Monthly Archives: December 2018
The Harry Truman Show double-tapped the “Japs” in ‘45, not to end World War 2 ASAP, but to flourish the Yankee saber before the Ruskies at Potsdam and ensure they knew who the sheriff was in the new world order that followed, according to some accounts. Like two ancient warrior tribes, the Anglos and the Vikings, say, the Americans have been rattling words and swords ever since, from Sputnik to Stuxnet, from Lee Harvey Oswald to Edward Snowden. They are inextricably linked in modern history and, like the synthetic product of a Hegelian dialectical struggle, have revolutionized the world together.
You could draw a straight line from Sputnik to Stuxnet, from the early battle to control outer-space to the World War Cyber we are currently in. Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, was seen as a Russian warning shot across the bow of the growing American talk-soft-Exceptionalism-and-carry-a-big-nuclear-stick empire. Out of the ensuing reactionary panic, the Pentagon developed the first internet (ARPANET), which was designed, in part, to be a Doomsdaycommunication system to ensure that American ICBM missiles could retaliate, should the Cold War get hot in a hurry.
It was a long time in coming, but Stuxnet, like Sputnik, is a firing-across-the-bow, an American warning to the world, but especially to the Russkies, that it’s game on in cyber-space. Stuxnet was the first virus designed to take out not code but hardware: Iranian nuclear centrifuges overheated with a resulting system catastrophe. Imagine a virus that targeted the fan of your laptop, resulting an overheating that destroyed the motherboard. Now imagine the world of industry — electric grids, oil wells, and yes, military hardware, etc. — targeted by tailored viruses. That’s the world we live in now.
Tim Berners-Lee is not happy with what’s become of his beloved World Wide Web since its introduction transformed the Internet twenty-and-some-change years ago. His vision of a free, open and universal access point for everybody to quickly obtain and share information — from the sciences through the humanities, and everything in-between — has been lost, as the result of the over-commercialization and “centralization” of the world wide web. “Oh, the humanity,” Berners-Lee seems to cry as his once-buoyant vision goes up in flames and falls.
And who hasn’t noticed how the Web has become like so many chambers in a Russian roulette game, as more and more of our attention is absorbed by the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon, and we pull the trigger on our consciousness? Marketized and re-militarized, the Internet has become a place for the Masters of Algorithm War to move our data points around like poker chips in a game of Bullshit. Fake News (Voice of America or RT?), Black Friday mega-deals, the latest Trump tweets, what chum will we go for today? Oh, the humanity.
Ever since 9/11, when the War on Terror began in earnest, it was inevitable that the Internet would be re-militarized by the Pentagon and that they would re-assert the right to control the protocols and communications crossing these wires. In between downloading a book from Amazon, or buying a gift from eBay, or spraying our endless opinions on Facebook, checking out Google’s latest apps, a world war is going on between the precious interstices of our consciousness. In 2012, before he fled (almost ironically) to Russia, Edward Snowden let the world know, with evidence so hard it was virtually whistleblower porn, that we live in a dystopic panopticon. Take Keyscore XL, the NSA’s secret browser which, according to Glenn Greenwald, can “listen to whatever emails they want, whatever telephone calls, browsing histories, Microsoft Word documents. And it’s all done with no need to go to a court, with no need to even get supervisor approval on the part of the analyst.”
Interestingly enough, the Mainstream Media was aware of the NSA’s illegal eavesdropping on American citizens back in October 2004. New York Times prize-winning journalist James Risen had a bombshell story quashed in order, said the Times 14 months later, when they finally published the piece, to avoid swaying the election with an “October surprise.” George H. Bush won re-election without the public having any awareness of the Bush-ordered spy program. Somehow, it never occurred to the editors that such spying might have vital public interest information that maybe should have swayed the election. In essence, they opted to protect his administration’s illegal violation of the Constitution.
Abusive surveillance by intelligence agencies has been going on in America for quite some time, as the Church Committee uncovered in the ‘70s, when it reported on the CIA’s secret and illegal domestic spying. That spying continued and, it’s safe to say, continues still. Why not, when there’s no repercussions and “Terror” is on the loose? It wasn’t long ago that the CIA was spying on members of Congress, without redress — no extended hearings,no long-lasting outrage. Just as after a group of baseball-playing Senators got shot up by a gunman in 2017, even when they were themselves the targets of criminal outrage, Congress demonstrated their fecklessness in the face of CIA abuses and did nothing. On the other hand, Julian Assange may have demonstrated recklessness when he published the entire hacking arsenal of the Agency last year, essentially declaring war on them. For his trouble, he’s been “linked” with Russia and declared “a non-state hostile intelligence service,” with all that that implies.
It’s a panopticon out there and Americans are rightly rattled. The security tentacles of Homeland Security seem to reach into every daily living activity — scans and pat-downs at the airport and train stations; facial scans at public events, especially at protest rallies; ICE at the borders; marijuana raids on legalized outlets; overzealous, militarized police. But the real threat to privacy and what used to be called a ‘normal’ life has disappeared since 9/11, when a “Pearl Harbor-like” event brought America a national security ratcheting. The fear is that, with a militarized Internet, we may be preparing for another Pearl Harbor-like event online that will result in a total lockdown of our activities. Whether you’re a conspiracy theorist or a conspiracy fearist, people in-the-know, such as Richard Clarke and Leon Panetta, have warned that we need to prepare.
But the panopticon is not just the national security apparatus that ostensibly has as its core value the protection of democracy and the American way of life, which one wants to believe only targets “terrorists” (an open-ended noun/verb, in our postmodern world), but includes the honeypot doings of the Good Panopticon — Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook. With the promise of making our online experience more, well, bespoken, tailored to our desires, they absorb our data points into algorithmic dances choreographed around our spending habits. We voluntarily fill in field after field, from forms to emails and texts, and we tell them everything about us at a far deeper level than the government is allowed to do.
Google works with the NSA and others, and has, in the past, built a search engine for the Pentagon. They are the most pervasive and invasive of the lot: street and satellite views of our property (with coordinates); they save and scan every email we’ve ever written (even post-delete); they keep track of images, documents, and other files. Currently, they are specializing in voice recognition software. They build a multi-faceted dossier on each and every user. You would be surprised at the scope of their savings on you — who you called; what you texted and to whom; voice-print samples; where you went — yesterday, last year; what you searched for: https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity . Sobering. And while many people have expressed outrage at Google’s agreeing to build a search engine for the Chinese that blacks out references to human rights issues and sites, they are blind to the work Google does to undermine freedom and democracy at home, because all the activity above is made available to intelligence services.
Amazon works with the CIA, building a database. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, often a first conduit of ‘highly-placed anonymous sources’ within the CIA and other national security agencies. And they specialize in facial recognition technology, which they enthusiastically share with law enforcement agencies. Apple and Microsoft have made system backdoors available to intelligence agencies. As we know the hard way, Facebook sells personal data for huge sums of money to analytical companies for future exploitative processes; the data Facebook keeps is downloadable to you, but also to anyone who cracks your password. Add in The Internet of Everything that would connect all devices to the Internet and there will soon be virtually no place to find relief from the relentless data collection of our doings.
Which brings up the battle for the last frontier — the space between our ears, the future of human consciousness. The more we become dependent upon Internet feeds to our brain, and the more we build on our own data dossier, the closer we come to being our own panopticons. It’s an experience that has already translated into psychological damage (see my review of two relevant books): according to some psychologists, up to 25% of the people around us are ensconced in paranoia; and, strange new diagnoses are arising, such as the Truman Show delusion, a condition whereby individuals feel they are living in a reality TV show, everyone around them actors, cameras everywhere. And that was a rising delusion even before the conspiracy-driven (“but not collusional”) Reality TV president was elected.
As after the Sputnik launch, no one knows where we are heading next, but as we hurdle toward the singularity of biology and the digital, it promises to be transformational, and even an evolutionary paradigm shift. Darwin, Lamarck, choose your poison. And blame the Russians.
Some fifty years ago Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and an army of Yippies held their “Festival of Life” outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Replete with folk songs, protest marches, and the nomination of the oinker Pigasus as an alternative candidate for the presidency, the radical – and democratic — festival was designed to be a provocative demonstration against the carnage of Vietnam and the politics that supported it. Millions of television viewers, still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy just months earlier, watched with renewed revulsion as cops moved into action, gassing and beating gesticulating protesters and benumbed bystanders alike.
In a park not far from the mayhem, Hoffman and Rubin spirited a large rally, complete with fiery speeches and Dylan tunes. In an era rife with colourful characters, Hoffman was the Dennis Rodman of political activists. He revealed the myriad ways of ‘how to live out on the street’ in his book, Steal This Book, which his tie-dyed acolytes proceeded to do – stealing thousands of editions of the street-survivalist playbook and turning them into petty thieves at the same time (maybe the cleverest marketing stunt of all-time). His credo was summed up with “Revolution for the hell of it.” He had a genius for infuriating the elites from Left to Right of the political spectrum, and yet he remained a popular hero.
He seemed most effective going up against the Military-Industrial Complex. In 1967, he helped lead 50,000 protesters in an attempted telekinetic exorcism of the Pentagon. According to an account in Larry Sloman’s often-hilarious oral biography of Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Dream, the Yippee actually negotiated the height of the proposed levitation with military representatives. As Sal Gianetta, a pal of Abbie’s remembers: “That meeting was two and a half hours or so and probably 20 percent of that meeting was devoted to this fucking serious talk about levitating the Pentagon. This is our military, right? I swear to you, Ab came down from twenty-two feet to three feet, the military agreed to three feet and they sealed it with a handshake. That’s how Ab was, he could capture you in that fucking bizarreness. Oh, it was joyful!”
Earlier in the year, he, Rubin and others had climbed the Stock Exchange balcony and literally brought brokers literally to their hands and knees by raining dollar bills on them. “One should always be able to yell `theatre’ in a crowded fire,” he’d once said, and treated the era as a large-scale production of the Theatre of the Absurd.
Halfway around the world, another revolutionary production was taking place — the “Prague Spring”. The Czechoslovakians were by 1968 ready to return to the democratic republicanism they had briefly enjoyed post-World War I. Though they lacked a Hoffman, they owned a deep legacy of subversion; and, in 1968, had a formidable cast of reformers including Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel. Together they fomented change and the Communist Party head Alexander Dubcek, seemed happy enough to oversee it. The proposed press freedom and limited political participation seemed innocuous, but the Soviets thought otherwise, and sent occupation troops into Prague that August. The Iron Curtain would remain down until the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
The events of August 1968 in Chicago and Prague have always presented some strange ironies and parallels. While Left-leaning protesters raged against the military-industrial complex and its oligarchic web of money-greed in the US, in Prague, Right-leaning protesters (in relative terms), such as Havel, fought for a more open humanistic society. America, capitalist to the core, had kept the Red threat at bay by laying down socialist safety nets such as the Social Security Act and the Welfare State, funded by a redirection of wealth from the pockets of the middle class. Meanwhile, the Soviets had slaked the thirst for democratic reforms by offering thimblefuls that tasted like freedom, but which were never “the real thing.” Not that it would matter.
Not long after the summer of violence, Hoffman, Rubin, and other protesters were arrested for conspiracy to commit rioting and tried as the Chicago 8 in a farcical courtroom drama that saw Black Panther Bobby Seale bound and gagged (later tried separately), with Abbie taunting presiding Judge Hoffman by dressing up in various costumes, and generally turning the proceedings into a Marx Brothers romp. After their eventual acquittal, Hoffman went underground to avoid imprisonment on criminal drug charges. When he re-emerged in 1980 to serve a brief negotiated jail sentence by way of a sympathetic Carter Administration, the US was entering a Reagan era presided over by the so-called “Me” generation.
Abbie showed he still had a working protest finger in 1986 when he and Amy Carter (and others) defended their arrests following disruptions of CIA recruitment efforts on a college campus in Massachusetts, successfully arguing in court with a ‘Necessity Defense’ that their minor criminality had the far greater public benefit of shedding light on the criminal activities CIA in Central America.
In 1985, he had a radio debate with his estranged friend Rubin, by then a stock broker. They mostly traded tired barbs and banalities, but also discussed the future of political activism in America. Rubin reasoned that change could only come by working from within the system, while Hoffman scoffed at Rubin’s “cop-out” and maintained justice and equality would always have to be wrested forcibly from power elites.
When Hoffman committed suicide in 1989, he missed out on the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the hopeful celebrations, but he was also spared the years that followed, which have brought “casino capitalism” to the world. And when Rubin, in a minor act of yuppie defiance, was killed jaywalking in 1994, he missed out on Bill Clinton’s trip to China. With Rubinesque logic, the Babyboomer president explained to the world that working “with China” to establish a stable middle class of consumers would be the most efficient way of bringing about humanistic changes. Around the world the mainstream media applauded the beginnings of ‘globalization’, while tired activists shook their heads.
In central Europe, the dilemma of how to best effect social change remains. Despite – and arguably because of their sophistication and intellectual antagonism – nations such as the Czech Republic remain in a muddle of political ambivalence seeming unsure of what to do. But the Czech Republic is not alone with the dilemma. As governments everywhere cut health, education and welfare costs and make their nations safe for foreign investors, popular dissatisfaction with the human quality of our lives continues to grow, along with the gap between haves and have-nots.
What’s missing is visionary leadership and the spirit of levity. “Democracy is not something you believe in, but something you do,” Hoffman once said. “If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles.” Enter populism and the growth of authoritarianism, the Surveillance State and the end of privacy, climate change exacerbated by population growth, Trump, fake news, fake Resistance, fake everything.
One wonders if Hoffman saw it all as worth it in the end, as he made his way underground for the last time.
When the Australian parliament passed the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 last week, it became the first country in the world to pass a law that allows government agencies to force companies to give secret access to encrypted information. Ostensibly, the bill will allow law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access data useful in investigating terrorism and criminal activity. But critics of the legislation point out that, like many terrorism-related laws these days, the language of the bill is broad and unclear and may lead to interpretive abuses in the future. The law passed without debate and overwhelmingly.
Specifically, agents from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) and the Australian Federal Police (AFP), agency equivalents to the CIA and FBI, can now go to the provider of encryption products, such as WhatsApp and Signal, and require them to provide access to encrypted data of a target, and to do so secretly. One problem, a technical one, is how to gain such access to the data, since the provider would not have the key.
ASIO and the AFP want providers to hand over “technical details’ of their encryption process that would allow the agents to exploit “systemic vulnerabilities”. The agencies claim that they would not be requiring providers to build in a “backdoor” for remote government access, but critics, such as Apple, Facebook and Google, who have apps that would be affected, argue that exploiting vulnerabilities may do just that — open up a system to other, more nefarious hackers, and make the encryption unsafe to use. Providers who don’t cooperate with the government will face fines and possible jail time, making them unintentional agents of potential government overreach.
Furthermore, ASIO and the AFP already have the power to infiltrate end-user computers to surveil before data is even encrypted, so it is hard to see the justification for further powers. At Policy Forum, Monique Mann, a law lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology, writes, “There is no evidence that any new powers are necessary, or proportionate, when viewed against existing police powers and investigative capabilities. Yet the stakes could not be higher for cybersecurity and digital rights.”
There is also some scepticism of how the requirements of the law would hold up in Australian business dealings with companies from other countries where data rights and online privacy are more legally protected. Of course, with a backdoor-that’s-not-a-backdoor, created by the government’s exploitation of systemic vulnerabilities, no one would really know, including the provider, if their data had been decrypted. And though a warrant issued by court is required to go ahead with a decryption, if America’s FISA court, which essentially rubberstamps government requests for secret access, is any example, such court-ordered warrants from Australian judges is no re-assurance — Australia has no Bill of Rights underwriting the integrity of such requests.
Along the lines of human rights and governmental accountability (a cornerstone of a functioning democracy), the new law allows not just the targeting of the usual criminals, such as child pornographers and scam artists, as well as so-called terrorists, but also “whistleblowers.” In short, the law would help prevent someone in Australia from dumping files at, say, Wikileaks, or even submitting documentation supporting government abuses to a whistleblowing sight in Australia, if said potential exposure could be seen to “weaken” national security.
Perhaps the world’s greatest champion of encryption, and its power to protect privacy, is that over-exposed guy holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He rejects the common notion that such laws have no bearing on the doings of everyday people and scoffs at “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” arguments often expressed with a naive smugness. “No worries, I use a VPN,” they might smile. But VPNs can be just as vulnerable.
It’s almost ironical that Assange, who grew up in Australia and cut his hacker’s teeth here (breaking-and-entering secret Pentagon servers as a teen), is now a virtual exile (his work would be criminalized here and has been called “illegal” in the past by a prime minister) who has almost single-handedly fought a war against the dark, corrupt secrets of government, while also attempting to protect individual privacy, the core of our humanity.
In his 2012 Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, that he calls a “warning” rather than a “manifesto, Assange makes clear what’s at stake for us all and how encryption is a “key” to protecting ourselves from losing the last vestiges of privacy (and the consequent humanity that goes with it). Of the stakes he writes, “The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen….within a few years, global civilization will be a postmodern surveillance dystopia, from which escape for all but the most skilled individuals will be impossible. In fact, we may already be there.” In the post-Snowden cyberscape, it’s hard to argue.
Assange’s answer is encrypt, encrypt, encrypt. “Encryption is an embodiment of the laws of physics, and it does not listen to the bluster of states, even transnational surveillance dystopias,” he writes. “Cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action. While nuclear weapons states can exert unlimited violence over even millions of individuals, strong cryptography means that a state, even by exercising unlimited violence, cannot violate the intent of individuals to keep secrets from them.” Keeping these secrets, our thoughts — this is the last frontier. “If we do not [redefine force relations], the universality of the internet will merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control.”