Of course we are all still quivering, following the attacks in Paris last week that killed 129 people, not so very far from where my wife and I lived for a couple of years, as newlyweds during the 1990s. Our hearts go out to the brave folk of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité in la Ville Lumiere.
Of course, reactions vary and I will start this posting by looking at a couple that stand out. For example…
Anonymous, a loose-knit international network of activist hackers, is preparing to unleash waves of cyber attacks on Islamic State. A self-described member said in a video."We are going to launch the biggest operation ever against you,” said a man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, in French.
Well, sure. But see this in a deeper context. We in the West have been raised by Hollywood's most incessant propaganda campaign -- Suspicion of Authority (SoA), which fills almost every film. (With secondary memes of tolerance, diversity and defense of eccentricity. What? You think you invented those values? You suckled them from media, all your life.)
Our political differences partly revolve around whether we perceive Big Brother coming from faceless corporations or from faceless government bureaucrats. But both wings cite Orwell.
The Anonymous guys rail at both! Which is fine... till they see our overall, macro SoA civilization under attack by those who don't share the SoA premise at all. Then it becomes a matter of rallying together, in defense of the overall meme! Which is what Anonymous has declared they are doing by - for example - going after all the ISIS-related Twitter handles. All right. Sure. Go for it, guys.
Meanwhile, in another totally predictable effect of the Paris attacks, western intelligence services are pointing fingers of partial blame at the restrictions they face, in gathering and appraising information. We could prevent these things — they claim — if only they were allowed to see better. In this case, they note that they lost track of the particular cabal that perpetrated the Paris travesties some months ago, when the radicals switched over to communicating via PS4 game machines, which are encrypted. (Late note: this PS4 story is now disputed.)
Of course, just as predictably, the geek community has come out, in frantic rebuttal. More on this, below.
== Why have there been so few soft target attacks? ==
Now here's a side thought that is rather jarring. Clearly there are things going on beyond our gaze. For example --
I remain perpetually perplexed over how few of these terrible crimes have occurred! Our parents from World War Two would be amazed at how some (not all; certainly not Parisians) fly into panic over losses that would constitute an hour’s casualties from that much-larger struggle. (Note that, as after 9/11, it is republicans who are screeching in panic, unable to stand the idea of even women and children refugees coming to Alabama, while urban Americans - the likely targets - are much more calm.)
That perspective isn’t meant to minimize 9/11 or Paris! Rather, it provokes one to contemplate how rich the West is, in soft targets like these. Millions of soft targets, literally. The glass-half-full rumination is that we have, in fact, been terribly lucky. Or else, better protected than we can imagine. (Are there fans out there of the show “Person of Interest”?)
That thought spurs several more:
1) The intent of Daesh is -- as it was on 9/11 -- to frighten and daunt "decadent and soft westerners" into panic and retreat... or else into electing oppressive paranoids who might clamp down on the eclectic openness that is our strength. But as Rebecca Solnit points out in one of the most important books of our time -- A Paradise Built in Hell -- average citizens simply aren't wimps.
If ten or even a hundred times as many soft targets were hit, we'd simply do what our parents did. Adapt. Be resilient, determined... and win.
2) The amazingly low number of successful soft target attacks suggests that the intelligence services either have powerful means that we don’t know about, or else these terror groups are regularly betrayed by decent boys and girls whose conscience speaks louder than hate. I'd put money on both.
== The Return of the Ratchet ==
But let’s get back to the core issue here. Will the Professional Protector Caste (PPC) use this event to argue for back doors through commercial encryption? Of course they will. Whether or not they actually need them.
Don’t get me wrong. I am friendly to techno-geeks and cyber transcendentalists. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is near the top of my list of heroic NGOs that I urge folks to join, using the modern power of Proxy Activism to protect and extend freedom. (If you are not a member of a dozen activist proxy-NGOs dedicated to saving the world however you want it to be saved, then shame on you.)
To be clear, I share EFF's central concern — that states and corporations are gathering power through ever-enhancing surveillance vision!
And yet, I keep pointing out that the reflex nerdish prescription — to encrypt everything! — is foolish and doomed from the start. It plays into the plots of would-be Orwellians. Worse, it distracts our paladins-of-freedom from concentrating on methods that can work… we know because they are the only methods that ever worked, in the present and the past.
Among the dozen or so flaws in the Crypto Prescription is simply this — that fell events like the Paris Massacre will happen, and when they do, each event will undermine the public’s sense of adversarial skepticism toward the Protector Caste.
Predictably -- and possibly sincerely -- that caste will use each event to demand new powers of vision, as they did after 9/11. And, in what I’ve called the Ratchet Effect, these powers will eventually be granted, and never completely withdrawn, when panic ebbs.
Am I resigned that Big Brother is inevitable, as the only alternative to crime, terror and chaos?
Dammit no! That zero sum tradeoff is evil on the face of it. Indeed, there is a positive sum way to have both security and freedom … to both have protectors who can see well enough to be effective and ensure that they are seen! And supervised well enough to prevent our watch dogs from ever becoming wolves.
It is precisely the method that gave us our current freedom… and that is being used as we speak, to apply accountability to authorities on the street. (Cell phone cameras are the technological engine behind #BlackLivesMatter.)
Alas, it seems so obvious. Use the method that got us our freedom in the first place! Reciprocal accountability.
Let civil servants do their jobs, but so well-supervised that their jobs will be all that they do.
For the life of me, I cannot conceive of why such an obvious thing proves so counter-intuitive to our very brightest. But the very concept seems to skitter -- like mercury -- across the nervous modern mind.