I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard

Shadowy citizens vs shadowy governments

2013-10-07 by Nick S., tagged as freedom, law, privacy

I've been reading quite a bit about Bitcoin and other anonymisation technologies over the past week or so, partly driven by the recent shut down of an anonymous marketplace known as Silk Road. David Glance has a bit to say about Bitcoin, Silk Road and Liberty Reserve on The Conversation, while Jonathon Levin discusses possible directions for Bitcoin and Nigel Phair ponders likely replacements for Silk Road in the same venue. G. Pascal Zachary comes at similar issues from the point of view of surveillance in the October 2013 issue of IEEE Spectrum (p. 8).

Levin opens with a statement about Bitcoin enthusiasts and libertarians being confused by the slow take-up of what, to them, is a tremendous advance in anonymity and freedom from Big Bad Government. I don't know which, if any, specific libertarians are being referred to by Levin, but Levin's statement certainly seems consistent with traditional cyberlibertarian thinking that anonymity and secrecy is the path to the protection of rights and freedom.

Non-libertarians, of course, probably think more like Nigel Phair and G. Pascal Zachary, who accept that there are certain behaviours deemed to be illegal for good reason, and that law enforcement agencies must therefore have some sort of power to detect and arrest those who engage in those behaviours. Assuming that the non-libertarians aren't doing any of these illegal things themselves, they perceive somewhat less need for anonymity. For that matter, even libertarians agree that the state should enforce property rights and contracts, and one wonders if even they would be pleased with a technology that allowed anonymous miscreants to steal property and dishonour contracts.

Anti-surveillance commentators love to mock the surveillers' defence that "you've got nothing to worry about if you're not doing anything wrong", but the surveillers may be perfectly correct if they're referring to what the surveillers consider wrong. Why waste time persecuting behaviour with which one has no problem, after all? The problem is, not everyone agrees with the surveillers' vision of wrongness, and anti-surveillers fear persecution for behaviours that they consider acceptable, but which the surveillers consider wrong.

The dealing of drugs, identities and violence alleged to be taking place on Silk Road and its like probably doesn't do much for the anti-surveillers' case. Apparently Silk Road users really do have something to hide under the law of most countries, and I doubt many people are shedding a tear for those poor old criminal gangs who've just lost one of their meeting places.

Hal Berghel's take on PRISM in the July 2013 issue of IEEE Computer asks that politicians do not take the "trust me" approach to defending government surveillance apparatus, in which politicians ask us to trust that said apparatus is only being used to apprehend genuine criminals. Simply hearing "trust me" is certainly dissatisfying. Said politicians need to prove their trustworthiness by demonstrating that, if you're not doing anything wrong, you really do have nothing to fear. But anti-surveillers have a similar problem: why accept a statement of "trust us" from a shadowy on-line marketplace any more than a statement of "trust us" from a shadowy government department?