[-empyre-] We are all informers…film at 11

Nicholas Knouf nknouf at wellesley.edu
Thu Dec 18 05:11:34 EST 2014


Hello everyone,

Thanks to Tim and Renate for inviting me to be a part of this important
conversation.

I’ve been reading with interest the other posts over the past week
regarding the ways in which social media have always been imbricated
with state and commercial interests. My somewhat provocative subject
line is meant to continue some of these thoughts, while hopefully
branching out into more constructive territory.

Even prior to Snowden’s revelations, many of us have known of the ways
in which social media works against the interests of activists and those
interested in social change. We know how police have used social media
postings to try and identify activists and “looters” after the fact.
We’ve known how nation states will infiltrate seemingly closed groups
online in order to disrupt activities. We’ve known that encryption is
not a panacea, and that the very bedrock upon which some much encrypted
traffic flows, namely SSL encryption, is subject to impersonation
attacks, making it appear that you are connecting to, say, Google’s
website, when in fact your traffic is flowing through an intermediary
controlled by a state adversary.

The materials that Snowden and the affiliated journalists have released
starkly shows us the present state of things. Our metadata is being
siphoned up in uncountable volumes. Seemingly innocuous activity such as
playing “Angry Birds” is collected with the same intensity as actual
“plots”. Those of us in the US who believe we might be “freer” from this
surveillance by the NSA are actually not, for if you communicate with
someone outside of the US, the NSA argues that Fourth Amendment
protections do not apply. Thus, simply by the virtue of this e-mail list
being hosted outside of the US, US-based persons are caught up in this
dragnet. I could go on and on with examples.

In short, we are all informers on ourselves.

Yet we still use these services, hence the “film at 11” part of my
subject line. They are still the best way we have to communicate with a
widely dispersed community. Few of us are lucky enough to have our
intellectual community physically near us. We cannot simply go to the
cafe and hash out ideas and plans over coffee or a drink. Our personal
and professional responsibilities prevent us from spending the necessary
time with others. Some of us are forced to use tools created by Google
or Microsoft to engage in our professional or academic responsibilities.
And the fact is, these tools work! (For the most part.) Anyone who has
tried to develop social software knows about the complexity and
mind-numbing drudgery involved in producing programs that are functional
to a wide community. And if you’ve ever attempted to install and host
any of the many personal “cloud” based systems such as OwnCloud, you
know the amount of work necessary to keep the system running smoothly.
So few of us would give over our time and energy needed to produce the
types of software needed to enable electronic communication at a global
scale. We are dependent on these systems, on a global infrastructure
that none of us could build and maintain, for lack of capital, time,
resources, knowledge.

What this suggests to me, then, is perhaps we need to rethink our forms
of communication. If we are to use these conduits, these “tubes” in the
words of a former US Senator, then perhaps we need to reconsider _how_
we use them. This has been an interest of mine for a number of years.
Back in 2008 I started work on a project called Fluid Nexus
(https://fluidnexus.net), a mobile phone application that enabled people
to communicate independent of centralized networks through the movement
of people. The idea was that the application would use short-range
networking technologies on phones to enable messages to pass from one
phone to another. People moving from one locale to another would pass
the messages along, rather than having the messages go through the
cellular network or the Internet. Fluid Nexus was one of an early set of
projects that explored how ad-hoc networks could be used for activist
purposes. I originally wrote it for Nokia phones, then updated it for
Android in 2011. That most recent update caused all sorts of
consternation within a certain subset of the cryptohacker community, as
the app doesn’t use encryption when it sends messages along. In fact,
the app works in what is called “broadcast” mode, meaning all messages
are sent to all other devices running the software, the idea being that
it’s better to get a message to anyone and everyone, rather than only
sending the messages to those you “trust”. I was accused by these people
of having “blood on my hands” and received a few death threats as a
result. The app never took off.

Yet we’ve seen in recent months the use of a similar type of app,
FireChat, in the protests in Hong Kong. Activists are not as naive as
the cryptohackers would have us believe, as most activists understand
the risks they are taking when using these types of systems. But they’ve
evaluated the risks, and decided that they’re manageable given their
tactical needs at the moment. When the risks become too much, they
switch to something else. Isn’t this what we once meant by “tactical media”?

But perhaps we need to consider something even more drastic, that being
a rethinking of the very semiotic systems we use to communicate. This is
the conceit of a more recent project of mine called _sylloge of codes_
(http://www.sylloge-of-codes.net/). Within the Snowden revelations were
documents that showed that the NSA and the GCHQ (the Government
Communication Headquaters, the UKs analogue to the NSA) have worked to
weaken the very encryption algorithms that we are asked to rely upon. If
this is the case (and I think with all releases of national security
information we have to be open to the possibility of “false flag” and
misinformation campaigns), then we are truly at a loss. For if
encryption, which is assumed to be impervious even to the NSA and GCHQ,
is breakable, whither communication? Perhaps then we need to think more
poetically. _sylloge of codes_ is a project that asks us to think about
more poetic ways of communication. Computers are rather silly machines,
only able to “understand” the most basic of information, and completely
fail at dealing with poetic speech, writing, images, video, and audio.
Maybe we need to develop new “codes” that would not be understandable by
today’s computers, that would not be subject to the same types of data
mining algorithms that are used to scan Twitter and Facebook. But I
don’t know what those codes might be. So _sylloge of codes_ allows
visitors to the gallery space to suggest what these codes might be, to
begin creating a collection of new codes that we could potentially use.
These will likely be highly localized, idiosyncratic, and perhaps
understandable to a limited few. But they can be very powerful. All we
have to do is look at “grass mud horse” and the recent attempts, perhaps
overblown in US media, to cut down on “puns” in Chinese state media.

So while we continue to inform on ourselves, we can also begin to think
of more poetic codes, using that underutilized and always-under-attack
faculty, the imagination.

Claudia Pederson and I will write shortly about another recent project
of ours that goes towards exploring some of the ways we can engage with
metadata on social media networks.

Best,

Nick Knouf

------------------------------------------------------------------------
Nicholas Knouf
Assistant Professor, Cinema and Media Studies Program
Wellesley College, 106 Central Street, Wellesley, MA 02481
Office: PNW 313    Office Phone: 781.283.2105    Fax: 781.283.3647

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