The coming Global War on Hacking?

Šutej01

I’ve got a suspicion that 2013 could very well go down as a fulcrum point in contemporary history, as well as in my own meager part in it. Julian Assange’s pinprick has now become Edward Snowden’s stab to the jugular vein, and meanwhile, I’ve had to provisionally decide how I’m going to steer the imminent deluge.

Here’s my thought process, and I’ll put it frankly to my audience: we should all be expecting in the near future the replacement of the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) with the GWOH (Global War on Hacking). Consider: all it would take would be one massive power grid failure or some other similar immense infrastructural disruption, and then a logical but ultimately evidence-independent speculation (“we have reason to believe hackers were behind it”) to roll out new Patriot Act-like powers that effectively render criminal any technological attempt to maintain individual or collective privacy, much less to peer into the secrets of power.

The idea is not strictly-speaking mine. I heard it mumbled about in some quarters at the recent OHM2013 convention. However, other than an obscure comment to a 2011 editorial (copied in the post-script of this post), there’s nothing about in on the public web. So, let me spell it out a bit here, and then explain my own position, which I hope is moderate. And if not moderate, then at least independent…

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A conversation with an anti-mafia Slavoj Žižek

In a very short time, I’ve been interviewed by Voice of America, al-Jazeera, BBC, a plethora of smaller media outlets, and several academics, but few have been as interesting — or as conceptually and professionally dangerous — as one I did last night with my friend Vincenzo Fatigati, a fellow Leuven student from Naples who is also an anti-Camorra activist.

Vincenzo explodes with enthusiasm, and he’s very quick on the theoretical draw. He reminds me a lot of Slavoj Žižek, except he’s far more serious: for him philosophy is not just a theoretical tool for cultural criticism, but actually a weapon for justice in his personal crusade against organized crime. For example, one of his most interesting philosophical projects is working out — I kid you not — a phenomenology or epistemology of the mafia. And believe me when I say that the guy is really putting his life on the line to do this. I’ve seen proof of what he’s up against. I admire him.

So, our conversation was in two parts:

(1) The advantages and dangers of blogging from professional development and personal perspectives, with glances to various related subjects: http://soundcloud.com/vincenzo-fatigati/interview-to-christopher

(2) The challenge of understanding WikiLeaks, with glances to Julian Assange and Barack Obama (given that both men are personifications of the Internet) and the question of digital Orwellianism: http://soundcloud.com/vincenzo-fatigati/chris-schwartzs-interview-part

The second part is much more free-wheeling than the first, and I say things therein that could potentially get me in trouble with, well, a lot of people. With that in mind, I’d like to take a moment to remind readers/listeners that like any intellectual, my views are always evolving. Nevertheless, I realize that for many, such flexibility might smack of promiscuity or inconsistency. I also concede that my perspective in general is probably idiosyncratic, so I welcome any criticisms.

Wiki-Orwellianism

Could transparency be used as a tool of oppression? The idea occurred to me soon after filing my most recent blog post with RFE/RL on the latest — and scariest — WikiLeaks spawn, Porn WikiLeaks.

What strikes me about Porn WikiLeaks is that it appears to essentially be the community of the pornography industry turned upon itself, as one vigilante ex-member seeks to expose the private identities of the industry’s pseudonymous actors and actresses. Many men and women have taken recourse to stints in front of the camera to pay for university or just put food on the table.

So, what’s at stake here are normal people — lawyers, doctors, teachers and home makers — with real reputations to lose, which is why the institution of the pseudonym is so important (society’s own double-standard of using the product but condemning the producer is the crucial factor to this sad reality, but that’s a topic for another blog post). This is counter to the logic of the original WikiLeaks, which Guy Rundle eloquently explains thus:

WikiLeaks has never been about an unedited, unconsidered process. Assange has argued that the degree of power exercised and the right to leak should also be considered in implicitly mathematical terms: total power licenses total exposure; zero power implies a total right to personal privacy. Such an ethic presumably lies across the boundary of a single life – the personal circumstances of someone in power should not be fair game for leaking, unless the circumstances of that private life are generating corrupt activities.

But here’s the really disturbing catch: besides the fact that Porn WikiLeaks’ webmaster may have had some help from inside the industry in terms of gathering the basic profile data of over 23,756 individuals that serves as the foundation of the site’s database, the deeply private data that he’s also accruing — from photographs of residences and family members to phone numbers — is most likely coming from colleagues and otherwise normal people like you and me, i.e., neighbors, supposed friends and other acquaintances. In other words, emphasis here is on the Wiki part of the site’s name.

On one level, the whole enterprise is sickeningly masturbatory: Porn WikiLeaks is itself pornographic, for the site essentially applies crowdsourcing to voyeurism. On another even more disturbing level, for me the site constitutes nothing less than Wiki-Orwellianism, that is to say, crowdsourcing used as a means to invade privacy. That’s profoundly worrying because this is a methodology that could be put to authoritarian ends. Imagine: what if the East German secret police had access to today’s Internet technology, and one day simply decided to publish their vast database of the citizenry’s private lives as a mass-readable/mass-editable Wikipedia-like website?

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Fightbook: “Gnōthi seauton, Zuckerberg”

So, I’ve finally seen the latest David Fincher film, The Social Network, about the founding of Facebook. I thought it was an excellent film, and not only because of the relevance of its central topic. Beneath the compelling acting and tight film composition are some interesting comments about its director, insight into our society, but also some lacunae, too.

First, was it just me, or does this film have surprising resonances with Fincher’s 1999 cult hit Fight Club? Consider: the neurotic, fast-talking intuitively perceptive main character (Jack the Narrator/Mark Zuckerberg), the struggle between a devil-on-his-shoulder idealized self (Tyler Durden/Sean Parker) and an angel-on-his-shoulder voice of compassion (Marla/Eduardo Saverin), and the emergence of a powerful, even cultic, social movement (Project Mayhem/Facebook).

The inner processes and effects of identity and innovation, to say nothing of their outward manifestations as charisma and social engineering, seem to be one of the major motifs of Fincher’s work and includes the terror of the serial killer (the fictional Seven killer/the real-life Zodiac killer) and the (quite literal) descent of the alpha figure into themselves (Ripley from Alien 3/Van Orton from The Game). However, Fincher explores this motif in a very deconstructive manner, especially in Fight Club and The Social Network — the ecstatic uplift of, say, The Game, is not to be found in the oddly deflative destruction of Wilmington or Zuckerberg sadly hitting refresh on his laptop. In Fincher’s world, there’s often a high price to pay for gnōthi seauton.

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Working the WikiLeaks beat (updated)

The old round-up of my WikiLeaks coverage was starting to get unruly, so here’s a new, chronological index, which I will update regularly. I must say, it’s kind of weird being a “WikiLeaks observer,” because not only is this an incredibly fast-moving story, but the learning curve is quite steep, as it entwines simultaneously the most theoretical and most lived parts of biography, ethics, history, international diplomacy, war, journalism, and cryptography. It’s very exciting and meaningful material, and in all due seriousness, I thank God, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and neweurasia.net (not to mention Julian Assange!) for the opportunity to cover it in such an in-depth manner.

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Central Asian views on WikiLeaks: trust, truth, and tech

WikiLeaks may end up becoming Central Asia’s best hope for bringing to light their leaders’ many dark secrets, say neweurasia’s bloggers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Yet, there are many problems, not least of which is trust, all of which WikiLeaks or other whistle-blower websites will have to overcome.

This editorial has been cross-posted from neweurasia. It’s a slightly different version of my “Our Take” editorial for our partner site, Transitions Online, with two additional quotes and block quotes. Thanks to Barbara Frye for copy-editing the original.

The whistle-blower website WikiLeaks has made international headlines for its leaks of sensitive information related to the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet a little-known aspect of the organization is its work in the former communist world, including Central Asia.

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Talking with Julian Assange

Unless you’ve been living on Mars, by now you’ve probably heard about the leak of a huge cache of American digital military logs by the enigmatic website, WikiLeaks.  It’s stirring a heated debate in journalism, intelligence, and legal circles.  This is an important one for the world to have, because entities like WikiLeaks may be changing the way journalists and sources, as well as governments and citizens, relate to information.

I was actually able to speak yesterday with the website’s founder, Julian Assange, in a phone interview on behalf of RFE/RL.  It was a brief conversation, unsatisfactory to the philosopher in me but satisfactory for my immediate journalistic needs.  In truth, I’d like to know more about WikiLeaks’ ideology, as well as how the group views itself vis-a-vis other “underground”, “alternative”, or “anti-authoritarian” news operations like ZNet and IndyMedia.  I’m also curious about their views on the relationship between information and society in general.

Consequently, I decided today to dig deeper into who they are, as well as the larger “Cypherpunk” and cryptographic subculture, something I’ve only very lightly touched upon in my studies of New Media.  The next time I track them down, I want to be able to ask them much more interesting and probing questions, the kind that leave both the inquirer and inquired enriched.

Key to this approach is to focus not so much on Assange as those who know him well and have worked with him.  Trust me when I say that’s no easy feat.  Some of his friends, allies, and co-workers are unknown even to him; some aren’t particularly friendly to nosy types like me; and most of all, theirs is a world of pseudonymity and anonymity.  This is new terrain for me.

In the meantime, and in lieu of the eventual fruits of this much deeper analysis, I’ve posted my very preliminary views on neweurasia, and I’m also collecting reader responses in this fairly simple and woefully unscientific poll: