”Misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past. But a man may wear himself out just as fruitlessly in seeking to understand the past, if he is totally ignorant of the present…This faculty of understanding the living is, in very truth, the master quality of the historian.“ — Marc Bloch (French historian, medievalist, and historiographer) 1886–1944 The Historian’s Craft, pg.43
In the beginning … Surveillance
Ten Years Ago: The whistleblower forced US intelligence agencies to admit extensive spying on their own citizens. Some reforms were enacted but Snowden still faces potentially 30 years in prison.
With thanks for this photo to David Smith and The Guardian in their article: “What’s really changed 10 years after the Snowden revelations?”
Web 3 Video:
Web 3 Foundation, Web 3 Summit, 2019
Disempowerment of the Individual/ Empowerment of Institutions
Excerpted Video Transcription Part I
Okay, cold open. First off, thank you all for bringing me to speak with you. It’s tough for me to get over to Berlin these days, but I’m still hoping in the future I might be able to come in person. When I give these talks since 2013, I’ve been asked many different things about what’s happening with journalism, about what’s happening with government, what’s happening with the internet, what’s happening with technology. And the funny thing is I think they’re actually all centralized around similar factors, and most of you are familiar with them. Anybody who is into technology and is not simply a developer, but is also a user, anyone who’s interested in privacy, anybody who’s working with online financial technology, who’s thinking about cryptocurrencies or could just be Bitcoin or competitors to it is seeing that increasingly there’s all of these threads connecting to one another.
And it’s not a single thing, but rather we have an entire ecosystem that is decaying because it’s actively under threat. And the earlier half of this century or this last century, scientists and engineers were committing their lives to the pursuit of a new science, nuclear physics, and it was an incredibly passionate work. Publications went all over the world in every language, and it just energized an entire generation with the possibilities of free, nearly unlimited clean energy, advances in medical technology, advances in transportation. It was obvious how these new advances could be applied for the betterment of everyone, but it was also not long until the work of that cohort began to be applied to private needs. And this is interesting because most famously we’re talking about nuclear weapons, and people don’t think about that as private needs.
People think about what the government does is as the public good, but what’s good for the state is very different than what’s good for the people in many cases. And I think what we are seeing today is the work of our greatest minds of the last 50 years now increasingly their work being indentured to the service of the private good. Now, this isn’t just the state, this is of course the corporate state that we see, the Facebooks, the Googles that are haunching on our common backbone and they’re trying to insert themselves into every human transaction. And these aren’t merely trade transactions, these are communications transactions and this is how we see the same thing that happened in the last century beginning to repeat again. A science that was developed in pursuit of the ideal of the common good being captured and distorted for the private benefit of certain groups. This can be a private elite corporate segment or of course, the national elite.
Now, this is the reason that I say what we’re living through today is the atomic moment of computer science. This is where we really have to look at what our work has done, and I don’t mean your work personally because a lot of you guys in the room, free software guys, you tend to be on the better side of a lot of these conflicts, but we all have to realize that everything that we do isn’t enough. When I was sitting in 2013 and I saw what my government was doing behind closed doors without consent of the governed in the United States, without the knowledge or consent of anyone in the world, flagrant violations, both of US law, constitutional rights and more importantly, human rights around the world I really wanted to tell somebody about it because I thought it was wrong. It took me a very, very long time to decide to come forward and tell people about it, even though I was increasingly certain that this was something that was in many cases contrary to what the government can even be permitted to do if they pass a law.
But I knew that if I did, there were going to be consequences for me. It was going to be difficult for me personally. I didn’t know quite how difficult, but I did have an idea. And it is this kind of natural pressure, the incentives and disincentives to a given move that a person can take in our lives, in our communities, in our societies, that I think all of us who work with systems understand very well because this is how systems work, this is how systems are regulated. And as it stands today, all of the pre-existing laws and all of the loopholes that governments use to violate the spirit of the law, even if not the letter of the law, or more importantly and directly just to violate our rights or the dignity of a given person, these are all achieved by exploiting their deep understanding of where the incentives are and the disincentives are. Primarily they can break the law without punishment because they’re the ones who applied the law. So what does it mean when the greatest safeguard of human rights that we’ve ever had in history, the law, begins to fail?
I know some people who have thought about this a lot more deeply have been talking about it at the conference, but I think this is where we see a lot of excitement coming from technology. Recently, and particularly people who are working on these new decentralized sort of ledger based type applications, is this idea that maybe when the law fails us, our technology can catch us. The problem of course is that technology has been catching us and general members of the public, people who know don’t a fraction of what some of the people in the room and harming them quite significantly. So what do we do and what are the actual problems? I think it’s this identification of the problem that really helps us. Now, I think we’re moving quite far along here, but the thing that keeps me up at night, the thing that I’ve been thinking about for years and the reason that I wrote a book about this that actually comes out in a month.
Is that when I was a child and I was in high school, even before high school because of I think you guys know the personality type, you probably struggled the same way, you have someone in authority who’s telling you what to do. They don’t explain why, you don’t understand the system and yet the system is applied to you. You have no power within the context of the system. You are not allowed to change the rules. You’re not even allowed to petition to change the rules. That’s simply the way things are. And someone says, do this, and you ask why? And they say, because I said so. This is the way a lot of power relationships work today, whether it’s in the United States where our electoral system is gerrymandered so much that we can’t change power even if we campaign, to the operations of internet giants. Where you see everybody complaining, you see everybody trying to boycott, you see everybody pressuring them and saying bad things about them, but they only change their policies at the very smallest edges, if at all.
And the reason I think they feel so comfortable, all of these types of authorities throughout history, is they have a mastery of our fear of what happens if we break the rules. What happens if we try to change the way the system works. And when I was young, the way this worked was if you cut up in class, if you got out of line, they’d say in of course, a very concerned manner for you because it’s you, they’re always worried about… Not them, not their convenience, but you. You need to think about your future. You need to think about what it’s going to look like if everybody else is following the rules and you’re the only one breaking them. If you get out of line, if you get a bad grade, if you get a detention, if you do whatever, if you talk back, if you question everything all the time, this will go down on your permanent record and then it will follow you to high school and then it will follow you to college and then it will follow you workplace and then it’ll follow you through the rest of your interactions with power.
And as a kid when you don’t know anything about anything, that’s actually terrifying. And over time, bit by bit as you do more and more, the threat begins to lose its power because you realize that there actually isn’t a permanent record. Nobody cares what you did in elementary school. Nobody cares what you did in middle school. Nobody cared about high school or college or honestly, nobody really cares about what you do in your workplace besides your employer and then your next employer. But at best, the records have never been permanent. They’ve never been perfect until now. And this is the problem of the world we live in. The younger you are in this room relative to the person next to you, the more of your life is known and recorded by people you have no influence over. And these records, at least under the laws in the United States which have been unfortunately exported around the world into a kind of status quo, says that you don’t own records about your private life.
These companies that created them, they’re their records, not you, even if they’re entirely and exclusively about you. And this is I think the central problem that we’re struggling with, is all of these companies, all of these governments, everybody who has any sort of aspiration to power is recognizing that understanding as much as possible about as many as possible is the lever of influence. We see target news, we see this being used to write news, we see this being used to change politics, we see this being used to try to influence purchasing decisions. All of these things are about shaping human behavior. And all of these things, which I would argue are fundamentally anti-democratic forces, and actually I would argue these are antisocial forces, are really about shaping the behavior of other people to your benefit. And if this can be done secretly, if this can be done privately, all the better. And when I look at this and I think about my own history and I think about what’s happening on the internet, I think one of the biggest vulnerabilities in our system, the vulnerability that’s being exploited by all of these forces is identity.
In the modern world, we are not permitted a sense of ownership without identity. To be able to make a trade in many cases, and God, if you live in someplace like Sweden where they’re trying to get rid of cash, you’ve got to use a card. The card is connected to your bank account. That goes on. If you’re trying to buy something like property, how are they even going to register that? They need you to show your ID. They need you to get it stamped. You go to the people at the desk, the people at the desk then bless you to be able to participate in this transaction. If you want to be able to buy a bottle of water at the gas station, this has been and should be a cash transaction. It should be traceless. But now increasingly there’s cards involved. Now increasingly, there’s cameras involved. Now increasingly, there’s Bluetooth beacons in the store that look at your phone and they see, oh, it’s got its Bluetooth active because it was just connected to its car so we know it’s this device. We’ve seen this device at this mall.
They’ve got license plate readers. All of these things form big constellation of richness, especially when compounded with the fact that your cell phone is constantly a 100% of the time that it’s turned on screaming out into the sky here I am, here I am, registered me to the nearest tower. And then they’re tracking where this goes and all of these things mean we are never anonymous. We’re never just a person. We’re always this specific entity. And if we are this specific entity, we can be nudged, we can be shifted, we can be shaped by all of these people because we have universally unique identifiers. Now, programmers, developers, they love universally or globally unique identifiers. They want their metrics, they want their analytics. They want to see what’s happening on this app push. They want to see what’s happening on this kind of device. And so they collect everything from everyone everywhere. That’s no different than what the NSA does. That’s no different what Facebook does. That’s no different than what Google does. And they do it because it grants them increased power.
They can be better developers and I understand that. I’m sympathetic to that. But I think we need to sit back and really take a look at the fact that when we are gating access to the infrastructure that’s necessary for life through this process of proving who you are rather than proving a right to use, that you paid for this, that you should be able to access to this, that you have a blinded token of some type that could belong to anyone, but it’s the digital equivalent of cash that’s going, look, it doesn’t matter who I am, I’m allowed to be here. I’m basically supporting the infrastructure. I’ve done my part. That’s all it should be because otherwise, we’re being forced to give up ownership of our identities. We’re giving up ownership of our histories, we’re allowing others to control the story of our private lives. They get to shape it, they get to tell it. They get to say, this is the narrative of this person, this phone, this card, this whatever, this browser.
And when we have this pervasive collection of, or sorry, not pervasive collection, but this pervasive creation of records, what we fundamentally have is the disempowerment of the individual and we have the empowerment of the institution. And a lot of people are fans of institutions, and institutions have done a lot of good throughout history, but they’ve also done a lot of bad. And the question is, what happens when you have institutions that are so strong that there is no alternative? What happens when you have institutions around the world in every country and don’t even answer to your country. It’s like a Mark Zuckerberg who won’t go and talk to UK Parliament because he doesn’t care about UK Parliament. He’ll just send some lackey, right? And the people of these countries they ask why? Why do you do this? How do we change this? We don’t like this. And then he can simply respond, well, that’s the way it is because I said so. I’m the one in charge. We need to be able to create data, move data, process data, and transact on this data without creating a history that it happened.
And what I mean by history that it happened is, I mean the history of you connecting the person to the thing. The transaction does not need to belong to you, the transaction belongs to itself. You can balance the books without knowing everything’s connected to everyone, and I know a lot of you guys believe in this, but I’m afraid that we see a lot of people who don’t believe in it enough. One of the biggest criticisms that I have of the Bitcoin blockchain today is the fact that it’s not at all private. They’re not even pretending to try to be private. There are arguments, and I know there are proposals that they’re going to try to bring things on chain, they’re going to try to integrate these enhancement proposals or improvement proposals, but they’re not fast enough. We’ve seen this happening for years. Everybody knows the problems. We see the KYC sort of cancer spreading across the entire ecosystem where now there are no on-ramps and off-ramps of any meaningful size that will allow a normal individual, a teenager right now who doesn’t even have a bank account to go, I want to buy Bitcoin.
And you guys who are working on alternatives, you can do better. And as you do better, that will pressure the bigger actors to do better because again, it’s about the incentives and disincentives in the system. If you build a better model and no one else is willing to reform their own model, you become the standard model and that’s a good thing for you. But even if you don’t become the new unicorn, whatever, who cares, your decisions in designing these things create pressure on those incumbents to reform. Even in failing you can win for the world, for the community, even if you don’t win for yourself personally. And that’s what got me out of paradise in Hawaii in 2013 was I thought, look, I didn’t graduate from high school guys. I’m largely self-taught and I was doing all right. I’m not going to say I’m the world’s greatest anything, but I was doing all right. I was pretty good. And somehow I ended up working for the government, worked for the CIA. They put me overseas. I was undercover living as a “diplomat” in Switzerland. I went over to Japan working as a contractor for the NSA.
And each time I moved, I got more and more seniority, I got more and more pay until eventually I end up in Hawaii with the woman I love doing a job that was so ridiculously undemanding in the “office of information” sharing that I had time to do anything I wanted and that meant reading. And so what I did was I read what was going on everywhere because it was the first position I had where I could truly read without lines because in the intelligence community, there’s very much this because I said so kind of worldview where there’s a system called compartmentalization or compartmetation where the person in this office isn’t supposed to know what the person in this office is doing. You’re not supposed to be curious. You’re not supposed to even ask because you don’t have a need to know, right? Well, when I worked in the CIA and when I worked in the NSA previously as a technologist, as a systems administrator, I had broad access, much broader access than other people, and I could read many different things.
So I already knew a lot about what’s going on relative to the average person, but when I reached the Office of Information Sharing of which I was the only employee, I was the Office of Information Sharing, now I had basically the same access to go around and read whatever I wanted as the director of the NSA. And so what did I do? I wrote some scrapers and I started to see everything that was out there, and everything got centralized in Hawaii and this was so I could share it out and create a little system that showed people, this goes here and this goes there and this might be useful for you in your office and that office, but I got to see what was going on in every office. And there weren’t a lot of people in NSA who got to see this, and when I did, it started to really trouble me. Now you guys know what happened when we go back to the history. This is of course the most famous live for you guys because it’s not about phones, it’s about the internet.
This was where the largest internet service providers in the United States had secretly been going far beyond what the law required of them to cooperate with government and hand over in many cases without warrants the entire Google histories, Facebook histories, whatever’s in your iCloud account and so on and so forth, over to the government under a system of secret court orders. This was unfortunately just where it began, and it wasn’t just the internet.
There was a program that people saw that actually wasn’t related to me, this was follow-up reporting that came I think actually some years later in the United States about the phone companies. AT&T is one of our largest of course phone networks, and what they found was that AT&T had been collecting the phone records of everyone who crossed their system and never getting rid of them for ages.
If you’re younger, if your birthdate is after 1987 and either you’re an American or you called the United States because anything that crossed their network went there too, they have every call that you ever made because that’s how far their records go back.
They were keeping the tower data, which is of course the ledger of your cell phone screaming here I am, here I am, here I am going all the way back to July 2008. So they have more than a 10-year history of everyone’s movements as they crossed the path of their cell phone towers. And this is the kind of thing that was just spreading and spreading and spreading everywhere on the internet because we hadn’t been encrypting things by default.
We saw the NSA and their partners, the Five Eyes countries as they’re called, that’s the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the Anglophone guys, had just been looking across the backbone for anything that was even remotely interesting . And then what were they doing? They were just writing a scraper, right? They were just pulling things off the wire and then they were filing away into their little databases. And so they were getting pictures of your webcams, they were getting everything that you typed into the search box before Google finally went and encrypted it.
And then they had to ask Google for it, but Google would still hand it over all because things were not encrypted as they were in transit. Now, the thing I love about this chart, of course, is if you look at the timeline, I think this is the right one, you see there’s a big spike right after June of 2013, which was the month that these revelations of mass surveillance first came forward. And this is where I want to talk about you guys as a cohort, not just as the people working on Web 3 initiatives, but as technologists. You did that. That spike is you. I didn’t do that. I was on the run from the greatest manhunt that we’ve had in the United States in quite some time, but somebody read the news and somebody went, you know what? We’re going to shift our site to HTTPS. You know what? We’re going to retool our browser to prefer these kind of things. We’re going to make our applications send these things. That’s just in Chrome, but I can tell you from a lot of conversations that this is happening across the internet. And so what did these agencies do in response?
They go, oh, no, people are collecting things in transit and of course, this is the problem they’ve always had throughout history. They go, these people know what they’re doing. They use encryption so we can’t catch it in transit. Well, what can we do instead? And we see that it doesn’t matter whether you’re an ally or an enemy, the British version of the NSA put together a really complex operation to actually hack into Belgium’s national telecommunications provider, Belgacom.
End Video Transcription Part I