Monday, May 04, 2015

I have nothing to hide

I've played with personas, I've tried to compartmentalize my various selves, but it's too hard. It's contrary to my experience of reality; everything bleeds into everything else. (Even this blog, Magnificent Octopus, was conceived as a magnum opus, an everything, a unifier.)

In the end, it's all me. I've always used my real name. Why wouldn't I? I have nothing to hide.

Last weekend, though, I came to the stark realization that "I have nothing to hide" is a vulnerability in the armour of freedom I wear so brazenly. It can be used to undermine my right to privacy.

Everybody has something to hide. And I'm prompted, what if you're applying for a certain job, what if there's a regime change in 5 or 10 years' time, what if.

So let me say instead: I stand by all I say and do. I have nothing I should ever have to hide.

From Anonymous to Edward Snowden: Hackers as Activists, was a fascinating discussion, part of this year's Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival, moderated by Will Straw and featuring anthropologist Gabriella Coleman (@BiellaColeman)and Ubisoft content director Thomas Geffroyd (@Orph30), who worked on Watch Dogs, a game about a hacker.

On my way out to the event, I continued reading Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy, and I was just at the part where Petr was telling about people hacking down the Berlin wall. I was jarred by the use of the word hack — here it was starkly physical, people chiseling and chipping away at this massive physical structure, which itself was a mere symbol of something much stronger and vaster, something social and political, some great divide. And this word was buried in this tiny account which was surrounded by talk of U's company's Project, his growing fantasies of vandalizing the Project and its associated structures, of sabotaging it by feeding faulty data into the Project.

That word, "hack," is a loaded word. To cut, to cough. To cope, to loaf. To work as a mercenary, to work in the service of mediocrity, to sell out. As regards the technological connotations, see Ben Yagoda's A Short History of Hack.

Hacking has a long and proud history that depends on craft and craftiness, with the intent of repurposing machines to do things they weren't designed for. It has its own tradition and folklore; this is evident in naming practices, and Coleman gave the example of UNIX, which was based on the overly complex Multics, in effect castrating it, and thus its name memorializes the condition of its birth.

Hackers tend to combine tech savviness with a touch of compulsive disorder. They have a highly developed sense of humour, hence Easter eggs. They take pleasure in breaking (into) things, just to see if they can. Which gives them the knowhow to build better things. They work as system administrators and security researchers.

Hacking embodies a counter-cultural, antiestablishment spirit. The idea of hacktivism then takes up the cause of freedom, free speech, free access, and freedom of information. And that's a good thing. How could it not be a good thing?

Geffroyd made the point that we're very quick to give up our freedoms in North America. For a continent founded on the principles of liberty, it's easy to convince us that the greater good outweighs our individual rights. This is not so true in Europe (Germany is one of the biggest defenders of personal privacy), and he surmises that this is the legacy of World War II, which Europeans still live with in a relatively immediate way. Take for example the Gestapo, who used government files to identify Jews; the Stasi, who used surveillance and other techniques to identify dissidents. Europeans know firsthand the terror and danger of the surveillance state.

Whether or not I have anything to hide, I should never have to hide.

How does a modern anthropologist go live among the natives when the natives are an underground subculture? (Tom McCarthy asks the same question in Satin Island, which is about a corporate anthropologist.)

It was a provocative hour; there was no time for an in-depth analysis of today's privacy issues, or WikiLeaks, or the infiltration of communication networks. But it definitely opened my eyes to the interconnectedness of many of these issues, and confirmed for me that I need to take responsibility for being better informed so I can be a better citizen.

Some of the subjects that were touched on...

Jacob Appelbaum
Aaron Swartz
Anonymous: The Masked Avengers in The New Yorker.

Journalists' email being vacuumed by security organizations: GCHQ captured emails of journalists from top international media
The need to ensure free speech and privacy for lawyers, activists, and journalists.
Internet crime laws
The Five Eyes, an alliance that shares intelligence, in circumvention of domestic privacy laws: About.
Televisions collecting data via camera and microphone: Your Samsung SmartTV Is Spying on You, Basically

Copyleft, copyright that guarantees free distribution terms.
Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) data encryption: About.
Tor, for preserving anonymity online: Download.

See also
Hacking Watch Dogs – An Interview With Thomas Geffroyd
Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman – review

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