KINGS OF THE W; IRED FRONTIER

Cybercrats may look like misfits, but they could be the most important people in the world. Last month, they met to challenge the forces of law and order and to talk money, sex and freedom
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
RUSSELL BRAND is a tall man in his thirties who walks among humans with the delicacy and detachment of a wading bird. You may already owe your life or your bank balance to him: his company, Reasoning Systems, looks at the unimaginably complex software which flies aeroplanes, or does the accounts for multinational companies, and writes other programs to make sense of them and check for those errors which cannot be predicted by any other means. It is about as close as the world has got to real artificial intelligence.

Standing in the meal queue at a conference hotel outside San Francisco, Russell asked me why human beings needed privacy at all. He really wanted to know, for intimacy, he had decided, was something that you acquired by the gradual mutual revelation of secrets. And the process seemed to him wasteful. Why did people need secrets? Of course, there was a minority of stupid or malicious people in the world. But he was sure that most people meant well, and if the stupid and malicious could be left out of the equation, then there would be no need for secrets at all. We would just have to find new ways of establishing intimacy with one another.

It was a conversation which in its cleverness, benevolence and astronomical distance from common sense could only have taken place at the annual conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy (CFP), which was where we were.

Cleverness, benevolence, and distance from common sense would not in themselves be enough to make the CFP conferences important. But they do matter, because the gentle, laughing, slightly Martian figures who gather here understand technologies which are going to change the world. Already, the representation of human knowledge on computer networks may have changed the world as much as the invention of printing. Money, for example, has been completely removed from the control of national governments by global electronic trading, which is just another way to use computer networks; millions of middle-class jobs have vanished as personal computers make people redundant as transmitters of information. It seems that computers are redefining what it means to be human, just as books did once. Now, arcane techniques like public key encryption which were until recently the province of obscure mathematicians and hobbyists are becoming essential to the security of big money and international trade on computer networks. And the networks themselves, once the happy playground for the smartest kids in the world, are now providing a reliable global communication system for the sort of people who believe that freedom of speech, the Internet's glory, is open to abuse and needs to be controlled. In one recent case, a student in Michigan was arrested after a violent pornographic fantasy he had written on the net was read by an American in Moscow, who complained to the author's university.

None of this would matter if the Internet were still a private world for clever students. But after years of saying that it is going to take over the world, the Internet's champions have been horrified to discover that this is true; and the takeover is mutual. If the world is going to go online, it is going to bring the world's standards with it. This being so, the powers that rule the world are showing a sudden interest, and the CFP conferences are the place for law enforcement and hackers, programmers and lawyers, to mingle. And they have to mingle and talk, because the traditional tools of law enforcement, indeed the traditional notions of property and of society, simply do not translate into cyberspace. You can try and apply them, but they make no sense. Out on the Electronic Frontier, the rules are different.

John Perry Barlow, the man who coined the term Electronic Frontier (as well as being a songwriter for the Grateful Dead), was one of the celebrities of the conference. A bearded man dressed mostly in black, he drifted into the hotel lobby around midnight one evening, with a girl he had apparently found on top of a Christmas tree. She was short and exquisite, with almond- shaped eyes in an oval face framed with black braids, dressed in what seemed to be a white ballerina outfit: satin top, frilly skirt, white stockings and clumpy black shoes. She turned out to be a Fulbright scholar.

After a little of Barlow's spiel on the concept of copyright, I started to feel the same kind of disorientation as overwhelmed me once at a Dead show in a conference centre in Berlin, when I stumbled into a room full of mummies bandaged from head to toe, swooping to the elastic beat. "Even the telephone directory is a performance," he said. "It is an edit on the array of phenomena. There really is nothing to copyright outside the relationship between the creator and the client who has commissioned the performance."

Every nerve in my body wanted to write this off as crazed bullshit. But there remains the possibility that Barlow has grasped something essential about an information economy. Perhaps we should no longer think of trade as involving the movement of things so much as the movement of ideas, words or facts. And, in that case, the rules made for dealing with solid objects may no longer be helpful. As Barlow says, "The principal article of world trade now looks so much like speech as to be indistinguishable from it."

The principal article of world trade: think about that. The most profitable things in the world are no longer things at all, but programs, films, music: anything that is or could be pressed into the mile-long spiral that runs round a CD. "Cyberspace is where your money lives," Barlow said once. It now turns out to be where your money is made, too.

So the representatives of earthly powers come along to CFP conferences to mingle with the cybercrats. This year, there were, among others, the chief lawyer of Microsoft; a delegation of three from the giant National Security Agency, which watches over cyphers and electronic intelligence; and Kent Walker, the DA from the US Department of Justice whose task force caught Kevin Mitnick, the notorious American hacker who was pursued by the FBI for two years.

Being mostly Americans, the conference delegates took for granted that the solution to the problems of the Electronic Frontier was to define and extend the rights of man out there. Almost all the speakers were or had been lawyers - two professors of law from Stanford, a former lawyer who had won a Pulitzer for his reporting of Watergate, Mike Godwin, the chief lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and so forth. Listening to them earnestly trying to extend the benefits of the US constitution to everyone in the global technological future was an extraordinary experience for an Englishman at the end of the century. How much self-confidence a superpower has! Would an English gathering have sounded the same in 1895?

But even the driest performers at CFP were saying that matters which are relatively simple on earth, such as the right to property, become hugely complicated when applied in cyberspace. Margaret Jane Radin, a professor of law at Stanford, pointed out that earthly property fulfils two functions: it defines who we are; and it can be exchanged for money. Intellectual property defines people even more importantly than earthly property does; but intellectual property is also a lot harder to protect than the stuff which can be stolen by carrying it away. Anything digital can be copied a million times without diminishing the thing copied, as everyone knows who has ever borrowed or, as lawyers call it, stolen a copy of software from a friend. The people who wrote the software that gets stolen know this even more clearly than the thieves. Yet the price of trying to lock up intellectual property can be too high. Copyright and patent law between them could strangle the development of new software, and increase still further the power of behemoths like Microsoft. The instinctive reaction of most CFP delegates would be to protect software with cryptography, and leave the law out of it.

Kent Walker, intense, besuited, gleaming-eyed, asked gently for the conference delegates to consider what a world without any law enforcement would be like. But he was talking to the wrong people. Though they had sympathy for property rights, and for the rights of man, these delegates had no sympathy for governments. This goes right back to their roots, for there is a direct line of descent from the first, libertarian, hippies to the besuited, pigtailed crowd in the Airport Marriott hotel.

That descent can be studied by anyone with a computer, a modem, and an account on The Well, the computer network that set the freewheeling tone for the Internet. The Well was founded 10 years ago on St Stupid's day, April 1, by Stewart Brand, the man who invented that hippie bible, the Whole Earth Catalogue. Its first manager, Cliff Figallo, had lived for 17 years on the Farm, one of the first and most successful of the communes to spread out of Haight-Ashbury. At one stage, when the Well's computer room had mice in it, there was a serious proposal to protect the data on the back-up tapes by acquiring Gertrude, a pet snake rendered homeless by a divorce among the Grateful Dead...

But that was in the old days, when the Net was still the biggest students' bar in the world. Nowadays, the culture has not changed much, but the money has arrived.

Take John Gilmore, omnipresent at CFP, a skinny little hippy with John Lennon glasses, a raggedy beard and a succession of gorgeously coloured T-shirts, who has made millions by giving things away. Gilmore's first fortune came from stock options in Sun, a company which prospered by making designs for microprocessors freely available, so that lots of people could build them, and then making sure that it built the best. His second has come from free software. Some of the best software available for serious purposes was developed in universities and given away free. The only snag is that you have to understand it to use it. Gilmore's present company, Cygnus Systems, tells you how: you pay them and they supply all the back- up and understanding.

Gilmore is a co-founder with Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a lobby group which campaigns against almost all interference by terrestrial governments in cyberspace. This campaigning can take slightly ludicrous forms. At one fringe meeting, Barlow proposed that the Internet be recognised as a sovereign body, independent of all earthly powers. Gilmore retorted that cyberspace was "just a telephone network with pretensions".

But if Gilmore had the facts on his side, Barlow had the feeling. One of the suits at the conference, Don Ingraham, a local District Attorney, had warned his audience that the law was coming to the Electronic Frontier, so there would no longer be "this magical land, somewhere over the modem".

He might as well have been talking Saturnian. In this gathering of clever misfits, most of them the sort of people who would have been the last to be invited to join any gang at school, I realised that the Internet had become the best and biggest treehouse in the world. It is a place from which the swots can look down on the rest of the world and know they are superior - because they are. But the conflict between the swots and the normals is not just philosophical. In two crucial areas it is practical and dirty. These are cryptography and sex.

It is cryptography that will change the world more. The critical discovery was made in 1975 by a mathematician called Whitfield Diffie, who was also around CFP, dressed as you would expect in a beard and a business suit, under blond hair that came down to his nipples. The workings out of his discovery could prove a godsend to terrorists, drug-dealers and anyone else with reason to conceal his activities from government (there is already an encrypted news- letter for paedophiles circulating on the Internet). But it will also be essntial to doing international business.

What Diffie discovered was a way to lock up information using two mathematical keys, one to lock and one to unlock, instead of the single key used by such systems as Enigma. The two keys were mathematically related, so that anything encrypted with the one could only be decrypted with the other, but there was no possible way to deduce from one the identity of the other. One of the keys must be kept secret, as before. But the other can be given away to everyone in the world, which gives the system its name, public key encryption. Using my public key, anyone can encrypt a message which only I can decrypt with my private key. If I have the sender's public key, then I can reply with the same assurance that only the original sender can read it. Strong encryption, which means encryption that the American National Security Agency cannot break, is considered so powerful that it is illegal to export it from the US under the arms control regulations.

One of the most popular figures at the conference was under investigation as a possible arms dealer: a quiet, bearded man in a suit and tie named Phil Zimmermann. What he did was to write and release a public-key program called, with typical nerd understatement, PGP, for Pretty Good Privacy. This was just after the Gulf War, when a rumour swept the Net that the US government would shortly ban "strong" encryption. A friend of Zimmermann's drove around for two hours, with a laptop and a modem, uploading PGP from public phones to any bulletin board he knew with Internet connections. That is why Zimmermann is under investigation by a Federal Grand Jury, even though he did not himself place the program where it could be exported by others. Still less did he export it himself. It is just that once PGP had been placed on the Internet, even on an American computer, it could be retrieved from anywhere else on the Internet. There are no frontiers that work there.

PGP is, so far as anyone knows, completely uncrackable by any government on earth. It is not very easy to use, but it is much easier than any of the competing schemes. In fact, one former member of the NSA at the conference suggested that PGP be deliberately exported to China, to give the democrats there a weapon in their struggle against the government.

However it is not just terrorists, libertarians and the citizens of totalitarian countries who need strong encryption. Large companies which shuffle huge quantities of financially sensitive information around the world need to do this safely, and the only way to do that is to encrypt it. The strongest lobby- ing against US arms control regulations in this area comes from com- panies like Microsoft, which want to build strong encryption into their business products and export them around the world. Others, including some of those present at CFP, have taken more direct action. Consider the story of the "Clipper".

The American government tried to launch a system of almost invulnerable encryption -"Clipper" - which would have had built into it an extra key, which would unlock anything, but which would have been held in two parts by different government agencies- and that, of course, meant that the government could, in principle, read any code. This scheme, loathed by libertarians, was wrecked by ano- ther star of the conference, a researcher called Matt Blaze, who discovered how to pour mathematical superglue into the government's keyhole, rendering conversations encrypted with "Clipper" completely inaccessible.

Indeed, hardly anyone at the CFP conference could see a problem with anything that worries governments. They are by no means poor, but they don't believe they get anything much from government, and they don't believe they owe anything to it either.

The government, however, was very serious about its security. One of the most impressive men present at CFP was Ronald Lee, the General Counsel for the NSA. Nothing that he was saying was more than informed common sense, and though this may be at a premium in California, it was none of it really quotable. But while I was sitting with him on a sofa, talking, he noticed another journalist lurking with a Walkman clipped to her belt. He leapt up as if I had goosed him and asked if she was taping our talk. Even when she replied that she was not, he insisted on checking the settings of the buttons on her machine.

Lee's opposite was in deep trouble for broadcasting sensitive information all over the world. Dan Farmer wore his hair down to his chest and a ring in his right eyebrow; he was accompanied by a woman in a leather mini- skirt with white streaks in her long, dark hair. When he sat down to a screen to demonstrate his work to an admiring, if less stylish, audience, he propped a bike helmet beside it. The work in question is called Satan: at first sight it is not obvious why, for it is a program for those responsible for the security of computer networks, people not generally regarded as monsters of evil except by the people who have to work with their networks. Satan looks beautiful and is obviously the work of a really talented programmer. Inside a minute or two, it will run around any network you examine, and report back in great detail on all the security holes: how to plug them, and how to exploit them. In other words, Satan could be God's gift to disaffected hackers, who could point it at any network on the Internet and be given a complete listing of all the break-in points. So Farmer, once he had written it, released it all over the Internet, just as PGP had once been released. His then employers sacked him for it. But his actions made him a sort of hero to the libertarians. It was a return to the grand old traditions of the electronic frontier before all the suits and ties showed up to civilise the place. Besides, he argued, all you had to do to defend yourself against the attentions of Satan was to get your own copy - and it is distributed free.

Generally, however, in cyberspace as elsewhere, freedom of expression means sex. No one drew greater applause when announced from the conference platform than Donna Riley, a pretty young woman who belonged to a student group in Pittsburgh called the Clitoral Hoods. The Hoods were formed to protest against the decision by Carnegie Mellon University to cut off the campus's supply of some of the fruitier discussions and pictures carried over the Internet. There is a huge amount of pornography out there - pictures, sounds, and innumerable discussions which circulate around the global bulletin board known as Usenet. At least 15 areas of Usenet are devoted to sexual discussion and fantasies, all carefully classified (alt.sex.fetish., alt.sex.fetish.watersports., alt.sex.fetish.amputees, and so on). If you think sexual discussions are harmless, you will also find groups devoted to proving that the Holocaust never happened. This kind of thing can cause real trouble when schools are hooked up to the wider Net.

Russell Brand had measured the traffic for a week and discovered that 94 per cent of the pictures sent in Usenet discussions were sexual in nature. "There were some cars," he added, when asked to account for the rest. Many of the images available in this way are illegal in this country and in most parts of the US. But the problems of censoring a global network can seem completely insurmountable, both technically and morally. It is usually assumed that the Net will naturally distribute freedom of speech and thought wherever it goes. The original design of the Internet was for a communications system which would survive a nuclear attack, and it treats censorship as just another sort of damage around which to divert. That seems to most of the net, and most of the delegates at CFP, a law of nature. Seventeen organisations represented at the conference were campaigning against a senate bill that would make obscenity on computer networks illegal, and the fringe meeting they organised was loud with fervent defences of free speech as the American Way.

I was full of these thoughts when Russell Brand turned up for a dim sum brunch after the conference was over. He had had an idea. Why not mark all the places on the Net where children can get access with a name? There may be no real countries on the Internet, but there are virtual realms like ".mil" or ".edu".

You could as easily invent an Internet "country" called ".children", which would have clear rules about pornography, and which would not allow its citizens to go wandering in the great dirty world outside. This is potentially a solution to all sorts of problems. And it can be done very simply, by the same sort of mechanisms as must in any case be used to implement basic security. In short, Russell was telling us that he had found the Holy Grail. So I was just a little incredulous. Could this really be done? "Oh sure," he said. "It's so simple that no one who knows the technical stuff has bothered to explain it up to now." They just hadn't realised the earthlings were interested. !

Comments