I wish that I could say I’ve watched the ongoing Snowden escapade with shock and horror and dismay, but I can’t quite manage any of it. That isn’t to say I find it irrelevant. Quite the opposite, as someone colocated mere yards away from Lavabit the whole thing hits close to home literally and figuratively.
But, at this point, after decades of being shocked, horrified and dismayed by crime after crime committed by our politicos in the name of the greater good, the only kind of surprise I can manage is surprise that anyone is surprised. My own emergent political awareness necessarily coincided with with the realization that our government and the constitution have been orthogonal pursuits for at least a hundred years. I don’t hope to sound controversial in saying that, it’s a realization that everyone makes who has read seriously into polisci. We are an empire, and our contemporary political notions revolve mostly around the direction and magnitude in which we should abuse our power.
It took them, I think, longer than anyone expected (assuming our current understanding of the time line is accurate), but the government finally broke the internet. And it’s beyond time to accept that, despite we academics fettering about at our conferences over encryption protocols and whether message traffic between Alice and Bob might be compromised, the whole network is now pretty much compromised and Alice and Bob couldn’t care less.
Once you’ve realized that the internet is broken and no one cares, here’s another interesting thing to think about: What would theoretically be more useful to a regime that wanted to enforce thought-crime laws? A computer network that didn’t let you say what you wanted, or one that encouraged you to say anything with a false sense of anonymity? So there’s some silver lining for you, we probably don’t really need to worry about internet censorship in America (and even were it to come, its effect would be to protect us from our government). Here’s an interesting corollary; the nations undertaking internet censorship are therefore either too stupid to realize that they could be spying on their citizens, or too stupid to figure out how. Maybe they just have better means.
Anyway, in spite of all of that, I don’t know many people who would point at the internet in it’s current incarnation and say, broken though it is, that it was a net loss. A lot of good came out of our building that network, and although we were probably a little naive in our initial protocol design, and arguably too trusting in our housing of it (although, to whom were we to entrust it? Government?), we managed to help a lot of people be extremely productive, and creative, and disruptive (and very very sexual), and all of that is not only awesome, but sort of unprecedented in human history. So good job us.
Here’s another obvious observation for you; some really important stuff has changed since we hacked together DARPANET all those years ago. We have both better transport technology (especially wireless) , and the benefit of perspective. We no longer doubt that people find world-wide computer networks useful and eventually worth adopting (even if they didn’t understand at first), nor do we doubt that it will be attacked and subverted despite our best efforts at bolting-on security after the fact.
So here’s an interesting idea: lets start over, but this time we’ll make two important changes. First, we’ll use wireless transport, and peer between teensy private entities (like you and me) instead of huge corporate sell-outs. Second, we’ll build end-to-end encryption into the data-link layer, or transport protocols to make it a little harder to listen in.
I hear you. That’s nuts. It’ll take FOR-EV-AR. Nobody will understand or use it but kiddie-porn watching, heroine dealing, Satan worshiping terrorists. The government will just outlaw it. They’ll employ jamming systems to thwart it. They’ll adopt and subvert it. It’s too expensive. It’s too dangerous. Nobody CARES about privacy!
My first unix shell account was from Primenet. An ISP in Arizona who, in 1993, started giving free shell accounts to college kids. One wonders who but college kids would have paid for a Unix shell account in 1993. I, as a high school kid in California couldn’t afford one, but luckily they had a dial-up number in my area code and didn’t do a thorough job of fact checking. Two of the many reasons no doubt that they’re not around today.
I remember that shell account, with the pine, finger, talk, kermit, and the mudding via telnet in the same way most guys my age remember their BBS days. It was slow, and buggy and ugly, and overly technical and only nerds did it, and we none of us ever felt more connected to something than we did then, despite lifetimes of connecting together a world of people.
Today I have a 100Mb/s fiber line directly connected to my house and a pocket phone that can locate the proximate source of bacon to within 10 feet of where I am currently standing, yet I feel uninspired and wary. Everything is kind of overly abstracted and dumbed down. We devops our clouds and hope not to run afoul of the secret police; to be informed by decree from a secret court that our efforts are kind of, sort of, not entirely but sometimes federally illegal. When this happens we wink and nod to our contemporaries and allude to the gag-order. Meanwhile every other LLC in the bay area knows how often I buy bacon, and they evidently chat about me with the NSA over espresso. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Do you know what would inspire me? A decentralized, secure, crowd-sourced replacement to the internet; a dark-net. Black-clad activist-nerds would climb radio towers and access high-rise rooftops in the dead of night to install repeaters for it. Or maybe Solar-powered stratospheric gliders with a raspberry-pi-powered WiMax darknet repeater payload. We could launch them by balloon. I imagine them silently struggling like wild salmon against the jet-stream as they forward packets – so numerous and small there is no hope of destroying them or thwarting their signal. We could custom engineer a repeater for the every-man, and mass-produce it to get the costs down. Everyone could run a repeater at their house and give one to their neighbor for $20.
If (when) it became illegal I imagine I’d do it anyway. When installing open networks becomes a crime, I guess I’ll accept my role as a criminal and dangle from radio towers until they lock me up. I’ll be in good company by then. Anyway, that’s what freedom looks like in my daydreams (well partly), and if you think me juvenile and silly I’d probably agree with you.
Except, as it turns out, they’ve already built it in Seattle. The Meshnet project has evidently been at this at least as long as I’ve been daydreaming about it. I thought I was a silly dreamer (and I’m right), but I’m not the only one. I just didn’t get the memo that we were all moving to Seattle.