‘Only the most skilled,’ Julian Assange tells us, might escape. Escape from what? For Assange our democratic societies are constantly threatened by the deep state. This names the unchanging shadow state of democratic institutions which takes its most insidious form in the mass surveillance apparatus. He believes strongly democracy, but he thinks we need to be armed to defend it. Not with guns, but with cryptography.
For Assange the internet, home to immense amounts of data, is being plundered. In the name of the four horsemen of the online apocalypse (terrorism, paedophilia, drugs and copyright) it is all collected, analysed, deployed, manipulated, abused and used for gain. Carving out free spaces in such a situation becomes the ambition of the cypherpunks who were, of course, almost all libertarians.
The libertarians tend to see justice as flowering from freedom from coercion. In the case of the internet Assange argues that coercive force is an ever-present danger because the state squats on the physical underpinning of the net allowing for the interception of data en masse by the signals intelligence branches of the numerous intelligence agencies, without consent and in legal black sites.
What are these groups? Well let’s name them. Leaving aside contractors we know the United States lists seventeen such intelligence agencies and it is possible that this is not the entire picture (one would be wise to assume it is not). The United Kingdom has a modest eight. The National Security Agency (NSA) represents the States and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) represents the United Kingdom. Both these groups are rooted in the tradition of cryptography with the NSA self-described as the ‘nation’s cryptologic organisation’ and the GCHQ once explicitly called the Government Code & Cypher School (GS&CS).
In this context cryptography is a set of techniques designed to ensure secure communication. In turn it involves decoding the methods deployed by adversaries, this is the favoured term in the community, and this is known as cryptanalysis.
Most of us know the NSA today in terms of to SIGINT or signals intelligence which involves data gathering and decryption. Even when decryption is not currently possible the data is stored in case it will be at a later date in mass databases; most famously in the massive data centre in Utah built in 2013 at a cost of 1.3 billion and coming in at an epic data farm size of 1.5 million square feet. You will be happy to know its remit is classified. Though a quick scan of documents from the PRISM leaks, especially X-keyscore, will give you an idea.
Many people associate all this with data collection, but there are stronger capabilities utilised by these agencies. Let’s pick the ‘Squeaky Dolphin’ suite of programs used by the GCHQ. One unit of the GCHQ, namely the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG), develops tools that allow for, for instance, the real time monitoring of Youtube videos, Facebook likes, and blog reading habits.
There are also, of course, the usual data collection tools and all the usual suspects have their own tool: Google Plus, Skype and Facebook. The latter is heavily targeted. The program SPRING BISHOP, for instance, is capable of finding your private photographs.
Others are downright impressive with CLEAN SWEEP described as the ability to ‘masquerade Facebook Wall Posts for individuals or entire countries.’
Another, called GESTATOR, is designed to amplify a desired message on media sites such as Youtube. PREDATORS FACE is JTRIG’s very own Denial of Service program. This is the very tactic that has resulted in jail time for low-level members of the hacking collective Anonymous.
In turn we too have tools; namely those of encryption which, as Assange reminds us, the ‘universe believes in.’ The property that is of significance is the manner in which encryption is relatively easy compared to decryption. This law of physics is a better weapon than any law of man in this context. Encryption allows for escape or exit and renders the coercive force of the state in relation to online privacy moot.
You still have physical force, but in principle if you refuse to cooperate encrypted information is just noise to a surveillance agency. Assange talks about this in terms of ‘liberty,’ build a space for it and we have a ‘building block,’ that might start a feedback loop that spills back out into the physical world.
What is our task then: ‘Our task is to secure self-determination where we can, to hold back the coming dystopia where we cannot, and if all else fails, to accelerate its self-destruction.’ How? With code. Cypherpunks code as they say. They code Bitcoin, Tor, PGP and they set them loose and watch them proliferate and accelerate across the internet, without determining their uses. Decentralization is a wonderfully unpredictable process; to take one case when you mesh Bitcoin, Tor and PGP you end up with dark net marketplaces.
Which is to say that without the tradition of the cypherpunks dark web marketplaces would never have existed. Without the ‘space’ (Tor), the currency (Bitcoin), and means of secure communication (PGP) the very concept of such marketplaces would seem absurd. Can we consider such sites as positive contributions to this tradition? It is difficult to say precisely since the use of encryption for illegal activity naturally ensures that pressure will be brought upon these tools. The undermining of Tor or the potential regulation of Bitcoin can be justified, from the state perspective, on this basis. It’s an ethical dilemma since, especially in the case of Tor, its uses extend to aiding political dissidents in oppressive regimes. Nonetheless the case can be made in turn that these marketplaces reduce violence by making traditionally dangerous transactions more indirect (no more shady back-street deals). And one can safely ponder whether the war on drugs is slowly being pulled back in the face of mounting criticism (and I do mean slowly).
This is why it is important to see dark web marketplaces in the wider context if we are to assess their long-term viability. If whistleblowers and coders of privacy technology represent the noble side of the cypherpunk tradition then dark net administrators represent the more risky side of this adventure into the unknown. If the deep web is the Wild West they are the cowboys. The only issue is how long they can evade the Sheriff.