Hackers Can’t Solve Surveillance

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors without Borders, is an organization that saves lives in war-torn and underdeveloped regions, providing health care and training in over 70 different countries. MSF saves lives. Yet, nobody thinks that doctors can “solve” healthcare. It’s widely understood that healthcare is a social issue, and universal health care can not be achieved by either the voluntary work of Doctors or by way of donations and charity alone.

Just as Doctors can’t solve healthcare, Hackers can’t solve surveillance. Doctors can’t make human frailty disappear with some sort of clever medical trick. They can help mitigate issues, fight emergencies, they can be selfless, heroic. but they can’t, on their own, solve healthcare.
One of the ways that Hackers can fight surveillance is to develop better cryptographic communications tools, and train people how to use them.. This is certainly critical work that hackers can contribute to, but we can’t, on our own, solve surveillance.

Nothing that Hackers can do on their own can eliminate surveillance. Just as universal healthcare is only something that can be achieved by social means, privacy respecting mass communications platforms can only be achieved by social means. Safe mass communications platforms can not be created by private interests, neither commercially, nor voluntarily.

As we well know, private medical provisioning provides unequal health care. The reason is obvious, health needs and the ability to pay are not usually corelated. Private provisioning means that those who can’t pay, wont be served by profit-driven institutions, and though this can be mitigated by voluntarism and charity, it can’t be fully overcome.

Likewise, mass communications that are built for the profit motive either need to charge a fee, and thereby be exclusive, or be advertising supported. Other options can exist for connected and technically savvy users, but these will be niche by necessity. For the masses, the main options available will always be well funded platforms with employees to do support, development, and marketing, without wich, it’s impossible to build-up a mass user base.

The lucrativeness of advertising-based platforms, makes it difficult even for fee-based systems to compete, since they don’t generally produce enough revenue to invest significantly in support, development and marketing, which makes them less attractive even to users who could or would pay, but the major issue that kills such platforms is that the fee means that some people will not be able to use it at all.

Thus, commercial mass platforms tend to be advertising driven. This means that the business of platforms operators is selling audience commodity. Commodities are sold by measure and grade. You can buy 10lbs of Fancy Grade Granny Smith Apples, or two dozen Grade A free range eggs. Or 2 million clicks from age 18-35 white males.

Audience commodity, the users of the platform, are sold the same way to advertisers, by measure of clicks or conversion, and by grade. For advertisers, audience is graded by specifications that include age, sex, income level, family composition, location, ethnicity, home or automobile ownership, credit card status, etc. The Demographics, as they say.

Since an advertising funded platform must grade audience commodity, it must collect data on it’s users in order to grade them. This means that the one thing such a platform can not offer its users is privacy. At least not privacy from the platform operators and their advertisers.

And so long as the platform operators collect such data, there is no way that this data will not be made available to local and foreign intelligence agencies.

This hard reality has been hard to grapple with, especially for a hacker community who saw the Internet as a new realm, as John Perry Barlow wrote in the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace: “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” His colleague, John Gilmore, famously claimed “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

Those two quotations, born of the 90s hey-day of net.culture, contrast starkly with what Adam Curtis describes in his BBC documentary All Watched over By Machines of Loving Grace:

“The original promise of the Californian Ideology, was that the computers would liberate us from all the old forms of political control, and we would become Randian heroes, in control of our own destiny. Instead, today, we feel the opposite, that we are helpless components in a global system, a system that is controlled by a rigid logic that we are powerless to challenge or to change”

Oddly, the film doesn’t credit Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron who coined the term the “Californian Ideology” in there seminal 1995 text, which was among the first to identify the libertarian ideology endemic in Silicon Valley culture.

The visions of a free, uncensorable cyberspace envisioned by Barlow, Gilmore and others was incompatible with the needs of Capital, and as thus the libertarian impulses that drives Silicon valley caused a change in tune.

Cyberspace was no longer a new world, declared independent with its own unalienable rights, it was now an untamed frontier, a wild-west where spooks and cypherpunks do battle and your worth is measured by your crypto slinging skills and operational security. Rather than united denizens of a new terrain, we are now crypto individualists homesteading in hostile territory.

This, as Seda Gurses argues, leads to Responsibilization, “Information systems that mediate communications in a way that also collects massive amounts of personal information may be prone to externalizing some of the risks associated with these systems onto the users.”

Users themselves are responsible for their privacy and safety online. No more unalienable rights, not more censorship resistant mass networks, no more expressing beliefs without fear of being silenced. Hack or be hacked.

Since libertarian ideology is often at odds with social solutions, holding private enterprise as an ideal and viewing private provisioning as best, the solutions presented are often pushing more entrepreneurship and voluntarism and ever more responsibilization. We just need a new start-up, or some new code, or some magical new business model! This is what Evgeny Morozov calls Solutionism, the belief that all difficulties have benign solutions, often of a technocratic nature. Morozov provides an example “when a Silicon Valley company tries to solve the problem of obesity by building a smart fork that will tell you that you’re eating too quickly, this […] puts the onus for reform on the individual.”

Karl Marx makes a similar argument in Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

“The proletariate […] gives up the task of revolutionizing the old world with its own large collective weapons, and, on the contrary, seeks to bring about its emancipation, behind the back of society, in private ways, within the narrow bounds of its own class conditions, and, consequently, inevitably fails.”

Solutionism underestimates social costs and assumes that social issues can be solved by individuals and private interests, and some may be, but where universality, equality and fairness need to be provided regardless of skill or wealth this is not the case. These sorts of things can only be provided socially, as public goods.

Many Hackers have always known this. In a excellent Journal of Peer Production essay Maxigas quotes Simon Yiull:
“The first hacklabs developed in Europe, often coming out of the traditions of squatted social centres and community media labs. In Italy they have been connected with the autonomist social centres, and in Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands with anarchist squatting movements.”

Early hacklabs didn’t view their role as being limited to solutionism, though hackers have alway helped people understand how online communications works and how to use it securely, hackers where embedded within social movements, part of the struggle for a fairer society. Hacker saw themselves as part of affinity groups fighting against privatization, war, colonialism, austerity, inequality, patriarchy and capitalism, they understood that this was the way to a new society, working shoulder to shoulder with mass movements fighting for a new society, and that here their knowledge of networks and communications systems could be of service to these movements.

Yet, as Maxigas goes on to argue,, “hackerspaces are not embedded in and not consciously committed to an overtly political project or idea.”

Instead, hackerspaces often focus on technological empowerment, which is certainly beneficial and important, but like community health centers that teach health maintenance practices are beneficial, they can’t solve larger social issues, such each-one-teach-one projects can not, on their own, solve social issues like privacy or health.

Hackers need to understand that there is no business model for secure mass communications. In order to achieve a society where we can expect privacy we need more hackers and hackerspaces to embrace the broader political challenges of building a more equal society.