Friends of the Internet, Unite!
Here’s a confession: Much of my reputation was actually built on reciting and accurately referring to the work of others. It’s not really an example that I would encourage others to follow. I’m good at what I do because I am able to discern, collate and connect a lot of disparate sources.
I’m part of that first wave of Facebook and Twitter users, though I was around well before that. I actively recruited people into my social network. Unbeknownst to me, and entirely accidentally, for years this has had far-reaching, high-stakes, and intense effects which most persons who are not me cannot even begin to understand.
By the time I joined Facebook, college students at a handful of universities had already made use of the service. At first, I used it to post portraits, interesting photographs I’d downloaded from the internet, my music, and essays. I was tagged in photos at parties where under-age drinking was occurring. I must admit, at the time I didn’t fully think through what the consequences would be.
But my mission for the past decade has been to ensure that our civil liberties will be safeguarded and fully extended to the digital realm. Since the internet gave me my virtual persona, I try to give back by researching potential threats to our digital spaces, and by amplifying the work of those who share my same interests. When that work is software; it’s typically open source — it begs to be used.
On the internet, being able to speak with some authority and experience matters, as does the ability to back up your arguments with facts. You rise or fall according to several metrics. But too often this leads to the stifling of new or critical voices. How can we welcome more people into our circle(s), without confusing and scaring them away with terms like “threat modeling” and “encryption”?
The promise of social media networks was exciting at first. They would empower people to reach and connect with more people. However, they enable narcissists to create a carefully constructed identity which bears no resemblance to their real, private self. At times, it’s pure drama or performance art.
I was a loner. I lived in fear that nobody wanted to talk to me or be associated with me. I was paranoid that people would find out my past and use it against me — three of my closest friends growing up died of overdoses. That I would never get a job. Back in the day, this was a real concern. Employers actively discriminated against anyone who isn’t neuro-typical — people with sleeping or eating disorders, or substance dependencies.
Now, what would happen if I went out and befriended everyone who thinks the same way I do? There’s synchronicity out there; great minds think alike. But I’m not looking to take advantage of or “use” anyone. A follow-back relationship should be reciprocal. I had a tactic: offer the people you meet something useful or which they need. They will usually be thankful.
I thought: “Who else would be sympathetic to me? Who might care about this little bit of information I found?” And I went ahead, contacted and sent it to them. Without an ounce of fear.
At one time, I helped build a coalition consisting of Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, Free Press, Reporters Without Borders, PEN America, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Massachusetts Pirate Party, Sparrow Media, WikiLeaks, and Article 19 in order to defend the right to link. I was inspired by the Manning Support Network to do something similar in starting Free Barrett Brown. His story, and what he was trying to do, is still being misrepresented by outlets like NPR, which wrote: “An Anarchist Explains How Hackers Could Cause Global Chaos”. I later learned that U.S. intelligence thought Brown might be a Russian agent. He is absolutely nothing of the sort. Neither am I.
I had no idea about the massive shit-storm this started. What I’m looking at is a kind of domino effect and word of mouth where I helped the spread of information: technology and knowledge, specifically ones geared toward increasing liberty.
However, what’s to stop this from devolving into a self-reinforcing echo chamber? Views that agree with consensus general opinion are promoted over ideas that are more alternative or subversive, and eventually all the feeds and streams become over-saturated.
As we’ve seen, social media has been used to promote disinformation and subvert elections. The recommendation algorithms driving sites like YouTube are said to lead viewers to more and more extreme content.
Moreover, the digital world appears to be full of “grifters”. People who don’t work very hard but instead drift from job to job, social-climbing, on the clout imparted by their name, e.g. what they’ve done in the past.
Such people must be aggressively discarded. They’re useless. It’s more than appropriate to expect and demand dedication and responsiveness from everyone you deal with. You score further points by being diplomatic and polite, and properly crediting people.
At any one time, it’s hard to tell who’s still carrying the torch, who’s legitimate, who’s been subverted or co-opted, and whose motives are primarily self-interested.
As such, my reality is surreal. It occasionally comes to my attention that people consider me an important voice, which I’m always humbled to hear. It’s often been very difficult for me to ascertain what all this ultimately means for my day-to-day life. The urge to be modest (keep one’s pride in check) can lead to some self-censorship which then means crucial history and lived experience is lost to the ether.
But word travels, and there’s gossip. Your friends, the ones who want to honor your memory, tell stories about you… “Yeah, Kevin was here. He smoked a vape, and took a piss.” Sock puppets and lesser hangers-on form around you, parroting the same narratives.
If you become a famous hacker, then soon enough, they’re making documentaries and movies based on your life. People want to get close to you or become like you. As people splinter and drift apart over time, forming new groups, the history of your own accomplishments starts to disappear before your very eyes. By the time you hear about or read them, they are vastly distorted. These accounts can range from benign to outright harmful, placing their subject in actual danger.
How might meeting or hanging out with someone, and posing for a picture with them, be seized upon by social media followers, who suddenly decide you’re a traitor for meeting with a political enemy, or someone on the opposite side of a controversial issue or dispute? Who might share an anecdote in an attempt to smear or discredit me?
I can tell you now that even though I’ve left breadcrumbs that, when followed faithfully, demonstrate who exactly I am and what types of activity I help facilitate, there’s a cover-up of my identity being effected. To some, I am considered too important to be “outed”.
How do others treat you when you’re on this level–which is something I contend that I earned through talent, dedication and hard work? Sometimes they’re deferential. Sometimes you’re regarded as toxic — they just ignore you or don’t reply. You become a “missing stair”. I rarely come out of my man-cave to see if I’ve made any difference in the outside world. Yet I’ve recently rediscovered who I am, where I come from, and where I am headed.
We need to learn from our mistakes, and incorporate those lessons, and do better, every time. It’s not helpful for people to log off and try to forget all of the crazy things they’ve seen and witnessed in this space over the years.
When subpoenas were first issued to Gmail and Twitter for the contents of Jacob Appelbaum’s accounts, my entire immediate social network — plus all those who knew or had ever interacted with him at any point in their lives, realized that we were under threat, and that we would need GPG and OTR to continue organizing safely. There were important reasons that we needed security, and which justified paranoia. He was later fired from his job, and has not tweeted since 2017.
When members of WikiLeaks were defecting and questioning Assange’s judgement, a group of people decided that Wikileaks should not have a monopoly on what they do. So what did they do? Kevin Poulsen took SecureDrop, an open source whistleblower submission system which was started by Aaron Swartz, and gave it to Freedom of the Press Foundation. It is now used at over 40 major news organizations.
Wait a minute. This all sounds like a digital rebellion being organized by civil libertarians against government overreach. Well, that’s exactly what it is. I can assure you it’s not a Russian psyop.
It’s for people who think the famous adage that a prosecutor could “indict a ham sandwich” is true. It’s said of the citizenry that everyone commits at least “three felonies a day”. Everybody has secrets. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t.
This is why people worry about me and ask me if I’m OK. They know how fundamental my very identity is for internet infrastructure, how passionate I am about it, and how much I think about these things. To others, I’m sure it sometimes appears as if I possess magical abilities. Well, this phenomenon is nothing of that nature. It’s just the internet. We have the specifications and RFCs, and we understand them. And we know what’s possible, because we’ve seen what’s been done before.
Let’s consider what happened when Barrett Brown dumped his girlfriend by proxy via Twitter from his prison cell, and she subsequently accused him of abuse. More important is what I didn’t do. I didn’t try to suppress her narrative. I didn’t encourage people to attack her.
I told her: I’m sorry, but this right to link thing is more important to me than your vendetta against your ex-boyfriend. Besides, what are you doing talking to Adrian Lamo?
For those who don’t know, Lamo is the person who discussed Chelsea Manning with Chet Uber of Project Vigilant and then turned her in to Army CID. He died of an overdose in March 2018. Lamo had believed that Manning was endangering lives, which has never been shown to be true.
I stepped up to defend Barrett, but I’m different from him in many ways. I don’t attack or vilify people, I usually don’t harbor revenge. I try not to be mean, rude, issue orders or talk over people. These are things I’m sure he wouldn’t deny; he claims to possess blackmail on the majority of the U.S. press and to have terrorized editors at major outlets for writing characterizations that continue to place him at risk.
Some people are pleased to be mentioned in a narrative. Some people find it sketchy and want their entire lives to be offline. Do yourself a favor: ask for permission.
I had this problem at one of my jobs. I was not being respected, because my peers did not see me for who I was. Perhaps they figured I’d just come out of nowhere and gotten lucky, or was fame-seeking, or something.
Today, if you’re not within this web of trust, then you don’t stand a chance. We need to fix this problem, and actively bring more people into the fold. People of color, transgender, and women.
How do you know that you can trust me to lead us into the future? My #bitcoin-otc ratings show I’ve never scammed anyone, and to that I would add that I’ve never informed upon or betrayed anyone. I responded to the subpoena seeking the identities of donors to the legal defense fund I had started by initiating a class action lawsuit against the DOJ and FBI, alleging violations of the First Amendment, Stored Communications Act, and California Constitutional Right to Privacy.
Inside the movement, there’s often the problem of attribution. At first, anyone poking around the edges of a community appears suspicious. Inevitably insiders ask around. Are they a C.I. (confidential informant)? Is he with CIA? Of me, “oh, that’s just Kevin being Kevin.” How do I tell whether this new venture I’m being invited to join is an entrapment scheme or a Ponzi? These are reasonable questions.
Everyone wonders what it is. Who’s behind it? What’s it all leading to? Who else is involved? I don’t know. I struggle to make sense of it. Bringing anyone up to speed would require them to read multiple whole books.
I’m not a criminal hacker and have never been arrested or connected to any such thing. To the best of my knowledge, all of my activities to date have been protected by my country’s Bill of Rights, and simply involved re-posting or amplifying information that was already available on the internet. I don’t think there’s anyone else quite like me. The ones I could compare myself to are either dead, imprisoned, or have been de-platformed.
Despite these facts, I am not wealthy or well-known, and I’ve never benefited materially or financially from my ongoing committment to digital rights, nor from the celebrity of all my new friends. Like many others across the world, I suffer and struggle from time to time.
What I can tell you is that we now have a digitally connected society of conscious, enlightened and civically-engaged individuals. We share information amongst ourselves, and we’re all accountable to each other. When you’re in conversation with these kindred spirits, it’s truly a beautiful thing to behold and be a part of. By now the protocols by which technologically-adept people facilitate revealing crucial public interest information to journalists are well known and understood. Except across the world, anyone who has any connection to those people is being detained, arrested and interrogated. They are literally terrified of us.
Stagnation and ignorance is the enemy of progress. We can learn a lot by studying the tactics of previous generations and how they failed, but urgent action on the environment, climate change, and the opioid crisis is needed now. My politics are thus: I’d like to abolish ICE and the War on Drugs, and defund the police. Universal health care, a minimum guaranteed income, and student loan forgiveness are key as well.
There is a deficit of technical understanding among our judges and inside courts all over the world. Hackers and their sympathizers are under attack. Why is Snowden in Russia? Why is Assange in Belmarsh Prison? Why can’t these men live their lives in peace? What about Reality Winner, and Ross Ulbricht?
Recently, I’ve been thinking about what I did back then, trying to assess what was good and what was bad about it, and trying to figure out what my responsibilities are.
How is it that I’m personally entangled with all of these serious people and very serious issues? The truth is, I care deeply about all of my friends. I want them all to succeed, and I believe they want that for me too.
The internet has a sort of pulse. Sometimes you can feel where the action is. Someday I might be asked: How did you know about this particular thing at that particular time?
My answer: The internet. If you give to the internet, the internet gives back. Everything that we say or do here is free expression and freedom of association. All I can say is that if my biography were more well known, it would make my personal and private life a hell of a lot easier.
I start asking myself even more questions. What do I know? Well, a lot. Who else knows as much as I do? Hrm, there are a few. Uh oh… What if the government finds out what I know? Will they come looking for me? Will I be extra-judicially droned before I can even speak out? Are they worried about what I know? Do they perceive me as a threat to them, or a potential asset?
For instance, I told people about Bitcoin in 2011, and now it’s the most appreciated asset on Earth. I compel you to search for instances of me being incorrect over the internet. You won’t find many.
Who’s digging into my personal background right now, and how can I neutralize them by making pre-emptive disclosures? Which of my exes that I’m still in love with, who I sent flirty messages to, is going to send me a cease and desist or file a lawsuit against me? How many of them will describe me as “shady”? If my co-worker quits, should I quit with her? Or do we meet up and swap stories later? Who is going to undermine me out of jealousy?
How can we heal the divisions that have maimed us over the last few years?
Radically intelligent people have a provocative manner of speaking. How many of my conversations with my peers could be twisted out of context to form the basis of a RICO indictment?
When you’re one of us, these kinds of concerns are the fucking norm. How long before the leader of the group becomes too full of himself, decides he can abandon his commitments and promises and rage-quit? Harassment becomes normalized. Sometimes it’s the only way to defend yourself against people who do not understand or cannot see the wider significance of what you’ve done.
In this new information age, we need to rally around people whose lives are threatened because of what they’ve helped to expose.
At one point I was lonely, searching the landscape for someone to trust. So I befriended people online. Just like Chelsea on May 21, 2010.
No one knows the right way. We’re all equally clueless. Don’t listen to anyone telling you there’s a right and wrong way to do things. Find your own way. Use your voice. Have no shame in telling your story.
Things are getting slightly better. All lived experiences are equally valid. We want everyone to be able to have a voice.
We don’t need more of the same. There’s enough secure messaging apps, and enough social media platforms, and enough groups advocating for change. What I’m interested in doing is seeing whether we can start a new party, the Friends of the Internet.
For those who wish they could stop it, I am sorry. This stuff started a long time ago. On a daily basis, I encounter people who have never heard of any of this.
Me and my friends organize extremely effective online actions. And we study the ways that movements are subverted from within. We iterate, subject ourselves to scrutiny and self-criticism, try to become better people, and move on with our lives. Bury the trauma so deep to where it does not affect you. We are self-actualizing and becoming our whole selves, except in the virtual realm.
Everybody’s too absorbed in their own lives and enjoying the benefits of all this wonderful new technology and wealth that we’ve created, to keep paying attention and follow all of the threads where they ultimately lead. To those who’ve gotten rich off of my ideas, screw you. I told you so.
I do not work for or represent any company or government. I am a sovereign individual, and a proud American citizen.
Make no mistake. The DHS’s classification of Emma Best as a criminal hacker organization is extremely worrisome to me. With Virgil Griffith, a one-time colleague of Aaron Swartz, they are trying to prevent the proliferation of “blockchain capability”. Without blockchain, folks like me would be living in poverty and starvation, much like the populace of North Korea.
The DNI has formally named “public disclosure organizations”, like my former employer, as threats to the United States. I am imperiled by this labeling, which harms me, my life, and my livelihood.
Am I next? What’s being done about it? Nothing, so far as I’ve heard. I once thought that the community is too lazy and absent-minded to do anything meaningful anymore. People are screaming out for their very lives, and nobody is paying any attention.
Except our ideas have been rediscovered and taken up by a whole new generation of people. Our parents and elders are now conceding that we were right. The Third Industrial Revolution is underway. But still they continue to target and imprison the best minds of my generation, and frame our actions in an exceedingly false light. It needs to stop.