Julian Assange’s Call to Cryptographic Arms
Cryptome reviews Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet” here. The book essentially is a written compendium of an earlier RT Cyberpunk series that featured Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn and Jérémie Zimmermann, one that I had commented on previously.
The best insight from the book is that political economy is a sociological force, a shaper, if you will. And we now have a political economy rooted in totalitarian surveillance. Assange occupies the midpoint between the triumphalists and the pessimists, pivoting the tilt of the fulcrum around cryptography. There is an adoption of a more or less laissez-faire method of political economic analysis that approaches something that sees Capitalism not as the end-point fulfillment of human agency(wants and desires) but as contravening force against the very thing itself.
The introduction to the book, the “Call to Cryptographic Arms,” interestingly mirrors the concluding remarks of my previous post, “I,Spy.” The many writers who opine on the role of technology, internet and increasing freedom vis-a-vis the future of civilization are dead wrong. They are wrong because they are not challenging the status quo nor the enemy. As Assange writes: “No description of the world survives first contact with the enemy. And we have met the enemy.”
The cyberpunk perspective sheds immediate and crystal clear light on the current debates regarding capitalism and laissez-faire that are otherwise often obscured by conventional economic and political analytic frameworks(and I include conventional libertarian within these). Can there be just a “little bit of Statism” or is Capitalism a “good” first-order approximation to free human agency? Is the State merely an unfortunate nuisance that nonetheless can be routed around on our way to a technologically driven freer future? No. Assange pin-points the “ground zero” of our current condition: the merger of State and internet. The consequence reveals the ultimate stark divergence between free market and capitalism. Capitalism can rent-seek human agency itself as a threat.
Liberalism gives us the artificial state as a means of securing a human collective choice end, such as property(or primary goods in the more modern incantation), but the security of the thing results in the security apparatus viewing human ends as an existential threat to the security apparatus itself. This paradox is de Jasay’s rational choice incentive incompatibility problem staring you right in the face. Write’s Assange(essentially laying waste to classical liberalism):
First, recall that states are systems through which coercive force flows. Factions within a state may compete for support, leading to democratic surface phenomena, but the underpinnings of states are the systematic application, and avoidance, of violence. Land ownership, property, rents, dividends, taxation, court fines, censorship, copyrights and trademarks are all enforced by the threatened application of state violence.
Most of the time we are not even aware of how close to violence we are, because we all grant concessions to avoid it. Like sailors smelling the breeze, we rarely contemplate how our surface world is propped up from below by darkness.
In the new space of the internet what would be the mediator of coercive force?
Does it even make sense to ask this question? In this otherworldly space, this seemingly platonic realm of ideas and information flow, could there be a notion of coercive force? A force that could modify historical records, tap phones, separate people, transform complexity into rubble, and erect walls, like an occupying army?
The platonic nature of the internet, ideas and information flows, is debased by its physical origins. Its foundations are fiber optic cable lines stretching across the ocean floors, satellites spinning above our heads, computer servers housed in buildings in cities from New York to Nairobi. Like the soldier who slew Archimedes with a mere sword, so too could an armed militia take control of the peak development of Western civilization, our platonic realm.
The new world of the internet, abstracted from the old world of brute atoms, longed for independence. But states and their friends moved to control our new world — by controlling its physical underpinnings. The state, like an army around an oil well, or a customs agent extracting bribes at the border, would soon learn to leverage its control of physical space to gain control over our platonic realm. It would prevent the independence we had dreamed of, and then, squatting on fiber optic lines and around satellite ground stations, it would go on to mass intercept the information flow of our new world — it’s very essence even as every human, economic, and political relationship embraced it. The state would leech into the veins and arteries of our new societies, gobbling up every relationship expressed or communicated, every web page read, every message sent and every thought googled, and then store this knowledge, billions of interceptions a day, undreamed of power, in vast top secret warehouses, forever. It would go on to mine and mine again this treasure, the collective private intellectual output of humanity, with ever more sophisticated search and pattern finding algorithms, enriching the treasure and maximizing the power imbalance between interceptors and the world of interceptees. And then the state would reflect what it had learned back into the physical world, to start wars, to target drones, to manipulate UN committees and trade deals, and to do favors for its vast connected network of industries, insiders and cronies.
The traditional “property rights” of the liberal, democratic capitalist order are the means for a dystopian internet.
Unfortunately, cryptography is not a sufficient means to overcome the problem. Assange is correct that the laws of physics make encryption easy and decryption hard, but the mathematics of data analytics can circumvent this physical constraint. Data analytics is an exercise in graph analysis, not code cracking. Graph analysis is the process of revealing patterns in the data in order to construct graph objects, which are a collection of vertices and connecting edges. Regrettably, you cannot encrypt data patterns. And as we have learned this week, the US Government is massively engaged in graphical analysis of all internal data communications(which, of course, is what we said they were already doing). This is why, occasionally, we will read about the internal memos that leak out from whatever security agency acronym that those who are not sufficiently connected to the graph can rise to a level of suspicion. The robustness of the data analysis relies on a well-connected graph(the so-called diposition matrix is a special type of graph object that marks its nodes for termination). In this sense, the Cryptome reviewer’s advice to “protect yourself by keeping quiet, offline”(avoiding vanguard’s, however, would be good advice) may not be the best advice. The future of evasion is subterfuging the data pattern, which is why it will only be an available domain for the very few.
Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet would be a recommended prerequisite for reading or re-reading de Jasay’s classic “The State,” which, unfortunately proves to be much more relevant today than when it was originally published.