Foust on Cypherpunks and the “Silk Road”

I can’t tell you how much I wish that the 21st century cyber “Silk Road” hadn’t chosen that particular nom-de-guerre for its illicit activities. It sullies the historical Silk Road. There’s my personal, cranky, inconsequential lament. Onto Foust:

Revenge of Meatspace: Reality Bites for Web Drug Kingpin


TOR is not a privacy cure-all

Many privacy-obsessed geeks use TOR, the supposedly anonymous routing service that allows untraceable Web activity. Though fiercely anti-authority, three of TOR’s largest funders are the Broadcasting Board of Governors — a government agency which funds Radio Free Europe and Voice of America — the National Science Foundation and the Naval Research Laboratory. TOR was originally created by the U.S. Navy.

Despite this, TOR officials like to brag about how secure their service is. The thing is, any anonymity service is only as good as its own security and that of its users. In August, the FBI had already demonstrated it could compromise and take down TOR-affiliated Websites by manipulating security bugs and attacking user security — in doing so, they broke up an enormous child pornography ring being hosted in Ireland.

Silk Road functioned on TOR — you can only access it through TOR — and while TOR itself says the network is still secure, users have to ask how good it can really be at true anonymity if its most successful users are being taken down so often.

Anonymous browsing is nice, but no one is ever perfect enough to escape all scrutiny.

Probably the most interesting section is the one immediately following the previous excerpt, on Cypherpunk Ideology:

Cypherpunk ideology is contradictory

If Ulbricht could be said to have an ideology, it is a purified form of the technolibertarianism that drives the cypherpunk movement espoused by hackers like Julian Assange. “At its core, Silk Road is a way to get around regulation from the state,” Ulbricht told Forbes.

This technolibertarianism takes the anarchic ideals of Ayn Rand — governments are inherently coercive, taxation is theft, regulation is oppression — and tries to use technology to create havens where states cannot rule. I explored this belief system at length in a recent feature article for Talking Points Memo.

But lurking underneath that purified Western liberalism is a desire for coercion. Cypherpunks want to keep the government out of the Web, but they also want free rein to do whatever they want in it — even if it infringes on the rights of others. That is why some were protecting child pornographers on TOR: they think viewing the sexual exploitation of children is an inherent right, even if it infringes on the rights of those children.

In a recent “State of the Road Address,” where he spoke about the site’s ideals, Ulbricht said he hopes people use Silk Road to “choose freedom over tyranny.” Yet according to the FBI’s indictment, Ulbricht was not shy about using violence to enforce his rule of the website. It documents at least one example where Ulbricht tried to hire an assassin to kill one member of the site who was threatening to blackmail him.

Some kind of freedom that is.

A perspective on Cypherpunk from Jurgen “tante” Geuter – I don’t know who Jurgen Geuter is and I found this blog only today when I was google-oogling “Cypherpunk” – I post it because it hits square on a point that has been on my back burner for some time, and that is the inherently elitist nature of the “anti-secrecy” movement:

Cypherpunks who argue that only stronger and stronger crypto can save “us” from “them” (“them” being the government and/or corporations and “us” being a small elite of people capable of using said tech) is that no matter how good or fancy your encryption algorithm is, when somebody threatens to cut of your fingers if you don’t hand over the key, math doesn’t save you.

It’s an elitist circle-jerk of people enjoying their own knowledge and understanding of algorithms of growing complexity feeling superior to the common people they claim to support.

The Fundamental Error of the Cypherpunk agenda

Geuter doesn’t spell it out in quite this way, but what I would consider of import given Geuter’s perspective is the recurring theme indelibly etched into Libertarian ferocity: an essentially elitist pith that attempts to simulate or rather that emblazons a brand of faux-populism onto an agenda that is inscribed entirely by anti-populism. There’s a word for that kind of an action. That word is subversion.

I did a little poking around on Geuter’s blog to learn more about him and came across another kernel of wisdom pertaining to the hacker narrative. I found his perspective eloquently expressed:

In one aspect the mainstream and some Internet activists are in line though: Both always knew that the intelligence apparatus could listen in. Emails have always been more postcards than actual letters with envelopes and the so-called metadata1 would still stay visible even if the email itself was encrypted.

We have always known that it sounded wrong that – while every DRM-type encryption on movies, video games or music was broken in days if not hours – the data we put out there could easily be defended through certain simple to use crypto tools. But we always had a fallback that made it all OK, we had our super heroes.

Super Heroes are not a new thing, they predate movies and comic books and all those things we might nowadays associate with them: Hercules? Super Hero. Siegfried of Xanten? Super Hero. Joan of Arc? Super Hero. Our ancient (and less ancient) myths are full of those larger than life characters that could tilt the earth just enough to make things OK again (though admittedly many of them had their fair share of tragedy and defeat as well).

In the Internet narrative, the role of the Super Hero was filled by hackers. Hercules, Siegfried and Joan were now called Mitnick, Applebaum or Assange but they filled the same role: To make things OK again. In a digital world full of problems that changed our perception of privacy, secrecy and transparency we rested the responsibility to push back against the “evil” on their shoulders. A responsibility many hackers just too gladly took.

In the hacker narrative, the governments and companies were mostly movie plot villians: Often slightly clueless, twisting their moustaches while explaining their evil schemes to the protagonist who then pulled out his or her secret weapon from his or her tool belt and defeated the enemy. The end.

Of course, the first thing that stands out for me is his reference to the heroic Siegfried which calls to mind the Sagas of the Warrior Poets, The Nibelungenlied, and the Poetic Edda. His appeal to archetypal culture seems to me a sensitive and shrewd grasp on the complexities of the digital age. As do his insights on democracy in the digital age:

And whenever the weight of the world, the truth of our digital communication and possibilities of the intelligence apparatus came up, we turned to the hackers and we begged: “Save us!” And they answered.

We got Tor, we got more encryption algorithms and tools than we could count. Harddisk encryption reached mainstream audience, OTR was built into many Instant messenger clients and worked transparently and mostly simple to use. The hacker’s magic bag of tricks seemed to be able to create tricks, hacks, workarounds and security layers faster than any company or government could churn out threats.2

And that is why this scandal has hit us, the Layer 8, the people who actually live on the Internet and not just see it as a glorified teleshopping channel, so hard: We lost our super heroes. We looked and realized that Privacy-Man and Crypto-Girl are not wearing pants, that their tool belts seem to be empty.

We see CryptoParties popping up all over the place in a last ditch effort to save the old narrative, believing that we can get the Genie back into the bottle by explaining how people can pull themselves, their opinions and goals out of the spotlight. By creating a new age of secrecy and disconnectedness that would keep the intelligence out of our lives.3

But only communicating in the dark, hiding one’s opinions and connections will not help our democracies. Because a strong democracy is based on communication on networking, on the constant exchange and discussion of controversial ideas. What is often called “digital self-defense” will in the long run not save democracy but just help a different system of oppression to take its place – it is in fact just running away from the problem.

…Privacy Man and Crypto-Girl are not wearing pants

In the interest of thinking through democracy in the digital age, I found the perspective to be stimulative of profound noodling. His final analysis following this passage is well worth the read.

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8 thoughts on “Foust on Cypherpunks and the “Silk Road”

  1. I would suggest that any real democrats and progressives put this diary permanently on the back burner as it appears to me to be so much banal distraction from the real issue at hand, SOPA and its likely implementation within the POTUS’s next attempt at circumventing and destroying present US law, the pending TPP is the immediate concern needing attention.

    SOPA regulations are a particular method of closure of the internet to all of us (as we have known it) and destroys it as a tool for open and mostly free communication for we the people, world-wide. SOPA didn’t make it through Congress the last time it was debated and voted on.

    So Obomba’s baby, four years in near complete, secret gestation, the TPP, makes the latest iteration of SOPA law, if approved, and with his fast tracking push could get it in place by the end of the year, the item that merits our full and immediate attention and action to stop it.

    From L Frank Baum, “Ignore the man behind the curtain.” Can hardly track the real trolls without a program.

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed my writing and you saw the interconnectedness of the different ideas. Even for me as the writer your summary has helped me to articulate my own thoughts clearer. Thanks for that!

    1. Jurgen, hello! Welcome to Blogging Blue! I do very much enjoy your blog; your musings are beautifully written. I will be visiting your blog again.

      Admittedly, while I concur with much of your anti-cold war vision for the future, we probably disagree on the symbolic nature of weaponry and warfare – at least as it pertains to statehood, Intelligence and defense. I might say I’ve generally taken the opposite conclusion that you have expressed, at least in part, though ideologically we probably concur in terms of a better world. I’m generally in favor of government entities maintaining a state-of-the-art security apparatus, but your writings have managed to nudge me a little farther from my current view. There’s nothing more marvelous than the moving of minds. I thank you for encouraging mine to expand. 🙂

      Best Wishes to you!

  3. PJ,

    What’s the point of this post? To get Internet drug trafficker Ross Ulbricht, Ayn Rand, Irish child pornographers, Julian Assange and the phrases ” techno-libertarianism ” and ” cypherpunks ” all in the same paragraph?

    1. I suppose, Steve, the point of this post is to share some perspectives and to share some recent writings.

      1. It reminds me of that scene in American Graffiti when an underage Toad is trying to buy liquor by making his request appear normal via something like ” I’ll have a ball point pen, a Snickers bar, a comb, a pint of Old Harpers…………….

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