“Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” – Joseph Heller, Catch 22, 1961
Pando.com is the San Francisco-based website that first covered the Silicon Valley wage-fixing cartel and most harshly scrutinised Pierre Omidyar’s motives for putting $250 million into his First Look media venture. Most journalists ignored the scandalous conspiracy to steal tech workers’ wages and ran drooling coverage of First Look, letting Pando take the freehold on both stories. Then Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post and nobody showed any more mercy because The Post wasn’t a quaint tech startup which could do no wrong.
With the disclosure that I’ve applied a few months ago to join Matt Taibbi’s now defunct Racket joint under Omidyar as a full-time reporter, there are certain obvious points a hawkish satirist might make about the affair: the names ‘First Look Media’ and ‘The Intercept’ sound to a cynical speculator like a prank Pierre Omidyar played on us to remind himself how clever he is. He intercepted Snowden’s files by coopting Greenwald with an unrefusable pile of cash, in order to have a first look at the state secrets before they made the press. Of course, nobody really knows if Omidyar saw the NSA documents in question apart from himself and Greenwald. On the side, nobody seems to know either if Snowden was informed that Greenwald will capitalise, make hay, go flush on the selfless whistleblower’s civic-minded endeavour. I asked Greenwald about this on Twitter but answer came there none. I applied for the job as an admirer of Taibbi’s past work, trusting that he would keep the New Age oligarch at a distance. Funnily enough, he did, but not the way most people expected.
More recently Pando had a big story exposing the Deep State money that funds Tor and Tor’s shrill anti-government fanboys. The story showed how proliferation of the Tor web anonymity network is primarily in the interest of the US Government, which is why it spent large amounts of money to create it. It also showed how many of those vocal privacy activists that work for Tor make like they despise the Man but are on the Man’s payroll. Yaha Levine, the roving reporter at Pando, became the target of a vicious smear campaign by Tor programmers following his expose. This is a wider trend. There emerges unconfirmed news that a Tor programmer has invaded the privacy of one of her Twitter critics and posted his personal information (name, names of parents, employer and place of residence) in public to make him a target for future attacks. Coming from a self-styled anonymity and free speech advocate, this is strange behaviour.
It is a very important story because it exposes Tor for a tool of the spook state. After Snowden revealed ubiquitous surveillance in the name of Western state security, many fanatical, beady-eyed techies have started crawling out of the woodwork urging everyone to use Tor and PGP, saying that’s the only available tool against state surveillance.
In a very corporate PR, think global, act local fashion, these self-styled cryptographers funded by invisible money have started throwing free ‘crypto-parties’ and holding free ‘crypto-classes’ teaching the masses how to encrypt their data and communications, essentially bringing Tor to a computer near you as a way to counteract the men wearing trenchcoats and rubber-sole shoes. I attended a few of these cryptography classes in London and they are nothing more than product demonstrations for home encryption companies. These people have about them an air of cult members.
As GCHQ original Alan Turing proved in his day, encryption is nothing new and it certainly isn’t perfect. There’s nothing to suggest mass encryption will ever stop state surveillance, but chances are it will make it more difficult and expensive to perform.
Expensive is the key here, because most state surveillance is now outsourced to private companies like Booz Allen, so their taxpayer-funded contracts will only get fatter and juicier as encryption grows in popularity. The business of state security will therefore grow much more profitable as a result, developing the stalker economy and eroding democracy in the longterm.
Communist Romania ended in 1989 with a blood, gore and mayhem revolution after 50-odd years of state security-supported totalitarianism headed by Nicolae Ceausescu and Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. It had started with the best of intentions – democracy, safety and prosperity for all, but turned ugly before anyone knew it and it was too late for peaceful politics when they woke up. My father was arrested by the Securitate for selling music, dollars and jeans during communism when he was about the same age I am now after being informed upon by one of his inner circle. He got off with a bribe eventually, but that’s a story for another time.
The point here, and the point that I think Ed Snowden makes is that we are now early on a road that leads to a similar situation to totalitarian Romania’s 25 years ago, maybe 50 years from now. Thankfully democracy still works, and politicians still listen if they have to. Now. In a generation that might change.
Digressing further, the same logic is at work in America’s gun control debate: if they ban guns, only the villains will have them, so no gun control. In reality universal gun use hides the villains among the innocent.
If Tor is openly marketed as just for spies, only the spies will be using it. The analogy is that guns and Tor offer a false sense of security to the average person while criminals and spooks profit from the camouflage.
I started stringing for Pando this summer. I wrote two stories for the site – one about the novel ways in which the City of London Police is fighting online piracy and finding that some hapless corporates are shooting themselves in the foot with digital advertising – and another also involving corporates, this time using targeting algorithms to post their cheesy ads on Dailymotion.com. Only problem was that the videos these ads appeared on were brutal jihadi recruitment propaganda for and by ISIS and Rayat al-Tawheed terrorists. WHOOPS.
The jihadi ads story is good because it demonstrates computer algorithms are unable to discriminate jihadi beheadings from playing kittens. It’s all just viral content after all. We forget that code is a still unevolved language, software is written by ordinary people and algorithms are just forms of making value judgements automatically.
There’s also a symbolic twist:
Sometimes, in a chillingly ominous coincidence, next to the terrorists’ footage inciting their ilk to bomb the West there was a banner advert placed by Airbus saying “Ready to launch? Fund out more about the aerospace industry in Alabama.” Not in that way, though, hopefully. Then another ad for Transport for London appeared on a video inciting young jihadis to murder all secularists, thus sending the wandering mind directly to the London 7/7 bombings. Dailymotion wasn’t an isolated case. Youtube, Veoh and Blip.tv were seen doing the same later on. Now they seem to have gotten their acts straight.
Anyone who’s seen Natural Born Killers (1994) and got the gist may smirk at the jihadi ads. Monetizing murder is what they both do, only that one is fiction and the other a reality that surpasses it. Is art repeating itself as farcical history?
This is important because we are starting to see big cracks in the ideal, ‘seamless’ world of algorithms, tech solutionism and app-for-that machismo. I suspect this is only the beginning.
Studying the advertising business is a good way to see how the worlds of tech, media and power play together because advertising is the expression of greed and propaganda. It all comes together openly on the Internet.
Digital advertising is often the back alley where the bandits meet the suited execs, shake awkward hands and exchange packets: quasi-legitimacy (‘we’re just a platform’) for marketable clickbait. In between these there are also many weird computer-infecting ads which nobody knows who’s placing. It’s a realm of countless middlemen, fiscal paradise shell companies, subcontracting and privateering, business-to-business dealing and wholesale handling of web advert real estate, making the money that flows to any one ad very difficult to track.
Fear not that machines are taking over the world. Technology is getting more and more human by the day.
[A version of this article appeared on Matei Rosca’s Tumblr blog]