Consejos sobre privacidad para subversivos del sexo. Formas de proteger tu información y a ti mismo/a.

(Originalmente publicado en Inglés el 16 de noviembre de 2013. Traducción por Fundación Triángulo – muchas gracias por su arduo trabajo!).

En la actual era de la electrónica, la privacidad es necesaria si queremos conseguir una sociedad abierta. Privacidad no significa secretismo. Un asunto privado es aquel que la persona no quiere que conozca todo el mundo, mientras que un asunto secreto es aquel que la persona no quiere que sepa nadie. La privacidad es la capacidad de revelarse al mundo de forma selectiva. (Eric Hughes, A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto, 1993)

urlEl mes pasado, la policía aparentemente secreta de Vladimir Putin practicó escuchas ilegales en una reunión estratégica entre activistas LGBT rusos y ONG occidentales en San Petersburgo, y posteriormente mostró las grabaciones en la televisión como prueba de una conspiración. La verdad es que la noticia no sorprende. Lo que sí es sorprendente es que las ONG occidentales no se lo esperaran. “La vigilancia al estilo soviético”, palabras usadas durante la indignada condena, no es nada nuevo en Rusia. El antiguo aparato de seguridad soviético nunca murió. La única innovación es que últimamente, en lugar de utilizar las grabaciones para hacer chantaje o perseguir en juicio, el régimen las entrega a los medios de comunicación afines para que inicien una campaña de difamaciones. Sin embargo, todo el mundo conoce ya esta táctica: durante las protestas en contra de Putin del año 2011, “agencias de seguridad y agencias encargadas del cumplimiento de la ley filtraron vídeos granulados y grabaciones de audio a los tabloides afines al Kremlin” en una “acción coordinada del Gobierno para desacreditar y dividir a sus opositores”. Así pues, los organizadores de la reunión debieron verlo venir.

En realidad, los que trabajamos en el ámbito de los derechos sexuales a nivel internacional no siempre nos tomamos nuestros propios asuntos en serio. Damos por sentado que los políticos malos no nos tienen miedo de verdad, que simplemente son unos manipuladores u oportunistas que usan la homofobia, el miedo a los trabajadores sexuales o la misoginia para distraer de los asuntos reales con problemas inventados. No es que nos aferremos al poder, o pensemos que los gobiernos pueden ver estos asuntos como los que importan realmente. No creemos que los estados vayan a dedicar enormes recursos para reprimir la disidencia sexual, ni que vayan a hacerlo con el mismo fervor ansioso con el que aplastan los movimientos separatistas o reprimen a los disidentes políticos. Persuadidos por el hecho de que no somos importantes, menospreciamos los peligros reales. Y si en algún momento estuvo justificado, ese momento no es ahora. La enorme pasión, a veces inútil, con la que la administración Obama pretende ser el gran avalador de los grupos LGBT en todo el mundo, por ejemplo, a su vez alimenta el miedo al anunciar que estos movimientos minúsculos son en realidad agentes de otros sistemas geopolíticos, hormigueros de subversión extranjera. Y el éxito del propio Gobierno estadounidense a la hora de violar la privacidad de todos y de cualquiera solamente fomenta la imitación y la revancha.

Todo el mundo debería tener en cuenta la privacidad. Y tú deberías preocuparte especialmente si o tu vida o tu trabajo contradicen la sociedad o la ley. Gestiones una ONG o seas activista en un pueblo pequeño. Seas un homosexual que entra en Grindr desde un país donde el sexo entre homosexuales es ilegal o un trabajador del sexo que usa Gmail para quedar con los clientes. Debes analizar cómo proteger tus comunicaciones de oídos y ojos fisgones –sean tus padres, tus compañeros de habitación o la policía.

Uninformed about information: Data from 2012 Pew survey on American's search engine use, www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Search-Engine-Use-2012.aspx

Desinformados sobre la información. Datos extraídos de un informe del Pew Research Center del año 2012 sobre el uso que hacen los estadounidenses de los motores de búsqueda http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Search-Engine-Use-2012.aspx

Existen mecanismos suficientes para ello, pero no los usamos. Hay tres motivos amplios por los que nos mostramos reacios a ellos:

a) Son lentos. Algunos navegadores como Tor son un poco fastidiosos, y cifrar los correos electrónicos es un rollo. A ello puedo decir que, por muy pesado que sea, lo es menos que si te clausuran el grupo o acabas en prisión.

b) Venga ya, ¿por qué deberían venir a buscarme a mí? Mira arriba. Quizás ya están detrás de ti. Pero incluso si la poli aún no te conoce, hay mil maneras accidentales de llamar la atención. Imagínate que eres un concienzudo activista contra el sida y te roban el portátil. Y que, cuando la policía lo recupera, descubre ese vídeo ilegal de pornografía que te bajaste. O imagínate que eres un respetable trabajador del sexo, que uno de los clientes con quien te has mandado correos electrónicos trabaja para Human Rights Watch y que lo están vigilando y espiando constantemente en tu país. Existen mil maneras para que te puedan controlar.

c) La transparencia es una virtud. Muchos activistas de derechos humanos no se esconden del control estatal porque, según dicen, no tienen nada que esconder. Esto es muy noble, sí, pero no es factible. Quizás tú no tienes secretos, pero la gente que confía en ti, sí. Los miembros de tu organización o las personas que acuden a ti para pedir ayuda esperarán confidencialidad, y se pueden sentir traicionados si no proteges lo que te han compartido. El propietario del piso que alquilas, el chico con el que duermes, la señora que limpia la cocina… todos podrían verse implicados en un escándalo y ser víctimas de difamaciones y deshonras o acabar ante el juez. Solo tú tienes la responsabilidad de proteger a los que están a tu alrededor y a los que dependen de ti.

A continuación se explican algunos pasos para proteger la privacidad electrónica, ordenados grosso modo del más simple al más complejo. No es que yo sea un experto; he recopilado los recursos a partir de lo que he ido leyendo y usando. Si tienes alguna sugerencia, o si alguno de ellos no funciona, escríbeme a través de los comentarios o por correo electrónico. La privacidad es como el sexo seguro. No hay una seguridad absoluta, sino tan solo una protección relativa. Todos debemos evaluar nuestros propios niveles aceptables de riesgo. Y mantenerse al día de los cambios tecnológicos en los ámbitos de la vigilancia y la protección personal es vital. La mejor manera de proteger tu información es estar informado.

Cosas que puedes hacer:

calmclearcache1.  Limpia el historial de tu navegador. Los historiales guardan copias de las páginas web que visitas en un lugar llamado caché. Además, muchas páginas incorporan automáticamente a tu ordenador cierta información llamada cookie, que les permite reconocerte cuando vuelves a visitarlas. Ambas permiten a cualquier usuario que tenga acceso a tu ordenador reconstruir lo que hayas estado viendo. Conozco docenas de personas cuyas familias o cuyos jefes han descubierto su orientación sexual a través, simplemente, de comprobar el historial del navegador.

Si compartes el ordenador con otras personas, sea en casa, en el trabajo o en un cibercafé, deberías limpiar regularmente el historial, preferiblemente después de cada utilización. No es un sistema perfecto, puesto que frikis muy bien preparados todavía podrían descifrar lo que has hecho, pero por lo menos frustrarás a la mayoría de intrusos. Si quieres unas guías completas sobre cómo limpiar el historial, podrás encontrarlas aquí, aquí y aquí.

2. Date cuenta de que Facebook no es tu amigo. Facebook ha originado demasiados problemas como para contarlos. Pero este es muy serio.

Ve a la barra de búsqueda y escribe “Gays en [tu país]”, ya sabes, como si estuvieras buscando un grupo o una página que describan la escena local. Lo que verás es un poco diferente:

Llueven hombres interesados en hombres, y mujeres también

Llueven hombres interesados en hombres, y mujeres también

Aquí se muestra una parábola sobre la construcción de la identidad en la era digital. Facebook coge automáticamente la información del botón que te pregunta en qué sexo estás interesado (que mucha gente se toma a broma, o entiende como interés en relación a la amistad y no al sexo) y la traduce en si eres gay o no. Y lo que es más abominable: los resultados que veas no se limitan a tus amigos ni a los amigos de tus amigos. Verás una lista de todos los hombres que están “interesados en hombres” en [tu país] y que no perdieron el tiempo en configurar como privado ese aspecto particular de su perfil. Si eres gay y estás buscando una alternativa a Grindr, te conviene. Y si eres policía, en tu país el sexo entre homosexuales está prohibido y estás buscando una manera de seguir la pista, atrapar y meter en la cárcel a los culpables, también te conviene.

Estos son los resultados del motor de búsqueda Facebook Graph Search, una herramienta aterradora que echa la seguridad a la hoguera y le prende fuego. Te permite escarbar hasta la estructura más profunda de la página y extraer información de perfiles que, como tales, son invisibles para ti. A diferencia de lo que sucede con el viejo sistema de Google, aquí se trata de una búsqueda semántica: no solo toma las palabras que escribes literalmente, sino que intenta inferir lo que quieres decir; de aquí el salto de “interesado en hombres” a “gay”. Este sistema es inteligente y despreciable a la vez, y tu seguridad no le importa un pepino.

Se llama Graph Search porque la búsqueda semántica “elabora un gráfico de información para el usuario que lleva a conocimientos de diferentes formatos a crear un punto de vista general relacionado con la consulta inicial”… bla, bla. Dicho de un modo más fácil: Facebook utiliza las pequeñas informaciones de todos los perfiles, como las opciones “me gusta” o “interesado en”, para mapear los elementos comunes entre sus clientes. Facebook, sin embargo, no lo ha creado “para los usuarios”, aunque te lo venda como un modo de compartir con amor y con aquellos a los que amas y aprender cosas maravillosas de todo el mundo. Lo ha creado para sí mismo y para sus clientes anunciantes, para dividir a los usuarios según sus preferencias y ensamblar una foto de mercados diversificados abiertos a la publicidad y la explotación.

Pupila aventajada: sé lo que hiciste el último verano, y con quién © Dominic Lipinski/PA

Pupila aventajada: sé lo que hiciste el último verano, y con quién © Dominic Lipinski/PA

Un blog de Tumblr se dedica exclusivamente a destacar la información, de la más excéntrica a la más espeluznante, que puede recopilar el Graph Search. Puedes buscar “jefes de personas a quienes gusta el racismo” o “madres de italianos católicos a quienes gustan los condones Durex”. No obstante, aquellas personas que están en peligro a causa de sus vidas privadas no se ríen. El Graph Search facilita la represión estatal. Los abogados de derechos humanos deberían hacer pasar a Facebook por el aro. La búsqueda desvela, por ejemplo, 258.285 resultados para “hombres interesados en hombres en Irán”. De un modo u otro, no se ha conseguido obtener objeciones de los típicos obsesionados con la República Islámica (que, ahora mismo, están todos en Facebook buscando a “hombres en Londres a quienes gustan los hombres y leer notas de prensa”). Pero si un policía religioso emprendedor de Teheran descubre cómo el Graph Search puede ampliar el negocio de la tortura, Facebook se llenará las manos de sangre.

¿Y qué es lo que puedes hacer ? La única manera de eliminarte del Graph Search es asegurarte de que cada información de tu perfil esté marcada como “privada”. La herramienta de privacidad universal con la que podías esconder todo tu perfil ya no existe, de modo que ahora deberás hacerlo paso por paso:

a) Ve a cada uno de los ítems de la sección “Información” de tu perfil, y si hay algo que no quieres que vean los desconocidos, elimínalo, cámbialo o asegúrate de que la herramienta de privacidad limita la visibilidad a los “Amigos”.

b) Comprueba cada fotografía en la que has sido etiquetado. Si no fuiste tú quien publicó la fotografía, su visibilidad depende únicamente de la configuración de privacidad de la persona a quien pertenezca. Si no quieres que otros puedan ver o buscar la fotografía, tendrás que eliminar la etiqueta.

c) Puedes revisar todos los comentarios que has publicado en Facebook yendo a “Registro de actividad” y clicando en “Tus publicaciones” en el menú de la izquierda. Si has comentado en las fotografías o los muros de otras personas, no podrás cambiar la configuración de privacidad, pero si no quieres que nadie lea tu comentario, puedes borrarlo.

d) También puedes cambiar la configuración de privacidad para absolutamente todas las publicaciones que hay en tu muro. Clica en “Configuración” y a continuación clica en “Privacidad”. En “¿Quién puede ver mis cosas?” encontrarás la pregunta “¿Quieres limitar el público de las publicaciones que has compartido con los amigos de tus amigos o que has hecho públicas?”. Esto te permitirá convertir estas publicaciones en privadas del tirón. Otra opción te permite revisar todas tus publicaciones pasadas para el caso de que quieras decidir qué hacer con cada una por separado.

Aquí podrás echar un buen vistazo a estos métodos.

1330-550x5173. Utiliza Tor. Tor es un paquete de software descargable que incluye su propio navegador. Cuando utilizas el navegador para acceder a internet, la información que recibes o envías rebota a través de una red global de miles de repetidores (miles de ordenadores) y se va encriptando cada vez. Toda esta encriptación hace muy difícil interceptar la información en tránsito: el reenrutamiento hace casi imposible encontrar los orígenes. Así, los ojos hostiles no podrán detectar tu ubicación, ni rastrear tus publicaciones, visitas o mensajes hasta llegar a ti.

El gráfico anterior muestra cómo funciona. Normalmente, cuando Alice envía un correo electrónico a alguien o visita una página web, los que están al otro lado pueden descubrir la dirección de internet que está utilizando. Sin embargo, usando Tor, el receptor (Bob o cualquier persona en el extremo de Bob) sólo podrá ver la dirección del último repetidor o proxy de toda la red, y no la de Alice.

Edward Snowden en el exilio muestra la pegatina de su portátil, dando apoyo al proyecto Tor. Fuente: nyti.ms/18oyv9Y

Edward Snowden en el exilio muestra la pegatina de su portátil, dando apoyo al proyecto Tor. Fuente: nyti.ms/18oyv9Y

Tor (cuyo nombre proviene de The Onion Router, o el router cebolla, haciendo alusión a las capas de protección que el intruso debería arrancar) fue desarrollado por el ejército de los Estados Unidos, y el Departamento de Estado sigue financiando a los promotores, que trabajan sin ánimo de lucro, como una manera de dar apoyo a aquello a lo que por otro lado se opone: la libertad en internet. Pero el proyecto es tan independiente e impenetrable que, según algunos documentos de seguridad nacional estadounidense filtrados por Edward Snowden, incluso el Gobierno de este país se siente intimidado. Lo llaman “el rey de la alta seguridad” en cuanto a acceso anónimo a internet se refiere. Es un software de código abierto, lo que significa que un equipo de elfos siempre está trabajando para reparar cualquier vulnerabilidad. Como la mayoría de proyectos de código abierto, el espíritu de Tor es cooperativo y colectivo. De hecho, cualquier persona puede colaborar de forma voluntaria aportando su ordenador como uno de los repetidores de la red. Yo, no obstante, no os lo recomiendo, puesto que si el sistema se llegara a resquebrajar, podríais ser considerados responsables de los actos ilegales que hayan podido cometer otros usuarios a través de vuestro terminal.

Existen, sin embargo, tres limitaciones:

a) Tor no es demasiado rápido. El hecho de que haya tantos repetidores ralentiza el proceso de búsqueda. Además, Tor bloquea los complementos como Flash, Quicktime y RealPlayer porque pueden revelar tu dirección real. Por último, para reproducir vídeos de YouTube deberás habilitarlo.

b) Obviamente, Tor no va a ocultar tu identidad cuando inicies sesión con tu cuenta de correo electrónico u otra cuenta; sólo esconderá la dirección de internet desde la que estás escribiendo.

c) Si ya desde un principio tu gobierno sabe dónde te encuentras, todavía podría encontrar la manera de entrar en tu ordenador y conseguir la información que mandes desde él. Del mismo modo, Tor tampoco puede proteger lo que se encuentra en el ordenador o servidor que hay al otro lado y con el que te estás comunicando, sino que simplemente las transmisiones entre ellos están cifradas y son seguras. Mira el cuadro otra vez: Tor no cifra la última fase de la transmisión, entre el nodo de salida (el último repetidor) y el servidor final. Si quieres tener más seguridad deberás usar un cifrado de extremo a extremo como PGP (ver más abajo), que codifica tu mensaje desde que lo creas hasta que el receptor deseado lo lee.

A pesar de estas tres limitaciones, Tor es una herramienta esencial si quieres navegar por internet de manera anónima. Lo puedes descargar de forma gratuita aquí.

4. Encripta tu disco duro. Para protegerte debes encriptar, o cifrar, todo tu ordenador o parte de él. Si alguien, sea un hacker, un policía o un ladrón, intenta entrar sin tu autorización, no podrá leer la información que tengas guardada en archivos encriptados. La información sólo puede leerse si se tiene una clave, un código que activa el descifrado. Lo suyo está en no dar ni olvidar nunca tal clave.

Un portátil bien protegido: la información, encadenada

Un portátil bien protegido: la información, encadenada

No existe ningún sistema de cifrado perfecto. Los gobiernos, especialmente los más intrusivos y los que disponen de más recursos como los de Estados Unidos, China o Israel, se las saben todas. La Agencia de Seguridad Nacional estadounidense se gastó miles de millones en lo que llamó “un esfuerzo agresivo y con múltiples frentes para terminar con las extendidas tecnologías de cifrado”. El plan incluía un desembolso de 250 millones de dólares por año destinados a sobornar a empresas – perdón, quiero decir, “ganar activamente el apoyo de industrias del ámbito de las TIC, tanto nacionales como extranjeras, para que influencien, de manera abierta y/o encubierta, los diseños de sus productos” y los hagan así “explotables”. Es decir, que les pagaban para que pusieran trabas a los productos que luego venderían. Y es que 250 millones de dólares dan para mucha cooperación. Microsoft, por ejemplo, ha incluido entre sus políticas la de proporcionar “a las agencias de inteligencia información sobre los errores que aparecen en su tan popular software antes de hacer pública su depuración”.

Conclusión: no gastes tu dinero en sistemas de cifrado de empresas privadas, puesto que no hay manera de saber si han creado una puerta trasera a merced de los espías norteamericanos. Tampoco puedes saber si ellos ya han compartido estos portales troyanos con tu gobierno, en caso de que sea un aliado norteamericano. Y en caso de que no lo sea, quizás los espías locales de tu país ya han conseguido copiarles los atajos anticifrado: los estadounidenses son aparentemente mejores a la hora de robar los secretos ajenos que no a la hora de ocultar los suyos. De modo paradójico, si los software de código abierto son más seguros es precisamente porque todo el mundo tiene acceso al código. Si un gobierno intentara insertar software malicioso o aprovechar alguna debilidad del programa para introducirse en él, probablemente alguien se daría cuenta. Estos software, además, están “en un constante estado de desarrollo por parte de expertos de todo el mundo”, de modo que hay un gran número de mentes maravillosas arreglándolos y retocándolos a menudo.

Aquí encontrarás una lista muy útil de cinco herramientas fiables para el cifrado de documentos. Muchos expertos recomiendan TrueCrypt, que funciona con Windows, Mac y Linux y es gratuito (supuestamente es la que usó Edward Snowden para pasar la información a su disco duro). Cifra archivos, carpetas o discos enteros; oculta volúmenes cifrados para mayor seguridad, y cifra en tiempo real, o sea, cifra y descifra el material a medida que vas trabajando. Todo esto te simplifica las cosas. Si bien es cierto que puede ralentizar algo tu ordenador, tampoco es tanto. De acuerdo con un estudio independiente, “la penalización de rendimiento es bastante aceptable”. Puedes descargar TrueCrypt aquí.

5. Cifra tus correos electrónicos. Cifrar los correos es como ir en bicicleta. Es difícil de explicar para aquellos que aún no lo han probado sin parecer superhumanamente ágil o un loco (“con el culo en el sillín, empieza a mover tus piernas de forma circular y rítmica, con un movimiento que a la vez asegure el equilibrio de las ruedas, de la medida de una pulgada, e impulse el mecanismo hacia delante…”). Describirlo es muchísimo más complicado que hacerlo. Bueno, ten paciencia e intenta no sentir terror mientras pruebo de describirlo.

Las dos claves: PGP

Las dos claves: PGP

Empecemos con los antecedentes y lo más básico. La forma clásica del cifrado de correos electrónicos se llama pretty good privacy (privacidad bastante buena) o PGP, y fue inventada por Phil Zimmermann en los años noventa. El cifrado, dijo, trata “las relaciones de poder entre un gobierno y sus ciudadanos, el derecho a la privacidad, la libertad de expresión, la libertad de asociación política, la libertad de prensa, el derecho a no ser sometido a una búsqueda y captura inadmisible, la libertad de que te dejen tranquilo”. A Zimmermann le apasionaban los movimientos en contra de la guerra y las armas nucleares, de forma que creó las herramientas pensando en ellos. Desde entonces, PGP es una marca registrada, pero existe una amplia gama de versiones de código abierto gratuitas, como GnuPG o GPG (disponible aquí) u otras que aparecen en la página International PGP Home Page.

El cifrado de correos electrónicos se basa en un servidor emisor y otro receptor que comparten herramientas que les permiten cifrar y descifrar mensajes.

Estas herramientas se llaman claves. Cuando instalas un programa, te pedirán que introduzcas dos claves o series de caracteres que llevan a cabo ciertas tareas. Tú tendrás una clave pública y otra secreta. Todo el mundo puede usar la clave pública, pero la secreta estará asociada a una contraseña para que solo tú puedas activarla. Debes compartir la clave pública con tus interlocutores, o sea, las personas que quieran mandarte un mensaje cifrado deberán haber obtenido antes tu clave pública, ya que esto es lo que cifrará el mensaje para ellos. Y por otro lado tú también necesitarás la clave pública de estas personas para escribirles. Las personas que tienen PGP en sus ordenadores pueden comunicarse fácilmente mientras tengan las claves públicas de las otras personas.

Pongamos por ejemplo que Faisal quiere mandarte una nota. Faisal usará tu clave pública, que le habrás dado anteriormente, para cifrar el mensaje en un código que solo tú puedes leer. Aunque tu clave pública haya llevado a cabo el cifrado, el mensaje no es, ni mucho menos, público: esa clave está ciberrelacionada con tu clave secreta de modo que solo tu clave secreta puede descifrar lo que dice. A su vez, tú utilizarás la clave pública de Faisal para contestar, y le mandarás un mensaje que solo él puede descifrar con su clave secreta. También puedes usar tu clave secreta para firmar digitalmente el mensaje con el objetivo de que Faisal sepa que es auténtico. Es como poner un sello en las cartas tradicionales para demostrar que no ha habido alteración durante la operación.

Cartas selladas: Quodlibet, de Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, 1665

Cartas selladas: Quodlibet, de Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, 1665

Algunos elementos hacen este proceso un poco más engorroso:

a) Solo puedes comunicarte con personas que tengan tanto el mencionado software como tu clave pública. Es decir, que no necesitas cifrar todos tus correos electrónicos, sino solamente los más delicados, aquellos que te mandas con gente que comparte tu línea de trabajo. Algunas autoridades clave comerciales compilan directorios en línea de las claves públicas de los usuarios como si fueran guías telefónicas. No obstante, en lugar de usar estos directorios, probablemente prefieras crear un círculo de compañeros y coconspiradores con quienes vas a compartir las claves públicas. A esto se le llama web of trust (red de confianza), una expresión que consigue combinar las sensibilidades más zen y una ligera paranoia.

b) Tan solo puedes usar el cifrado PGP en los ordenadores que lo tengan instalado. Si recibes un mensaje cifrado en tu móvil, no vas a poder leerlo hasta que no te sientes frente al ordenador que contiene tu clave secreta. Si te encuentras de viaje y no llevas el ordenador, tienes un problema.

c) El cifrado PGP no funciona bien con correos web como Gmail o Yahoo (en los últimos meses ha salido una versión de cifrado de JavaScript que en teoría es compatible con los correos web, pero es bastante rudimentaria), así que quizás es mejor que uses un servicio de correo electrónico tipo Outlook. El servicio más popular diseñado especialmente para el cifrado de mensajes es Thunderbird: gratuito, compatible con Windows, Mac y Linux, y sincronizable con Gmail, puedes encontrar una presentación básica de cómo funciona aquí.

El cifrado de correos electrónicos es complicado, aunque simplemente se trata de acostumbrarse. Tiene como ventaja el hecho de proteger la información durante todo el proceso de transmisión, de un extremo al otro, a diferencia de la protección parcial que ofrece Tor. Si necesitas una descripción más detallada de su utilización, puedes encontrarla aquí y aquí.

6. Utiliza Off the Record. Millones de personas en todo el mundo han confiado en Skype a la hora de contar sus intimidades y secretos a larga distancia. Se ha descubierto, no obstante, que la corporación entrega frecuentemente conversaciones grabadas a los Gobiernos estadounidense y chino.

Off the Record (OTR), que en ingles significa extraoficial, es una alternativa segura. Se trata de un sistema, parecido en ciertos aspectos a PGP, que cifra los mensajes de la mayoría de chats. A su favor podemos decir que es mucho menos engorroso que PGP y te permite comunicarte en tiempo real. OTR no debe ser confundido con la función “No guardar la conversación” (off the record, en inglés) del servicio de chat de Google. Esta es tan segura como el propio Google, es decir, no mucho, ya que al fin y al cabo los servicios de seguridad de los Estados Unidos han averiguado cómo rastrear la información de las comunicaciones que se llevan a cabo a través de los servicios de la multinacional. El cifrado de OTR es extraoficial y te ofrece mucha protección.

La revolución no será grabada: LP Confidential

La revolución no será grabada: LP Confidential

Para usar OTR deberás descargar e instalar un cliente de mensajería instantánea, sea Pidgin o Adium. El programa Pidgin es gratuito y permite chatear con amigos de Google, MSN, Yahoo, Jabber y AIM. Adium es similar, pero está específicamente diseñado para Mac. Mientras que Adium ya lleva el sistema OTR incorporado, para el caso de Pidgin deberás descargarte también el complemento OTR.

A partir de aquí, es bastante fácil. Todo lo que necesitas es que la persona con quien quieras chatear también tenga instalado Pidgin o Adium y haya activado el sistema OTR. Este sistema te ofrece dos cosas: además de cifrar las conversaciones te permite verificar la identidad de la otra persona. Hasta hace un tiempo, esta verificación exigía intercambiar una huella dactilar, una versión más simple de las claves públicas PGP, pero las versiones más recientes de OTR te piden simplemente una clave secreta acordada previamente entre vosotros. OTR cifra los mensajes de manera casi automática: mientras habláis, los dos programas van modificando los códigos y lo que sea necesario sin que vosotros os deis cuenta.

Te deseo buena suerte, a no ser que tengas el software

Te deseo buena suerte, a no ser que tengas el software

OTR presenta otra ventaja en comparación con PGP. El software crea un cifrado especial para cada sesión de chat y lo olvida cuando esta termina. Ello significa que aunque tu cuenta OTR esté en peligro (porque, por ejemplo, alguien te ha robado el ordenador) nadie podrá recuperar y descifrar las conversaciones anteriores. Así es, esas palabras efímeras se han ido para siempre. A esto se le llama secreto-hacia-adelante, y confiere tranquilidad a las mentes olvidadizas. Por otro lado, en el sistema PGP, si alguien consigue tu clave privada podría llegar a decodificar cada uno de los correos electrónicos cifrados que tengas guardados.

El inconveniente principal de OTR es que solo permite conversaciones entre dos personas y no de grupo. En la página de OTR encontrarás información básica sobre el sistema; si quieres información más detallada, entra aquí o aquí.

Conclusión

Si queremos privacidad, debemos defenderla nosotros mismos. Debemos unirnos para crear sistemas que permitan las transacciones anónimas. Los humanos hemos defendido nuestra privacidad a lo largo de los siglos por medio de susurros, la oscuridad, sobres, sesiones a puerta cerrada, apretones de mano secretos y mensajeros. Las tecnologías del pasado no ofrecían mucha privacidad, pero las tecnologías electrónicas sí pueden. (Eric Hughes, A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto, 1993)

Grandes hermanos bailando sus danzas tradicionales: Nicolae Ceaușescu y Kim Il-Sung

Grandes hermanos bailando sus danzas tradicionales: Nicolae Ceaușescu y Kim Il-Sung

A principios de los años noventa estuve dos años trabajando como profesor en Rumanía. En el apartamento donde vivía se habían alojado profesores americanos desde mediados de la década de los sesenta. Estaba lleno de micrófonos; había tantos que por las noches creía oír cómo alguien me escuchaba, por los numerosos clics, débiles como si de grillos enfermizos se tratara. Un día incluso me electrocuté al tocar un tramo de pared especialmente cableado. El último profesor Fulbright que había dado clase ahí antes de la Revolución de 1989 me contó cómo él y su mujer decidieron, durante el frío noviembre de ese mismo año, organizar una cena de acción de gracias para sus compañeros de trabajo rumanos. Les costó días encontrar un pavo en condiciones, y luego tuvieron un dilema con el relleno, puesto que las verduras eran difíciles de encontrar en el mercado. Se pasaron el día entero en la cocina pensando una solución hasta que alguien llamó a la puerta. Encontraron a un hombre pequeño, encorvado y bien abrigado contra el viento. Rápidamente empezó a hablar, y les dio a entender que algunos compañeros –bueno, en realidad eran primos, que se dedicaban al mantenimiento del piso– le habían llamado para avisarle de que había un problema que, quizás por algo de dinero, se podía arreglar. Nos señaló vagamente un coche con unas antenas que estaba aparcado (como siempre) al final de la calle. “Por lo que sé –dijo–, estáis discutiendo sobre cómo rellenar un ave. Yo os puedo ayudar. Soy taxidermista…”.

Al mismo tiempo era gracioso y no lo era. Cuando vivía ahí, el odio étnico y la histeria nacionalista todavía agitaban la ciudad. Yo, como homosexual y activista de derechos humanos que se dedicaba a visitar cárceles en sus días de fiesta, era objeto de un interés excepcional. Una vez, la policía secreta llamó a un amigo mío y le interrogó sobre cada sílaba que dijimos en la conversación que mantuvimos la noche anterior en mi salón. Le avisaron de que yo lo acabaría “reclutando para la red de espionaje de húngaros, judíos y homosexuales en contra de la nación rumana”. Ese verano, me fui un par de meses a los Estados Unidos. Un día, mientras me duchaba en el estrecho baño de la casa de mi padre, empecé a hablar solo, sin más, pero de repente paré aterrorizado. ¿Estaba repitiendo algún secreto? ¿Y si alguien me había oído? El gran alivio que sentí cuando me di cuenta de que no había moros en la costa fue como si estallara una presa detrás de mis tensos músculos. Me daba cuenta así de la presión constante e intolerable bajo la que había estado viviendo durante un año: siempre vigilado, siempre escuchado.

La era del papel: los documentos de los servicios secretos previos a la Revolución se conservan en el Consejo Nacional para el Estudio de los Archivos de la Securitate, Bucarest, Rumanía (© Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)

La era del papel: los documentos de los servicios secretos previos a la Revolución se conservan en el Consejo Nacional para el Estudio de los Archivos de la Securitate, Bucarest, Rumanía (© Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)

El mismo año en el que me establecí en Rumanía, en 1992, unos cuantos frikis radicales de San Francisco crearon una lista de correo electrónico que acabaría creciendo hasta convertirse en el movimiento Cypherpunk. Lo que les unía era la aversión a la seguridad del estado y el convencimiento de que la tecnología sería capaz de forjar las herramientas necesarias para oponer resistencia. De acuerdo con su ideología, tenían una fe extraordinaria en que, si el código era público y se podía compartir el conocimiento, la gente podría salvaguardar su privacidad de manera intacta.

Los cypherpunks pican código. Todos sabemos que para defender la intimidad alguien tiene que crear los programas, y puesto que uno no tiene intimidad hasta que todos la tienen, vamos a escribir. Publicamos nuestro código para que el resto de compañeros cypherpunks puedan practicar y jugar con él. El código es gratis para todo el mundo. Somos conscientes de que el software no se puede destruir y que nadie podrá cerrar un sistema tan extendido.

Los cypherpunks desaprueban la regulación de la criptografía, pues el cifrado es fundamentalmente un acto privado. El acto de cifrar, de hecho, significa eliminar información de la esfera pública. Las leyes contra la criptografía no pueden llegar más allá de las fronteras del país ni de su brazo violento. La criptografía se va a extender ineludiblemente por todo el planeta y, con ella, los sistemas de transacciones anónimas a los que da lugar.

En ese manifiesto se encuentra buena parte de nuestro mundo actual.

Las tecnologías electrónicas permiten una gran privacidad. Sin embargo, también la destruyen; por lo menos cuando los estados y las empresas las manipulan. Antes estaba seguro, llamadme inocente, de que en los Estados Unidos no se practicaban escuchas; ahora ya no lo estoy. Esa necesidad imperiosa de vigilar forma parte de nuestro hábitat, en esta tierra de nadie en la que vivimos.

La lucha entre ordenador y ordenador, ver y no ser visto, es la nueva carrera armamentística, la nueva Guerra Fría. A no ser que quieras salirte del sistema, convertirte en el nuevo Unabomber, mudarte a una cabaña totalmente incomunicada e interrogar y torturar a tus palomas mensajeras como un paranoico, debes posicionarte. Elegir las tecnologías para la privacidad es casi lo más cercano a elegir la libertad. Aunque también signifique vivir entre las murallas de las protecciones que te ofrece la tecnología. La tensión no se va.

Te estoy escuchando: Gene Hackman a la escucha en la película La conversación, de Francis Ford Coppola (1974)

Te estoy escuchando: Gene Hackman a la escucha en la película La conversación, de Francis Ford Coppola (1974)

Iran bans online chats between men and women: True? Or false?

I'm gonna wash that man right offa your screen. Or not.

I’m gonna wash that man right off of your screen. Or not.

This started four days ago, cropping up all over Twitter in that mushroomy fashion, as if it had rained. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, had used “his own website” to issue a fatwa barring men and women from chatting together online, “given the immorality that often applies to this.” The story got retweeted by real human rights activists, like Suzanne Nossel, head of the PEN American Center:
nossel fatwa copyAnd by fake ones, like Ben Weinthal, paid to propagandize for an Iran war by the so-called Foundation for Defense of Democracies:
weinthal fatwa copy Robert Spencer, the highly profit-making one-man Islamophobic road show, seized on it:
spencer fatwa copy And for some reason, the story seems to have been a big hit in Indonesia, where perhaps it allowed believers in a notoriously syncretic Islam to laugh at those crazy Iranians:
indonesia chatting iran copyHere’s my question, though: Is this true? Because there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it is.

First off, some definitions are in order. For many Americans and Europeans, “fatwa” carries implications of draconian bloodthirstiness, largely because the only one they’ve heard of was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death decree against Salman Rushdie in 1988. In fact, a fatwa can be about anything. It means any interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence issued by a qualified scholar, usually in response to a believer’s question. Twelver Shi’ism — the branch of Shi’ism that derives legitimacy from a line of twelve imams who succeeded the Prophet, and is the prevailing faith in Iran — has a much more defined and rigorous clerical hierarchy than almost any other strain of Islam. Even the highest clerics are kept on their toes answering regular questions from their lay followers, in part because just this busywork vindicates their scholarly relevance. You can compare this to Roman Catholicism, which similarly has survived for centuries owing to its intense pastoral involvement in its believers’ lives, and the authoritarian structure underpinning that engagement. The Internet age only encourages all this. Almost any major cleric has a website with a Q & A section, a running Dear Abby column advising the faithful on the do-and-don’t minutiae of their daily lives. The subjects run from Banking, holidays for, and Inheritance, cognatic cousins and, to Secretions, bodily, disposal of, and Weddings, music at. And everything in between.

Ayatollah Khameini has two websites: one in his capacity as Supreme Leader (www.leader.ir) and another (farsi.khamenei.ir), which I hesitate to call “personal” — it carries no suggestion of a private life — centering rather more on his religious and cultural activities; it might resemble a campaign website, if the man ever had to run for anything. Each contains its own section of fatawa. I spent two nights online with an Iranian friend, going over these websites in some detail, concentrating on the main, Farsi pages but with some attention to the English sections as well. We found nothing resembling the fatwa against men and women chatting. An Iran expert who had searched for it as well confirmed her inability to find it. As several people have observed, there is no legal ban on men and women conversing face-to-face in Iran; long-distance chats seem comparatively antiseptic.

I’m not saying for a certainty the fatwa isn’t there — the websites are ill-organized, and we didn’t visit absolutely every crevice. But if anyone has seen the fatwa with their own eyes, I’d like to hear about it, because I don’t see any trace that it ever existed. So far, it sounds like a fraud.

(That Khameini or his subordinates posted it, then took it down in embarrassment after it hit the news, is unlikely. The Islamic Republic is resistant to embarrassment. If the second-highest execution rate in the world — probably the highest per capita — doesn’t bring a tinge of shame to its cheeks, nothing would.)

Where did this story come from?

Its origins should have been enough to raise scepticism from the start — at least, to make journalists turn to Khameini’s actual websites to try to find the text, as I did. So far as I can see, it comes from two sources, each with a reputation for misrepresentation and bias. The first, apparently, was the website of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The NCRI is a political mouthpiece for the Mojahedin e-Khalq (MeK, the People’s Mojahedin), an exile organization with the attributes of a cult that demands absolute loyalty from its members, enforces allegiance to its semi-deified leaders, and stands accused of extensive human rights abuses. The MeK and NCRI have long specialized in disseminating sensational fictions about Iran that capture public attention and create a propaganda storm. In 2005, the NCRI played a major role in spreading unsubstantiated rumors of “gay executions” in Iran to a gullible Peter Tatchell and others. They’ve been a recurrent source of alarmist rumor about Iran’s nuclear program, serving sometimes as a proxy and puppet for both the US and Israel to get their own versions out — but, as Patrick Cockburn writes about the “strange, highly disciplined, cult-like organisation,”

The problem with the US-Iranian proxy war is that neither side quite controls their own proxies to the degree the other side imagines. It is all very well working through surrogates to retain deniability, but these have their own interests and may, in addition, be incompetent, corrupt or simply crazed.

Please keep laughing until I pay you to stop: Handsomely reimbursed Rudy Giuliani engages in horseplay with MeK cult leader Maryam Rajavi (see http://www.ibtimes.com/mek-only-way-stop-iran-giuliani-214368)

Please keep laughing until I pay you to stop: Handsomely reimbursed shill Rudy Giuliani engages in crazed horseplay with MeK cult leader Maryam Rajavi (see http://www.ibtimes.com/mek-only-way-stop-iran-giuliani-214368)

The NCRI published an article about the alleged fatwa on its website on January 7 — the posted time is 13:45. (The NCRI’s website is apparently hosted in Michigan, in the US, but its clock seems to be set to the time of the NCRI’s Paris headquarters.)

Next to come, it seems, was Al Arabiya, the giant Saudi news channel, which posted a story about the alleged fatwa on its English site at an unlisted time on January 7, and on its Arabic site at 21:02 GMT (that would be about eight hours and fifteen minutes after the NCRI story, if all the times are correct). It doesn’t mention the NCRI version, but my guess is that’s its source.

Creeping shari'a, on all fours: "Sex Jihad," from Frontpagemag.com

Creeping shari’a, on all fours: “Sex Jihad,” from Frontpagemag.com

Al Arabiya has its own reliability problems. Members of the Saudi royal family launched jt in 2004 to compete with Qatari-owned Al Jazeera for the hearts and minds of the Arab audience. Despite all the petro-funding it’s had only limited success — it comes in second to Al Jazeera even among Saudi viewers — but it’s becoming to the American right wing what the earnest Jimmy Olsens of Qatar are to certain US lefties: a convenient confirmer of prejudices. The insecure Saudi regime is deeply nervous about both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran; their fears reinforce the US neocons’ own. Al Arabiya, for instance, bore partial responsibility for a trumped-up story in 2012 that Egypt’s Brotherhood planned to legalize necrophilia. It also helped spread viral tales this summer that the Brotherhood was sponsoring “sexual jihad” in both Tunisia and Egypt: recruiting young women to provide erotic encouragement to warriors in Syria or even in the streets of Cairo. These stories were almost wholly imaginary. But they still circulate on extremist American websites like Frontpagemag.com.

In other words, you’ve got two culprits with a record of making things up. By the evening of January 7, the right-wing Jerusalem Post carried the story, in a short piece by Ariel Ben Solomon, citing Al Arabiya. This outlet is one of the loudest drummers, in Israel or outside, for war against Iran. Ben Solomon serves as “Middle East Correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, covering regional developments and Israeli Arab issues” —  at the PostIsraeli Arab issues a) can’t be covered by Israeli Arabs b) because they’re “Middle East,” that is foreign, issues.  Thank you, Avigdor Liberman. This past autumn, snooping down those “regional developments,” Ben Solomon bought into mistranslated initial reports that Kuwait’s proposed gender-identity screening was a “ban on homosexuals”; that suggests the limits of his Arabic research capacity. The Jerusalem Post was probably the story’s conduit to US and UK media.

Later on January 7, the story made Fox News (without attribution to other media sources), which means hitting the big time: “The latest religious edict from Iran’s supreme leader takes aim at the Islamic Republic’s lonely hearts.” By the next day it was on Breitbart.comthat guardian of truth and the American way: “This latest fatwa from Khamenei makes clear that Rouhani is merely the smiling theater mask of a stern, forever frowning dictatorship guided exclusively by Khamenei’s hand.” Breitbart at least suggested they had checked somewhere and failed to find the fatwa: 

The Supreme Leader often answers questions from the public on his website, Khamenei.ir, though the English-language side of the site currently has no new announcements.

Thus we learn that Breitbart a) has no access to any Farsi speakers anywhere in the world; b) won’t be deterred from publishing by the total lack of evidence. What a surprise. 

Only Time ever expressed some doubts about the invisible fatwa, asking “Did Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, just ban online chatting between unrelated men and women?”

Both the Jerusalem Post and the exiled opposition group People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran website — not exactly unbiased sources on Iranian affairs — say he has.  …  But a religious ruling does not an official ban make. Fatwas, or religious opinions disseminated by clerics, are not binding. So while Khamenei might discourage his followers from online chatting, for fear that it might lead to flirtation, or worse, he is not likely to order Iran’s religious police to start patrolling chat rooms and looking over texter’s [sic] shoulders.

Stop looking at me that way: Khameini speaking in front of predecessor's picture

Stop looking at me that way: Khameini speaking in front of predecessor’s picture

Three points stand out about all of this.

1) Prove it. As I say: maybe there is a Khameini anti-chat fatwa lurking out there. I can’t be positive there isn’t, and indeed I’d be happy to know this isn’t all a viral fantasy. But the burden is on the people who wrote and Tweeted about it, to prove it. Nobody except Time seems even to have tried seriously checking on the fatwa‘s existence before clicking “publish.” Surely it’s time for them to start looking.

2) If the fatwa exists, there are more important things. Really. Time raises the interesting question whether such a mandate would even be enforceable. The answer is perhaps a little more complicated than they suggest. When the Islamic Republic of Iran decided thirty years ago to embody its law in a criminal code, it took a step radically at odds with the history of Islamic jurisprudence, which is cumulative, common-law-like, and ill-disposed to codification. A settled, finalized corpus of law is a different beast to the traditional compilation of interpretations; it can no longer be altered simply by the opinions of a scholar. The parliamentary decision and the court ruling displaced the fatwa as the fount of legislation. (Asghar Shirazi has addressed these dilemmas brilliantly in his superb work on Iran’s constitution.)

Offsetting this, Ayatollah Khomeini carried enormous prestige both as a recognized scholar and a revolutionary politician. Khomeini’s personal fatwas had a charisma that could to some extent supersede the criminal code. However, Ayatollah Khameini, plucked from the middle ranks of the clerisy to serve as Supreme Leader, has no such mojo, and his fatwas are correspondingly less final. This is not to say Iran is a rule-of-law government these days, a Rechtsstaat; it’s not. Anything Khameini writes carries some weight. That doesn’t mean it’s legally enforceable, though, as opposed to just advice to the perplexed.

Khameini also issues fatawa on masturbation (in case you were wondering, it’s bad, but pardonable if done with medical approval), but even the feared basij have not made a priority of hunting down wankers. If he did put out a fatwa about chat, it would matter whether it appeared on his Supreme Leader website, or his less official oneIt would matter whether instructions to the religious police accompanied it — and there’s absolutely no indication of any such thing. Even if the fatwa exists, absent something turning it into a legal order, it’s simply moral exhortation. And how broad can its public impact be if it’s so hard to track down?

The real problem: Iran's proposed "National Internet." ©  Kavehadel

The real problem: Iran’s proposed “National Internet.” © Kavehadel

I don’t think the fatwa’s real, in which case you have to ask: why invent imaginary offenses for a government that’s committed ample real ones? Why spin fantasies about hijabi women dragged from Internet cafes when the execution rate keeps rising? It seems just a convenient propaganda gesture for the moment, to keep up pressure on Iran while other news stories are in abeyance. But even if the fatwa‘s real, why focus on it? There are plenty of other things as repressive on Khameini’s websites: for instance, his opinions on what might constitute pornography (look out for, but don’t look at, photos of Western women in fashion magazines), or the rules for satellite dishes.

Instead of decrying a purely notional ban on intersex chatting, why not talk about the irregular but intrusive restrictions Iran actually imposes on Internet users? Why not criticize how messaging and information-sharing services like WeChat, Viber, and Instagram have all been blocked by hardliners in recent weeks — apparently against the objections of Hassan Rouhani’s ministry of culture? And if you want to hone in on sexual privacy, how about the police raid on a party organized by “Satanic” homosexuals in Kermanshah last October, when the basij arrested and prosecuted some 80 men? In the West, there’s been at least as much Twitter and mainstream media attention to this chat-centered non-story as to that documented, brutally abusive incident.

3) We like victims, don’t we? Here’s the thing. If you want to talk about the truth, as opposed to easy news stories, it’s complicated. Complicated because you have to recognize that people — the people you want to imagine as helpless victims waiting breathless on your intervention — have capacity and street smarts, and are more than victims, and fight back.

Graffiti in Tehran by street-art group Geo, from https://www.facebook.com/IranGraffiti

Graffiti in Tehran by street-art group Geo, from https://www.facebook.com/IranGraffiti

If you want to deal with Iran’s Internet restrictions, you have to come to terms with the fact that Iranians still use the Internet, including the banned websites, and find all kinds of creative ways to get information in and out. We wouldn’t even know about the scope of the Internet filtering if folks weren’t poking and prodding out ways around it. If you want to address the Kermanshah case and the abuses against LGBT people, you have to face the fact not just that there was a crackdown, but that there was and is a community, which exists in a complicated dialectic between visibility and concealment, and felt sufficiently sure of itself  to hold a party. Life isn’t just the unremitting pressure of repression; it’s myriad daily acts of solidarity and resistance. People carve out spaces where, against the odds, they try to feel safe and celebrate their safety; sometimes these turn profoundly unsafe; that doesn’t mean their solidarities dissipate or their connections shatter, but rather that they’ll keep looking for new places to connect and struggle. The community of “gay” and “trans” people wasn’t broken in Kermanshah. In fact, it did a remarkably effective job of documenting the arrests and getting news to the outside world, ensuring that the accused had help, and staying linked and alert after the disaster. There are other parties going on, elsewhere in Iran.

This is not a popular tale to tell, particularly among the right-wing pseudo-press — Fox and Breitbart, the Daily Mail and the Foundation for Defusing Democracies — who picked up the chat narrative. Which is why they won’t tell it. They’d rather see Iranians as either uranium-grubbing monsters bent on global domination, or helpless victims of totalitarian power too incapacitated even to get their hands on a pair of jeans. Hearing about others’ agency annoys us, because it deflates our own dreams of sovereign, saving, all-encompassing power.

But that imagined power, our power, is repressive too. What counts is how resistance confronts repressive authority; and you can’t arbitrarily lop off either side of that story. Underneath the fatwas, the facts — and people’s everyday dreams and acts — persist. Underneath the paving stones, the beach.

Situationist graffiti, Paris, 1968

Situationist graffiti, Paris, 1968

UPDATE: On the existing, labyrinthine filtering-and-banning Internet policies in Iran, as well as how Iranians get around them, here is a fascinating piece by Ali Reza Eshraghi.

Jeddah Prison, Cell 18: Entrapped in Saudi Arabia

Baiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

Braiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

“Ahmed” is not his real name, and I’m afraid it’s not a very inventive substitute. As we sat trying to brainstorm a proper pseudonym for him, he told me he’s always wanted to be called “Ginger.” But he doesn’t look like a Ginger: he’s a dark and slightly stolid-looking figure in his 30s, conveying a composed center of gravity that probably stood him in good stead through everything he had to endure.

I talked to him the day after he’d been forcibly deported back to his native Egypt from Saudi Arabia.  He spent more than two years imprisoned in Jeddah, for visiting a gay chatroom.

Here is his story.

I was working as a pharmacist in Saudi, in Jeddah.  I worked in one hospital for four years, but then I transferred to another hospital because of a disagreement about the salary. When I changed to the second hospital there was a problem about the accommodation. In my first hospital I was living alone, I had my freedom. When I was transferred to the second hospital I was living with two other foreign guys who were straight, and they knew I was gay. They refused to have a gay with them, they forced me to leave the apartment. I handed in my resignation, came back to Egypt, stayed maybe three months, found a new contract for another hospital in Jeddah. I returned, and I enjoyed working in the third hospital.

In that place I think they realized that I was a gay, but they accepted me because I was doing my work, I wasn’t doing anything bad.  There was another guy at the hospital, a doctor from East Asia, and everyone knew that he was a gay—he’d flirt very openly with guys he liked, saying “We can hang out together if you can teach me Arabic.”

There’s a lot of life, everything is available in Saudi. For gays there are parties. Makeup, men in dresses… everything you can imagine or you cannot imagine. But for sure it’s hidden. There were foreigners in the scene, but it was mostly Saudis. So many Saudis like gays. If they know that you are gay, they will like you. Not everyone is hating! Some of them are enjoying having sex!

So one night in 2011 – I was working night duty – I finished and came home to my flat. I had something to drink – I knew some guys who could get it for me. Then I got onto a public chatroom, and I started to search for people. A guy said, Can I know you? How old are you, how do you look?

I told him my A/S/L [age, sex, location] and my e-mail. I offered to show myself on the cam. At that time, I was wearing my hair up, wearing some lingerie and my makeup and stuff like that.  I was looking cute.

He said, Can I come to you? You have a place. So he came to my home. He sat around with me, talking and joking.  But we didn’t do anything. He said, We can meet again this evening. I have my own flat, and I don’t feel comfortable here. I knew some guys didn’t feel right in a stranger’s place, and I respected that.

The evening came, around 7 PM or so – I still remember it vividly. He called and told me, I gave you my word, and I’m not lying, I’m coming to you. He said, I have a gift for you.

Then he told me also to bring my things, lingerie and makeup and stuff like that. I trusted him.

I went down to the front of the building to meet him. Just after I got in his car, maybe after a few minutes, I found the government, the guys in the religious police [Gama’t al-Amr be al-Ma’arouf], opening the door of the car, putting the cuffs on me. Of course he knew my home, so they came back there and took everything, the lingerie, condoms, my laptop, which contains porno movies and some pictures of myself

Then I found myself in the police station.

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

I was in a horrible state, crying — I think I had a nervous breakdown. They accused me of being a shazz jenseyyan [sexual pervert]. Everything they asked, I told them yes. Was I taking a contraceptive pill for females [for hormones]? Yes. The lingerie is for you? Yes. You’re a shazz, you’re getting fucked, you feel deeply inside yourself that you are a girl. Yes. But I said, Even if I do feel something like that, it’s not hurting anyone.

I knew the law, because it’s a religious country — not just religious but it’s a country where you must be straight. I know what happened before in Egypt [the Cairo 52 case and the subsequent crackdown] and that was in Egypt – what about a country like Saudi Arabia? Each time I went out on a date, I had a fear that I would be arrested. I expected it. But I did not expect that I would stay in prison so long.

The police didn’t use any violence against me. It’s not a matter of violence, it’s a matter of the whole process being unfair. I wish they had treated me with violence, instead of leaving me in jail for two years.

The manager in the hospital visited me in the jail. He told me that because I’d confessed, I would be deported.  To me this was something good: at least I would be free.

Instead, after a week, they summoned me from jail to the court. The judge was an awful judge, the worst. He told me, You are a sexual pervert.  I didn’t know how to answer. I answered I have dressed and made myself up like that but I’m not having sex — I’m just showing off. He did not tell me or ask me anything after that.

That day, I was handcuffed to another guy from the same cell. He was also in a gay case, but his hearing was before another judge, so we were led together to my judge, then together to his judge. His judge was reading the case file, asking him about the details, what happened, what they were saying – telling him, If you want I will call the witnesses, but if they say it’s all true, the sentence will be double. If you want to confess now, I can help you. I was astonished. Why was no one investigating my case that way? Why didn’t I even have the right to make a defense?

Two or three weeks later, they told me the judge wanted to transfer my case to the higher court [al-Mahkama al-A’ama] and he was asking that court to give me the death sentence.

The higher court, which can impose the death sentence, only can do that in cases where two people are arrested together and they each say, yes, he did that with me. Or if you have previous convictions. Or if you are married – it’s much worse to be accused of homosexual acts if you are married. None of that was true of me.

I waited in jail for four months or five months, and nothing happened. After that I was summoned to interrogation again.

The person who questioned me is called an interrogator (al-mohaqqek), but he’s the same rank as a wakil niyaba (deputy prosecutor) here in Egypt. The question he asked over and over was whether I was married, or had ever been married. Finally he wrote on a paper that I had not, and I put my fingerprint, and he said, Your case belongs in the jurisdiction of the lower court.

I was so happy that day.

But I waited for another four months. My birthday passed. Another summons came from that interrogator again. I had a lawyer by now. (It had been really hard to find one; nobody my friends approached in Saudi would take the case, because it was so dirty. Finally I asked my father in Egypt to look for a lawyer there who could pull strings with Saudi colleagues to get them to represent me.) I got in touch with my lawyer and told him my case was back with the lower court.

But in two weeks he called me to say, no, it was still in the hands of the higher court. Then he told me that instead it had been referred back to the interrogator. And the interrogator summoned me again, and he went over every point in the case. The new point that they asked me about – it was only the second time it had come up —was about the pictures on the laptop. There was a photo of two guys having intercourse, but the photo was only of their bodies, no faces. One of them was actually me; but there was no way of proving that. In the police station they’d asked me about it, and I’d claimed it was photoshopped or something, that it wasn’t me.  Now the interrogator asked about it again and I told him I had no idea who the men were — but he said, You already confessed to the police that it is you. I protested, I never said that! Where is my confession? But on that basis he transferred the case to the higher court again.

After maybe six weeks, they summoned me to the higher court. The lawyer was with me now, and the judge was very correct, asking me lots of questions.  The only point I admitted was that I had some feminine clothes and I like sometimes to look like a girl, but only inside my home. But they kept insisting that I had sex.  The only proof of this was that I had condoms. I admitted that I owned the condoms, and when I did that, they convicted me, saying it proved I was having sex in Saudi Arabia.

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

At least the request for the death penalty was refused. They sentenced me to three years and 300 lashes, to be delivered over six sessions, 50 lashes each.

In the end I spent two years in Braiman Prison in Jeddah, and I only went through three sessions of the lashes, 50 lashes each time. Finally I was released by a pardon of the king, a general amnesty.  The homosexuality cases are included under these and the amnesties happen regularly, so that most people convicted in a homosexuality case don’t spend too long in the jail. There was a guy with us whose sentence was seven years and he got out after one year. I was unusual, I stayed more than two years.  And after I was released, they deported me.

In prison, I understood that the purpose of the judge in the lower court, when he sent the case to the higher court, was just to keep me in jail for a long time waiting for the court decision, since I couldn’t be amnestied till I was convicted. He just wanted to prolong my jail time.

I spent those two years in Cell 18 in Braiman Prison. It is the special cell for people convicted for homosexual acts. There are a lot of men there. The day I arrived, there were maybe 50, 55, or 58 in the cell. But when I left there were 75.  Most of them feel like girls – we call each other by feminine names. We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

A lot of them had been arrested on the Internet, I can’t count now how many. The chief of the cell was arrested over the Internet, through chat on Palringo.  Some had been arrested on Hornet, someone on U4Bear, some on WhosHere — the religious police know all the apps and chatrooms. Some of them had got a phone call asking to meet, from someone they’d talked to before on WhatsApp, and that guy turned out to be police.

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

I actually enjoyed getting to know these guys in the prison. Some were Saudis but most were from [a nearby country].  From there they go to Saudi legally, some for regular work, some for prostitution. And those are making so much money. Maybe for fucking just one time they can rake in 300-500 Saudi riyals [$75-125 US].  The religious police were more concerned with targeting foreigners than Saudis. The foreigners don’t have complete rights in Saudi. It’s a kind of racism.

No one knew of anyone who had been executed [for homosexual conduct]. People would talk about one case that had happened a long time ago. One guy, an Egyptian in our cell, gave me some details; but I don’t know if he was telling the truth. He said these guys were arrested at a party. They stayed in in jail for maybe two or three years without even getting a sentence, and they could tell they would stay more and more. That guy told me that they were having sex in front of everybody in the cell, prisoners and officers, and they were even singing at the time of prayer. [The authorities] told them it’s not right to do that, you have to stop. And you are in jail, so there must be some kind of repentance.

They refused to stop. So their case was transferred to the higher court. And the guy heard they were executed. This, he said, was maybe two decades ago. He told me he had been arrested once in Saudi maybe ten years back, and heard about this from other prisoners as something that had happened five or ten years before that.  But I don’t believe everything he said.

Since then, though, because executions were getting bad publicity in the media, they stopped the death penalty for most cases of homosexuality – only for rape of a child, a boy, a man, something like that. In cases like mine, they just hold the sentence over you as a threat, to scare you; but it’s not actually going to happen.

But it’s not easy to look at a paper in jail and read that the judge is demanding that you be put to death.  It’s difficult. It scares you. It still scares me.

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

Privacy tips for sex subversives: Ways to protect your information and yourself

Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.

– Eric Hughes, “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto,” 1993

urlVladimir Putin’s not-so-secret police wiretapped a strategy meeting between Russian LGBT activists and Western NGOs in St. Petersburg last month — then played the tapes on TV, as proof of a conspiracy. That’s no surprise. What’s surprising is that the Western NGOs didn’t expect it. “Soviet-like surveillance” (to quote the indignant condemnations) is nothing new in Russia. The Soviet security establishment didn’t ever curl up and die. The only innovation is that recently, instead of using the recordings for blackmail or prosecution, the regime hands them over to pet media for a public smear campaign. But everyone knows that tactic already; during the 2011 anti-Putin protests, “grainy videos and audio recordings” were “leaked to Kremlin-friendly tabloids by security and law-enforcement agencies,” in “a concerted Kremlin effort to discredit and divide their opponents.” The organizers really should have seen this coming.

The truth is, those of us who work on sexual rights internationally don’t always take our own issues seriously. We assume evil politicians don’t truly fear us — that they’re merely manipulative or opportunistic, using homophobia, whorephobia, or misogyny as trumped-up distractions from “real” concerns. We don’t grasp our own power, or get that governments may see these issues as the real ones: that states could spend massive resources on repressing sexual dissidence with the same anxious fervor they devote to crushing separatism or stifling political dissent. Persuaded of our unimportance, we deprecate the actual dangers. But if that ever was justified, it isn’t today. The Obama administration’s broad and occasionally unhelpful ardor in playing tribune for LGBT groups worldwide, for instance, feeds fears that these minuscule movements are actually agents of alien geopolitics, hives of foreign subversion. And the US government’s own success in violating anybody’s and everybody’s privacy only encourages imitation, and revenge.

Everyone should worry about privacy. And you especially need to worry if either your work or your life contradicts society or law. You may run an NGO, or you may be an individual activist in a small town. You may be a queer checking Grindr in a country where gay sex is illegal; you may be a sex worker using Gmail to hook up with clients. You need to think about how you can protect your communications from prying ears and eyes — whether parents, roommates, or police.

Uninformed about information: Data from 2012 Pew survey on American's search engine use, www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Search-Engine-Use-2012.aspx

Uninformed about information: Data from 2012 Pew survey on Americans’ search engine use, http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Search-Engine-Use-2012.aspx

Technologies are available. Yet most people don’t use them. There are three broad reasons for reluctance:

a) They’re slow. Secure browsers like Tor are a little lumbering; encrypting e-mails is a hassle. All I can say is, it’s less of a hassle than getting your group closed down, or winding up in jail.

b) Come on, why would they come after me? See above. They may already be after you. But even if the cops haven’t noticed you yet, there are plenty of accidental ways to attract attention. Suppose, earnest HIV activist, that your laptop’s stolen — and when the police recover it, they discover that illegal porn video you downloaded. Suppose, mild-mannered sex worker, that one of the clients you’ve been e-mailing works for Human Rights Watch — and is constantly watched and spied on in your country. There’s no lack of ways you can fall afoul of surveillance.

c) Transparency is a virtue. On principle, a lot of human rights activists don’t try to hide from state surveillance, because, they say, they have nothing to hide. This is noble, but not workable. You may not have secrets, but people who trust you do. Members of your organization, people who come to you for help, may expect confidentiality — and may feel betrayed if you don’t safeguard what they share. The landlord who rents to you, the guy who sleeps with you, the cleaning lady who scrubs the kitchen, could all get swept up in any scandal — smeared, shamed, or hauled into court. You have a responsibility to protect those around you and those who depend on you.

What follows are some steps to protect your electronic privacy, arranged roughly from the simplest to the most complex. I don’t claim to be an expert  – the resources are gleaned from my own reading and use. If you have suggestions, or if you see something that won’t work, tell me in the comments or through email.  Privacy is like safer sex. There’s no absolute safety, only relative protection. Everybody has to gauge their own levels of acceptable risk. Keeping abreast of changing technologies for both surveillance and safeguarding is vital. The best way to protect your information is to be informed.

Things you can do:

calmclearcache1.  Clear your browser’s history. Browsers store copies of the web pages you visit in an area called the cache. Moreover, many pages automatically deposit a little turd of information called a cookie on your computer, which lets them recognize you when you return. Both these allow anybody with access to your computer to reconstruct what you’ve been viewing. I know dozens of people whose families or bosses have uncovered their sexual orientation simply by checking the browser history.

If you use a computer that anybody else might share, whether at home, at work, or in an internet cafe, you should clear the browser history regularly, preferably after each use. It’s not perfect — ultra-skilled geeks could still figure out what you’re been doing — but it frustrates most intruders. Good guides to how to do this, for the most common browsers, can be found here, and here, and here. 

2.  Realize that Facebook is not your friend.  Facebook causes too many headaches to count. But this one is really serious.

Go to the search bar and just type in: “Gays in [your country]” — you know, as if you were looking for a group, or a page describing the local scene. What you’ll get will be quite different:

Philippines copy

It’s raining men interested in men, and women also

There’s a parable here about identity construction in the digital age. Facebook automatically takes the button that asks you what gender you’re interested in — one that a lot of people click in fun, or assume to refer to friendship rather than sex — and translates it into being “gay” or not. More ominously, though: The results you’ll get won’t be limited to friends, or friends of friends. You’ll get a list of every man who’s “interested in men” in [your country] and who didn’t bother to make that particular part of their profile private. It’s convenient if you’re gay, and looking for an alternative to Grindr. It’s also convenient if you’re a policeman, and homosexual sex is illegal in [your country], and you’re looking for a way to track down or entrap the guilty and throw them in jail.

This is all the upshot of Facebook’s new “Graph Search,” a terrifying new feature that puts security on a bonfire and lights a match. It allows you to mine the deep structure of the site — to pluck information out of profiles that, as profiles, are invisible to you. It’s a “semantic search” (unlike old-style Google); it doesn’t just take the words you enter literally, it tries to infer what you mean — hence the leap between “interested in men” and “gay.” It’s nasty and clever and it doesn’t give a fuck about your safety.

It’s called “Graph Search” because semantic search builds “a graph of information for the user that pulls insights from different formats to create an over-arching viewpoint related to the original query” … blah, blah. More simply: Facebook employs the little bits of data — “likes” and “interested ins” — from all those profiles to map out commonalities between its customers. But this isn’t really done “for the user,” though it’s sold to you as a way to share lovingly with your loved ones and learn lovely things about everyone. It’s done for Facebook and its advertiser-clients, to divvy up users by their desires and assemble a picture of diversified markets open for advertising and exploitation.

Apt pupil: I know what you did last summer, and with whom. © Dominic Lipinski/PA

Apt pupil: I know what you did last summer, and with whom. © Dominic Lipinski/PA

There’s a whole Tumblr blog highlighting the information, from eccentric to creepy, that Graph Search can turn up. You can look for “Employers of people who like racism”; you can root out “Mothers of Catholics from Italy who like Durex condoms.” But folks whose private lives put them in danger won’t laugh. “Graph Search” makes state repression easy. Human rights advocates ought to give Facebook hell. The search unearths, for instance, 258,285 results for “Men who are interested in men in Iran.” Somehow this has failed to elicit any objections from the usual obsessives over the Islamic Republic (they’re all on Facebook right now, busy searching for “Men in London who like men and like to read press releases”). But if an enterprising religious policeman in Tehran figures out how Graph Search can further the torture business, Facebook will have blood on its hands.

What can you do? The only way to remove yourself from Graph Search is to make sure that each item of information on your profile is marked “private.” To repeat: the universal privacy setting that could sequester your whole profile is gone now. You’ve got to do this step by step:

a) Go to each item in the “About” section of your profile, and if there’s anything you don’t want strangers to see, either delete or change it, or make sure the privacy setting is limited to “Friends.”

b) Check on every photo you’re tagged in. If you didn’t post the picture, its visibility depends solely on the privacy settings of the person it belongs to. If you don’t want it seen or searched, ever, you’ll have to remove the tag.

c) You can review all the comments you’ve made on Facebook by going to your Activity Log — sort it by Comments (look on the left side).  If you’ve commented on somebody else’s photos or timelines, you can’t change the privacy settings — but if you don’t want the comment seen, you can delete it.

d) You can still change the privacy settings globally for all the old posts on your timeline. Click the gear icon at the upper right of your screen; select Privacy Settings. Under “Who can see my stuff?” you’ll find the option to “Limit the audience for posts you’ve shared with friends of friends or Public.” That’ll let you make them private at one fell swoop. Another option there allows you to review all your past posts if you want to decide on them one-by-one. 

There’s a good overview of these methods here.

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3. Use Tor. Tor is a downloadable bundle of software that includes its own browser. When you use the browser to access the Internet, the information you receive or send bounces through a global network of thousands of relays — thousands of other computers — and is encrypted over and over. All the encryption makes it very hard to intercept the data in transit; the rerouting makes it almost impossible to find its origin. All this means that unfriendly eyes can’t detect your location, or trace your posts or visits or messages back to you.

The chart shows how. Ordinarily, if Alice up there sends someone an email or accesses a web page, those on the other end can find out the Internet address she’s using. However, if she uses Tor, the recipient (“Bob” down below, or any watchers on Bob’s end) can only see the address of that last relay, or proxy, in the extended network: not Alice’s own.

Edward Snowden in exile, with sticker on his computer supporting the Tor Project: from nyti.ms/18oyv9Y

Edward Snowden in exile, with sticker on his computer supporting the Tor Project: from nyti.ms/18oyv9Y

Tor (the name stands for The Onion Router, representing the layers of protection that an intruder would have to peel away) was developed by the US military, and the State Department still funds its nonprofit promoters as a way of supporting what America otherwise opposes, Internet freedom. But it’s so independent and impenetrable that (according to national security documents Edward Snowden leaked) even the US government is intimidated; they call it “the king of high-secure,” anonymous Internet access. It’s open-source, meaning a team of elves is always at work to fix any vulnerabilities. Like most open-source projects, it has a cooperative and collective spirit. In fact, you can volunteer your own computer to serve as one of the relay points — though I don’t recommend this, because if the system ever is cracked, you could conceivably be held liable for anything illegal other users might send through your terminal.

There are three main limitations:

a) Tor is not fast. All those relays slow things down. Moreover, Tor blocks plugins like Flash, Quicktime, and RealPlayer, because they can bug up the browser and reveal your real address. You need a special fix to get it to play YouTube videos.

b) Obviously, it won’t conceal your identity if you log into e-mail or any other service. It’ll just hide what Internet address you’re writing from.

c) If your government knows where you are to begin with, it could still find ways to get at your computer and any information you’re sending from it. Similarly, Tor can’t protect what’s on the computer or server at the other end, the one you’re communicating with. Only the transmissions in between are encrypted and secure. Look at that chart again: Tor doesn’t encrypt the last stage of traffic, between the “exit node” (the last relay point)  and the target server. If you want to be more secure, you need to use so-called “end to end” encryption such as PGP (below), which encodes your messages from the point you create them until the intended receiver reads them.

Nonetheless, Tor remains a crucial tool if you want to browse the Internet anonymously. Download it free here. 

4. Encrypt your hard drive.  You should protect yourself on your own end by keeping all or part of your computer encrypted. Anybody unauthorized who tries to open it — a hacker, a policeman, a thief — won’t be able to read the information you store in encrypted files. The data can only be made readable with a “key” — that is, by entering a code that activates decryption. So the main thing is; never give away (or forget) your key.

Laptop locktup: Data in chains

Laptop lockup: Data in chains

No encryption system is perfect. Governments — particularly the resourced and intrusive ones, like the US, China, or Israel — are always looking for ways around the codes. The US National Security Agency spent billions on what it called “an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies.” This included $250 million a year bribing corporations — sorry; I mean “actively engag[ing] the U.S. and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products’ designs” to make them “exploitable.” Paying them, that is, to put holes in the stuff they sell. A quarter of a billion buys a lot of cooperation. Microsoft, for one, now has a policy of providing “intelligence agencies with information about bugs in its popular software before it publicly releases a fix.”

The lesson: Don’t waste money buying “proprietary,” corporate encryption systems. You have no way of knowing whether they’ve obligingly built a back door into their ramparts for US spies to pry. (And you don’t know whether the US has shared those Trojan portals with your government, if it’s an American ally. Or, if it’s not, perhaps your local spies have managed to copy US anti-cryptography shortcuts: Americans seem better at stealing others’ secrets than concealing their own.) Paradoxically, open-source software is safer precisely because its code is out there on the net for anyone to see. If a government tried to insert malware or sneak in a weakness, somebody probably would notice. And it “is in a constant state of development by experts all over the world” — meaning that a lot of beautiful minds are fixing and fine-tuning it all the time.

Here is a helpful list of five trusted file encryption tools. Many experts recommend TrueCrypt, which works with Windows, Mac, and Linux, and is free. (Reportedly, Edward Snowden used it to smuggle information on his hard drive.) It can encrypt files, folders, or whole drives. It can hide encrypted volumes for additional security. It does “real-time encryption,” meaning it decrypts and encrypts material as you work. This simplifies things for you; true, it can slow your computer’s speed somewhat, but not much — “the performance penalty is quite acceptable,” one independent review found. You can download TrueCrypt here. 

5. Encrypt your emails. Email encryption is like riding a bicycle. It’s difficult to explain it to those who haven’t tried it, without making the doer sound either superhumanly agile or insane. (“Mounted upon the high saddle, commence revolving your legs in circular and rhythmic motion, an agitation that simultaneously ensures the balance of the inch-wide wheels and propels the mechanism forward ….”)  Describing it is way harder than doing it. Bear with me, and try not to be too terrified, while I try.

Two keys needed: PGP

Two keys needed: PGP

First, background and basics. The standard form of email encryption is named “Pretty Good Privacy,” or PGP.  Phil Zimmermann invented it in the 1990s. Cryptography, he wrote, is “about the power relationship between a government and its people. It is about the right to privacy, freedom of speech, freedom of political association, freedom of the press, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom to be left alone.” The anti-war and anti-nuke movements were his particular passion, and he intended the tools for them. “PGP” has since been trademarked by a company selling a proprietary variant, but there’s a range of free, open-source versions; one, called GnuPG or GPG, is available here, and others are at the International PGP home page.

E-mail encryption relies on a sender and receiver sharing tools that let them both encrypt messages and decode them.

These tools are called “keys.” When you install the program, you’ll be asked to set up two keys — strings of characters that perform certain tasks. You will have a public key, and a secret key. Anybody can use the former, but the latter will carry a password so that only you can activate it. You must share the public key with your interlocutors — anyone who wants to send you an encrypted message needs to have your public key first, because that’s what will encrypt it for them. And you’ll need that person’s public key to write her in return. People who have PGP on their computers can communicate easily as long as they have each other’s public keys.

So let’s say Faisal wants to send you a note. Faisal will use your public key, which you’ve given him, to encrypt the message in a code that’s readable to you alone. Though your “public key” performed the coding, the message is far from public: that key is cyber-twinned with your secret key, so that only your secret key can decode what it says. You’ll reply using Faisal’s public key, in a message he can only decode with his secret key. You can also apply your secret key to “sign” that message digitally, so Faisal will know it’s authentically from you; it’s like a seal on an old-fashioned letter, showing that nothing’s been tampered with in transit.

Sealed letters: by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, 1665.

Sealed letters: by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, 1665.

Several things make all this extra cumbersome.

a) You can only communicate with people who have both the software and your public key. So you’re obviously not going to encrypt all your e-mail communications — just the sensitive ones with folks who share your line of work. Some commercial “key authorities” compile online directories of users’ public keys, like phone books.  Rather than relying on those, though, you’ll probably form circles of colleagues and co-conspirators who share each other’s public keys — “web of trust” is one term for this, a phrase that manages to combine Zen touchy-feeliness with faint paranoia.

b) You can only use PGP on the computers where you have it installed. If you get an encrypted message on your phone, you won’t be able to read it till you’re sitting at the computer that has your secret key. If you’re travelling and left your laptop behind, you’re screwed.

c) PGP encryption doesn’t function well with web-based mail services like Gmail or Yahoo. (Recently developers have come up with a JavaScript version of encryption that theoretically fits with your web browser, but it’s clunky at best.) Instead, you’ll want to use an e-mail client à la Outlook. The most popular one specifically designed for encryption users is called Thunderbird; it’s free, it works with Windows, Mac, or Linux, and you can set it up to receive your Gmail. A basic introduction to Thunderbird is here. 

Email encryption is complicated, though once you and your correspondents get used to it, things will seem more natural and routine. Its advantage is that it safeguards information through the whole process of transmission — end to end, unlike the partial protection Tor offers.  You can find more detailed descriptions of how to use it here and here.

6. Go off the record. Millions of people worldwide used to entrust Skype with their long-distance intimacies and secrets. We now know, though, that the corporation has routinely handed over recorded conversations to the US and Chinese governments.

Off the Record (OTR) is a safer alternative. It’s a system, somewhat similar to PGP, for encrypting instant messaging over most of the major chat networks. Yet it’s much less cumbersome than PGP, and lets you communicate quickly in real time. Do not confuse OTR with the “off the record” feature in Google’s own instant messaging service, which is only as secure as Google itself — that is, not very; US state security, after all, has figured out how to trawl data from the giant corporation’s communications links. OTR encryption is really off the record, and offers you important protections.

The revolution will not be recorded: LP confidential

The revolution will not be recorded: LP confidential

To use OTR, you’ll need to download and install an instant-messaging client: either Pidgin or Adium. Pidgin is a free program that lets you chat with friends over the Google, MSN, Yahoo!, Jabber, and AIM networks.  Adium is very similar, but specifically made for Mac. Adium has OTR built in. For Pidgin, you just have to add a special OTR encryption plugin.

From there on, it’s quite simple. All that’s required is that the person you want to chat with also have Pidgin or Adium, with OTR activated. OTR does two things for you: It encrypts the conversation, and it also lets you verify your messaging partner’s identity. (This verification formerly required exchanging a “fingerprint,” a trimmed-down version of PGP’s public keys, but recent versions of OTR simply let you use a previously-agreed-on secret word.) OTR encrypts your messages almost automatically: the two sets of software swap the necessary codes and mumbo-jumbo pretty much without either of you humans noticing.

Good luck, unless you have the software

Good luck, unless you have the software

OTR has one additional advantage that PGP e-mail doesn’t. For each chat session, the software creates a unique encryption key, then “forgets” it once the chat is over. This means that if your OTR account is compromised — if, for instance, somebody steals your computer with your chat program on it — nobody can recover and decrypt any past conversation. Effectively, those fleeting words are gone forever. This is called “forward secrecy,” and it bestows the peace of mind that forgetfulness fosters. (In PGP, by contrast, someone who obtains your private key could decode every single encrypted e-mail you’ve saved.)

OTR’s main drawback is that it’s only one-on-one, and still doesn’t allow group chat. For a basic overview, see the OTR website; more detail on the program can be found here and here.

In conclusion

We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. We must come together and create systems which allow anonymous transactions to take place. People have been defending their own privacy for centuries with whispers, darkness, envelopes, closed doors, secret handshakes, and couriers. The technologies of the past did not allow for strong privacy, but electronic technologies do.

– Eric Hughes, “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto,” 1993

Big brothers doing their dance: Nicolae Ceaușescu and Kim Il-Sung

Big brothers doing their special dance: Nicolae Ceaușescu and Kim Il-Sung

In the early 1990s, I taught for two years in Romania. The apartment I lived in had been the American lecturer’s residence since the mid-1960s; microphones riddled it, so many that at night I thought I could hear the wiretaps faintly clicking like sickly crickets, and I got an electric shock when I touched one particularly wired stretch of wall. The last Fulbright professor who’d served before the Revolution told me how he and his wife decided, in the cold November of 1989, to host a Thanksgiving dinner for their Romanian colleagues. It took them days to find a starved excuse for a turkey; then they faced the dilemma of making stuffing, when no vegetables graced the market at all. They’d spent a day in the kitchen debating the difficulty, till someone knocked at the door. A little man hunched outside, bundled against the wind. Springing into speech, he hinted that some colleagues — well, cousins, who intimately attended to matters about the flat, had phoned him regarding a problem here that, perhaps for a fee, needed fixing. He gestured vaguely at a tall-antennaed car parked (as it was always parked) down the road. “I understand,” he said, “that you are discussing how to stuff a bird. I can help. I am a licensed taxidermist …”

It was funny, and not funny. When I lived there the city still roiled with ethnic hate and nationalist hysteria. As a gay man and a human rights activist, who visited prisons on most off days, I was an object of exceptional interest. The secret police called in a friend of mine, and interrogated him about every syllable of our conversation the night before in my living room. They warned him I would recruit him into “a spy ring of Hungarians, Jews, and homosexuals undermining the Romanian nation.” I went to the United States for a couple of months that summer. Showering in the cramped bathroom in my father’s house, I started talking idly to myself, then stopped in terror: Had I repeated a secret? What if they were listening? The surge of relief when I realized there were no ears around was as if a dam burst behind my tensed muscles. I realized the constant and intolerable pressure I’d lived under for a year, always watched, always overheard.

In the age of paper: Pre-revolution surveillance files at the National Center Studying the Securitate Archives, Bucharest, Romania (© Bogdan Cristel/Reuters).

In the age of paper: Pre-revolution surveillance files preserved at the National Center for Studying the Securitate Archives, Bucharest, Romania (© Bogdan Cristel/Reuters).

The same year I settled in Romania, 1992, a few radical computer geeks in San Francisco started a mailing list that eventually grew into the Cypherpunk movement. Loathing of state surveillance drew them together, and a belief that technology could forge tools to resist. Their ideology was a remarkable faith that code should be public and knowledge shared so that people could stay private and intimacy stay intact:

Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and since we can’t get privacy unless we all do, we’re going to write it. We publish our code so that our fellow Cypherpunks may practice and play with it. Our code is free for all to use, worldwide.  … We know that software can’t be destroyed and that a widely dispersed system can’t be shut down.

Cypherpunks deplore regulations on cryptography, for encryption is fundamentally a private act. The act of encryption, in fact, removes information from the public realm. Even laws against cryptography reach only so far as a nation’s border and the arm of its violence. Cryptography will ineluctably spread over the whole globe, and with it the anonymous transactions systems that it makes possible.

There’s a lot of our world in that manifesto.

Electronic technologies “allow for strong privacy.” But they also destroy it, at least when states and corporations wield them. I used to feel innocently sure in the US that the listening ears weren’t there; I wouldn’t feel it now. That watchfulness, inculcated in the bone, is the condition we inhabit; that no-man’s land is where we live.

The struggle between computer and computer, to see and not to be seen, is the new arms race and Cold War. Unless you want to drop out, turn Unabomber and settle in a cabin with the wires all cut, paranoiacally interrogating and torturing your carrier pigeons, you have to take a side. Choosing the technologies of privacy is about as close as you can come to choosing freedom. Yet it means living walled in by technology’s protections. The tension won’t go away.

I hear you: Gene Hackman in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974)

I hear you: Gene Hackman listening, in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974)

Kermanshah update

Closed door policy: Stone arch at the Taq-e Bostan site, a complex of Sassanid rock carvings near Kermanshah

Closed door policy: Stone arch at the Taq-e Bostan site, a complex of Sassanid rock carvings near Kermanshah

All the men detained in the October 9 raid on a party in Kermanshah have reportedly been released on bail, though the ultimate disposition of the case remains unclear.

My own article on the case has been translated into Farsi, and is available on the website of the Iranian Queer Organization.

Private revolution: “Homosexuals” and “Satanists” in Kermanshah

2nd century BCE rock carving of Bahram, Zoroastrian god of strength, outside Kermanshah

It’s my party, come in and have a drink: 2nd century BCE rock carving of Bahram, Zoroastrian god of strength, outside Kermanshah

On the night of October 9 (17 Mehr 1392), the Nabi Akram (Prophet’s) Corps — part of the Revolutionary Guards – raided a birthday party at a community hall in Kermanshah, in western Iran. The website of the city’s basij (religious police) reported it the next day. It said a “network” of “several dozen” people engaged in homosexuality (the derogatory term used was hamjensbaz) and Satan-worshipping (Shaitan parasti) was broken up. The “network” had been “under surveillance of the security forces of the Revolutionary Guards for several months.” Eight people in the group were “homosexually married.”.

There were several foreign nationals from Iraq and some other countries in the region … Groups practicing Satan worship and homosexuality had sent support from abroad. For a long time these disgusting practices have sought to penetrate the country.

Some additional information on this has come from sources inside Iran, and with the permission of the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), which has been following this closely, I can share a few things they have been able to confirm.

  • About 80 people were caught in the party. The Guards used pepper spray, beat many of them, and took the personal information (including mobile numbers) of everyone they found.
  • 17 people were arrested (the rest were freed that night), taken first to a police station and then to an unknown location. They were beaten, threatened, and verbally and physically humiliated.
  • Most of those have been released, but five remain imprisoned. There were reports they would face a court today — Saturday — but no one as yet knows the charges or the outcome.
  • All reports suggest that straight as well as gay and lesbian and transgender people were at at the party.

The story has already made it to the international press, so it’s probably worthwhile offering a few cautions as well as reflections.

First, there’s almost nothing that can be done right now, at least until the outcome of the first hearing is known. Lawyers are on the case in Kermanshah. International interventions tend to polarize things; they can tip governments into pursuing prosecutions when they’re hesitating, or turn fluid situations into injustices set in concrete. This is particularly true when the conservatives responsible for the arrests are already pointing to the penetration of the nation by foreign (im)morals.

Makwan Mouloudzadeh, d. 2007

Makwan Mouloudzadeh, d. 2007

Second, we don’t know anything about the arrested people: either what they’re accused of, or whether they identify as heterosexual, gay, transgender, or something else. Don’t presume on their identities. It was in Kermanshah in 2007 that Iranian authorities executed Makwan Moulodzadeh, a young man who’d been convicted for the rape of three teenaged boys (while himself a teenager) in a nearby town. His case was not helped — in fact, his judicial murder was arguably facilitated — by Western activists who tried to defend him by claiming without any evidence that he was “gay” and had a gay “partner,” and hence was guilty of another capital crime. There’s no room for a repetition of those mistakes.

Predictably, if so far in a minor way, international politics have already entangled the story. Ben Weinthal, a propagandist working for the right-wing “Foundation for Defense of Democracies,” (which Glenn Greenwald called “a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country”) tweeted it:

Weinthal news iran copy

Weinthal is paid to promote a war against Teheran, with Western LGBT communities as a swing constituency to convert (most ridiculously, he took to New York’s Gay City News some years back to opine that an “anti-gay genocide” was happening in Iran). His solicitude for Iranian gays is a bit hard to take seriously given that he wants to kill them, and plenty of other Iranians, in a military assault.

Nonetheless, it’s very possible this is part of a test for Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, even if not quite what the neocons imagine. Since taking office, Rouhani has struggled to establish the perimeters of his power in an inherently ambiguous system where the president is subordinate to the Supreme Leader. This has meant trying to rein in the other power centers in which authority is dispersed – most more loyal, and formally more responsible, to Ayatollah Khameini than to him. Majid Rafidzadeh describes them in Al-Arabiya as

solid institutions which have not only employed, educated, and ideologically trained millions of loyalists in the last few decades, but have also managed and controlled the nation’s economy and foreign policies. These institutions were created in order to secure an adequate and dependent social base in case of any revolt or opposition, as well as a stalwart against potential Western intervention.

The Revolutionary Guards are crucial to this network. They manage a large share of Iran’s military-industrial complex, and their tendrils reach deep into energy, construction, and other industries; some estimate they control a third of the Iranian economy.  Crucial too are the basij, in theory under Revolutionary Guards command but in practice under the charge of a welter of local clerics and commanders. The basij can mobilize more than a million volunteer members for social policing and control (though it claims figures higher than 10 million), and since 2008 has had leeway to build its own empire of economic projects.

In a carefully calibrated speech just a month ago — immediately before leaving on his hectic UN visit — Rouhani tried to strike a bargain with the Revolutionary Guards. He offered to leave their economic interests untouched, even urging them to “take on important projects that the private sector is unable to take on,” if they would leave politics alone. The Guards seem unimpressed. Mohammad Ali Jafari, their commander, criticized Rouhani strongly in the state press after he returned from New York, for “prematurely” talking to Obama. Senior Revolutionary Guards leaders have stressed the organization’s important role in recent weeks, warning with renewed intensity that the West plans to “internally weaken” Iran in advance of any nuclear talks.

Three bears: Rouhani (center) with Jafari (L) at September speech

Three bears: Rouhani (center) with Jafari (L) at September speech

A well-publicized moral scandal serves the purpose, in a minor way, of emphasizing the Revolutionary Guards’ vigilance against both foreign and domestic foes, and stressing they can drum up public support. There are rumors in Kermanshah that the Guards have been under instruction, at least since Rouhani’s election, to look for gender dissidence — “men who appear like women” (mardan-e zannama) and “transvestites” (zanpoosh).

There may be more strictly local motives as well. Kermanshah lies at the heart of the Kurdish area of western Iran, increasingly a source of anxiety to Teheran as they face a spillover of Kurdish separatist sentiment from Iraq. (The day after the arrests, Kurdish guerrillas reportedly killed five Revolutionary Guards in a border town in the next province to the north.) I would bet the Iraqi guests mentioned in the basij report on the party were Kurds, whose presence — even if only rumored — may have attracted additional scrutiny to the event. The accusation of “Satan-worshipping” is also suggestive in this light. Many Iranian Kurds adhere to the Ahl-e Haqq (“People of Truth”) or Yârsânî faith, a syncretic religious order whose believers may make up as much as a third of Kermanshah’s population. Several Ahl-e Haqq believers are rumored to have been at the fateful party. Iranian authorities persecute the sect, on religious grounds coupled with fear of ethnic solidarities — in June two Kurds burned themselves to death in Hamadan, between Kermanshah and Teheran, to protest abuses suffered by their co-believers in prison. An ominous mix of religious heresy, political separatism, and sexual deviance may be what the Revolutionary Guards read into an innocent birthday celebration.

All this is speculation. What’s certain is that Rouhani so far has little control over anything the Revolutionary Guards do. The test of his presidency is not so much whether continuing human rights abuses belie his reputation as a “reformer” — that reputation is overblown, but largely irrelevant to the issue — as whether he can accumulate enough authority to curb the parastate, paramilitary institutions behind much of the abuse.

"Rouhani's Key": Cartoon by Touka Neyestani, at http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2013/07/cartoon_55/ -- a key was Rouhani's campaign symbol

Cartoon by Touka Neyestani, at http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2013/07/cartoon_55/ — a key was Rouhani’s campaign symbol

Maybe the most important point to make, though, is this. What’s at stake in this case is not so much “LGBT rights” or the status of any minority — it’s the right to privacy, and its profound contribution to human dignity. Thinking of it solely as an “LGBT” issue misses the larger point.

Female basij (R) arrests a woman for "bad hijab," revealing the hair, during a periodic crackdown in 2013

Female basij (R) arrests a woman for “bad hijab,” revealing the hair, during a periodic crackdown in 2013

The people at the party were exercising their right to do as they liked, harmlessly, behind closed doors: in a rented hall, to be sure, but that partly reflects the porous nature of safety and opacity in even “private” homes, where overbearing families keep watch, and intrusive neighbors mean a basij raid may be only a phone call away. This right has a scope that extends beyond closed spaces. It’s also the claim that women are making when they defiantly wear “bad hijab,” or straight couples when they declare their intimacy with an over-the-top embrace on the street; they’re asserting they should carry an umbrella of autonomy around with them wherever they go, because they’re human beings, and their bodies or their hair or their hands are nobody’s business. The way the Iranian state treats this right with loathing and contempt, through a myriad micro-practices of meddling and surveillance, is one reason the religious police are perhaps its most popularly despised and resented symbol. It’s not because Iranians are all secular; it’s because they’re all human, and they want to be left alone. Iran’s LGBT-identified communities have made many strides in recent years in building alliances with opposition activism, partly because they affirm not just the specialized identity of a minority but a freedom from oversight and intrusion that should be a universal entitlement. Not everybody in Iran knows what it’s like to commit lavat, or “sodomy,” but millions of Iranians know what it’s like to be at a party sweating in anxiety lest the basij break in. That’s where sympathy and solidarity begin.

From Iranwire.com

From IranWire.com

One often hears that privacy is a culturally specific concept. Certainly the forms of privacy and the things it can contain may vary; certainly the ability to experience it is stratified by class and power; but I’m persuaded by Barrington Moore’s researches, among others, that nearly every society traces distinctions between inside and outside, and lays down rules by which its members can control what other people see and know. In Iran these rules are perpetually changed and fought over, subject to the whims of a swollen state and a people’s capacity for resistance, and the conflict can be brutal.

The struggle for privacy ought to be critical for everybody — especially though far from exclusively for LGBT people around the world, whose earliest moral claims and legal successes partly hinged on the demand for a respected, protected private sphere. In the West, though, our sense of why privacy is vital seems to be eroding. Among LGBT movements, it’s a right either denigrated or confused with a privilege, and in either case hardly mentioned any more. This may hinder our ability to understand why events like this in Iran are not trivial but political and decisive. Frank Rich wrote a few months ago, about the US’s own surveillance scandals, that

The truth is that privacy jumped the shark in America long ago. Many of us not only don’t care about having our privacy invaded but surrender more and more of our personal data, family secrets, and intimate yearnings with open eyes and full hearts to anyone who asks and many who don’t, from the servers of Fortune 500 corporations to the casting directors of reality-television shows to our 1.1 billion potential friends on Facebook. Indeed, there’s a considerable constituency in this country — always present and now arguably larger than ever — that’s begging for its privacy to be invaded and, God willing, to be exposed in every gory detail before the largest audience possible. We don’t like the government to be watching as well—many Americans don’t like government, period—but most of us are willing to give such surveillance a pass rather than forsake the pleasures and rewards of self-exposure, convenience, and consumerism.

Try telling this to an Iranian. They’d be amazed, I suspect, that anyone would doubt how preserving and cultivating your sphere of privacy and autonomy is indispensable to your dignity. This is one reason the struggles in Iran continue to be important, not only as source of “inspiration” to the West –that generic and vapid tribute — but as something we should learn from.

Trayvon Martin, “privacy,” and privilege

Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black kid who played football and wanted to be a pilot, was shot and killed on February 26 while walking unarmed through a gated neighborhood in Sanford, Florida. Visiting his father’s fiancee there, he’d gone out to buy her son some Skittles. The man who shot him, George Zimmerman, 28, captained a neighborhood watch, a group of denizens devoting spare time to crime prevention.

All this is for non-American readers, since most US residents by now have heard the story. It’s a very American story. Both the gated community and the anti-crime watch are innovations of these shores: the former, privatizing the idea of neighborhood, a product of post-60s middle-class anxieties about cities and danger; the latter, privatizing the idea of protection, a product of equally middle-class fears about a police hamstrung by underresourcing and liberal-slanted laws.

From one perspective, in fact, this very public story, about a horrible killing on a street, is all about privacy. Specifically: it’s about the different ways black and whites experience privacy in a racist country.

The story exploded, of course, because the killer still hasn’t been charged with any crime. The local cops, besieged by indignation (their chief has now “temporarily” stepped down) sent out a Q&A justifying its inaction:

When the Sanford Police Department arrived at the scene of the incident, Mr. Zimmerman provided a statement claiming he acted in self-defense which at the time was supported by physical evidence and testimony. By Florida statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.

The law they scream about in capitals is colloquially named the “Stand Your Ground” law; some in Florida call it “Shoot First.” Time usefully explains:

The cops have been balking in large part because, under the stand-your-ground statute, they’re virtually obligated to accept [Zimmerman's] argument that he was acting in self-defense — even if it was Martin who may have felt more threatened, according to recordings of 911 calls by neighbors that were released over the weekend. The 2005 Florida law permits anyone, anywhere to use deadly force against another person if they believe their safety or life is in danger, and it’s the state’s usually futile task to prove that the act wasn’t justified. Little wonder the St. Petersburg Times found that five years after the law was signed by then Governor Jeb Bush — who called it a “good, commonsense anti-crime” bill — claims of justifiable homicides in Florida more than tripled, from just over 30 to more than 100 in 2010. In that time, the stand-your-ground defense was used in 93 cases involving 65 deaths — and in the majority of those cases, it worked.

Pro-gun advocates like the National Rifle Association [NRA], which pushed hard for stand your ground, say it simply broadens citizens’ capacity for self-defense. But if … Zimmerman do[es] walk, there may be an understandable public backlash against a statute that in reality has made the streets, bars and parks of Florida — and of the at least 16 other states that have enacted similar laws since 2005 — more dangerous spaces.

British and American common law hold to what’s called the “castle doctrine” — you know, an Englishman’s home is his castle. Generally it means that within your dwelling (extended in some cases to such places as a car or workplace) you can attack an illegal intruder without risk of prosecution. There are certain conditions; for instance, in the common-law version of the doctrine, if you can safely retreat, the protection doesn’t apply.

Gun lobbyists tried to dub the Florida legislation a “castle doctrine” law, but in fact it turned the old principle on its head. Instead of limiting lethal self-defense to the home, the law says that, like a turtle, you carry your castle anywhere: you can shoot to kill anyplace anybody menaces you. And the whole point of the new law is that you don’t have to retreat: you should “stand your ground,” armed with righteousness and an NRA-endorsed weapon.

In other words, the domestic privacy the original doctrine was meant to protect now follows you down the street in your personalized penumbra, porcupined with gun barrels.

i see black people outside

Whose privacy? Well, look at George Zimmerman, a would-be cop who had appointed himself guardian of a middle-class gated community. His own ethnic identity has been debated– he seems to have had a white father and Latina mother; but there’s no better way in the US to ratify an uncertain claim to whiteness than by taking the fight to black people, preferably in defense of white people’s property. Indeed, if you look at previous 911 calls Zimmerman had made to police, clearly he was waging what Dave Weigel identifies as a “long, lonely war against black youths doing things.” In the collective psyche as it insinuiated itself into Zimmerman’s brain, white folks are the possessors of privacy; black kids are the invaders. Mother Jones writes:

[E]ven more than cars, he was concerned about black men on foot in the neighborhood. In August 2011, he called to report a black male in a tank top and shorts acting suspicious near the development’s back entrance. …Three days later, he called to report two black teens in the same area, for the same reason.

Coupled with the shoot-first law, this attitude is a road map to murder. Timothy Noah cites a University of North Carolina psychological study six years ago that looked at how race inflects “weapons bias.” Researchers asked subjects

to distinguish between images of harmless hand tools and images of guns, both projected onto a screen. Immediately before each image appeared there flashed a lightening-quick (more or less subliminal) image of a white face or a black face. The subjects were told to ignore the faces and focus on identifying the objects.

The result? In a carbine shell: if a black face flashed first, it made both accurate IDs of guns and false positives more likely. This suggests the Florida law and its clones are “catastrophically bad public policy,” Noah says. “If people are more likely to imagine guns in the hands of black people than white people then the result will be disproportionate deaths for innocent black people.” Invade my privacy, will you?– says the white guy standing in the middle of the public street. Die, invader, die!

But the other side, of course, is how African-Americans experience their bodily existence under view. Is there any comparable umbrella of inviolability there? And the answer, clearly, is that where somebody’s monitored and surveilled constantly for signs of deviance and violence, you watch yourself and police your movements for your own life’s sake. One of the saddest things I read this week was from Janice D’Arcy’s “On Parenting” blog at the Washington Post, about “parents who say that to raise a minority in this country, particularly an African American boy, is to live with the understanding that the child will be arbitrarily mistreated. It is also to live with the burden of explaining this reality.” She found an account by Jonathan Capehart, for instance, of the warnings his mom gave him before his first day at a mostly-white school:

“Don’t run in public.” Lest someone think you’re suspicious.

“Don’t run while carrying anything in your hands.” Lest someone think you stole something.

Or a blogger who listed “the rules” she’s instilling in her 6-year-old black daughter:

1. Don’t touch anything when you go into stores. …

2. Always ask for a bag for the items you purchased. … My mom didn’t want anyone thinking that we walked out of the store without paying for our merchandise. …

3. Know who you are. You can’t do everything they do. In other words, just because your white friend does something that doesn’t mean you can do the same. Whether it’s hanging at the mall or going to a house party, police, teachers, and other authorities treat white children differently than black children. …

This is grimly awful. These children are learning at home, in what’s supposed to be the safe space of the family, precepts of inculcated inferiority that could save their lives. As Khaled Beydoun and Linda Sarsour write for Al-Jazeera: the après-Obama myth that the US has become a “post-racial” society is way premature.

no blacks in headgear wanted here

Obama himself weighed in about the Martin killing today, saying that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon … I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this. And that everybody pull together.” It’s a moving thing to say; but it also situates the grief and the suffering back behind closed doors, as a “family” issue, when in fact it reaches into most every part of our public life. So, too, I resist his calling this a “tragedy.” Tragedies are the work of Fate, or the hero-victim’s overreaching; in that spirit, exculpating the world around him, Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera attributes Trayvon’s death to blind pride in wearing “gangsta” style, the hubris of the hoodie. (For photos of Geraldo wearing a hoodie, see here. Shoot first, criticize fashion later.) But there are no resentful gods exacting retribution here. Just historical legacies and human choices.

The truth is: white people get to be private even in public. And for black people, public facts and figments follow them home even to the private sphere.  These are truths that, given suitable laws and armaments, kill. When we talk about the “right to privacy” — in contraception, in abortion, in Lawrence v. Texas – all of us need to be conscious of the different enjoyments and possibilities it can mean.

The drone at the window and your pregnant credit card: Notes on privacy

A great South Park episode once featured panicked parents, terrified of child abductors, forcing their kids to wear “Child Tracker” helmets that made them look like crosses between Marvin the Martian and a 600-channel satellite dish. Technology has gotten sleeker, if not simpler, since those innocent days. Now, if it’s 10 PM and you wonder where your child is — what opium den or white slave ring she’s wandered into — you can check the data your personal, aerial drone is feeding you.

They’re not just for repressive governments (and human rights organizations!) anymore. The new thing is the DIY drone — for “do-it-yourself”; rhymes, I think, with “die.” Forbes magazine, a great promoter of cheap consumer technology, cites a Canadian technie waxing enthusiastic about the little devils’ potential:

People are often most frightened by the state’s growing interest to monitor what we do online. Here in Canada for example, the government has proposed a law that would require telecommunications firm have the ability to record, and save, everyone’s online activities. But technology to monitor people offline, in the physical world, is also evolving. More importantly, it is becoming available to ordinary citizens. …

The neat thing is that, instead of a telescreen giving the State a window into your private life, you can have a hovering camera outside your neighbor’s window to watch theirs.  The work of keeping tabs on thoughtcrime is thus not only decentralized but, in conservative fashion, privatized. “It is entirely conceivable,” he writes,

that, in 5-7 years, there could be drones that would follow your child as he walks to school. You can of course, already choose to monitor your child by giving them a cell phone and tracking the GPS device within it, but a drone would have several advantages. It would be harder for someone to destroy or “disconnect” from your child. … This may all seem creepy to you, but if such a drone cost $100 dollars, how many parents do you think would feel like it was “the responsible thing to do.” I suspect a great deal. Even if it was only 5% of parents, that would be a lot of drones.

And of course there are thousands of other uses. Protestors might want a drone observing them, just so that any police brutality could be carefully recorded for later. Cautious adults may want one hovering over them, especially when going into an unfamiliar or unsafe neighborhoods.

Drones (upper R) classical style: Put those clothes on, young lady! Your mother can see you!

In fact, why wait till you go into a neighborhood?  Why not keep the drones hanging constantly, like Saruman’s White Hand, over doubtful places where darker people live? I don’t know how it is up placid Toronto way, but in the Big Apple white people are tired of that flaming sword of fear preventing them from entering Bed-Stuy to price the housing.

For some years New York City civil libertarians have been diligently at work (presumably observed by the FBI and other notekeepers) recording where surveillance cameras in Manhattan operate. As this map they’ve produced reveals, there’s a wealth of such devices downtown, but a distinct dearth north of 125th Street.  This means, reassuringly, that white folks in lower Manhattan are protected from Harlem’s poorer tribes attempting an incursion across the Great Wall; but when it comes to knowing what the barbarians are doing over their own campfires, no one has an idea. A few drones whizzing over Lenox Avenue and Sugar Hill could put this to rights.

If you think back 20 years ago and told someone you were going to give them a device that would enable their government to locate them within a few feet at any given moment, they would likely have imagined some Orwellian future. But this is, functionally, what any smart phone can do. Looking forward 20 years, I ask myself: would my child feel monitored if he has a drone helping him get to school? Or maybe he will he feel unsafe without it? Or maybe it will feel like his Hogwart’s owl [sic], a digital pet?

I never trusted those goddamn owls. Satanic.

An expert on privacy and robotics (another thing you wouldn’t have seen outside a sci-fi novel 20 years ago) observes that while “you might think [private citizens'] drones would already be ubiquitous,” the Federal Aviation Administration has slapped restrictions on  unmanned aircraft systems. However, police and other “public agencies” are lobbying to rolle these back.  “Recently the state of Oklahoma asked the FAA for a blanket waiver of eighty miles of airspace.” (What the hell could be going on in Oklahoma?) “The FAA faces increasing pressure to relax its restrictions and is considering rulemaking to reexamine drone use in domestic airspace.” Meanwhile,

Agency rules impede the use of drones for now; United States privacy law does not. There is very little in our privacy law that would prohibit the use of drones within our borders. Citizens do not generally enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, nor even in the portions of their property visible from a public vantage. In 1986, the Supreme Court found no search where local police flew over the defendant’s backyard with a private plane. A few years later, the Court admitted evidence spotted by an officer in a helicopter looking through two missing roof panels in a greenhouse. Neither the Constitution nor common law appears to prohibit police or the media from routinely operating surveillance drones in urban and other environments.

Dead diva: Easier with a drone

The author argues that drones’ noisy intrusions will actually galvanize the law into acting against all these violations. They’re just too extreme: “Drones may help restore our mental model of a privacy violation. They could be just the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.” But I wonder; especially if, as he indicates, the media get involved, and TMZ and Perez Hilton have their warring aircraft locked in on the radio frequency of Lindsay Lohan’s ankle bracelet. You may be offended when it’s your own intimacy that’s invaded, but fascinated when it’s somebody else’s.

The National Enquirer infamously printed a photo of Whitney Houston’s corpse last month, and while sales figures haven’t been released, you can bet — judging by the fact that CNN got 10 times its usual Saturday viewing audience just for showing mourners’ minked backs trudging into the funeral — they spiked. Consumers want the famous, live or dead, splayed for inspection. Incidentally, Forbes separately tells us that  a hanger-on beautifully named Raffles van Exel snapped the doleful photo, and apparently hawked it to the Enquirer for six figures. If you were an editor, and could get the same shot cheaper from a birdbot spying through a stained-glass window, cutting out the middleman in the process, wouldn’t you jump?  And how many would buy it!  The economics are not on the side of indignation.  What, too, if Peter Tatchell got his hands on a drone?  Run for your reputations, sexually healthy civil rights heroes! Not even Martin Luther King would be safe. I can see Peter proclaiming that he caught Martin masturbating to Rawhide in his grave.

Forbes also carries more sceptical approaches to the DIY drone question. Venkatesh Rao, an aerospace engineer, worried in its pages three weeks ago that the current bubble is a bit weird. Although he admits that “Heck, my wife is now insisting that I help her build one,” he says: “I don’t get it. What exactly do people expect to do with their own private drones?” In addition to the Superpaparrazo idea, he cites some other options:

  1. Start a revolution. If drones are the new guns, and the burgeoning political movement to ensure a “right to bear drones” succeeds, you and a few hundred of your friends can secretly build a drone swarm. …
  2. Attach guns to drones. There is absolutely nothing stopping drone hackers from doing this technically, and there is almost no conceivable scenario where this will ever be legal, but if you’re on the wrong side of the law already, for murder say, what’s one more charge for “attaching gun to drone”? The mayhem possible with a bunch of armed drones would make Columbine look like a kid’s tea party.

And he’s not very sanguine about the idea that citizen drones offer people a liberatory way around the government:

[The] only advantage the world of private citizens has over the military-industrial complex is sheer numbers. If, as some commentators speculate, drones are going to be citizen weapons to act as a check-and-balance to absolutist police-state tendencies, it will be through sheer numbers. A handful of extremists maintaining serious drone capability could be sneezed out of existence by any modern military within minutes. The trend only becomes serious if drone ownership becomes as common as gun ownership.

Great. Every Minuteman will have a Minuteman; every band of lunatics, its own Luftwaffe. The universe of Mad Max, where they only had trucks to fight with, will seem the Peaceable Kingdom by comparison.

Drone (upper R), classical style: My eagle doesn't like what you've been doing

Surely the government will restrict the technology before then — not for the sake of privacy, but for safety. (Not ours, its own.) The real question, though, is what will happen to our intimate lives when not just the state but the corporate order have vastly expanded their abilities to spy. Business, after all, equally surely has its (remaining non-mechanical) eye on this new opportunity both to collect information on citizen-consumers — by camera, infrared, and any other legal means — and to commodify it in its turn. For whether the subject is a celebrity or an ordinary credit-card holder, information is power, and power is money, and somebody will pay.

Forbes, once again, has a story (via the New York Timesthat’s not so much a cautionary tale — who will be cautioned by it? shoppers never beware — as an allegory of the age. Target, the US megastore, hires its own statisticians devoted to “consumer tracking.” The firm “assigns every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address, that becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything they’ve bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them or bought from other sources.”

Marketeers pant particularly damply for the new-parent demographic, eager to get them hooked early, before “they turn into rampant — and loyal — buyers of all things pastel, plastic, and miniature.” Babies need so many things these days; the last time a new mother stayed with me, the neighbors thought an army regiment was moving in.  And Target’s 50% revenue growth from 2002-2010 may partly be owing to statisticians “helping the retail giant corner the baby-on-board market.” The nerds used Science. They

ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but [they] noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc.

They identified “about 25 products” that, taken together, added up to each shopper’s “’pregnancy prediction’ score. More important, [they] could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.”

Unfortunately, this sometimes backfired: not by being wrong, but by being more right than the humans. One teenage girl’s father reacted with rage to the coupons his daughter was getting. She had to tell him she was pregnant — not a confession she’d planned.

Target is in retail, not the revelation business. This wouldn’t do. So, a store statistician explains, they got cannier — “started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random.”

We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. … That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance. And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons.

“So the Target philosophy towards expecting parents is similar to the first date philosophy?” Forbes comments. “Even if you’ve fully stalked the person on Facebook and Google beforehand, pretend like you know less than you do so as not to creep the person out.”

We’re all on blind dates with the information buyers these days. And stalking, far from being criminal, is studied in business school.

... is you.

Privacy, sex, and prices

A few months back, I noted a video about an earnest Austrian law student, Max Schrems, who demanded that Facebook share the data it had collected on him. The moguls sent him a CD with more than 1,200 pages of personal info PDFed on it.  He found, to his alarm, that things he had deleted were still floating around in Facebook’s collective (un?)conscious: “When you delete something from Facebook, all you are doing is hiding it from yourself,” he said. Unable to induce the cybergiant to scrap this trove of ex-facts, and convinced that there was more material the corporation wasn’t sharing (Facebook refused to reveal, for instance, what data it retained from biometric facial recognition, a technology the website recently introduced) Schrems took action. He filed a complaint with the Data Protection Commission in Ireland, where Facebook’s European operations have their HQ. Schrems explains:

“Facebook most probably has its headquaters in Ireland for tax reasons. That way, Facebook not only saves large amounts of money, but the Irish as well the European laws of data protection and consumer rights are applicable. However, Facebook continues to tailor their terms of use to the American consumer and data protection laws.”

He adds,

“It’s a shock of civilizations. Americans don’t understand the concept of data protection. For them, the person with the rights is the one with the data. In continental Europe, we don’t see things like that … If a company wants to operate in a country it has to abide by the rules.”

Facebook, he says, has agreed in Germany to stop keeping records of users’ IP addresses — information showing where someone is connected to the Internet — but in other European countries the practice continues.

“This is Facebook strategy. When someone gets really annoyed, they back off one step, but continue advancing in other ways,” Schrems said.

The problem is that most people don’t take the time to read the small print in Facebook’s terms and conditions, he says. “For the average citizen data protection is too complex and subtle,” he says, believing it is therefore the responsibility of the state to ensure that users’ rights are upheld.

See this page for more information on Schrems’ campaign.

Lawsuits about violated privacy are piling up athwart the social network. Trying to find Schrems on Google (which probably has a similar file on him) I came across headlines like “Naked Nun Sues over Facebook” (how do you solve a problem like Maria?) Everything about Facebook is porous: your privacy leaks out through each app as if it were a hose suctioning gasoline. Yet whether these measures will intimidate the behemoth is another question. Irish authorities noted that if Facebook doesn’t cooperate, “a court could then fine it up to 100,000 euros ($136,400).” I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg (net worth: $17.5 billion) is trembling in terror. One of these days, he might have to skip lunch.

But the issue of who reads the privacy protections is interesting. A couple of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in the US have made some calculations. Their findings appear in a journal called Transactions of Human-Computer Interaction , which “seeks to be the premier archival journal in the multidisciplinary field of human-computer interaction,” and which sounds from its frightening title like Hustler for robots.Turns out it’s not just that people don’t take the time to read privacy policies; they don’t have the time. Here’s the math: The 75 most popular websites in the country have privacy policies that stretch to a median length of 2,514 words. Academics (whom robots take the be the model humans) can read about 250 words a minute.  And estimates suggest an average American visits 1,462 websites every year. The result: it would take 76 days out of the year to read the privacy policies for all those websites.

They then tried to monetize this. “First, they split up web surfing between work and home visits. For work visits, they valued the time spent reading privacy policies at two times that worker’s wages to take into account overhead and salary. For home visits, they multiplied the time spent reading at home by one-quarter of average wages” — OK,  this is boring.  The gist is, all that time reading those policies would add up to a lot of money. The Atlantic offers a convenient visual:

Think about this. A corporation might pay a hundred thousand bucks as punishment for trampling on your privacy.  It would cost Americans $781 billion just to be aware of how this happens. Um, isn’t the burden in the wrong place here?

Privacy concerns me, among other reasons, because it’s a core component of defending sexual rights and sexual freedom. The US Supreme Court recognized the right to contraception (now under typically eloquent assault from, among many others, Rush Limbaugh) in a genuinely landmark decision that helped articulate the right to privacy.  The first time international courts condemned sodomy laws, it was because they violated the right to privacy.  That people should have autonomy and control over both intimate decisions and intimate information has become a staple of rights discourse and progressive thought.

It’s ironic, though; because in the same time, sex has become vastly more … well, public.  And that isn’t only because of the retreat of guilt or shame or the inflation of pudic courage in the wake of the Sexual Revolution. It’s also because sex has become a key way of selling things. It’s not just that sex itself is commodified. Sex is a method and technique of commodifying everything else.  Sex is what commodities wear, a sheen and scent upon them, a fine integument of pheromones sprayed on like perfume, that keeps the consumer buying.

Turn on the TV!  The commercials are sexier than the regular programming.  Drive down the highway!  The signs and billboards swoosh by like erotic flashcards, Rorschach invitations to desire so rampant and uncoded that, once you’re inured to them, their very blatancy comes to seem subliminal.

The ad at top left, by the way, is for a church promoting its sex-related sermons.

It gets harder and harder to maintain that sex is private, not because it’s so flagrant, but because it stands in seamlessly for the great public fact of our time: money.   And in fact, privacy itself has turned into money too.  It’s not just the $100,000 fines or that hypothetical $800 billion to defend it. It’s the fact that Facebook, Google, and the rest make most of their money marketing your privacy, selling it off in discrete chunks of information.

Facebook’s initial public offering (IPO), when the social network is expected to raise $5 bilion by putting its stock on the market, is privacy itself going public, parcelled out to brokers and bidders. In a world like this, where intimacy and autonomy are publicly traded commodities, what can privacy possibly mean?

Iran shuts down the Internet: The how and why

Anyone who possesses even mildly the geek’s temperament will remember what happened in Egypt just after midnight on January 28, 2011, The Night Mubarak Turned It All Off. The following graph captures it:

A great darkness poured out of Mordor ....

In a matter of minutes, Web access across a country of 80 million shrank to almost nothing, as every major Internet service provider (ISP) shut down like a po-mo version of the end of Atlas Shrugged. But that steep cliff has to be understood against this graph, too:

Up, up, and away

That’s the growth in Internet usage from its first introduction in Egypt in 1993.   From 2004 on — the same time political dissent was multiplying — it took off almost exponentially. By 2010 it had reached a quarter of the population. This year, Internet penetration is estimated to hit 30%.

The regime was very slow to waken to the potential threat that blogs, social networks, email and other kinds of cybercommunication could pose.  By the time they got around to considering the problem, the Net had burgeoned to a point where they could no longer monitor and conduct surveillance easily. It wasn’t just a question of physical capacity; Egyptian State Security and the regular police were late to develop the technical competence. In the great crackdown on gay men from 2001-2003, police entrapped people in chatrooms and through personals ads.  But they hadn’t the technology or knowhow to trace the guys through their ISPs. The only way of finding them was a relatively primitive one: luring them to give away their names and addresses. One man who was caught on the Web told me,

All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor]—knew nothing about the Internet.  The deputy prosecutor even said, “I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it?  Do people just talk around with men?”  They knew nothing about how the things I was charged with actually worked, how these sites work, how you enter them or use them, or even how you log onto the internet or send an e-mail.  They knew nothing except that the police officer had said I was gay and stood in [Midan] Tahrir making feminine motions, and that the Internet was somehow part of this.

The reason they shut down the whole Internet in a failed attempt to stifle the Revolution, then, was that they didn’t know anything else to do. Other, more targeted means of keeping tabs on dissident networks were beyond their ability. As a similar mark of ineptitude, when I say that the Great Blackout in January happened “in a matter of minutes,” I mean it’s inaccurate to think that the Mubarak regime “pulled the plug” on the Internet. They didn’t know where the plug was. They weren’t technically able to shut down the whole thing themselves. Those minutes mean that they were individually calling the telecom companies and ordering them to close up shop.  The whole thing was massive but  appallingly primitive.

Now, what isn’t very well remembered is that the Egyptian blackout boys had a role model. Here it is:

The grand canyon

That deep fosse or fissure is a profile of panic. It was the day after the stolen election of June 12, 2009. As protests spread, on June 13 the state-run service providers shut down. The authorities had realized that the Internet and its accomplice technologies, Twitter and texting and the rest, were how information was metastasizing among the protesters, and spilling over to the outside world. Much like Mubarak’s sweating henchmen, they had no ready means to control it. So off went the lights. They flickered back only slowly in the following days, at a dim and sluggish level. The BBC spoke to a  Western expert who

believes the authorities were buying time to install the filtering tools they needed to have a functioning internet infrastructure, but one over which they had some measure of control. So he reckons they gradually turned the tap back on as they put the filters in.

We talked about two very different countries that have also attempted to control the web; Burma and China. “Burma in 2008 wasn’t very delicate,” he explained, referring to the regime’s reaction to large-scale unrest. “They simply turned it all off, so there was six weeks without a phone call or an e-mail.”

China, by contrast, has a very sophisticated filtering infrastructure, allowing for a completely open interchange of traffic with overseas trading partners, while maintaining strict control over access to forbidden sites and search terms.

And here’s the other graph that’s relevant. Iran’s internet usage as of 2010 was hovering just above 10% of the population:

Crawling toward the light

Iran’s regime struggled after the June 2009 shock to find ways of surveilling and controlling the Internet that would still keep its economy functioning. They were aided, though, by a rate of Web penetration that, while growing along a curve comparable to Egypt’s, had still reached a much smaller proportion of the population. They had a bit of breathing space to sample technology — mostly, in all probability, from China — test it here and there, and develop a comprehensive plan.

The plan appears to be unfolding bit by bit — no pun intended. With legislative elections impending in early March, the government has introduced new rules requiring all Internet cafes to set up security cameras, and trace all users’ online footprints. Customers must also present their personal information before log-on. The Guardian says these

are calculated not to stamp out anonymous use of the internet, but to dissuade the far larger body of average people from any thought of dissent…. In a society where you know that you are being watched, eventually you will watch yourself, and save the authorities the trouble. Monitoring the free internet is too big a task for any government. But by using the threat of monitoring, Iran‘s administration can free itself to focus on words or phrases, or people, it knows to distrust.

But this is just the harbinger. Since 2009, authorities have been warning periodically about a project for a “Halal Internet”: an intranet somewhat on the model of corporations’ internal messaging systems, allowing supervised communication within the country, but cut off from the external world.   This is the technologically competent version of the Cairo Solution. You shut the Internet, but you shift the parts you need to another network, one you can control.

It’s already coming. Early in 2011, a government techie told the Iranian press that

soon 60% of the nation’s homes and businesses would be on the new, internal network. Within two years it would extend to the entire country, he said.

Reza Taghipour, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology (an Orwellian title under the circumstances), has announced it will be ready in May. “Privacy, security, and cheapness are the goals of this project,” Taghipour added. (Privacy is publicity; security is vulnerability; cheap is China.)

Meanwhile, the chief of national police, Ahmadi Moghadam, warned that “Google search is not a search engine but a spy machine!”  He comforted concerned searchers: “We have all these services here in Iran, more secure and better performing, so we can cut the foreigners’ connections to our content.” The appeal to xenophobia, both in the fear of alien espionage and the prospect of an improved, indigenous Google, is blatant. It isn’t us watching you, the government assures you, it’s the Zionists behind your screen. And our super gadgets will defend you! It reminds one of the Ceausescu-era Romanian “protochronists,” a sect of pseudoscholars who believed that Romania had invented everything first, and better. The Renaissance started in Wallachia, the Orthodox created the Reformation, and Aurel Vlaicu built the first airplane. Not for nothing is the project being compared to North Korea’s self-imposed isolation. Dictators, at a certain level, think as similarly as they force their subjects to do.

Kim Jong Il looks at the Internet

This information came to me first from Iranian LGBT rights activists. Queers in Iran are, though, in much the same situation as other dissidents.  All had built a protective carapace, a niqab of anonymity, out of the Internet’s capacities; and they’re faced with that being ripped away.   It’s a contrast to (straight) dissidents’ strategies in Egypt in the last decade: comparatively few went undercover on the Web. A large number of activists and organizations preferred transparency, not only to challenge a regime that was palpably losing some of its repressive acuity and power, but, it seemed, to confuse and swamp it with a surfeit of information. This has never been much of an option in Iran, where the cloud of information is smaller and wispier, and security forces’ ability to retaliate has been unquestionable.

Of course, xenophobia in Iran has a certain rationality at the moment. One expert inside the country told the Guardian that “Iran has fears of an outside cyber-attack like that of the Stuxnet, and is trying to protect its sensitive data from being accessible on the World Wide Web.” The Stuxnet virus, an American-Israeli bit of malware, got into the Iranian system through infected USB sticks left for workers to pocket like poisoned chewing gum; it seriously damaged the national nuclear program. The killings of Iranian nuclear scientists, one of whom was bombed today, tend also to promote a vivid paranoia. “Despite what others think,” the expert said, the “intranet is not primarily aimed at curbing the global Internet but Iran is creating it to secure its own military, banking and sensitive data from the outside world.”

“At the same time,” he added, “Iran is working on software robots to analyse exchanging emails and chats, attempting to find more effective ways of controlling users’ online activities.”  Regardless of the halal Internet’s intent, surveillance will tighten.

What can you, or anyone do? Activists convey a twofold message to the West: first, to shout to governments that sanctions, viruses, and bombs redound in the repression of the dissidents they profess to support. Second, if the US and other states are developing Internet technologies that can circumvent censorship and firewalls, speed the damn things up.   The Obama administration has promised an “Internet in a suitcase” to dissenters in countries it dislikes. It will

rely on a version of “mesh network” technology, which can transform devices like cellphones or personal computers to create an invisible wireless web without a centralized hub. In other words, a voice, picture or e-mail message could hop directly between the modified wireless devices — each one acting as a mini cell “tower” and phone — and bypass the official network.

It sounds a bit more unwieldy than the compact tchotchkes Q gave James Bond at the outset of every film:

This pen, Bond, is mightier than any sword: it contains a three-megaton warhead.

[T]he suitcase would include small wireless antennas, which could increase the area of coverage; a laptop to administer the system; thumb drives and CDs to spread the software to more devices and encrypt the communications; and other components like Ethernet cables.

The New York Times adds with sang-froid:

Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border.

Right, if you’re bristling with all those cords and antennae. And doing 2,300 words’ worth of interviews with the Times about the project doesn’t help either.

Tell your governments — what? Tell them dissidents need help, and they’re not helping. Something, somewhere, has to give.