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Obfuscation: protect privacy by destroying the Web!
David Brin   Nov 27, 2015   Contrary Brin  

Time for a return to the core issue of our time: how shall we best preserve and extend freedom?  Along with freedom’s contingent benefits, like privacy?

In the LA Review of Books, Internet Privacy: Stepping Up Our Self-Defense Game, Evan Selinger reviews a slim book—Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, by Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum.

Distilled, the core argument is that defenders of freedom and privacy should poison the Web and Net that we now know, by flooding it with disinformation and false data, so that no one -- including powerful elites -- will be able to tell what's real. In other words -- burn the commons to the ground, so smoke gets in their eyes. That'll show 'em.

Let me avow that I actually quite respect Brunton and Nissenbaum and other members of this weird cult, for one reason.  At least in Obfuscation they are recommending a different solution from the standard offerings, which are “encrypt everything!” and “surrender to despair.”  True, the obfuscation approach was first offered in sci fi thought experiments, like Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End… and Vernor saw the logical reasons why it cannot possibly work.  Still, at least they are trying to envision something assertive. To be clear, most of us share the same fear – of a return to the obligate pyramids of privilege and power that dominated 99% of human societies for at least the last 6000 years.  George Orwell terrified us by portraying Big Brother’s tyranny becoming far worse even than feudalism, enhanced and locked-in with technological powers that make resistance futile, forever.  I am often accused of shugging off that threat when, in fact, I am as much (or more) motivated to fight it than anyone else alive. Motivated enough to ask that rarest of questions: 

“How did we get the narrow window of freedom (and some privacy) that we currently enjoy?”

Oh, there is no end to Cassandras issuing jeremiads and hand-wringing denunciations that the window is closing! Declaring that various elites – government agencies, corporations, oligarchs, criminal gangs – are forging Big Brother’s tools and applying them, as we speak. And these complainers are right! As far as they go, that is. Yes, the revolution and renaissance is in danger! It always has been, with odds stacked high in favor of feudalism’s horrible return.  And yet…

…and yet dire warnings are best when accompanied by perspective. But not one of the modern doomcasters – from Snowden and Assange to Fukayama and Schneier to Nissenbaum and Brunton – not one of them ever casts an eye toward the question that I will now reiterate: “How did we get the admittedly imperfect window of freedom (and some privacy) that we currently enjoy?”

The answer is not “obfuscation.” Nor is it a more frequently prescribed version of the same notion – universal encryption of everything. Our ancestors who set the enlightenment revolution in motion held no truck with such cowardly approaches, that boil down to “If you are afraid of looming tyrants, then by all means hide!”

Across twenty years I have asked fans of cowering in shadows to name one time when that approach truly stymied would-be lords, or helped to maintain a free and open and accountable society. The answer I get is always… always… puzzled, blinking stares, as if the question had never once occurred to them. But in fact, if you examine sixty centuries of tyranny – and the methods used by secret police and despots since Hammurabi – only a handful of their tactics would be even slightly inconvenienced by perfectly-encrypted messaging – or by setting the commons on fire. 
(Oh, and fans of encrypted cowering also ignore technological change.  The fact that agencies and corporations can trivially decipher encryption from ten years ago, so why won’t they be able to parse today’s best ciphers, ten years from now? Revelation delayed is still revelation. Oh, you respond that this time it'll work much better than it ever worked before? You’d really and truly entrust everything to such a slender reed?)

Ah, but solutions only have to sound plausible and logical. What? I’m asking for a history of their proposed approach ever, ever, ever having worked?  Call me a spoil-sport.

In fact, only one thing has ever actually worked, thwarting tyranny long enough to let us have this recent – albeit imperfect – stretch of relative freedom and privacy. The method is called reciprocal accountability. Also Sousveillance (look it up.) A far more demanding, citizen-centered approach that happens to be the way our parents did it, and their parents, and the founders of our revolution.
It is the very same method that is currently being applied on our streets, as citizens -- empowered by new technologies of vision – assert themselves to hold police accountable.  Using new technologies like cell phone cameras to empower citizenship, instead of oppressing it, they are preserving and enhancing freedom as we speak, not by hiding from the Man, but by militantly and courageously aiming tools of light to hold authority accountable. 

And that is the difference between us, friends.  I share with Nissenbaum and Brunton and Selinger a fear and loathing of potential feudal lords and tyrants. Only I care enough to actually get past the indignant reflex and ask what has worked in the past – and what is working right now. 

Ponder this truth: what has worked is not - and never has been - hiding.

== Is hiding even remotely possible? ==

The new techno romantics all proclaim so, demanding the cowardly approach –hiding from the Man – and loudly proclaiming it to be brave.  But physically and pragmatically, can it actually be done?

In the future, elites will have all sorts of tools to defeat obfuscation.  Linguistic-semantic analysis will detect your statements and ID you, even hidden by a pseudonym. Comparison of multi-path inputs will parse truth from fabulation. Governments and criminals and aristocrats will have means to bypass the bits, eavesdropping on the sonic data as your voice vibrates your window, or they’ll tap and log the strokes you type on your keyboard, from the different sounds each letter emits.

Technologies like facial coding, biofeedback and brain imaging have long been used by companies in the hope of pushing the boundaries of marketing and product development. But their use by political parties and governments is a growing phenomenon, evoking futuristic scenes from the movie “Minority Report,” in which eerily well-informed billboards scan commuters’ eyes and call out to them by name.

I have compiled a long list of biometric traits that are useful or effective at distinguishing one human being from another.  These range from fingerprints and retinal or iris scans to face recognition, hand-bone ratios, voiceprints, walking-gait... all the way to the otto-acoustic sound emissions that many of us radiate involuntarily from our eardrums!  We positively fizz with identifiers. And the romantics who think they will ever be able to conceal their movements in such a future are uber-fools.

Now comes news that just sitting in a room you'll leave a unique panoply of bacteria that can be attributed to you. Everywhere you go... you emit your own unique microbial cloud -- a personalized signature of your own micro biome.

"We all continually emit our own microbial cloud into the air and onto nearby—and not so nearby—surfaces. Now, according to a new study in the open-access journal Peerj, scientists can distinguish the make-up of the cloud is uniquely yours—a personal marker that is as particular to you as your fingerprints or your genome. That’s a biological calling card that could have implications for epidemiology, environmental engineering or even, intriguingly, criminal forensics."

Elsewhere, I talk about a posh gym in New York where a $26,000 membership and a retinal scan lets you into a facility where they measure everything about you… in order to guide your workout. Um okay.  So rich people are paying high rates in order to offer up their bodies to be measured in every conceivable way, so that unvetted parties will have every single biometric ... ah, I see you are getting it.  But do they?

Safety-through-concealment is a fool's fantasy -- even for elites.

I do not say this out of despair!  Rather, in order to rouse you to fight for freedom the only way that has ever worked.  The only way that can possibly work.  And the way that the self-appointed mavens of privacy absolutely refuse to consider.  In their relentless preaching for cowardice… that we all should protect ourselves byhiding… they perform the worst possible betrayal of everything that they claim to stand for.

Pardon me for repeating. I'll stop doing it when I see signs that the point is getting through to anyone, anyone at all.  But hiding will not work over any long-run.  

Sure, protect your passwords as a short term, practical matter.  But over the long term only one thing will keep you free.  Aggressively, militantly empowering yourself and your neighbors to see!

== So what’s to be done? ==

This is why the banks will not go all electronic and abandon their branches.  Bank branches will in future do what they do now, verify your credentials and help you do transactions.  Only in 2050 you will walk in... in-person... and be verified via all of your biometrics, including biomeNtrics (I just coined that!) via cranial sensors.
With that verification, you can then, in-person, clean up the last month's messes and prepare the next month's passwords.

== Someone being useful, at least ==

Much more cogent and well-supported – and hence scarier – is: "6 Spooky Ways Local Law Enforcement Is Watching You: A day in the life of the surveillance state," by Elliot Harmon and Nadia Kayyali, posted on the site of the worthy Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which I urge all of you to make one of your two dozen “proxy activism” NGOs.

Just because I disagree with EFF's set of prescriptive solutions, that doesn't mean they aren't completely right to be shouting and hollering and rousing public awareness of the overall dangers!  I send them money.  You should, too.

Harmon and Kayyali summarize, with useful links, half a dozen ways you are being watched, from social media monitoring and automated license plate readers to surveillance cameras, biometrics and imsi catchers.  Alas though, in the end the problem and drawback is the same.

== And finally… Yelp for People? ==

Of course this had to come. Yelp for people: You will soon be able to rate anyone you have interacted with on this new app: with reviews and 1 to 5 star ratings assigned to "your exes, your co-workers, the old guy who lives next door. You can’t opt out — once someone puts your name in the Peeple system, it’s there unless you violate the site’s terms of service. And you can’t delete bad or biased reviews — that would defeat the whole purpose."

The good news?  This will light a fire under creating real reputation mediation services, a potential billion dollar business (and I know the secret sauce) – and don’t let anyone tell you that reputation companies already exist.  They are jokes.

David Brin
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


“Ah, but solutions only have to sound plausible and logical. What? I’m asking for a history of their proposed approach ever, ever, ever having worked?”

“Ponder this truth: what has worked is not - and never has been - hiding.”

The underground railroad worked pretty well, until the Dred Scott decision ensured that even a slave who had made it to free states had no legal rights.

Anyone who has lived under tyranny (or systematic oppression) knows the value of secrecy.

And Encryption works:

And if it doesn’t work, the spooks are wasting a lot of damn energy trying to undermine it:

As for breaking the Internet, figures like Cory Doctorow pretty convincingly argue that “back doors” are the real vulnerability: 

It’s better privacy standards that will SAVE, not kill a free and open Internet.

  Nobody is worried about about cyber-Stalin throwing 10 millions in gulags. Much more worrisome is the Brazil type bureaucrat sending a SWAT team to break your door because you ripped a tag of a mattress.

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