The Viridian Design Movement

Viridian Note 00312: Viridian Computer Security

Bruce Sterling []

Key concepts: steganography, secure communications, European politics, secret police, feminism

Attention Conservation Notice: It's about feminists.

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I have returned from Italy, where I was hanging out with Linux free software guys. Some of them were Communists. One always hears the weird allegation that Linux users are Communists, but this is the first time I ever met any real ones.

In Italy's unique political circumstances, the Communists are "the party of honest government." Whereas the current Prime Minister, Silvio "The Cavaliere" Berlusconi, is a sinister media monopolist who hangs out with half-reformed fascisti. Then there's that Le Pen guy, in France. And in sweet, kindly Holland, a gay right-wing xenophobe has been shot dead by an animal- rightist. You know, in Europe, life is hairy this season.

People in Italy (who rather like cyberpunk books for their spooky, noir aspects), always have me figured for some kind of stiletto-toting, chrome and matte-black conspirator. Little knowing that the most sinister things I do are (a) eating taco chips and (b) sitting in front of a Macintosh moving my fingers up and down.

This reputation, however, likely accounts for brief Italian encounter I had with some Eastern European cyberfeminists. It seems that these ladies had read a recent speech of mine at the Computers Freedom and Privacy Conference, where I publicly stated that I "admire women" and like to see them take "a public role in public life."

They were thrilled to see a technologically knowledgeable American male acknowledging their humanity. These ladies have some security problems.

Mind you, these aren't heavy-duty, with-it, Cornelia Sollfrank style cyberfeminists. Those cyberfeminists are sophisticated, learned Eurofemmes in brainy-glasses, who hang out with Australian performance artists and know how to use real computers. These cyberfeminists were dainty little dissident peaceniks. They're from one of those "former" countries.

These women would like to chat and share some files on the Internet without having the secret police listening in. Or, in fact, scary male guys of any kind, peering at them as they let their hair down.

Of course I was instantly suspicious of these women. Those were probably ruthless Al Qaeda women. They were merely disguised as harmless, bespectacled, Simone de Beauvoir fans. Their high heels and surprisingly stylish skirts were likely packed to the gunwales with suicide- bomber gelignite. I'm their dupe. But so be it.

Every time these poor girls meet in some Slavic consciousness-raising circle, and cry in their coffee about the terrible things that their hard-bitten mothers told them about life when they were 14, doubtless there should be a police spy there to make sure they don't become nuisances. I mean, I get it about that problem.

As you know, we Viridians really like cops. We rarely mention feminists. Viridian List swarms with cops. We are very aware of their pressing difficulties and institutional interests. Anything useful we Viridians can do for you ladies and gentlemen in law enforcement, you just let us know. Really, no kidding. A nice Viridian Design Contest for classier SWAT riot-gear, we could definitely get into that.

But you know, archiving and data-mining every digital emanation of civil society, that is not a legitimate cop activity. That's not "protecting and serving." On the contrary, that's malignant and repulsive, and it's a road to general ruin. My personal feeling is that – if some antiterror police operation is somehow required against feminists – then one ought to do it the good old fashioned way. None of this CARNIVORE or ECHELON keywording nonsense. Go get a female cop. That would surely work much better and quicker than spying on their email, anyhow.

Feminists always believe that any woman who can dress like them, hang out with them, and learn their weird deconstructive lingo must be passionately dedicated to their Cause. So then, once your female agent is in their good graces, you can just round 'em up. Feminists are never much into hierarchy or operational discipline, so they never divvy up into secure, conspiratorial cells. You can just drop by the lesbian bookstore and toss 'em all in the paddy-wagon.

So much for the "threat," okay? The very idea of goon voyeurs spying on their personal email and Carnivoring their pathetic little rusty PCs – well, it's just overkill. Anyone of decency has to bridle at this.

So, I started in on 'em with the obligatory hacker- guru pitch, all about encryption, and PGP, and ECHELON and packet-sniffing and such, but I could quickly see that I was losing them. Their eyes were glazing over. So I'm afraid that I failed to satisfy their pressing needs and requirements. I felt bad about that, but that's not really a Viridian problem.

The Viridian aspect to the problem is this: computer security is ugly and stupid-looking. It's built by master geeks who want to go head to head with the NSA. It's all Cold-War-ish and stodgy and out-of-it. What Viridians would like best is some computer security that's enticing, designery and even sexy.

Encryption and computer security are very macho. There's no such thing as pretty encryption. The graphic treatment of those programs, they're are all locks and keys and bulldogs and portcullises. They have the Brobdingnagian look of castle keeps in Star Wars movies. You know, those big ugly gates that weigh eighty tons and reflect blaster fire, yet R2-D2 can always crack them in 15 seconds flat.

What the likes of these feminists need is some form of security they can use pretty much all the time, without feeling all threatened and paranoid. Much like, for instance, their clothing. Clothing is an anti- surveillance device for women. However, you rarely see women choosing to wear plate armor. Women are perfectly aware of the exact level of inspection that their clothing attracts or repels. Women have this down to a literal fine art. Yet computer security offers them no such graces or subtleties. You never know by the look of the software if you're in a burqa or in lingerie. And it's always ugly, and cumbersome, and threatening-looking, and expensive, and hard to learn, and a paranoid drag.

Feminists don't like to meet inside armed fortresses. Eastern European feminists are very into areas like your aunt's kitchen, where (a) nobody knows they are in there, and (b) nobody much cares, and (c) no mere man would ever believe that anything important could happen in there, and (d) where everyone feels intimate and cozy, and (e) there's coffee, and maybe some clean towels for people having sudden emotional breakthroughs. Nor are these private, intimate places ever sponsored by the Oxygen Network. Malignant Tupperware ads should not be flying through these spaces, assaulting the sobbing users with commercial banner-spam. These virtual communities shouldn't have the vibe of shopping malls, bunkers, or death-traps. They should just be sort of... invisible.

So, I'm figuring... maybe something like password- protected blogs. With steganography. Steganography I take to be the most feminine form of computer security. It merely looks like a pretty picture, while its depths are unsuspected. Any google-eyed web spider will just wisp right over steganography; it's got a subtext hidden in plain sight.

So, ideally, you ought to quietly log in to your hidden feminist blog, which looks very quiet and undramatic, something like Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Brown." Instead of big screenfuls of naked data visible to every prying eye, it ought to all be steganography in there. All you see are big Mary Cassatt sentimental mother-and- child JPEG and GIF files. You can type a feminist manifesto, or maybe some family-violence statistics, right onto the picture, and it just soaks into the image and quietly vanishes.

Then, you could sort of glide over to the confessional area, which is also just pictures: daisies, seagulls, pubshots of Gloria Steinem.... And when you rub at the picture with your mouse, some artless confession flowers out, and you get to read it, and feel it really deeply.

If this were a better planet, I would have had all that on a handy CD-ROM. I should have just pulled that out of my shoulder bag, handed it over and told them, "This is what you ladies need. Just press and play." Man, I would have totally rocked their world. They would have told everybody they knew.

Unfortunately, steganography seems to be in a primitive state of development. I can't even find a method which is platform-independent – for instance, there doesn't even seem to be a method of moving a stego'd picture from a PC to a Mac or a Linux box. The gals at the battered women's shelter, they don't have enough money to buy any dedicated crypto consoles. They're gonna have to manage with whatever they've got. Which is very haphazard and behind the times.

In this Viridian imaginary product, this pretty, beguiling security scheme, these women wouldn't be really and truly safe and secure, of course. If the lads and ladies at Fort Meade ever decide to bring the full bore of their zillion-dollar attention on you, you're toast. Besides, these women are not safe and secure in their real lives – because they come from still-smoking war zones swarming with mafiosi.

But at least they wouldn't be blundering into increasingly dangerous areas of information warfare, where they get mysteriously trapped and savaged by predators with better hardware than they have, assailants they will never be able to see, or confront, or shame into better behavior.

If you have any cogent tips, leads, or ideas on this subject, let me know. I'll be returning to Europe in short order. In fact, I'm going to Holland. Rotterdam, to be precise. Sorry about the political violence there, guys. Times are tough all around.

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