cryptocuration and its miscontent

The tides appear to be turning. We all need to be aware: the Internet is not the Plain Old Telephone System (as if POTS ever was only merely what it appeared to be), not to mention the Plain Old Postal System (which was vulnerable to if not amenable to intersession by intelligence agents), the Internet is a domain which exists beyond international jurisdiction, beyond governmental jurisdictions in a million shades of grey zones where corporate conduct confers with national and international security and economic concerns, both ad and sub rosa.

The cryptocuratorial agenda is to have the general population become more cognisant of the systemic accessibility issues, the privacy vulnerabilities of our Internet-worked information existences. In other words we all need to know a bit more about how the convenience of email and online shopping and banking and the amazingly global reach of platforms like facebook and twitter actually work, how they connect you and the information you send with the world of services standing between you and the people you would like to interact with.

The Internet is not a mystery, but it is complex. How companies provide the services we have integrated in our daily lives is also not alchemy, it can be completely explained down to the most intricate and subtle tiny switch. The Internet can be imagined as an enormously ingenious and elaborate clockwork which produces all the effects we see and hear on the clockface, but the mechanism is entirely comprehensible, composed of highly specialized parts. Because the Internet is entirely made by human beings, it is entirely understandable, we can access it, or any aspect of it.

Like the POTS and POPS, the Internet was not developed or built by one person, it was a massive undertaking involving government, industry, academics, scientists, intelligence services, the military. In other words it is a victory of human collaboration across disciplines. In this spirit we use these services, as humans, for all the compromises we must acquiesce to as a function of residing in a society, a recompense in the form of far-reaching and reliable services which provide us with an experience of our world we could not imagine without the enormous synergy afforded by societies.

Now the threat is announced, your communications are being watched. Not only this, you are being watched in every way you use your ‘new’ devices. You are being watched, tracked, sensed, correlated, interpreted and analyzed, in general “to serve you better”, even if that means “to serve and to protect”, and to protect means not necessarily for you, but possibly also from you. Whether you are on the happy side of ‘to serve and to protect’ or not, depends, increasingly, on computer records held on you in official databases, and how they are interpreted, if you are lucky, not through algorithms, but through a process involving cognisant human beings, with something more reliable than a notion of ‘due process’.

The cryptocuratorial agenda will encrypt all data, for our own good. People who know how it works, like William Binney, sketch out a scenario where nefarious agents will want to build a case against an innocent person, but will not be able to access personal records because these have been encrypted. Binney’s crypto-utopia relies on the notion of due process, whereby records can be decrypted only through administrative decisions, which means, at least there will be a “paper trail” of decisions and their motivations which led up to the access to personal information, and this only by official bodies.

Binney’s model forces us to trust in the state, in the laws and conventions of government bureaucracy. In his model, the radical transparency of the citizen is a given. The radical transparency is summarily encrypted, so what we have is an ever-building database of inaccessible information. This  scenario is unlikely especially since so many popular web services today rely on general compatibility of data which will be inhibited by pervasive cryptography.

The asymmetry of access to information is not addressed. In Binney’s crypto-utopia the ordinary citizen has even less direct access to information about what the government or business is doing. This is not only sequestered from citizen access, but now also encrypted. Now there are two layers between the people and knowledge of the world they live in. Imagine if this begins to happen in the sciences, and academia. To encrypt or not to encrypt becomes an ethical issue, and we all know what happens to ethical issues in a so-called rational age.

Ethics are easy to understand but difficult to justify, inevitably they are based on values, not merely surplus value, and they are not based on principles, they are based on comprehension. It takes time to comprehend a situation, some of this time must be spent in private reflection, not only on personal advantage, but also on longer-term advantage of the society, on altruistic themes. There must be allowances made for the inevitable gaps in comprehension. Contemplation and discussion on altruistic themes takes time, and it is unreliable, because it is human. Cryptography, once developed, in principle takes less time, and is completely reliable, because automatic.

The danger with light speed apparatus is that actions can be initiated which propagate faster and more intensively than it is humanly possible to act. This is a danger we are somewhat accustomed to, since electricity has been employed, or even, since words have been employed (words propagating at light-speed through our minds), that is to say the danger is endemic to the  technical capacity in everyone. We as citizens of a technocracy need access to information about how the apparatus works, we need access to the design decisions informing the operations of the apparatus.   These decisions affect us not only explicitly, through official declarations, but implicitly encoded into the inner workings of our networked lives.

Since encryption is a service, when the whole world is encrypted, the powerful will still be better served than everyone else. Cryptography, in this case,  will merely interpose other forms of privilege, of asymmetry. We who need to know about decisions being made on the governmental and corporate level which will affect us, rather than capitulating to the privacy discourse, need to address the fundamental illegitimacy of the information asymmetry which unjustly holds us out of the know.

A society needs checks and balances, and these cannot be fully automated. Rather we need to foster, cultivate and build institutions or spaces which will allow public scrutiny of corporate and governmental behaviour and elucidate and elaborate ethical informational practices on the private/citizen level. We may not want or trust institutions or government, but in this ever-transitional period where borders personal and physical seem to become permeable, disrupting ancient classifications and notions of integrity, we need some structures, provisional as they may be, to fortify our engagement with those entities which will take advantage of us. To parry on more equal footing, we need ethics more than we need cryptography, and in an environment hostile to ethics we need spaces wherein ethics can be cultivated.  In the society, which fuses online and offline experience of the world. ideas can communicate faster than data.

What happens after ‘radical transparency’, when ‘nothing to hide’ becomes ‘nowhere to hide’? The problem with absolutist ideals is in the disruption pattern where the hyperbolic definition approaches the maxim. There will always be interpretation necessary, because where principles or laws confront human affairs, the issue is rarely “clear and distinct”. How this interpretation will be generated needs to be understood, examined, explored. Who may interpret judiciously, under what conditions? Who has the free time and leisure to contemplate on complex matters. If they do not have the time, why not? Those who have the time, are they more entitled to judge? Plato seemed to think so 2400 years ago, and this is why he would ban not only slaves, women and poets but also workers and craftspeople, from politics.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that asymmetry of information access is endemic to asymmetry of economic conditions, and these need to be understood and addressed for us to make thoughtful decisions on the future we are already creating right now.  So many brilliant people are dedicating so much philanthropic time and energy to improving cryptography for circumvention of the dominant hegemonic information-industrial regime.    This brief essay is a plea to consider re-assigning a tiny fraction of that time to engaging with the intricately bound problems of asymmetric access to resources, intellectual, informational, and especially economic, which underlies the threat we address with cryptography and circumventionism.

The immediate future, like or not, is social, generated through a miraculous coalescence of human abilities.  Threats to our security, to our livelihoods, cannot be adequately addressed uniquely through algorithms and automated processes, they must be addressed socially, and this takes time.

Last night Jacob Applebaum, amid emotional pleas to his audience to use more secure communications, frequently conceded that the social component to ‘security’  was of fundamental importance. Not only in order to help find the strategies that will sufficiently encourage  one’s parents and other “general users”  to commit to becoming that slight bit more cognizant of how networked computation works and implement crypto  privacy/security procedures, the social component is fundamental to understanding why our privacy is so preyed upon in the first place.

Part of the pleasure of platforms like facebook and twitter is in their imaginably global reach, this appeals to the technicity in all of us, the elaboration of our selves, our intellects, imaginably even the electrical currents of our thoughts and desires fusing with the charges in the circuits and spreading infinitely around the globe.   Otherwise said, these un-transparent and exploitative platforms offer us an unprecedented  experience of our own technical capacity. Thus it is no surprise that populations flock to these platforms despite the well-known compromises entailed.  To confront the popularity and power of these centralized platforms, we need to confront their socio-economic motivations, and those of their users.  Conditions of desperate austerity, and perpetual fear of terrorism, economic collapse, climate change, etc., tend to cow populations, especially in the richer countries, into conservative postures. The fear factory of main stream media is described as having a ‘chilling effect’ on alternative expression.  To paraphrase Birgitta Jónsdottir, our minds are ‘caught up’ in the concerns of the day and have little place time to reflect on how the economy is operated against us.

More cryptography or less (inevitably more), we must struggle for our sovereignty against the ownership elite and their scarcity economics.  Such a struggle requires that we too develop strong theoretical and practical understandings of economics, allowing us to methodically elaborate the kinds of economics we would like to foster, which would thereby necessarily generate different social conditions of information exchange.  We need space and time to consider and work out our program seriously, and we will need to encourage ourselves and the people around us to dedicate a small fraction of their talents and energies to socio-economically-oriented reflection, discussion and action.  As much as we may need cryptography, we need to innovate on the social front. We need to take a little time back from our full time jobs in the fear factory.

We need to see that the call for pervasive cryptography, the cryptocuratorial regime heralds the militarization of the social sphere.  No longer can we in civil society be innocent consumers of technologies honed to protect the state. We must become part and parcel of that formerly discrete realm of society, and accept some of the responsibility and all the ambivalence that the people in that role have traditionally had to shoulder .  No longer can we have the luxury to excise military concerns from our social aspirations.