand watch, while a couple more would pick the lock, move a piece of furniture, neatly cut out a piece of wallpaper, drill a hole, install the bug, glue and retouch the wallpaper so that it looks undisturbed, and put the furniture back in place. Then the conversations overheard by this bug had to be recorded, and someone had to stand by to swap the bulky reel-to-reel magnetic tapes. Finally, somebody had to go through all the tapes, listening for seditious-sounding snippets of conversation. Often the entire eavesdropping mission failed because of some trivial oversight, such as a deadbolt locked one turn too many or a cigarette butt of the wrong brand left in an ashtray, because it would cause the quarry to suddenly become careful, turning up the radio or the television when discussing anything important. Even if something vaguely seditious could be discerned, it sometimes happened that the person charged with listening turned sympathetic toward his quarry, in a sort of reverse Stockholm syndrome, because the dissidents he was spying on turned out to be forthright, honorable, likeable people—unlike his own detestable superiors. If found, the seditious content had to be laboriously transcribed.

If it became necessary to map out the quarry's social connections, the process was, again, laborious. Transcripts of phone conversations and surveillance tapes had to be correlated against photographs of persons walking in and out of the apartment or seen talking to the quarry. Sometimes letters had to be steamed open and read to determine the nature of the relationships. If seditious documents were found, which were normally typed, then an attempt was made to determine their origin based on the ownership of the typewriter, which could be matched by comparing minor imperfections in characters and small deviations in their alignment against a library of typed samples maintained on file, except that the documents were often typed through five layers of carbon paper, making the characters too blurry to make such identification possible.

Compare that to the situation in the US today, where CIA/FBI/NSA/Homeland Security is quite far along in forming one giant security apparatus that dwarfs the quaint old KGB in both intrusiveness and scope, though probably not in effectiveness, even though modern technology makes their job trivial to the point where much of it can be automated. There used to exist privacy protections written into US law, but they are in the process of disappearing as a result of new legislation, such as the CISPA bill making its way through Congress now. But whether or not a sweeping abolition of privacy rights makes it into law, your online privacy is gone. Since the government can now detain you indefinitely without ever charging, trying or sentencing you, and has full access to your digital data, legal niceties make little difference. Nor does it matter any longer whether or not you are a US citizen: the firewall between CIA (which was supposed to only spy on foreigners) and FBI has disappeared following 9/11, and although this practice violates several acts of Congress, you would be foolish to wait for anyone to do anything about it.

People now tend to communicate via cell phone voice calls, text messages, emails, posts to Facebook and tweets, all of which are digital data, and all of which are saved. Relationships between people can be determined by looking at their Facebook profile, their email contacts, and their cell phone contacts. If your phone is GPS-enabled, your position can be tracked very precisely; if it isn't, your position can still be determined fairly accurately and tracked once your phone connects to a few different cell phone towers. All of this information can be continually monitored and analyzed without human intervention, raising red flags whenever some ominous pattern begins to emerge. We are not quite there yet, but at some point somebody might accidentally get blasted to bits by a drone strike while texting when a wrong T9 predictive text autocompletion triggers a particularly deadly keyword match.

A lot of commerce now happens online, while most retail point of sale systems are now computerized, and most people use credit/debit cards rather than cash and often use “rewards cards” even when paying cash. Thus, everything you buy can be traced to you, and your purchasing patterns can be analyzed to determine such things whether or not you are pregnant. In a recent scandal, the Target chain committed the faux pas of offering discounts on baby products to women who did not yet know they were pregnant, based on their recent purchases of such things as unscented face cream, larger-size bras and various soft, plush items.

Thanks to vastly increased computational power, the emphasis is now shifting from enforcing the law to flagging as aberrant any sort of behavior that the system does not quite understand. That is, it is not looking for violations of specific laws, but for unusual patterns. One such pattern might be an attempt by you and others to go electronically dark for a time. Suppose you are walking to a park, and, before getting there, you switch off your cell phone. And suppose several other people walk to that same park at the same time, and also switch off their cell phones before getting there. And suppose none of you called or texted each other beforehand. Well, that's an obvious red flag for conspiracy! Video from surveillance cameras installed in that park will be downloaded, fed through facial recognition software, and the faces matched up with the cell phones that were switched off. Now you are all connected and flagged as attempting to evade surveillance. If this aberrant behavior is observed during some future time of national emergency (as opposed to the usual permanent war on terror) drone aircraft might be dispatched to take you out. All of this might happen without any human intervention, under the control of a fully automated security threat neutralization system. It's a bit of a Catch22: stay off the Internet, and you are sure to be too socially isolated to organize anything; get on the Internet and you are immediately exposed; do a little of each, and you suddenly start looking very suspicious and invite additional scrutiny.

If you are a bit more savvy, you might be able to come up with ways to use the Internet anonymously. You buy a laptop with cash and don't register it, so that the MAC address can't be traced to you. You use Internet cafés that have open Internet access or pirate open wifi connections from somewhere. You connect to web sites outside of the US jurisdiction via SSL (HTTPS protocol) or use encrypted services such as Skype. You further attempt to anonymize your access using Tor. You think you are safe. But wait! Are you running a commercial operating system, like Windows or Mac OS? If so, it has a back door, added by the manufacturer based on a secret request from the US government. The back door allows someone (not necessarily the government, but anybody who knows about it) to install a keystroke logger that captures all your keystrokes and periodically uploads them to some server for analysis. Now all of your communications, and username/password combinations, are known to a third party.

Suppose you know about back doors in commercial operating systems, and so you compile your own OS (some flavor of Linux or BSD) from source code. You run it in ultra-secure mode, and nervously monitor all incoming and outgoing network connections for anything that shouldn't be there. You encrypt your hard drive. You do not store any contact information, passwords or, for that matter, anything else on your laptop. You run the browser in “private” mode so that it doesn't maintain a browsing history. You look quite fetching in your tin foil hat. You are not just a member of Anonymous, you are Anonymous! But do you realize how suspicious this makes you look? The haggard look from having to memorize all those URLs and passwords, the darting eye movements... Somebody is going to haul you in for questioning just for the hell of it. At that point, you represent a challenge to the surveillance team: a hard target, somebody they can use to hone their skills. This is not a good position to be in.

Internet anonymity doesn't have much of a future. It is already all but nonexistent in China. You land in Beijing, and need a cell phone. To purchase a SIM card for your cell phone, you need to show your passport. Now you SIM card is tied to your passport number. You go to an Internet café. There, Internet access is free, but to connect you need a password which is sent to your cell phone via SMS. Now your passport number is tied to everything you do while on the Internet. Can you remain anonymous? Not too much, I would think.

But even if you could remain anonymous, are you still rebellious enough to challenge the status quo through risky but effective covert action? My guess is that you are by now quite docile, thanks, again, to the Internet. You don't want to do anything that might jeopardize your access to it. You have your favorite music and books in the cloud, your online games, your Facebook friends, and you can't imagine life without them. For many people, Internet is also the way they get sex, either voyeuristically, through porn, or by finding people to have sex with. And I have observed that men, even if normally rebellious, become quite docile if they think that they might get to have sex. (Women tend to be more docile than men in any case.) Overall, there seems to be a taming effect associated with Internet access. People might still feel rage, but they rage by posting nasty comments on blogs or engaging in flame wars on newsgroups.

There is supposed to be such a thing as Internet activism, but a better term for it is “Slacktivism,” a term used by Evgeny Morozov in his book The Net Delusion, which is worth a look. He is a Belarussian activist whose work is funded by George Soros's Open Society Foundation, which I find creepy, plus he spends a lot of time trying to give policy advice to the US government on ways to promote democracy abroad—a funny-smelling subject as far as I am concerned, pots calling kettles black and so on. He does list a lot of amusing SNAFUs, such as the State Department spending money to train Iranian bloggers to use software that's been embargoed by the Treasury Department. But the point he makes about Internet activism is important: it is too easy, too low-risk (unless you happen to be in Iran or Syria or Belarus) and, in general, futile. Should it ever rise to the point of posing a threat to the status quo, it is easily neutralized by authoritarian governments, Western corporations, or a combination of both. The world's biggest censors are not China and Russia, says Morozov, they are Apple Computer and Facebook. In all, Internet activism is a powerful time-waster, a boon for repressive, authoritarian regimes, a tar pit for foreign Internet neophytes, and a delusion for Western politicians and activists.

Does the idea of achieving some significant political effect still seem interesting? What if I told you that you could achieve that same effect with just a bit of patience, sitting like a Buddha with your arms folded, a beatific smile on your face? The idea is not too far-fetched.

You see, the Internet is a very resilient system, designed to let packets flow around any obstruction. It is, to some extent, self-regulating and self-healing. But it depends on another system, which is not resilient at all: the electric grid. In the US, the grid is a creaking, aging system, which now exhibits an exponentially increasing rate of failure. It is susceptible to the phenomenon of cascaded failure, where small faults are magnified throughout the system. Since the money needed to upgrade the system no longer exists, blackouts will continue to proliferate. As the grid goes down, Internet access will be lost. Cell phone access is more likely to remain, but without the grid most people will lose the ability to recharge their mobile devices. Information technology may look shiny and new, but the fact remains that the Internet is around 40% coal-fired and around 20% nuclear-powered.

Beyond the purely technical issues with the electric grid, there is also a problem with finding enough energy to power it. About half the electricity comes from coal, which is of increasingly poor quality. The volumes of coal are staying more or less constant, but the energy density of the coal is decreasing over time. The anthracite that made the age of steam possible is all but gone. The lignite and brown coal that have replaced it are sometimes closer to dirt than to coal. At some point it will become a net waste of energy to mine them and transport them to a power plant. Already the inferior quality of coal is causing giant balls of clinker to accumulate in the power plant furnaces, causing extensive downtime and millions in damage. As for other sources of electricity, the aging nuclear power plants, many on their last legs and already unsafe, is a story for a separate article; likewise with the mirage of energy independence, to be achieved by “fracking” for shale gas and other equally ineffective dirty tricks. Moving forward, the amount of time the electric grid is available in any given place will dwindle, and with it the amount of Internet access.

As the electric grid goes down, there will be a great deal of economic disruption, which is enough material for yet another article. But in terms of the surveillance system, two effects are virtually guaranteed. First, people will once again become very expensive to track and monitor, as in the olden days of the KGB. Second, people will cease to be docile. What keeps people docile is access to the magic shiny world of television and the Internet. Their own lives might be dull, grey, hopeless, and filled with drudgery, but as long as they can periodically catch a glimpse of heaven inhabited by smooth-skinned celebrities with toned muscles sporting the latest fashions, listen to their favorite noise, watch a football game, and distract themselves with video games, blogs, or cute animals on Reddit's /r/aww, they can at least dream. Once they wake up from that dream, they look around, and then look around some more, and then they become seriously angry. This is why the many countries and regions that at one time or another ran short on energy, be it former Soviet Georgia or Bulgaria or the Russian far east, always tried to provide at least a few hours of electricity every day, usually in the evenings, during “prime time,” so that the populace could get its daily dose of fiction, because this was cheaper than containing a seriously angry populace by imposing curfews and maintaining around-the-clock military patrols and checkpoints.

And so, if you want to achieve a serious political effect, my suggestion is that you sit back Buddha-like, fold your arms, and do some deep breathing exercises. Then you should work on developing some interpersonal skills that don't need to be mediated by electronics. Chances are, you will get plenty of opportunities to practice them when the time comes, giving seriously angry people something useful to do. By then nobody will be watching you, because the watchers will have grown tired of looking at their persistently blank monitor screens and gone home. Then they too will become seriously angry—but not at you.

[Comment and discuss on reddit's /r/collapse]