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CFP'94 Sterling

CFP'94 Bruce Sterling on Privacy

Mar 26, 1994


I've been asked to explain why I don't worry much about the topics of privacy threat raised by this panel. And I don't. One reason is that these scenarios seem to assume that there will be large, monolithic bureaucracies (of whatever character, political or economic) that are capable of harnessing computers for one-way surveillance of an unsuspecting populace. I've come to feel that computation just doesn't work that way. Being afraid of monolithic organizations especially when they have computers, is like being afraid of really big gorillas especially when they are on fire.

The threat simply doesn't concur with my historical experience. None of the large organizations of my youth that compelled my fear and uneasy respect have prospered. Let me just roll off a few acronyms here. CCCP. KGB. IBM. GM. AEC. SAC.

It was recently revealed that the CIA has been of actual negative worth -- literally worse than useless -- to American national security. They were in the pockets of the KGB during our death struggle with the Soviet Union -- and yet we still won. Japanese zaibatsus -- Japan Inc. -- the corporate monoliths of Japan -- how much hype have we heard about that lately? I admit that AT&T has prospered, sort of -- if you don't count the fact that they've hollowed themselves out by firing a huge percentage of their personnel.

Suppose that, say, Equifax, turned into an outright fascist organization and stated abusing privacy in every way they could. How could they keep that a secret? Realistically, given current employment practices in the Western economies, what kind of loyalty could they command among their own personnel? The low level temps have no health insurance and no job security; the high level people are ready to grab their golden parachutes and bail at any time. Where is the fanatically loyal army of gray flannel organization men who will swear lifelong allegiance to this organization, or *any* organization in this country with the possible exception of the Mafia?

I feel that the real threat to our society isn't because people are being surveilled but because people are being deliberately ignored. People drop through the safety nets. People stumble through the streets of every city in this country absolutely wrapped in the grip of demons, groping at passersby for a moment's attention and pity and not getting it. In parts of the Third World people are routinely disappeared, not because of high-tech computer surveillance but for the most trivial and insane reasons -- because they wear glasses, because they were seen reading a book -- and if they survive, it's because of the thin thread of surveillance carried out by Amnesty International.

There may be securicams running 24 hours a day all around us, but mechanical surveillance is not the same as people actually getting attention or care. Sure, rich people, like most of us here, are gonna get plenty of attention, probably too much, a poisonous amount, but in the meantime life has become so cheap in this society that we let people stagger around right in front of us exhaling tuberculosis without treatment. It's not so much information haves and have-nots and watch and watch-nots.

I wish I could speak at greater length more directly to the topic of this panel. But since I'm the last guy to officially speak at CFP IV, I want the seize the chance to grandstand and do a kind of pontifical summation of the event. And get some irrepressible feelings off my chest.

What am I going to remember from CFP IV? I'm going to remember the Chief Counsel of NSA and his impassioned insistence that key escrow cryptography represents normality and the status quo, and that unlicensed hard cryptography is a rash and radical leap into unplumbed depths of lawlessness. He made a literary reference to BRAVE NEW WORLD. What he said in so many words was, "We're not the Brave New World, Clipper's opponents are the Brave New World."

And I believe he meant that. As a professional science fiction writer I remember being immediately struck by the deep conviction that there was plenty of Brave New World to go around.

I've been to all four CFPs, and in my opinion this is the darkest one by far. I hear ancestral voices prophesying war. All previous CFPs had a weird kind of camaraderie about them. People from the most disparate groups found something useful to tell each other. But now that America's premiere spookocracy has arrived on stage and spoken up, I think the CFP community has finally found a group of outsiders that it cannot metabolize. The trenchworks are going up and I see nothing but confrontation ahead.

Senator Leahy at least had the elementary good sense to backpedal and temporize, as any politician would when he saw the white-hot volcano of technological advance in the direct path of a Cold War glacier that has previously crushed everything in its way.

But that unlucky flak-catcher the White House sent down here -- that guy was mousetrapped, basically. That was a debacle! Who was briefing that guy? Are they utterly unaware? How on earth could they miss the fact that Clipper and Digital Telephony are violently detested by every element in this community -- with the possible exception of one brave little math professor this high? Don't they get it that everybody from Rush Limbaugh to Timothy Leary despises this initiative? Don't they read newspapers? The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times? I won't even ask if they read their email.

That was bad politics. But that was nothing compared to the presentation by the gentleman from the NSA. If I can do it without losing my temper, I want to talk to you a little bit about how radically unsatisfactory that was.

I've been waiting a long time for somebody from Fort Meade to come to the aid of Dorothy Denning in Professor Denning's heroic and heartbreaking solo struggle against twelve million other people with email addresses. And I listened very carefully and I took notes and I swear to God I even applauded at the end.

He had seven points to make, four of which were disingenuous, two were half-truths, and the other was the actual core of the problem.

Let me blow away some of the smoke and mirrors first, more for my own satisfaction than because it's going to enlighten you people any. With your indulgence.

First, the kidporn thing. I am sick and tired of hearing this specious blackwash. Are American citizens really so neurotically uptight about deviant sexual behavior that we will allow our entire information infrastructure to be dictated by the existence of pedophiles? Are pedophiles that precious and important to us? Do the NSA and the FBI really believe that they can hide the structure of a telephone switch under a layer of camouflage called child pornography? Are we supposed to flinch so violently at the specter of child abuse that we somehow miss the fact that you've installed a Sony Walkman jack in our phones?

Look, there were pedophiles before NII and there will be pedophiles long after NII is just another dead acronym. Pedophiles don't jump out of BBSes like jacks in the box. You want to impress me with your deep concern for children? This is Chicago! Go down to the Projects and rescue some children from being terrorized and recruited by crack gangs who wouldn't know a modem if it bit them on the ass! Stop pornkidding us around! Just knock it off with that crap, you're embarrassing yourselves.

But back to the speech by Mr. Baker of the NSA. Was it just me, ladies and gentlemen, or did anyone else catch that tone of truly intolerable arrogance? Did they guy have to make the remark about our missing Woodstock because we were busy with our trigonometry? Do spook mathematicians permanently cooped up inside Fort Meade consider that a funny remark? I'd like to make an even more amusing observation -- that I've seen scarier secret police agencies than his completely destroyed by a Czech hippie playwright with a manual typewriter.

Is the NSA unaware that the current President of the United States once had a big bushel-basket-full of hair? What does he expect from the computer community? Normality? Sorry pal, we're fresh out! Who is it, exactly, that the NSA considers a level-headed sober sort, someone to sit down with and talk to seriously? Jobs? Wozniak? Gates? Sculley? Perot -- I hope to God it's not Perot. Bob Allen -- okay, maybe Bob Allen, that brownshoe guy from AT&T. Bob Allen seems to think that Clipper is a swell idea, at least he's somehow willing to merchandise it. But Christ, Bob Allen just gave eight zillion dollars to a guy whose idea of a good time is Microsoft Windows for Spaceships!

When is the NSA going to realize that Kapor and his people and Rotenberg and his people and the rest of the people here are as good as people get in this milieu? Yes they are weird people, and yes they have weird friends (and I'm one of them), but there isn't any normality left for anybody in this society, and when it comes to computers, when the going got weird the weird turned pro! The status quo is *over!* Wake up to it! Get used to it!

Where in hell does a crowd of spooks from Fort Meade get off playing "responsible adults" in this situation? This is a laugh and a half! Bobby Ray Inman, the legendary NSA leader, made a stab at computer entrepreneurism and rapidly went down for the third time. Then he got out of the shadows of espionage and into the bright lights of actual public service and immediately started gabbling like a daylight-stricken vampire. Is this the kind of responsive public official we're expected to blindly trust with the insides of our phones and computers? Who made him God?

You know, it's a difficult confession for a practiced cynic like me to make, but I actually trust EFF people. I do; I trust them; there, I've said it. But I wouldn't trust Bobby Ray Inman to go down to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes.

You know, I like FBI people. I even kind of trust them, sort of, kind of, a little bit. I'm sorry that they didn't catch Kevin Mitnick here. I'm even sorry that they didn't manage to apprehend Robert Steele, who is about one hundred times as smart as Mitnick and ten thousand times as dangerous. But FBI people, I think your idea of Digital Telephony is a scarcely mitigated disaster, and I'll tell you why.

Because you're going to be filling out your paperwork in quintuplicate to get a tap, just like you always do, because you don't have your own pet court like the NSA does. And for you, it probably is going to seem pretty much like the status quo used to be. But in the meantime, you will have armed the enemies of the United States around the world with a terrible weapon. Not your court-ordered, civilized Digital Telephony -- their raw and tyrannical Digital Telephony.

You're gonna be using it to round up wiseguys in streetgangs, and people like Saddam Hussein are gonna be using it to round up democratic activists and national minorities. You're going to strengthen the hand of despotism around the world, and then you're going to have to deal with the hordes of state-supported truckbombers these rogue governments are sending our way after annihilating their own internal opposition by using your tools. You want us to put an axe in your hand and you're promising to hit us with only the flat side of it, but the Chinese don't see it that way; they're already licensing fax machines and they're gonna need a lot of new hardware to gear up for Tiananmen II.

I've talked a long time, but I want to finish by saying something about the NSA guy's one real and actual argument. The terrors of the Brave New World of free individual encryption. When he called encryption enthusiasts "romantic" he was dead-on, and when he said the results of spreading encryption were unpredictable and dangerous he was also dead-on, because people, encryption is not our friend. Encryption is a mathematical technique, and it has about as much concern for our human well-being as the fact that seventeen times seventeen equals two hundred and eighty-nine. It does, but that doesn't make us sleep any safer in our beds.

Encrypted networks worry the hell out of me and they have since the mid 1980s. The effects are very scary and very unpredictable and could be very destabilizing. But even the Four Horsemen of Kidporn, Dope Dealers, Mafia and Terrorists don't worry me as much as totalitarian governments. It's been a long century, and we've had enough of them.

Our battle this century against totalitarianism has left terrible scars all over our body politic and the threat these people pose to us is entirely and utterly predictable. You can say that the devil we know is better than the devil we don't, but the devils we knew were ready to commit genocide, litter the earth with dead, and blow up the world. How much worse can that get? Let's not build chips and wiring for our police and spies when only their police and spies can reap the full benefit of them.

But I don't expect my arguments to persuade anyone in the NSA. If you're NSA and I do somehow convince you, by some fluke, then I urge you to look at your conscience -- I know you have one -- and take the word to your superiors and if they don't agree with you -- *resign.* Leave the Agency. Resign now, and if I'm right about what's coming down the line, you'll be glad you didn't wait till later.

But even though I have a good line of gab, I don't expect to actually argue people out of their livelihood. That's notoriously difficult.

So CFP people, you have a fight on your hands. I'm sorry that a community this young should have to face a fight this savage, for such terribly high stakes, so soon. But what the heck; you're always bragging about how clever you are; here's your chance to prove to your fellow citizens that you're more than a crowd of net- nattering MENSA dilettantes. In cyberspace one year is like seven dog years, and on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog, so I figure that makes you CFP people twenty-eight years old. And people, for the sake of our society and our children you had better learn to act your age.

Good luck. Good luck to you. For what it's worth, I think you're some of the best and brightest our society has to offer. Things look dark but I feel hopeful. See you next year in San Francisco.

Bruce Sterling,

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