Viridian Note 00283: Geeks and SpooksBruce Sterling [email@example.com]
Key concepts: cryptography, information warfare, imaginary products, American national security
Has nothing to do with the Greenhouse Effect, but explains what the Pope-Emperor has been up to this past week or so.
Arquilla and Ronfeldt have edited a new netwar book, just in time for serious mayhem. The analysis of Seattle 99 is the best I've ever seen. http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1382/
Bill Tafoya, a true friend of the crypto "community," such as it is. http://www.thetrainingco.com/html/BioBillTafoya.html
"Geeks and Spooks"
Speech at "Global Challenges, Trends and Best Practices in Cryptography," the Information System Security and Education Center, Washington, DC
November 20, 2001
Hi, my name's Bruce Sterling, I'm a science fiction writer. And a futurist. You might also call me an industry observer. If you were kind.
The reason I showed up here is to listen to you guys, because I'm rather interested in what comes next for crypto, and you're standing a lot closer to that fire than I am.
I myself don't do much 'best practice' for crypto, because personally, I don't have a dog in that race. So, having so little to offer, and being so humbled by your technological brilliance and all, my feeling is that I should at least be frank. Like, very frank. Like: painfully frank.
So: flame on. Here's the story as I see it. The big story about crypto is a power struggle between two American tribes: geeks and spooks. Occasionally innocent people blunder into this situation, but they get lost, either because they don't understand the technology (that's what geeks say) or they're not to pry any further into stuff beyond the reach of mere civilians (that's what the spooks say).
There's the private crypto industry, which is a nice, young little industry, and there are also some intellectual property lawyers. But they have so little clout in this remarkably illegal struggle that they are forced to cultivate either geeks and spooks, just to get some traction.
Then there's the public interest in this matter. The general public is not all that interested. I don't count the EFF, and EPIC, and the GILC and the CDT, because they are real interested, but they are basically all the same twelve guys. Very hardworking guys, but, you know, twelve.
The public has had plenty of chances to get interested in this serious and important and painfully technical story, and really, they just don't wanna. They think that geeks are repulsively geeky, and they think that spooks are scarily spooky, and they expect this unpleasant and complex matter to shake out on its own somehow.
So how are the geeks and spooks doing? Well, I was touched and pleased to see here that they're no longer at daggers drawn, and rather inclined to let bygones be bygones; but society still has some big problems here.
I tend to be kind of pro-geek, myself, because geeks buy a lot of my novels. I recently learned that people in the National Reconnaissance Office also buy my novels, but they never send me fan email. Therefore we'll begin our story with the geeks.
Some time ago my friend and prominent industry journalist Steven Levy wrote this book in my hand here, which is called CRYPTO, and its subtitle is HOW CODE REBELS BEAT THE GOVERNMENT. That's a good snappy subtitle, it makes the ol' product jump right off the shelf. But code rebels did not in fact beat the government, unless you think that the National Bureau of Standards is the government.
The truer and sadder story of crypto was that the spooks and the geeks both beat the hell out of our democratic process, rendering lawyers, consumers, the Congress, the industry, and the Administration totally irrelevant, and leaving crypto as a blasted technical wasteland, in a kind of Afghan-style feud, where every single party was necessarily a crook, or a scofflaw, or a deceiver, or weirdly suspect, and there was no legitimacy, and no common ground, and still, today, no good method to assemble any.
Okay, so take these geeks. Basically, the geeks had three good practices. Number one, scientific research. Crypto is an interesting mathematical and algorithmic conundrum and all that, but it is not that hard a thing to research and study. You don't need a supercollider or an Apollo rocket to get it about crypto. Just because some people tell other people that crypto is wicked and they shouldn't even think about it, that doesn't mean that they stop. They just get on the Internet, and fire up their computers, and practice practice practice.
Number two, the fait accompli. Since making crypto is kind of semilegal and it's an ITAR munition and all that, I'll just quietly make some crypto software and let it go in the public domain. Then when you show up to bust me, I'll say that a giant, distributed network did it. And they did it in Norway. And they're all underage. No: it's even better than that. Go ahead, bust me! I'll get all my running buddies to make angry T-shirts and bumper stickers, and then we can laugh in the New York Times and Washington Post about how you're even stupider than the KGB.
And number three, the big one, the commercial momentum factor. Follow the money, that is the pitch. Never mind that corny security crap from the Cold War, this is the dotcom boom, we geeks have all the cash and all the culture cred, and we're rich and sexy and cool, while you spooks are a bunch of gray, snivelling, alcoholic, Aldrich Ames lookalikes driving around in your rusty Toyotas. Ha! If you even dare to stop us from establishing our giant booming international personal crypto market, the Danes and the Finns and the Swedes will do it instead, and boy will you look stupid. Even the Republican Party fundraisers will hate you. They'd cut your budget, if they knew you had a budget.
So, with these three best geek practices, you'd figure
by now we'd be in the heady glamour days of total crypto-
quote from my cyberpunk novels about how the 21st century was sure to see a lot of offshore digital terrorist action from broken-down outlaw nation-states.
That is the ISLANDS IN THE NET scenario: where the sinister digital underground takes over some penny-ante country like Grenada, and we make every form of piracy locally legal there, and then we just run up our black skull-and-crossbones on the website, and we start selling WINDOWS for nine dollars ninety-five cents. We'll encrypt every bit of data going in and out, so nobody will even know what we're up to! We'll have these key-sharing digital networks of trust, where all the cool people will have our crypto power-handshake, and it'll be like it was when we were selling pot to each other in the dorm in Berkeley, only, like, on a cosmic scale.
And this is where it just starts to get good, because we rebel crypto-fiends will be exchanging messages, and conducting all kinds of business, and negotiating electronic contracts, with people we don't even know and who we're even never gonna know. If we need a hundred kilos of black tar opium, we just hit the F1 function key, and some guy from Sinaloa or Medellin or the Northern Alliance, whom we know only as QX5773 at blacknet dot org, he accepts our anonymous electronic funny money, and he ships the drugs to us to a dead drop in a giant freight container, along with some illegal refugees, and some pirated Gucci handbags, and all the stolen UNIX code we can eat! It's crypto paradise! For we have created a totally liquid market for any and all material which can be put into words and pictures: books, movies, computer games, trade secrets, government secrets, business software; it'll all be sucked down into the black hole of the churning crypto mill, and the State will wither away. Wow!
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I happen to be a science fiction writer, so I have to say I have the warmest and kindliest feelings for this kind of fantasy writing. As sci-fi, that stuff was dynamite. Back in 1992, good old Tim May's CRYPTO ANARCHIST MANIFESTO, a work I recommend highly to every interested party, almost sounded kind of, sort of, plausible.
In 1995, I wrote a very dark novel called HEAVY WEATHER which was cram-full of outlaw crypto stuff. But it is now almost 2002, and we naturally have to ask ourselves, where is the anarchist beef?
And the answer is that the frame of mind that can produce a wondrous document like Tim's ANARCHIST MANIFESTO is entirely different from the kind that can support a stable civil society. That is a pirate utopia! It lacks any means of production! It is parasitic and cannot earn a living. There's no constitution, no civil order, no checks and balances and no rule of law there. The guys who are into this nutty schema couldn't run a lemonade stand, much less establish a world-changing pirate republic. We're not talking Oz; we are talking like five soggy hackers sitting in SEALAND, eating sardines and powdered scrambled eggs on a rusty gun emplacement.
It's not that islands don't exist in our Net == Afghanistan is a huge one. But if you're a geek and you airdrop in with your Linux box to set up an outlaw pirate website in the liberated Pashtun tribal lands, it'll be about a week before you're shot. They'll shoot you for your shoelaces, much less your Pentium.
So where are these imaginary earthshaking geek outlaws who laugh in derision at mere government? Well, they do exist, and they're in Redmond. The big time in modern outlaw geekdom is definitely Microsoft. The Justice Department can round up all the Al Qaeda guys they can wiretap, but when they went to round up Redmond, they went home limping and sobbing, and without a job. That is a geek fait accompli, it's a true geek lock-in. In 2001, Microsoft has got its semi-legal code in every box that matters. They make those brown-shoe IBM monopolists of the 1950s look like model public citizens.
I mean, think about this; consider the historical record. Back in 1974, when IBM was building its embedded crypto chip for online banking, the NSA oozed up and said why don't you IBM guys throttle that back to 56-bit DES? And IBM didn't fuss, IBM was all groovy about it. They didn't say, you government dorks, get lost, we'll protect our freedom to non-innovate by throwing wads of cash and crushing you until we can buy ourselves a nicer President. They were IBM, and they just, you know, knuckled.
So: we don't have any crypto anarchy in computers
machine itself goes, it'll sit on a shelf like a lump of putty, running Windows. Moore's Law, to hell with that. There's nothing new and fancy for a bigger chip to run. Nobody's thought that up. It's even worse than Detroit before the Japanese. It's all chrome tail-fins and creeping featuritis: it's unsafe at any speed.
As soon as any digital innovation comes up out of the mud and gasps for market oxygen, it'll be folded into the operating system, along with several thousand viruses invented by kids in the Philippines. And is the Justice Department going to do anything about that? No, I don't think so. They don't dare.
So tech is in the dumps today, and the geeks sure miss all their excitement, where'd it go... Maybe it's hiding in the broadband! And what is broadband about? Is it about the Al Gore Info Superhighway bringing the blessings of democracy to the seven-year-olds in every elementary school? No, it turns out that broadband is about moving television, telephones, radio, and the movie industry into the operating system.
"Oops! Look at this cool thing we geeks built while you weren't looking! We geeks accidentally ate your industry!" The boys from Redmond are just crouching there behind their consoles... licking their thumbs and counting that movie-ticket money, all those cable subscriptions... Gosh, too bad about our overwhelming technological imperative, Mr Redstone, Mr Ted Turner, Mr Prime Minister Berlusconi... You're part of our steamroller or you're part of the road.
That's geek argument number three, you see; the techno-imperative market. Which, in a stagnant monopoly, makes no sense any more, if it ever did. Because the steamroller is not moving. It's just burning through other people's cash. What if the phone companies don't want to sell the people broadband, and the FCC is too weak and febrile to make 'em? Is there any reason that some geek with a Windows box should get to tear the music industry apart like a cook de-boning a chicken? Yes, there are three traditional geek reasons: (1) because we thought it up! (2) Because we already did it while you weren't looking! (3) Because it is techno-destiny that will make us all rich!
Well, forget about all that.
"Why don't you geeks just sit down with your cheap, crappy plastic boxes, and shut up? Here in the TV biz, our boxes look nicer anyway!"
This would be a pretty good argument for the music industry, and the cable industry, and the movie industry, and the telephone industry, to make, if they weren't
shameful oligarchies themselves. They don't innovate
on the culture industry, much the same hammerlock that Microsoft has on the computer industry. Nothing much will ever happen after they get full control == but that's okay, because they'll be the only guys selling it!
Now, I'm not making this strange story up == Lawrence Lessig is the guy making this story up. Professor Lessig wrote a book called THE FUTURE OF IDEAS.
If Lawrence were merely some kind of delightful wacky crank like Tim May, I guess that would be okay and it might even be great material; but unfortunately, Lawrence Lessig is an American Justice Department lawyer who had his head handed to him in court by Microsoft, and that made him really mad. And he's a pretty good lawyer too. He's a better lawyer than Bill Gates is a programmer. I like reading Lawrence Lessig. He doesn't read very much like science fiction, but you know, we don't actually govern with that stuff.
The future of cyber anarchy is cyberfeudalism. It's Politics 301. We had a lot of booming cyberanarchy in the USA for 20 years, and now we are looking at several years of stagnant feudal nothingness. I would guess about maybe one Presidential administration worth of nothing. About one Presidential Administration, and maybe a severe economic setback's worth of nothing. Then people are gonna start wondering why nothing important is happening any more in computer technology, and when they look at that technology, all they are going to see is Microsoft. Because that is all there is. If you want to guess what happens after that, you probably shouldn't even ask me. You should probably ask Lawrence Lessig.
So let's forget the geeks. For the moment, these culture heroes are a spent force. Let's look at the other major players. The spooks. That's the other good reason nothing sane and sensible ever happened in crypto: because that the NSA wouldn't let it. Everybody knew this, but nobody was ever allowed to say it. It's really a fantastic situation, a thing to marvel at, unless you're French or something. In which case the American spooks get to spy on your faxes and phone calls at will, while your own spooks are reduced to pathetic penny-ante stuff like blowing up Greenpeace boats.
I imagine that must hurt their feelings. Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot. Imagine that somebody else's country, like, say, Finland or Pakistan, invented some kind of neutrino-powered super X-ray machine that could spy on unsuspecting Americans around the clock. If we Americans found out about that, of course America would go completely ape with paranoia and start launching the cruise missiles. I mean: why wouldn't we?
That is the big political problem with signals intelligence. The NSA and ECHELON, they've become the world's most visible, invisible enterprise.
And what is their future? Well, the NSA nobly thinks that their future is Double Cross and Purple Code, because hey, breaking codes is how the US wins wars. But a likelier future is all kinds of American spooks hastily dumping the rulebook and running loose all over the map. And that is not World War II. That would be Iran-Contra.
It's amazing how much the post September 11 situation already looks like Iran-Contra. Mostly because so many of the same guys are still on the scene. I mean, the Ayatollah is dead now, thank goodness, but we're still baking cakes for detente with the Iranians, and Daniel Ortega == you might remember when he was a serious national security menace == Daniel Ortega just lost an election in Nicaragua.
The problem with spooks is, when you give them their heads, they never have any common sense. They're weird little naive underworld creatures, and when they hang out with terrorists, they get Stockholm Syndrome.
You know, I could stand here all day and talk about the symbiotic relationship of spooks and terrorists, but I really shouldn't, because I'm just a novelist, and when we get into our full Tom Clancy spook freak mode, it gets kind of tedious. So let me just offer you a few suggestive leads for your own researches.
First, remember Oliver North, okay? Imagine Attorney General Ashcroft on TV doing the next Attorney General Meese thing, two, or three, or five years from now; he's outing the next Oliver North. Why? Because Ollie forgot that his email got backed-up automatically on the PROFS system. The guy's got a serious geek problem. And what was Lieutenant Colonel North's other serious problem? Well, Congressional oversight. It's a real drag kowtowing to the Congress when you're trying to secretly kill the undeclared enemies of the United States.
The difficulty here is that when you've made up your mind to ignore the US Congress, it's really hard to stop. The US Congress is not the kind of enterprise you can ignore just once! Nobody ever ignores civilian oversight just once. Ollie North isn't the best example of this, because when it came to fighting Moslem terrorists, Ollie was a weekend amateur. If you want to look at serious institutional corruption in the War on Terror, you've got to look at some spooks who've been fighting Moslem terrorists for decades now.
Consider a guy named Abdullah Catli. That's C-A-T-L- I for you folks who use Google. Mr Catli was a Turkish spook who made a career of fighting Kurdish terrorists, and Armenian terrorists. He worked for the Turkish secret service as a terrorist-killer. He got killed in a car wreck in 1996, but if Mr Catli were alive today, he'd definitely be one of our primary assets in our global war on Moslem terror. Because he was a NATO Moslem, and very pro-American, and on the best of terms with the CIA. He was also a member of the Turkish Gray Wolves movement, who are terrorists, and he was a multiply-convicted heroin smuggler, and he's also the guy who gave Mehmet Ali Agca the handgun that shot the Pope. He was a really busy guy.
Under normal circumstances, pre-Internet, Mr Catli would have remained a really secret guy. Nowadays, however, if you look up Mr Catli on Google, you will find a whole lot of terrible secret news about him that was carefully collected and archived by Kurds and Greeks, the arch enemies of the Turks. And oh my goodness Mr Catli did some remarkable things, like taking over oil companies by force and violence, and shooting owners of casinos, and kidnapping the owners of television stations.... And the best part is == this part kills me == Abdullah Catli has got his own website now. It's Catli dot com.
It's all in Turkish, but it's run by his daughter, who wrote his biography and is eager to exhonerate her dad. She's doing a kind of Ollie North talk-show rehabilitation thing for Mr Catli, she's got the book, she's got the website, and wow, when it came down to extralegal executions of terrorists, maybe Dad was just ahead of his time, huh? Wow!
Then there's Arkan. Another really secret guy. Arkan is also stone dead now, and he also got his start as an extra-legal anti-terrorist. In particular, Arkan shot exiled Croatian terrorists in Europe in the 1970s. Then he branched out into killing Moslems inside Bosnia Hercegovina. Arkan was a Serbian paramilitary warlord, and a robber baron, and a smuggler, and a gangster, but he definitely started as a big anti-terrorist secret. Nowadays Serbs rarely tire of telling us that the Albanians and Bosnians liked to hang out with Osama bin Laden. And yeah == as long as Arkan was around, the Moslems in Yugoslavia were really glad to see Osama bin Laden.
Arkan got his brains blown out by some off-duty cops, but Arkan was an off-duty cop himself, so that makes sense. Arkan always sold himself as a secret anti- terrorist and the friend of law and order. That was always his pitch, even when he was hauling wounded prisoners out of hospitals and shooting them in cold blood. He was in the business of secretly and heroically protecting people from menace. He was Mr Croat Menace, and then Mr Bosnian Menace, and then Mr Moslem Menace, and he ended up as Mr NATO Menace and Mr American Menace; as long as the Serbian people were paying him and giving him guns, he would give them all the menace they could eat. Finally the Serbs had a coalition of 19 separate countries blowing them up and it was still everybody else's fault.
You can go to Serbia right now and walk around, and it's all about how great Arkan was, and how it was all some terrible misunderstanding. Serbia was and still is a police state, where the police are the spies, and the spies are the mafia, and everything is always a secret, and the people are always innocent, because nobody ever tells them anything, because it's a dangerous world out there, and people have to be protected from the truth.
Mossad gets a lot of good press these days. Consider the Olympic killings of the Israeli athletes back in the 1970s. That was a very malignant and gruesome terrorist act that shocked the whole world, and it's often compared to the 9.11 catastrophe. Mossad made it their business to patiently track down that multinational terror group, year after year, nation after nation, and relentlessly wipe them out. And it was hard and dangerous work, and I give them some credit for that, except for the slip-ups.
Like the day in 1973 when Sylvia Raphael, and Avraham Behmer, and Mike Harari went up to Norway and acccidentally executed the wrong guy. They meant to kill this malignant terrorist named Ali Hassan Salameh, and instead they shot this harmless Moroccan waiter named Achmed Bauchiki. The Norwegian police arrested them for it, because they hadn't been let-on about Mossad's global war on terror. The Norwegian police naturally assumed that it was just some sneaky-looking people killing waiters.
Now, it's not like Mike Harari, and Avraham Behmer, and Sylvia Raphael ever did any hard time for killing that waiter; they managed to pull some diplomatic strings and they got off. Most Americans have never heard of Mossad killing the wrong guy in Lillehammer in 1973. But when you're running around in neutral third countries with crack teams of armed super-agents blowing people away, stuff like this happens.
And what are the consequences? Well, this time, people are gonna talk on the Internet. The net is swarming with NGO guys, and Amnesty guys, and activist guys, and enemy guys, and psychological warfare guys, who do nothing but point these things out, all day, every day.
Now, since I'm a novelist, I think that Sylvia Raphael, who was a comely Mossad female assassin from South Africa, is a really interesting subject. And if you go to Israel and ask around about her, it's like "Who? Huh? They serve in secret silence, God bless 'em!" And if you go to the USA it's rather like "Whaaah? Huh?" But if you happen to be hanging around on the websites of the enemies of Israel, you'll hear quite a lot about Mossad personnel.
When I predict that spooks are not to be trusted and will end up doing themselves big, ugly, scandalous harm, it's not that I don't trust the President. On the contrary; I come from Texas, I've been living under a Bush regime for years now. He strolled off with the elections in Texas, nobody ever accused him of stealing them. If he was some kind of malignant power-crazed lunatic, we'd know all that by now. I had a pretty good time in the years when George W. Bush was my Governor. Laura Bush is a librarian. We novelists have very warm, affirmative feelings towards librarians.
I'm just declaring that rule by spooks does not work because of civics. Spooks have no checks and balances. You don't get to sue them. They're never held accountable. They're not elected. They don't worry about return on investment and they don't answer to the stockholders. They don't even have to bury their own mistakes; they usually get the diplomats to do that for them. Do you think they're any smarter now than they were during Iran Contra? Or any less reckless?
Let me put it this way: if you're running around dropping domestic wiretaps for national security, you're always gonna get around to wiretapping the President's real problem: the opposition party. And that's kind of conspicuous. For instance: what are three Cuban-American guys doing wiretapping the Watergate hotel? Well, you know, we spooks were supposed to worry a lot about Cuba, so we had some spare Cubans around!
So our two power groups, geeks and spooks, may have resolved some of their ugly quarrels from ten years ago, but they have both failed us politically. We have had arrogant secrecy versus arrogant technocracy, and they have both failed the people. Now the geeks are inert and the spooks are going bonkers. That leaves... I dunno.... businessmen. Intellectual property people. And it's pretty interesting to see them wade in.
This Dmitri Sklyarov guy... Why anybody thinks e- books are worth even one lousy lawsuit, that is beyond me. I guess they had to show they had some kind of teeth in their big pink intellectual gums, so they collared this Russian guy instead of that Finnish juvenile, and off we go on the bloody-shirt parade. Abducting foreign guys at the hacker conference, that was kind of their spook approach.
Then we've got their geek approach: the invisible dongle business. We're gonna make some CDs and DVDs and such, except they won't play inside computers. Better yet, we won't tell anybody that they don't do that. That is an impressively geeky little move. Hire some geeks and sneakily ruin the hardware so it suits your business interests! If it were up to me, I'd actually promote it that way == "This virginal Britney Spears CD guaranteed free of the evil clutches of Bill Gates" == but they prefer to try the geeky, sneaky way. And why not? If it's okay for geeks to invent some crypto and leave it lying around on the ground, then it ought to be okay for the MPAA or the WIPO to invent some kind of software landmine that makes computer pirates blow right up! If it's sauce for the geek goose, it's sauce for the geek gander.
Everybody knows that Mickey Mouse has a permanent hammerlock on the public domain. Every time the Mouse is about to slide out of copyright, Disney runs back to hustle Congress and pump some more air into his mummy. It's a scam and a ridiculous scandal, but at this moment intellectual property is probably farther away from a sane resolution than it's been in many years. It has degenerated into cloak-and-dagger inside the box.
If there's hope, frankly, I think it's offshore. I have come to suspect that the American polity has foundered here. We Yankees just may not be up for the necessary leadership. The public interest has vanished into a welter of panic-stricken cartels. We don't get good security, we don't get innovative technology, least of all do we get some cleverly designed and genuinely useful cryptography. We get a computer industry in abject monopolist collapse, as a smorgasbord of newly-minted spooks trample the landscape!
It's not that the problems posed by crypto are any less pressing == they're much more pressing, because we have some deadly security threats == but they've been left in the underworld so long that they've fossilized. It's as if we'd all just discovered prostitution. "Gosh, do men and women have sex for money? That's a big AIDS risk, isn't it? I should call my Congressman and lobby to have something done." Did you ever wonder why there are so many demimondaines and courtesans in centers of government? It's the world's second-oldest profession, folks.
You know something? I blame society! Maybe those dismal Americans should no longer be trusted with crypto! Of course, nobody ever did trust us with it, or somebody, somewhere, somehow would have bought a Clipper Chip. We were willing to settle for technical faits accompli and secrecy, and their global political consequences have caught up with us. We never made an open, public case for the global benefits of a global sensory network. Although they clearly must be pretty extensive. Instead, we forced ECHELON on the rest of the world == because we have bigger satellites and nicer microwave antennas than they do.
Whenever the truth about that lurches up == that wrecked Chinese spyplane, the Pueblo in North Korea, the USS Liberty and such == we just trip over it, dust ourselves off and pretend it never happened. Now we're a nation that has just had its military nerve center and 4,000 people blown up in a gruesome atrocity, and we are carrying out a land war in a sump infested with landmines, and heroin, and fanatics, and torturers, and war criminals, and anti-terrorist terrorists that we once used to finance ourselves, who feed at will off our giant lust for narcotics.... Hoo-ah!
It's a global war, and there's an interesting aside here: this is the first global war to come along where it's not all the fault of Europeans. How refreshing!
So maybe Europeans can think this issue through and take some useful and constructive steps, while the rest of us are busy killing evildoers. Really, at this point, in all humility, we should seek the aid and counsel of our allies. World Wide Web, that was Swiss, and Linux, that was Finnish; so if they think really hard and they make sure to pay no attention whatsoever to the British, maybe the Europeans could bring some fresh perspective to surveillance and cryptography.
Now, I've delivered a pretty severe excoriation to the crypto circus here, and one might even call it crabby and ill-tempered. But I've been watching this mess develop for years and years on end, and really, my hair has gone all gray, and I've adapted bifocals watching the crypto scandals. It's not getting better. It was "the Bosnia of Telecommunications," and even Bosnia looks better by now. I've earned a right to some crypto cynicism. The record speaks for itself.
But nevertheless, I can't leave you without a positive vision. A couple of hopeful, off-the-wall suggestions, maybe.
So. What might we do with crypto, if we were smart and constructive about it, and let bygones be bygones, and if we could pacify the brawling among dysfunctional interest groups who clearly are not mature enough to handle it? Well, my first suggestion would be crypto in passports. Because passports suck. It's time we dumped these ludicrously insecure and easily forgeable paper passports, and went for something a lot chippier.
You know what I want? I don't want a National ID Card. I want a Global Coalition Visa.
Like it or not, we've got a huge global diaspora now. It is a fact of life. Nations with stupid and corrupt politics have seen their clever people brain- drained away, to places where the cops don't shake you down twice a day. And jet-setters go everywhere. And properly so. If you're in a true global society, then you spend a lot of your time among aliens. Quite often you are the alien. You might notice that even Al Qaeda is a genuinely multinational group. They gravitated to wicked, lawless places like Sudan, Chechnya and Afghanistan, where the locals shoot you if you ask for a badge.
But what about all us bright, shiny, world-trading jet setters, huh? There are thirty percent fewer Yankees in Europe this Christmas, and that is bad. Let me pose the problem this way. If I am going into a Japanese restaurant in Japan, I would rather like to be able to haul out some gizmo and flash it at my fellow civilians, and have these kindly people understand with a high degree of likelihood that I am not a mass murderer. On the contrary, I am quite civilized, and I should be brought a beer immediately.
A platinum VISA card and a five-hundred-dollar suit will almost do that, but those are too easy to forge and steal, plus they are not very democratic. The UN should get together on this. We should have a high level summit about digital hardware support for the crippled tourist economy. Fear and ill treatment shut down tourism faster than anything short of open warfare. That is bad for all of us. Killing off tourism harms our civilization and impoverishes our cultures. People in civilized states shouldn't routinely treat one another as criminal suspects. I don't want to get done-over for three hours every time I get off a plane in London. When I go to London, I go with empty suitcases. I don't plan to stay, but I am better news for the London economy than a lot of the people who live there.
They should know all that that before I get off the plane. My arrival is excellent news for Britain, so I should be treated that way. If this is a new kind of war, I don't want to be the evil guy hunkered down in the bunker; I want to fly with the boys from Air Assault. I want one of those handy crypto-style Friend-or-Foe IDs.
These people who normally meet me whenever I am an alien, they don't need to know my nationality, my home address or my shoe size. They just need to know that, despite being alien, I'm sort-of okay.
I want a democratic, citizen-to-citizen device that will bridge those social barriers and language barriers. I think we could invent devices and means of verification that would strengthen the global social fabric that terrorism wants to rip. It wouldn't be easy or simple, but it's not beyond our ingenuity. Our social capital sustains all civilized societies, and it is all about trust. So let's invent new methods of trust.
If you look at what happened on September 11, you find one American victory in that first skirmish of the war. That was the flight in which the passenger revolted against the hijackers. Why? Because of their cellphones. That was a battle of civilian cellphones versus terrorist boxcutters. I suspect that episode will turn out to be the rehearsal of the whole war. The good news here is that boxcutters are not capable of much military improvement, while cellphones could improve by leaps and bounds.
This suggests the invention of the weaponized and ruggedized GI cellphone. You could think of it as the "wingless angel," as they liked to call them after September 11; and as a kind of personal black-box recorder for the endangered citizen. This cellphone would be federally manufactured, and distributed en masse as a general-issue security device. The point of this device would be to arm the population in surveilling and recording acts of unconventional warfare. You don't shoot anybody with it; but if you see anything weird, suspicious and asymmetric going on, you formally act as a mediated witness: you hold this device up, and you start looking and talking. And all this safety data is instantly streamed off and stored in Fort Knox and Fort Meade.
Now, if you turn the entire population into anonymous snoops and peeping Toms, it's a nation of snitches, which is very destabilizing. I'm not suggesting that. I am suggesting secure, accountable devices with digital signatures built in. They're cryptographically time-stamped, their voice signals and photographs are cryptographically overwritten, proving their source. They are tamperproofed, and very sternly verifiable, and usable as proven evidence in courts of law. They're not civilian toys, they are genuine weapons of information warfare, in much the same way that an unarmed Predator surveillance aircraft is a weapon. They are people's media weapons. Their proper use requires some training and discretion; it's like a citizen's audiovisual arrest.
This is the civilian militia Minuteman version of surveillance. The omnipresense of this kind of civilian- owned and civilian-deployed surveillance would not make anyone's society kinder and happier. But it certainly would make that society a very dangerous place for urban guerrillas. And it would not centralize the great power of surveillance in the unstable hands of unelected functionaries.
That's my futuristic suggestion; maybe it's somewhat far-fetched and impractical, but this seems like the kind of audience with whom one ought to broach the subject.
In conclusion, I must say that although I am by no means a happy man this season, I think that in five or six years, we may look back at this time of confusion and sorrow with some sense of real satisfaction. The President was right to say that our society had been challenged by a serious act of terror, and it's a genuine and sober challenge, and we could blow it. It isn't written on tablets of gold that we pampered Yankee mall rats are destined to rule the universe. There are times in life when people are required to measure up and show some mettle.
It's alarming when our Congress does dumb things and our institutions look like they're caught all flat-footed, but you know, we don't have some extra, better Congress stashed away in an attic; this is Washington, and this is it. We don't have an extra American population, either; dumb, pampered, red-white-and-blue, whatever, we are them. Adversity has its uses. We're learning a lot about ourselves by going through this. If we can just manage to make some fresh mistakes, we may end up in some place really interesting, better than we had, not all damp, crooked, and muddled, but clearer and more sensible. We should hope for that, and work for that.
That's all I have to say, thanks for your attention.
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