Author: Rod Graham

Roderick Graham is an assistant professor at Old Dominion University. He believes in the four noble truths.

Darknets Are Key Strongholds of Freedom of Expression Online

[Originally published in The Conversation]

The internet is much more than just the publicly available, Google-able web services most online users frequent – and that’s good for free expression. Companies frequently create private networks to enable employees to use secure corporate servers, for example. And free software allows individuals to create what are called “peer-to-peer” networks, connecting directly from one machine to another.

Unable to be indexed by current search engines, and therefore less visible to the general public, subnetworks like these are often called “darknets,” or collective as the singular “darknet.” These networks typically use software, such as Tor, that anonymizes the machines connecting to them, and encrypts the data traveling through their connections.

Some of what’s on the darknet is alarming. A 2015 story from Fox News reads:

“Perusing the darknet offers a jarring jaunt through jaw-dropping depravity: Galleries of child pornography, videos of humans having sex with animals, offers for sale of illegal drugs, weapons, stolen credit card numbers and fake identifications for sale. Even human organs reportedly from Chinese execution victims are up for sale on the darknet.”

But that’s not the whole story – nor the whole content and context of the darknet. Portraying the darknet as primarily, or even solely, for criminals ignores the societal forces that push people toward these anonymous networks. Our research into the content and activity of one major darknet, called Freenet, indicates that darknets should be understood not as a crime-ridden “Wild West,” but rather as “wilderness,” spaces that by design are meant to remain unsullied by the civilizing institutions – law enforcement, governments and corporations – that have come to dominate the internet.

There is definitely illegal activity on the darknet, as there is on the open internet. However, many of the people using the darknet have a diverse range of motives and activities, linked by a common desire to reclaim what they see as major benefits of technology: privacy and free speech.

Describing Freenet

Our research explored Freenet, an anonymous peer-to-peer network accessed via a freely downloadable application. In this type of network, there are no centralized servers storing information or transferring data. Rather, each computer that joins the network takes on some of the tasks of sharing information.

When a user installs Freenet, her computer establishes a connection to a small group of existing Freenet users. Each of these is connected in turn to other Freenet users’ computers. Through these connections, the entire contents of the network are available to any user. This design allows Freenet to be decentralized, anonymous and resistant to surveillance and censorship.

Freenet’s software requires users to donate a portion of their local hard drive space to store Freenet material. That information is automatically encrypted, so the computer’s owner does not know what files are stored or the contents of those files. Files shared on the network are stored on numerous computers, ensuring they will be accessible even if some people turn off their machines.

Joining the network

As researchers, we played the role of a novice Freenet user. The network allows many different types of interaction, including social networking sites and even the ability to build direct relationships with other users. But our goal was to understand what the network had to offer to a new user just beginning to explore the system.

There are several Freenet sites that have used web crawlers to index the network, offering a sort of directory of what is available. We visited one of these sites to download their list. From the 4,286 total sites in the index we chose, we selected a random sample of 427 sites to visit and study more closely. The sites with these indexes are a part of the Freenet network, and therefore can be accessed only by users who have downloaded the software. Standard search engines cannot be used to find sites on Freenet.

An introductory page on Freenet. Roderick Graham and Brian Pitman, CC BY-ND

Finding a ‘hacker ethic’

What we found indicated that Freenet is dominated by what scholars call a “hacker ethic.” This term encompasses a group of progressive and libertarian beliefs often espoused by hackers, which are primarily concerned with these ideals:

  • Access to information should be free;
  • Technology can, and should, improve people’s lives;
  • Bureaucracy and authority are not to be trusted;
  • A resistance to conventional and mainstream lifestyles

Some of that may be because using darknet technology often requires additional technical understanding. In addition, people with technical skills may be more likely to want to find, use and even create services that have technological protections against surveillance.

Our reading of hacking literature suggests to us that the philosophical and ideological beliefs driving darknet users are not well-known. But without this context, what we observed on Freenet would be hard to make sense of.

There were Freenet sites for sharing music, e-books and video. Many sites were focused around personal self-expression, like regular internet blogs. Others were dedicated to promoting a particular ideology. For example, socialist and libertarian content was common. Still other sites shared information from whistle-blowers or government documents, including a copy of the Wikileaks website’s data, complete with its “Afghan War Diary” of classified documents about the United States military invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

With the hacker ethic as a guide, we can understand that most of this content is from individuals who have a deep mistrust of authority, reject gross materialism and conformity, and wish to live their digital lives free of surveillance.

What about crime?

There is criminal activity on Freenet. About a quarter of the sites we observed either delivered or linked to child pornography. This is alarming, but must be seen in the proper context. Legal and ethical limits on researchers make it very hard to measure the magnitude of pornographic activity online, and specifically child pornography.

Once we came upon a site that purported to have child pornography, we left the site immediately without investigating further. For example, we did not seek to determine whether there was just one image or an entire library or marketplace selling pornographic content. This was a good idea from the perspectives of both law and ethics, but did not allow us to gather any real data about how much pornography was actually present.

Other research suggests that the presence of child pornography is not a darknet or Freenet problem, but an internet problem. Work from the the Association for Sites Advocating Child Protection points to pervasive sharing of child pornography well beyond just Freenet or even the wider set of darknets. Evaluating the darknet should not stop just at the presence of illegal material, but should extend to its full content and context.

A pie chart shows the share of Freenet sites devoted to particular types of content. Roderick Graham and Brian Pitman, CC BY-ND

With this new information, we can look more accurately at the darknet. It contains many distinct spaces catering to a wide range of activities, from meritorious to abhorrent. In this sense, the darknet is no more dangerous than the rest of the internet. And darknet services do provide anonymity, privacy, freedom of expression and security, even in the face of a growing surveillance state.

The Problem of Attribution in Cyberattacks, Or “Don’t Fall for the Banana in the Tailpipe”

On December 12th, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said in a statement on Monday that “We must condemn and push back forcefully against any state-sponsored cyberattacks on our democratic process.”

The hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s servers was first reported in July when Wikileaks published emails from the hack.  Some have argued that these emails, some of which contained damaging information about the Democratic party during the heart of the election season, played a part in Trump’s upset victory.  Early on, the hack was suspected to be originating from Russia.

The link to Russia has been confirmed, kinda.  But not without controversy.  As NPR reports:  “The CIA has concluded that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election to help Donald Trump win. But Trump says he doesn’t believe that. And the FBI doesn’t think there’s enough evidence.”

Whether or not our leaders can come to a consensus about what country the hack came from or whether or not that country sponsored said hack, Ryan’s bellicose statement that we should “push back” is premature and unnecessarily aggressive.

Image of Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan – “We must condemn and push back forcefully against any state-sponsored cyberattacks on our democratic process.” Image from Townhall.com

The Problem of Attribution

It is very difficult to know for sure when a cyberattack is state sponsored.  Just because hackers live in an area or speak a certain language does not then mean that the hack must be a direct result of a government giving orders.  Here are some scenarios:

  • A group originating from Russia looking to make a political statement on behalf of their country.
  • A group originating from Russia hacking for shits and giggles.
  • Hackers using the Russian language or some mechanism to make it appear as if they are from Russia.
  • A group funded through a Russian government agency that is not a part of Russian intelligence or military.  Think of a kind of “committee on new coding” simply learning how to hack.
  • A group funded through Russian intelligence or the military.

In each of these scenarios, tying the hack directly to Russia and Putin is either blatantly wrong or a misconstruing of the facts.

We cannot apply terrestrial, cold-war logic to 21st century cyberspace.  If this was 1980, and the weapons used to damage a nation required large amounts of investment that only a few nation states could muster, then there would be far less problems of attribution.  In other words, if a small force of rebels attacked an American embassy with tanks, bazookas, and automatic rifles, the odds are quite high that these weapons were purchased or given to these rebels by the Soviet Union.

But in the digital environment, a cyberattack of the kind on the Democratic National Committee’s servers does not require the same types of resource intensive and high capital investment outlays.  You just need a few people with the know-how, a reasonably modern computer, some select software, and an Internet connection.

Let’s Not Fall for the Banana in the Tailpipe Again

One of the funniest scenes in movie history is the “don’t fall for the banana in the tailpipe” scene from Beverly Hills Cop. Apparently, the phrase has become a part of pop culture.  Well, I’m appropriating it for the purposes of hacking and a supposed cyberwar.

Remember how the American people were duped with the 9/11 bait and switch?  Remember how we were attacked by a group of 19 radicals, 15 of which were from Saudi Arabia, claiming allegiance to an Islamic fundamentalist group based primarily out of Afghanistan….and then invaded…Iraq?

Since then, the media and other politicians have done a mea culpa.  But it’s too late.  We’ve lost money and lives and the only people who came out on top were the businesses that either got government contracts or had the way cleared for capital investments.  Oh, and the politicians gained votes because they look to be “tough” on terrorists.

The almost mystical nature of cyberattacks, and the ability (or inability) to definitively determine the source of the attack will play right into the hands of hawkish politicians.  A cyberattack could be initiated by a couple of snooty twenty-somethings in Syria, who may or may not have received funding in the past from an organization that may or may not be affiliated with the Iranian government.  But that would be enough to justify a “push back” against the Iranians.  And here we go again.  More war.  More paranoia.  More civil liberties taken away.  More money in the pockets of oil companies and weapons manufacturers.

 

Donald Paying Dividends?

It might be that Donald Trump’s unorthodox orientation to public service is paying off.  Unlike Obama and Bush the Younger, he seems less hawkish and less likely to be pushed around by the military.  For now he’s his own man and looking to make nice with Russia.

But that probably won’t last.  And so we the people must assert our rights.  We can’t allow our leaders to lob these verbal grenades at other nations without holding their feet to the fire, demanding evidence, and questioning their every move.  And this time, there can be no Colin Powell waving a vial of baby powder.  They have to prove to the American people that they can link a cyberattack to a nation’s military, intelligence, or executive body.  Committees need to be formed, civilians need to be on that committee, it needs to be bipartisan, and it cannot be rushed.

In other words, we should take Ryan’s words to heart and “push back”.

 

 

The Truth of Trolls

Ladies, that guy who put his hand on your bum after a few drinks, and then apologizes several days later saying it was the alcohol, is lying.  He wanted to do it while sober.  Only the alcohol made it easier to ignore social norms and repercussions.  In reality, it is when he is sober that he is lying!  He was more truthful when the whiskey sours lowered his inhibitions.

And so it is with the online environment.  Several online media outlets, such as NPR and Huffington Post, have banned anonymous comments because they tend to be vitriolic and disrespectful – especially to women.   But there is truth in these comments because social norms are weakened and inhibitions are lowered.

Trump and the Trolls
Pollsters, politicians, and prognosticators were blindsided by Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election.  As was I.  However, I can remember speaking to a colleague about Trump, back when he was one of several candidates vying to be the Republican nominee.  I distinctly remember saying to her that the Trump campaign is more viable than people think.  Trump, in my view, was speaking to a disgruntled electorate.

My views at that time were informed by some research I had done on White Nationalist (now called the alt-right).  I had explored a collection of websites, blogs, and podcasts that had several organizing themes.  First was the idea that America should be a white nation, and that non-whites and non-Christians were inherently antithetical to the values and success of the country. Second, the influx of non-whites had already been detrimental.  Since America began becoming less white, the argument went, the economy and international position of America had deteriorated.  Third, this weakening of white Christian America was organized and led by a band of Marxist elites – primarily Jewish.   I could see at that time that if one removed the distasteful veneer of overt racism from these ideas – for example, removing Jewish and replacing it with Washington – they were very appealing to working class white voters.  These groups were articulating ideas that if expressed in public, would mean they would be excoriated and ostracized.  In this way, they were speaking a truth that could only be expressed online.

I could not (and still can’t) quantify how many different voices were in these spaces, but my idea is that it is much more than mainstream America would like to admit.  I believe this because on every anonymous space where comments are allowed I see these themes.  We have given a name to the people who post these types of comments – trolls.  These trolls are dismissed as being mindless, racist, misogynistic, and nativist.  That may be true.  But their opinions are genuine – not people just trying to get a rise out of someone else.

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And this is why I was a bit more prepared for Donald Trump than most.

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The 13th

I just watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary, the 13th on Netflix (coincidentally, it is the 13th of October).  After a few students in my Racial Inequality class commented that it was a great documentary (note: when twenty-somethings say a documentary is good…you better watch…it must be remarkable).  The documentary is about the hows and whys of the disproportionate presence of black people in American prisons.

It is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen.

It starts with an historical overview, dating back from Emancipation, describing how black peoples have been stereotyped, surveilled and sentenced.  The obligatory Birth of a Nation scenes are shown and discussed, the Civil Rights Movement is given its due.  But the documentary really shines when it moves to the political and corporate roots of the  post 60’s “Tough on Crime” stance in American society.  No stone is left unturned and no prominent voice is left out.  If one wanted to know who the main voices in the prison reform movement are, one couldn’t do any better than jotting down the people interviewed in this documentary.

As an academic who studies social media, I listened intently to the last 20 minutes or so, where the documentary talks about the  use of media to, as one of the interviewees said, “show the humanity of black peoples”.  The line was drawn from writings and autobiographies to photographs of lynchings to the strategic use of television by the Civil Rights Movement (e.g. dogs sicced on kids, fire hoses trained on weaponless marchers) to finally the use of mobile phones documenting instances of police brutality.

There are quite a few negatives to ripping snapshots from everyday life out of context and posting them online for everyone to see.  But for so many decades the weight of the state on black people has been unseen and overlooked.  But new technologies level the playing field somewhat between individuals and the state.  People have seen police brutality – even though it is decontextualized – close up and personal, and this has made it impossible to be overlooked.  Black peoples (as well as women, sexual minorities, immigrants, and other groups who are not a part of the privileged set) have a means of speaking truth to power.

In any case, The 13th is in my view one of the best documentaries ever produced.  It is a must see.

Politics in the Age of Digital Reproduction

I am typing this as a I watch the first Clinton – Trump debate.  I’m excited about this one.

The thing is, I have seen these two people for the past year. I’ve heard all they are going to say at one time before – on Youtube, on C-Span, or any media outlet.  Trump will talk about bad trade deals.  He will blame China and Mexico.  He will say something senseless, but it will sound good and people will cheer.   Clinton will say things in a technocratic way that is unmemorable but sounds legitimate and makes you want to nod in agreement.  She will try to say something rousing and inspiring and it will fall flat.

Image from Slate

Image from Slate

There is really nothing new to see here.  This debate will provide little information of substance to those who have been following their campaigns.  I already know their presence on camera and conversational ticks.  I’ve already made my decision about their personalities.  I like Trump’s.  I know he is a businessman and all, but I can imagine him being the profane police chief in a TV crime drama.  “G-ddammit Jenkins!  Where the hell have you been?  Gimme your badge!”.  But I don’t like Clinton’s.  Her voice, mannerisms, and fashion choices reminds me of a loan officer working in a sleepy southern bank.

They can’t tell me anything about their fiscal or economic policies that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and so on have not already summarized, sliced, and diced.  What they can reel off in two minute statements in a debate is really nothing.

The original function of a debate is gone.  The “awe” of seeing a candidate perform and take on their supreme authoritative role of commander-in-chief is gone.  The “majesty” of politics has eroded.  We don’t get a kick out of seeing these people on stage anymore.  There is no “anticipation” of hearing what plans they have for the country.

This is politics in the age of digital reproduction.   The aura that was once an inherent characteristic of the political process is gone.

Race walking? Why Not Texting?

It’s no wonder that race walking is the butt of many jokes during the Olympics.   If it sounds like a joke, and looks like a joke…well then. People race walking look either like they must get to the bathroom quickly or they are runway models who have had too much caffeine.

I know, I know…it is harder than it looks, and it requires a tremendous amount of ability and training just like all the other sports.  But still.

race_walking

 

I think that if the Olympics wants to improve its dismal ratings, and earn some younger fans, it has to introduce a new sport different than golf in 2020.  Why not texting?

As most people know, texting quickly and accurately requires a tremendous amount of manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination.  It’s definitely a summer sport.  When it is 20 degrees outside people aren’t too keen to hold a piece of metal and peck at a glass screen.

I think whoever decides these things needs to consider making texting an Olympic Sport.  Have a list of random words pop up and the person who can text them correctly in the allotted time wins.

It’s a good idea.  I’m not joking. If race walking can be an Olympic sport, so can texting.

Micah Johnson, the Dallas Shootings, and the Push to Radicalization

There is some talk that Micah Johnson, the shooter who killed five police during a protest in Dallas, was radicalized online.  Johnson’s desire to “kill white people” was either generated, nurtured, or both by browsing websites and communicating through social media.

I think he was radicalized.

micah-johnson-dallas

As CNN reports, “Micah Johnson’s online history shows he followed dozens of sites that focused on injustices committed on the black community. He visited and liked several websites dedicated to Black Lives Matter and the New Black Panthers, along with the Nation of Islam and the Black Riders Liberation Party, two groups the Southern Poverty Law Center considers hate groups.”

Extremist websites act as pulls towards extremism, and this is enough for the media to go on.  It fits with the good guy-bad guy narrative we like.  There are groups out there that can simply brainwash a person to do bad things.  But there is more to radicalization than what the media can get across in quick soundbites.  There is also a push to extremis.  It is the push, I believe, that we should be most worried about.

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