Data mining centre, Utah; GCHQ; sketch of Panopticon
In view of the scandal that's broken over the last couple of days (6-7 June 2013) on both sides of the Atlantic concerning the shadowy PRISM programme, it seems timely to revisit this blog's previous engagement with issues of privacy and surveillance.
PRISM, whose existence is no longer in doubt, gives government agencies access to personal internet data without users' knowledge.
Such all-seeing "inspective force", to use the phrase coined by Jeremy Bentham, Romantic author of Panopticon (1791), allows swathes of real-time data to be gathered for retroactive analysis, and is unprecedented technologically, though by no means unforeseen. Major tech companies are falling over each other to deny knowledge, and complicity:
"Several senior tech executives insisted they had no knowledge of Prism or of any similar scheme. They said they would never have been involved in such a programme. "If they are doing this, they are doing it without our knowledge," one said. An Apple spokesman said it had "never heard" of Prism. (Nick Hopkins, guardian.co.uk, Friday 7 June 2013 14.27 BST)Speaking at #29c3, 28 December 2012
Over the new year, Anne Marggraf-Turley and I held a talk at the 29th Chaos Computer Congress "Not My Department", entitled "Romantic Hackers: Keats, Wordsworth and Total Surveillance". In it, we traced the beginnings of debates around these issues in the Romantic period that in many ways anticipated, and certainly framed - continue to frame - such discussions now being rehearsed in the world's media.
The 29C3 conference's electrifying keynote was given by Jacob Appelbaum. Jake warned about the reach, both in terms of time and space, of the enormous NSA data-mining facility in Utah - which, along with the UK's own GCHQ, is now at the centre of wide controversy involving senators, parliamentarians and members of various publics.
Part of Jake's talk explored the implications, legality and social effects of total "inspective force". In that respect, his keynote recalled a lecture given in 1795 by a twenty-three-year-old Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Coleridge lamented that the populace's awareness of wide government inspection in that radical decade - which had its own war on Terror, the terror of France and revolution - encouraged them to adapt and flatten their behaviour to conform to social norms. This was during prime minister William Pitt's Reign of Alarm, when the argument was framed, much as many commentators contend it has been in recent years, as a choice between "national security" or "privacy". Thorns in the side of the State, such as John Thelwall, found themselves imprisoned without charge, or facing show trials on charges of Treason, which carried the death penalty. Under the pressure of such inspective force, Coleridge warned, the "beautiful fabric of love", community, begins to unravel:
"All our happiness and the greater part of our virtues depend on social confidence. This beautiful fabric of Love the system of Spies and Informers has shaken to the very foundation. There have been multiplied among us ‘Men who carry tales to shed blood!’ ... Little low animals with chilly blood and staring eyes, that ‘come up into our houses and our bed-chambers!’ These men are plenteously scattered among us: our very looks are decyphered into disaffection, and we cannot move without treading on some political spring gun." (Lectures, 1795)Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1782)
The Romantic internet - rapidly printed pamphlets, hastily communicated reports, distributed around informal networks, poems and essays - discussed spies, whistleblowers and the social effects of surveillance with a feverish sense of the importance of arriving at a consensus on the proper relation between State, public and private spheres. Today's internet is similarly animate with a healthy exchange of information on precisely this topic. Indeed, the parallels between the Romantic age and our own have rarely seemed closer.
Just back from the 29th Chaos Communication Congress "Not My Department" (#29c3). The conference title refers to the Tom Lehrer song: "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down/ That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun". The wider point of the conference, of course, was that no one – not just a rocket scientist – works in an ethical bubble. What we do professionally and socially impacts on everyone else. It's all our department.
The talks from the Chaos Computer Club's 29th Congress were all live-streamed, and can be downloaded from CCC's YouTube channel. The Keynote was delivered by Tor Project and Wikileaks cypherpunk Jacob Appelbaum (known on the hacking scene as "ioerror"). Jake spoke on mass surveillance and privacy in a global context, and his talk is essential viewing. Other 29c3 talks were overwhelmingly of an extremely high standard, and as varied as they were inventive along a continuum of political and technical content. Talks on hacking plants rubbed shoulders with papers on how to reverse engineer mobile phones into base stations and presentations exploring gender and the German language (Anatol Stefanovitsch asked: "Ist die Deutsche Sprache kaputt?" – "Is the German language broken?"; incidentally, all papers given in German were simultaneously translated into English, and Anne was involved in this interpretation project.)
Main stage: Conference Centre Hamburg
Our own talk, "Romantic Hackers", traced links between poetic subversiveness by Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge, on the one hand, and contemporary hacking culture on the other, with a focus on responses to mass surveillance in both periods.
There was lots of fun between talks, including playing 1970s computer game Pong on a 20m screen, making robots and getting 3,000 people to say "wop" – the sound made by a Krikkit ship landing in Douglas Adams's Life, the Universe and Everything – all at the same time. (If you've ever wondered what that sounds like, listen to our recording here.)
Opening slide: click image for more
So what did we say in our talk?
Well, Anne began by greeting everyone in Welsh. We pointed out that while Wales might be some distance from Hamburg in terms of kilometres, politically it lies at the heart of issues affecting us all. Aberystwyth university, where we both work, is just up the road from ParcAberporth, the UK’s only centre for testing both military and civilian drones. ParcAberporth is where the Watchkeeper drone is being put through its paces, and is a reference point in moves to normalize the routine use of uninhabited air systems (UAS) in UK skies.
The development of remote, untargeted, archived surveillance by definition impacts on us all. What's more, the implications for feeding images from routine drone surveillance into existing inspective networks are profound. As Bentham realized in 1791 when he published Panopticon, people – whether prisoners, school pupils or workers – act differently if they think someone might be watching them. The question is, do we believe the threat to our security is such to warrant widening surveillance and social management on this scale? We also need to decide whether we trust the agents of surveillance, high and low, not to abuse their power. Do we trust them today, and will we trust them tomorrow?
These are big issues, and the talks at 29c3 – delivered by people at the cutting edge of the politics and technology – represent a fascinating way into them. You'll find a list of talks posted here.
Slide from "Romantic Hackers"
Our local drone testing centre challenged us to think about the conceptual grounding of mass surveillance in the Romantic period. From modern remote surveillance technology, we segued to the 1790s, to the beginning of the Romantic period. It was a time of “total war” with Revolutionary France, an era when industrial-scale spy networks were put in place by Pitt’s government. The Home Secretary’s Alien Office, which referred to itself as a “system of preventative police” (sounds chillingly modern), also recruited local informants, infiltrated political groups and co-ordinated Post Office letter interception – the original “man-in-the-middle” attack.
The contemporary relevance of Romantic insights into the inevitable social impact of widening State inspection on the imaginative life of communities might not be immediately apparent. But think about it. The Romantics lived at the beginning of the fully surveilled world. Romantic communities – physical communities, and communities of the mind – were traumatically divided, infiltrated, haunted by surveillance and by fantasies of conspiracy, where conspiracy represents the ultimate expression of pathological, morbid self-referentiality. In their writing, Romantic poets and reformers gave these issues an emotional vocabulary. Coleridge spoke explicitly in 1795 about how “social confidence” – or as he puts it so evocatively – the “beautiful fabric of love” was being “shaken to the very foundation” by Pitt's “system of spies and informers”. This emotional vocabulary, we argue, retains its relevance as we attempt to calibrate our own responses to the social consequences of mass surveillance today.
The focus of our talk is on three British Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, with passing references to Lord Byron. As the latter’s lover Lady Caroline Lamb described him, Byron was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. As far as being "dangerous to know" goes, Byron would probably have felt quite at home hanging out with some of the speakers at 29c3.
So our Romantic hackers weren’t computer hackers; the Romantic period is a bit early for that. (That said, the first computer programmer, who worked with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine, was Lord Byron's daughter, the Enchantress of Numbers herself, Ada Lovelace.) While we don’t talk about computer coding, we do look at how Romantic poets used textual coding to resist – and troll – the world's first emerging mass surveillance state. Textual strategies deployed by our writers, we suggest, exhibit enduring correspondences with contemporary hacking. Our aim in taking this approach was to cross departments in the spirit of the congress, tracing a Romantic epistemology for practices filed under hacking today.
All your data are belong to them
The question was, would the audience of hackers, nerds, geeks and political activists at 29c3 buy it? You can judge that for yourself as soon as the official video of our talk is posted.
While you’re waiting, though, you might want to take a look at our slideshow.
Guerrilla fireworks outside Hamburg's Apple Store. Click to enlarge
Anyone who visits Hamburg on New Year's Eve has to see the Silvester fireworks. Anne had explained the concept to me, but I wasn't prepared for tens of thousands of people roaming the city, firing rockets at tall buildings, and setting off bangers and Catherine's Wheels on the pavements. In the UK, it would have been classed as a riot. (To be fair, the fire engines, ambulances, police vans and riot police were out in force, but mostly looking on with mild interest, as far as I could see.) This picture is taken outside Apple's flagship Hamburg store. The one below shows New Year's Eve scenes along the Reeperbahn, which seems as good a place as any to sign off.