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Re: <nettime> What should GCHQ do?
t byfield on Mon, 25 May 2015 04:13:45 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> What should GCHQ do?

On 24 May 2015, at 7:09, William Waites wrote:

And so we have arrived at the economic problem. The business model of
advertising has the same basic requirements as mass
surveillance. Thwarting one by decentralisation and ensuring
confidentiality of communications means thwarting the other. Improving
safety and security by encouraging pervasive encryption means finding
a new economic model for the Internet that does not depend on
surveillance, that transcends the Web2.0 model of capturing users in
silos. Surely this too can be a fruitful direction for research.

The ethos of our time is something like *I can therefore I will.* If something technically possible, it becomes imperative to do it. It's not an individual, philosophical imperative, something that you or I 'must' do -- that wouldn't really matter. It's a systemic, probabilistic imperative, something that someone else will end up doing sooner or later -- which matters very much. If something is possible, it seems inevitable. 'Technology' is the field where this dialectic plays out: whatever gets drawn into those dialectics becomes 'technology.' I think this helps to explain why our time is dominated by engineering and law (note: not 'business' or 'finance'), two disparate professions that are united by one strange feature: both are organized around limit cases. They operate through ultraist logic, extrapolating everything to its logical extreme and proceeding on that basis.

Normally I don't go in for oracular bluster like that, but when it comes to cryptography I've learned to make an exception. The alternative is to trust the mathematicians. That's no exaggeration: one of the rallying cries of the crypto crowd is 'trust the math.' I don't, because math doesn't exist in the abstract. Its relationship to engineering is obvious: engineers implement math, they make it real, make it happen. Its relationship to law is less obvious. I don't mean ITAR, Wassenaar, or any other mechanism by which states would standardize or regulate cryptography. Instead, I mean the kinds of individual and collective sovereignty that cryptography enables through various implementations. The Cypherpunks understood this potential in their own way ('crypto anarchy'), and the Bitcoin/altcoin advocates understand it in other ways -- hence all the experimentation and excitement about things like side chains.

Hard crypto everywhere all the time has become one of those internet pietisms that's hard to challenge. First of all, anyone who does so ends up with some really troubling bedfellows (e.g., the NSA). But even if we ignore that kind of implication (i.e., ultraist extrapolation), we quickly come to basic, practical questions: If you want anything less than absolute crypto, where and how would you draw the lines? For example, the lines between what's permitted and what's forbidden, or what's practically possible or impossible, or for how long (e.g., key length vs 'Moore's Law' and misc innovations).

I'm skeptical about crypto absolutism because one of its first effects would be, in effect, to *privatize* everything. 'Public' would be reduced to whatever was cracked or leaked, as if Wikileaks and Snowden were the norm rather than the harrowing exception. And that would apply not just to social or communicative records but also -- as anyone who's lost a key or a password knows -- to one's own records. And isolated cases, which now seem almost like thought experiments -- questions about whether the US's Fifth Amendment, against being compelled to provide witness against oneself includes passwords, for example -- would become near-daily considerations.

Discussions of cryptography *should* involved questions like this, but they don't because no one has an incentive to discuss them. Opponents of crypto are happy mongering the ~four horsemen (terrorists, organized criminals, money launderers, and c-pornographers, more or less), and too many crypto advocates are absorbed in exotic last-mile opsec projects. Recently, I read a casual remark that Baudrillard is cited more often in 'critical accounting' than he was in the humanities. I doubt that's true, and the field of critical accounting is completely new to me, but it sounds like it could be promising -- as a part of a broader challenge to the naive positivism of

I don't know the solution to this all, and I don't know where bright lines should be drawn. But I do think that the growing 'moral' push toward secure communications is troubling, and that preserving 'insecure' communications channels as a legitimate choice is vital.


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