Can’t get there from here: Rebel Without a Modem

  1. I Need Drugs
  2. Can’t get there

“Our greatest political heroes were traitors.... Fail to understand this, and you will continue to fail to understand the United States.”--Dave Griffith (?)

In America, we have always loved the rebel, with or without a cause. We started as rebels, and while this fact may make us nervous when we hear about rebellions in Mexico or even Quebec, we do not forget it in our hearts. Thomas Jefferson remained a rebel long after the revolution was won. His most famous quote on the Internet is

And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms... The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. (?)

After Shays’ Rebellion, in 1787, when others were calling for the rebels’ collective heads on a platter, Jefferson wrote that the punishment should be so mild “as not to discourage them too much” (?), and that “to punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of public liberty.” (?) In Jefferson’s view, “absolutely unjustifiable” rebellion was a mere “error”. In other words, he didn’t want to discourage anyone from a little rebellion now and then. It keeps the citizens in practice and the government on its toes.

The War Between the States produced its own share of heroes, and there were at least as many in the Confederacy as in the Union. Johnny Horton’s song “Johnny Reb” remains popular, and as late as the 1970s, television shows such as “The Dukes of Hazzard” could glorify the trappings of the Confederacy.

Just take a look at our latest “rebellion” (!). It’s true that everything the BATF did would have been just as illegal if the Branch Davidians hadn’t fought back: Taking 100 armed soldiers against a religious group on the basis of a $200 back tax; Firing indiscriminately into a rickety old home; Targeting the Davidians for the political views of their leader; (And being stupid enough to actually put this in the warrant request, making it public record) (!)

But if the Davidians hadn’t fought back, no one would have cared except for a few fringe individuals. When the Davidians not only fought back, but actually repulsed a numerically stronger, better equipped, and better armed government force, that upped them a notch in the American psyche. And when the rebels managed to hold out against all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, for forty days before the tanks went in, they earned a place in American history right next to the Alamo.

Only with government aid could the Branch Davidians become anyone’s martyrs.

The biggest problem our government has had justifying the propping up of right wing regimes has not been the regime’s crimes against humanity, but our own inbred sympathy for the rebels against such regimes. From Spartacus to Davy Crockett to Star Wars, we have far more movies glorifying rebellion than decrying it. The fall of the Soviet Union didn’t enthrall us because it was the fall of communism, but because it was the rise of revolutionary heroes. The symbol in the West for the fall of Soviet Russia has been Boris Yeltsin’s defiance outside the Russian White House. Technically, his stand was in rebellion against a coup, but it was the rebellion that caught our attention.

Our love of rebels lives in the net as well. We love the hackers and the phreakers and the crackers who live in rebellion against the system. Cornellians who remember it still have sympathy for the perpetrator of the Crash of ‘88, when Morris’ Worm brought the entire net to a standstill.

Computers are the symbol of bureaucracy. Decrying the fall of Rolling Stone, Hunter S. Thompson (himself praised as a rebel in his own right) writes that “Today at Rolling Stone there are rows and rows of white cubicles, each with its own computer. That’s how I began to hate computers. They represented all that was wrong with Rolling Stone.” (?) Until very recently, that was the general view of computers: tools of bureaucracy, not tools of the individual. The personal computer changes that.

There are no rebels on the infobahn. Not yet. The press may try to sensationalize things with bold headlines such as Gang War in Cyberspace (?), but the actions of these ‘rebels’ are more childishness than anything else. Getting together on conference calls with fifty or so friends around the world, switching people’s long distance carrier at random, eavesdropping on private calls; unless the information gained is put to some use, there isn’t any point to the actions. The cybergangs can claim to fight the system (or their publicity can claim it for them), but in the end they move right into mainstream computer fields. When John “Corrupt” Lee left his Bedstuy gang, the Decepticons, to join the cybergang Masters of Deception, he was moving into the system, not out of it, and when he left prison he went right into Brooklyn College. The other members, Paul “Scorpion” Stira and Mark “Phiber Optik” Abene moved from prison to computerized detective work and a Manhattan computer service, respectively. And Chris “Erik Bloodaxe” Goggans, ex-leader of the MOD’s rival Legion of Doom cybergang, researches wireless networks in Austin, and sells Legion of Doom T-shirts on the side. He and his friends moved quite easily from !Gangers (?) to computer professionals.

We won’t get real rebels on the infobahn until computers become an integral part of mainstream life, and we get people on board who have nothing to lose mixing up with people who have everything to lose. When we have digital telephones, digital television, and digital cash. Then we’ll find out what a ‘cybergang’ really is.

What will a cybergang be able to do? In cyberpunk (!) role-playing games, wannabe cyberpunks wander a fantastic virtual reality populated with deadly ICE, other cyberpunks, and lots and lots of cybermoney. ICE are computer programs that defend corporate data from netrunners. In general, the netrunners win: that’s because the players are playing the netrunners. The netrunners are going up against the evil or impersonally huge corporations. We have this fascination with rebels, remember? I’ve played a lot of these games, and I’ve yet to see someone want to play a corporate bureaucrat. We get enough of that in real life.

There is some evidence that cybergangs are beginning to “grow up”: that is, graduate from trivial cracking to more serious cracking. Government web sites are being cracked left and right; usually, the crackers just deface the web site and move on. In March of 1997, someone cracked into the NASA web site and warned that unless certain fellow crackers were set free, they would begin a cyber-terror campaign within thirty days. The campaign never started, as far as I know, but this kind of threat is a step up from replacing pictures of John Glenn with photos of women having sex with goats. (Associated Press, 3/7/97)

The day that the infobahn becomes a virtual reality that you can walk into is far into the future. Until then, cybergangs will have to make do with simpler pursuits:

  • Steal cybercash.
  • Launder cybercash.
  • Acquire and sell private keys.
  • Intercept and modify instructions from leaders to subordinates.
  • Threaten data destruction.
  • Steal saleable data.

When cash goes digital and becomes cybercash, cybergangs will be able to steal it. Depending on how it’s implemented, they may also need to launder it, but this isn’t a problem. The speed of the net is the speed of light, and money laundering on an electronic superhighway will happen in the blink of an eye. Some cybergangs may even become datamuggers. Some crackers today attempt to destroy data out of malice or just plain evil temperament. In the future, you may be working along the infobahn, dictating the last chapter of your Great American Novel, when a jagged message pops up on your screen threatening to wipe your entire book from memory. Unless you willingly hand over $500.00 in cybercash. And they’ll know you can afford it, too, because they’ve just checked your credit rating. With 100,000 words at stake, I know damn well I’d do my best to pay up. But then, I make backups, so I wouldn’t have to worry so much.

Information can also be stolen and sold to interested third parties. Now, public key cryptography can make private data on the net extremely secure, but it does require that the private key be heavily safeguarded. If someone can steal your private key without your knowledge, then they can read everything that’s sent to you. Which makes it a good idea to change your ‘key pair’ regularly.

Simple, right? Well, simple for a computer. But the NSA has other ideas. Requiring that private keys be registered to the government--which is something that President Clinton and the NSA actually want--will make your private key only as secure as both the path to the government storage facilities and the storage facility itself. The so-called ‘clipper chip’ proposal (requiring key registration for certain computer chips) will be a major boon for cybergangs. Key pairs won’t be able to be generated on the fly, and the private key will only be as safe as any other government secret. The feds can’t keep their own secrets. Its pretty unlikely they’ll be able to keep anybody else’s.

Barring government interference, there will probably end up being two kinds of key pairs: static and dynamic. A static key is one that doesn’t change very often. If I want to send encrypted mail to Ron Watkins, I’ll go grab his latest public key and encrypt the message with that. If Ron is on top of things, he’ll probably change his key every week or so. But ‘every week or so’ in computer terms is pretty much forever.

A dynamic key changes every time it gets used. Because we’re talking about computers, this isn’t a big deal. When my modem talks to the nearest on-ramp modem to the infobahn, it’ll probably use dynamic keys. Every time I ‘log in’ to the infobahn, my modem and the infobahn’s modem will generate a new key pair, and exchange public keys. Someone stealing this private key will need to make use of it before I log out, because the next time I log in, both modems will each generate a new private key again. And if either one of us is sufficiently paranoid, we may end up generating new key pairs every couple of minutes, or even every time we exchange data. This will make it virtually impossible for cybergangs to steal my information unless they actually take over either my modem or (more likely) the on-ramp modem. (Fortunately for the cybergang, the federal government doesn’t want me using dynamic keys anyway.)

Once a cybergang grabs a private key, they can wreak all sorts of havoc on the infobahn. They can intercept messages between individuals or between levels of an organization, and neither party will know. The cybergang can even change the messages, instructing a police unit to watch the wrong house, for example, or arrest the wrong person. Private keys will be a major black market item in their own right. Like credit card numbers and calling card numbers today, they’ll have a limited lifespan, but the speed of computers will allow them to be milked dry in minutes. And if the cybergangs have computer programs smart enough to know how to milk a private key, they may be able to suck it dry in seconds or less.

There are already reports from London of cybergangs threatening the big banks, breaking into the systems and then threatening to go public with the information unless the banks payed them money. As of mid-1996, the estimated payout was $620 million. (Information Week 6/10/96)

Another group of hackers stole military secrets during the gulf war; they then tried to sell the data to the Iraqis, but the Iraqis didn’t believe the information was genuine, and refused the purchase. The head of computer security for the Defense Department later said they “realized that these files should not have been stored on Internet-capable machines”. Duh. (London Telegraph 3/23/97)

And this is really just the beginning. We don’t know everything that will be horrible on the infobahn, because the infobahn isn’t yet as universal as inner cities and remote highways. Stealing keys is going to be the tip of the ICEberg, to borrow a term from my friends in cyberpunk gaming. It might even pay to be a criminal in the cybercash world.

Especially when the feds want to make it so easy.

  1. As quoted on the Usenet newsgroup talk.politics.guns .
  2. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to William S. Smith in 1787. Taken from Jefferson, On Democracy, S. Padover ed., 1939.
  3. Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, January 30, 1787, as reproduced in Voices of the American Past: Readings in American History by Morton Borden.
  4. Thomas Jefferson, letter to Edward Carrington, January 16, 1717, as reproduced in Voices of the American Past: Readings in American History by Morton Borden.
  5. Technically, “rebels” are usually folks who do something rebellious first . Until one hundred armed soldiers drove up to their home in helicopters and troop transport vehicles, the Branch Davidians, while awfully strange, were strange on their own time, and minded their own business.
  6. It took a while to get it into the public record: after they realized the public was watching, the warrant and request suddenly became classified information. Don’t worry, it’s available now at your nearest Internet on-ramp.
  7. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Songs of the Doomed, p. 160.
  8. Wired, December, 1994.
  9. Pronounced BangGangers .
  10. Cyberpunk is a form of pulp fiction. The icon of the genre is William Gibson.
  1. I Need Drugs
  2. Can’t get there