Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Transnational Surveillance Dystopia

“CypherPunks – Freedom and the Future of the Internet,” by Julian Assange, with Jacob Applebaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn and Jérémie Zimmermann, 2012

Julian Assange was under house arrest when this book was created, and is now holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in a threadbare room, like an anarchist Cardinal Mindszenty.  He’s there because his deportation to Sweden for ‘questioning’ on a sex-crime allegation would most certainly result in him being handed over to the U.S. to face kangaroo court Grand Jury charges of ‘aiding terrorism.’  This is the dramatic backdrop to this discussion between 4 aging ‘cypherpunks’ about the dual nature of the internet – the largest realm of popular interaction in history and also the final form a total surveillance society may take. 

Assange is one of the founders of Wikileaks, a journalistic website, and also one of the most prominent ‘hackers’ and internet activists in the world.  Here he talks with comrades from 3 other countries who do not agree on everything, but agree that ‘the people’ must be protected from ‘the state.’  They are not leftists in any traditional sense – essentially supporting market solutions on repeated occasions in these discussions – but they are ferocious opponents of censorship and government surveillance – and some of them have already paid a price for that.

Applebaum has been repeatedly detained in airports and at the U.S. border, his computer seized and himself interrogated, all because he supports Wikileaks.  Muller-Maghuhn is a long-time member of the mostly German Chaos Computer Club hackers group.  Zimmermann works in France for ‘La Quadrature du Net,” a citizens advocacy group fighting corporate copyright and intellectual ‘property’ laws and for net neutrality. 

First the dystopic news.  It should come as no surprise that Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon etc. work closely with the U.S. government.  NSA intercept spy servers are running in the same buildings as the servers of these internet websites and internet providers.  The basic thesis, shown to be true by multiple whistleblowers, is that all digital communications by U.S. citizens are being retained and mined for data, not just that with so-called foreigners.  Your Skype phone call, your e-mail, your Facebook pictures, your purchases at Amazon, your web browsing, your iPhone call is all captured and stored.  The cost of retention is going down to the point that any country can afford it.  Surveillance software to capture and mine this data is not regulated, while encryption software is.  Which means that, legally, governments and corporations can spy on you, but you cannot defend yourself as easily. This, of course, shows that the Stasi were just amateurs.

The discussion notes that the Russian government reasonably requested that Russian Visa/ Mastercard/ Paypal transactions be hosted by servers in Russia (instead of the U.S.) and the bankers, backed up by the U.S. government, said ‘no.’  Which means every Russian transaction using these banks is being recorded by U.S. servers monitored by the NSA.  It should be noted that these banking entities also cooperated with the U.S. government to deny payments to Wikileaks without any visible legal process or convictions.  Here we can see the secret subpoenas and secret orders of the government at work, thanks to the Patriot Act and the FISA law.  250,000 secret ‘national security letters’ went out in 2011 or 2010, and none were concerned with terrorism, according to the authors.  These modern ‘bi-partisan’ laws are essentially overruling progressive parts of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

The government rationale for total surveillance the group dubs, ‘the four horseman of the Info-Apocalypse’ – terrorism, child pornography, money-laundering and drugs.  Assange asserts what this is instead leading to is a ‘transnational surveillance dystopia’ more concerned with protecting the powerful and limiting protest.  Assange understands that physical coercion underlies all of this surveillance – it is not merely disembodied surveillance.  And he should know, as should Bradley Manning.

So what does the group recommend as its utopian answer?  Technically, they put a particular emphasis on encryption.  Assange himself invented the ‘rubberhose file system’ which encrypts groups of files from surveillance, and also includes certain password protections against torture.  The group also mentions ‘tor’ frequently, which was formerly known as “The Onion Router (tor).”  Tor is a method of using the internet while encrypted, like web-browsing, e-mailing, on-line posts, instant messaging, etc.  This is done by passing data through a host network of volunteers’ computers.  This is similar to ‘the dark internet,’ ('Freenet") which uses similar encrypted methods on similar networked computers (bits of a file scattered across 1000's of computers), but is ostensibly used for more illegal purposes.  Tor is, amazingly enough, funded by the Government of Sweden, the U.S. State Department, the National Science Foundation and the Broadcasting Board of Governors according to Wikipedia.  I suspect anything sponsored by the State Department might have a ‘backdoor’ for the NSA that users might not know about, although it is supposedly transparent software.  But that is another story, and one this group should be aware of, no doubt.  Another technological invention is the ‘Cryptophone’ which allows encrypted telephonic messages, which Muller-Maghuhn helped develop.

Given the supervision of monetary transactions by the government, they also advocate ‘bitcoins’ which is basically internet money that can be exchanged for real Euros or dollars, etc. later.  Yet, bitcoin transactions cannot be tracked in the same way, and so provide a method of anonymity for internet transactions.  

Transparency, which Wikileaks is dedicated to, is Assange’s particular interest.  Governments and corporations that are allowed to hide their activities from citizens, while they spy on those same citizens, are the enemy.  Assange asserts that the millions of pages Wikileaks has published are only the tip of an iceberg of ostensible secrecy that no one will be able to plumb.  Wikileaks helped the Tunisian resistance get revealing articles about the Tunisian government past royal internet censorship and into the hands of Tunisian citizens, so they don’t merely publish material, but distribute it.

The authors’ real goal is to support a free internet and free software, by awakening people to what is actually happening.  In this way they hope to recruit a mass movement in support of ‘physics’ that has the technical and political skills to reverse the surveillance and censorship trend.  Applebaum recounts his visit to a U.S. military conference that featured war-gaming for ‘cyber warriors,’ in a ‘patriotic’ attempt to recruit tech-savvy youth to the CIA and other government agencies.  Of course, there is never a cyber game about ‘cyber peace.’  In a way, this group wants to recruit people to the ‘other side’ of a ‘virtual ’collective defense – of the world citizenry, not the corporations or governments.  Assange puts it this way as to the importance of the medium, “…of course, anyone can stay off the internet.  But then it’s hard for them to have any influence.” We might mention that strikes, sit downs, occupations and revolutionary organizations are not ultimately internet-based, but they can certainly be helped – and sometimes hindered - by the internet.

The weakness here is, of course, that this technical struggle for internet freedom is abstracted from the greater struggle of the working class for freedom.  The ‘physical’ force understood by Assange is really the state apparatus, which is not any old ‘generic’ state, but in nearly all the cases presented here, is a state that defends the corporate ‘market.’  Assange states that: “underpinning the high-tech communications revolution – and the liberty that we have extracted from that – is the whole neoliberal, transnational, globalized modern market economy.”  But then he repeatedly hopes that industrial corporations who have an interest in privacy will join them in the fight – as Google did on net neutrality.  He speaks of ‘micro-capital’ being on their side, and even asserts, seemingly not with tongue-in-cheek, that U.S. congressman and congressional votes should be purchased like every other commodity by ‘productive industries.’ Applebaum wants a ‘socially restrained capitalism.’  Muller-Magnum thinks Sarbanes-Oxley really will protect whistle-blowers.  Etc.  So combined with their tough and elegant real work on these issues, they have certain contradictions that veil the true enemy.

After all, who thinks there is a market that will not be dominated by corporate capital?  It is an idea that is as old-fashioned as Adam Smith, and oddly coming out of the mouths of the most high tech people.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
January 2, 2013

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