An oft-repeated meme on the interwebz, and certainly one of my favorites, comes from a Peter Steiner cartoon, first published in The New Yorker on July 5, 1993.
Bearing in mind that Steiner recognized, more than 20 years ago, that we rarely have a clue we’re dealing with online, he was prescient. But just how prescient is made clear by Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept:
Over the last several weeks, I worked with NBC News to publish a series of articles about “dirty trick” tactics used by GCHQ’s previously secret unit, JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). These were based on four classified GCHQ documents presented to the NSA and the other three partners in the English-speaking “Five Eyes” alliance. Today, we at the Intercept are publishing another new JTRIG document, in full, entitled “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations”.
By publishing these stories one by one, our NBC reporting highlighted some of the key, discrete revelations: the monitoring of YouTube and Blogger, the targeting of Anonymous with the very same DDoS attacks they accuse “hacktivists” of using, the use of “honey traps” (luring people into compromising situations using sex) and destructive viruses. But, here, I want to focus and elaborate on the overarching point revealed by all of these documents: namely, that these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.
Greenwald spills the details, including slides from a powerpoint teaching government agents how to harm its “enemies” through blackhat tactics online, destroying the reputation and credibility of those who question or challenge the government, as well as feeding misinformation to the web to distort and manipulate our understanding of the world.
And despite pronouncements on Sunday morning TV shows, these tactics aren’t limited to the usual suspects (“we must protect ourselves from the terrorists”), but anyone who could pose a threat to the government’s control.
Critically, the “targets” for this deceit and reputation-destruction extend far beyond the customary roster of normal spycraft: hostile nations and their leaders, military agencies, and intelligence services. In fact, the discussion of many of these techniques occurs in the context of using them in lieu of “traditional law enforcement” against people suspected (but not charged or convicted) of ordinary crimes or, more broadly still, “hacktivism”, meaning those who use online protest activity for political ends.
Blogging software, the stuff that makes this page appear on your screen, provides a blogger with a bit of information about who is coming here, where they are coming from, and even who they are. The information is on a grossly simplistic level, and easily thwarted by any 12-year-old with a basic knowledge of the internet. Still, I know that many come here from government computers, and I assume them to be lawyers and judges who enjoy internet access at the largesse of their employer.
There are also a great many who come from unknown, or concealed, places, who try to offer ideas that are dubious at best, and mind-numbingly stupid at worst. Am I the target of the occasional government agent trying to deny, disrupt, degrade and deceive, the “4 D’s” of JTRIG? I doubt it, but then, I may be naïve.
For those who only perceive the internet, the information it provides and the seeds it plants in your head, from the warm glow of your screen, never thinking that you are nothing more than a passive receptacle of whatever crap others throw at you, it’s time to rethink your world. We don’t know who the disembodied sources of digital information are, who the anonymous commenter who trolls you is.
And you think, “but I know that I’m me, so I know that my information, my views, are for realz, important and to be taken with the respect and sincerity they deserve.” But none of the other people on the internet know that. We don’t know who you are, what you know, what you’re up to. We don’t know whether your information is trustworthy, or utter crap. We don’t know if you’re feeding information to screw with us, to manipulate us. We don’t know if you work for the government.
What has become abundantly clear is that there is little that can be trusted digitally. Clearly, the cloud offers no protection or privacy, as the third party doctrine is alive and well in America, even if the cloud providers weren’t thrilled to comply with any request from their government overlords. But there is no nugget, no bit, of insight or data that is immune from doubt.
It’s a shame the internet is turning out this way. It holds such promise, but is so easily compromised. We, the people who hang around the web, are so easily fooled into accepting and embracing others we don’t know, giving them access to every bit of our lives without a second thought, looking to them for comfort, making them a substitute for actual human beings who were once the stuff of real life. We have the internet now, and we don’t need to know anything more than that.
Steiner nailed it. He did so with humor, but there is nothing funny about what is being done with the digital world. He got it more than 20 years ago, and we’re first learning just how right he was.
H/T Radley Balko