2:12 pm Sep. 13, 2012
"Online privacy" is increasingly starting to feel like an unintended oxymoron, along the lines of "military intelligence."
But privacy is a matter of utter seriousness for Cole Stryker, author of Hacking the Future: Privacy, Identity, and Anonymity on the Web. It’s a slim book that makes a few intricate arguments, eventually tying online minutiae like Facebook privacy settings and web browser cookies to free speech and self determination.
Stryker is somewhat tailor-made to write on such topics. He was a columnist at Urlesque, the chronicle of Internet weirdness, before it was bought out by the Huffington Post. Stryker's time there saw him deeply exploring the weirder side of the Internet's message board world, leading to notable stories like the one he wrote on Anonymous's extensive bullying of Jessi Slaughter, an 11-year-old. From there, Stryker began looking into 4chan, the "image-based bulletin board", which is where just about every weird thing that becomes popular on the Internet first crops up. He ended up interviewing scores of people from 4chan, as well as other denizens of subversive online culture, all the way back to the proto-internet community The Well. The project culminated in his first book, Epic Win For Anonymous: How 4chan’s Army Conquered the Web, the first book-length exploration of the 'hacktivist' collective Anonymous and 4chan.
Stryker appears at Housing Works Bookstore tonight leading a panel on the right to anonymity with media critic Clay Shirky, activists and Cryptome founders John Young and Deborah Natsios, NYU professor Whitney “Dr. Troll” Phillips, and social media scholar Danah Boyd, and he understands the difficulties facing his pro-anonymnity stance.
"Anonymity definitely has a branding problem," Stryker told me when we spoke earlier this week. "The guy on the street thinks of the Silk Road [the illicit online marketplace where users pay in bitcoins] and the child pornographers."
He went on to say that a lot of the web-privacy battle, both offensive and defensive, only tends to gets covered if it’s sensational. "It’s a lot easier," he told me, "to make a big splash doing something 'trollish.'"
The catalyst for Stryker’s new book was the call to abolish anonymity made by Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s former marketing director: "I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down." Stryker said he wants to make not just a philisophical but an historical case against that position. By carefully selecting examples, from Lewis Carroll to John Locke, he outlines anonymity’s historical importance before launching into his own argument for anonymity's uses.
The most notorious soldiers for anonymity on the Internet, hacker collective Anonymous, are not exactly lionized in Stryker’s book. "Depending on your political leanings," he writes, "Anonymous sometimes fights for good, but they can also be pure evil." In conversation, he was less equivocal.
"The only reason I spent so much time on Anonymous is that I felt like I needed to express and disclose that there are forms of anonymity that produce bad things. I had to examine them as a potential counterpoint to my arguments. I feel that Anonymous is not a positive net manifestation of anonymity."
While Anonymous has had some "epic wins"—Stryker called its campaign against Scientology "a really important development in free speech history"—it also takes attention away from far more important legislative attacks on free speech like SOPA. So how could online organizations and individuals (and Anonymous, even) do a better job?
"I want to see less KONY 2012 and more Electronic Freedom Foundation work in the legislative realm," he said. Stryker went on to say he wanted online privacy to be represented in a better light within pop culture, "which is what I’m trying to do with my book."
And so Stryker spends much of Hacking the Future trying to balance the honest efforts of many different communities intent on protecting privacy against its abrogation. One story Stryker tells is about "Clipper Chip" legislation, which would call for the NSA to monitor email for certain dangerous keywords. Hackers worried about false positives and the general invasiveness of such efforts quickly invented many tools to circumvent or defeat such monitoring programs on a technological level. The Internet blackouts of late 2011 and early 2012 in response to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill conducted by Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, and Tumblr represented a successful social hack against free speech.
Other efforts to bolster online privacy seem more sinister. Tools like the The Onion Router (TOR, for short) allow a web user to dependably mask his trail on the Internet. It’s also a prerequisite to access parts of the "deep Web," where users can purchase illegal drugs, firearms, and child pornography. Elsewhere, he describes how it’s disturbingly easy for a group of uninformed miscreants to carry out a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack to take down even a large website.
One of the great ironies of Hacking the Future, not lost on the author, is that some of the most chilling invasions seem to be perpetrated by the very groups who are most bullish on online privacy. Anonymous, 4chan members, and hackers "in it for the LULZ", steal identities and information that cost people and corporations millions of dollars per year. They hack into email accounts to post private pictures onto public forums. Even a powerful and legitimate website like Reddit, where President Obama recently did an interview, only recently banned child pornography on its forums.
"Anonymous relish the ability to dig up dirt," Stryker said. "It’s definitely a double standard."
Still, Stryker mostly stuck to his techno utopian guns.
"I have both optimism and cynicism," he said. Referring to a Wired article about a giant NSA monitoring facility in the desert, Stryker said, "that’s the sort of stuff that makes you want to throw up your hands and say, ’none of this is worth it.’" But then Stryker pivoted quickly and referred to Isaac Wilder, a personage in his book, who invented the FreedomBox, a small device that "plugs directly into a wall with built-in privacy-protected e-mail and chat, and a publishing platform for activists living under tyranny." That sort of work, Stryker told me, "fills you with an optimism for the power of young, passionate people to stave off any kind of surveillance apocalypse."
Cole Stryker appears tonight at Housing Works Bookstore to read from 'Hacking the Future'
More by this author:
- Waka Flocka Flame and the wages of fame
- On a frank and, sometimes, heated conversation about race, between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Ilan Stevens