(The kid on the right in this picture is me, with my dad, who passed in 1999, at the wedding of my younger sister. Just wanted to see him again.)
The online world makes liberty binary, we argued. It’s on or it’s off. Economic growth demands that it be on, so it’s going to be on. We became among the earliest cyber-libertarians.
But human nature is not binary. It’s analog. There are degrees of good and evil in all of us. And the Internet, as part of the human world, must respond to that. It’s a misunderstanding of this fact that is at the heart of cyber-libertarian dismay with (even hatred of) the Obama Administration.
The fact is that we’ve entered an era of Cyber War. The Internet has become the focus of the key struggle of our age, between modernity and medievalism. Groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda know that the best-and-fastest way to go after the U.S. and its allies is through the Internet. North Korea has demonstrated this beyond a doubt.
Into this world we have cyber-libertarians who insist, as I did 20 years ago, that freedom is either on or off, that privacy is either on or off, that either you’re totally free or totally enslaved. Technically, that sounds and feels right. In fact, it’s completely wrong. (The picture of the author at left was taken just last year. Any family resemblance? Yes, time passes.)
I want absolute privacy. So do you. I want the government to assume I’m a good guy, and I am. The American attitude is we’re all law-abiding citizens, until we crack and start shooting the government should leave me and my guns alone. That also holds when my name is Tim McVeigh or Cherif Kouachi. To take it in another direction, it holds when my name is Jimmy Savile or Ariel Castro. Or Bill Cosby? Where and how do we draw the line – at what stage of intent, and of criminality, do we tear away the veil of data that protects what we regard as “privacy” and leave our actions open to police interpretation?
What if you’re going to attack the electronics of planes in flight, or take down the electrical grid, or destroy the banking system? The Internet, in theory, now makes all these kinds of crimes possible. It’s not just finding out the name Ben Affleck uses to check into hotels that is at stake here. Planes have WiFi, grids are monitored through online assets, and banks are nothing but transaction processing machines. Governments must, to protect their citizens, have the ability to prevent disasters. That means they must be able to tell the difference between you and the monsters who might kill your family.
So the battle has been joined. The Administration has, as it must, taken the view of law enforcement. It has tried to do this in a nuanced way, seeking to gather haystacks, and to only go after needles when they’re found, and to act only after they are proven to be dangerous to the economic and political system. But cyber-libertarians are all focused on the haystack. We don’t want our haystack touched. How dare you touch our haystack, how dare you collect our data to see if we’re needles. We’re not needles, we just told you. Right, and so did the next McVeigh, the next Kouachi, the next Castro. (The picture at right illustrated the first edition of William Gibson's classic, Neuromancer.)
The tools with which we seek to access, and manipulate, this data are also changing. We’re moving away from the era of keyboards (unfortunately), even beyond video. Visualizing, manipulating, and moving within the haystack will take far more sophisticated tools, tools on the order of the Oculus Rift.
This is why the headline says we’re entering a Gibson age, as in William Gibson. Today, Gibson’s early books, like Neuromancer and Count Zero, read as nostalgia far more than science fiction. The cyberspace world described in them has nothing to do with what we see each day. Where is the Web? Where is the Google? Gibson became so impatient with that dichotomy that he switched from futurism to stories set in the current day, like Pattern Recognition. Even books set in the past, like The Difference Engine.
Virtual Reality is going to be the interface for separating the needles from the haystack, and for acting on that knowledge. In that world the “privacy” of any particular record becomes meaningless, except to the extent that it’s being hidden deliberately in furtherance of some conspiracy. What the super-cops want to be able to do is to “jack in” to the Web and see threats visually, then respond immediately, before super-criminals can act on their conspiracies. With the stakes raised as they have been, they are ready to call anyone who protests this “soft on crime.” And cyber-libertarians are ready to call the cops Hitler. Both extremes are wrong.
But this is the world we’re moving toward. The Administration supports the stand-by authority to access data, and to act when the evidence seems clear, knowing that clear is a relative thing. Cyber-libertarians call this a deliberate violation of the Constitution, some even call it an impeachable offense. But it’s an offense that any President would commit, based on their oath of office, and I see nothing in the record of actions by this Administration to show any motive beyond that. I can’t say that of the last Administration, and may not be able to say that of the next one.
But power is binary, too. Someone will always have it. Maintaining visibility into how they use it, and the power to change who has it, is where the rubber meets the road. Democracy is the guarantor of liberty, not laws, and not men. And it’s analog, not digital.