by J.M. Porup (@toholdaquill)

95 Theses of Cyber

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On August 6, 1991, a curious and world-changing event took place, unnoticed at the time, in a cramped office deep in the bowels of CERN, the atom-smashing particle accelerator buried at the feet of the Jura Mountains outside Geneva.

A man plugged in a computer. A simple act: An obscure British physicist, running the equally obscure NeXT operating system, put the first web site online. For more than a quarter of a century since, humanity has been dealing with the fallout.

The man was Tim Berners-Lee, and his invention – the World Wide Web – slapped a slick front end on top of the cumbersome and unwieldy internet that had for decades previously been the bailiwick of the US military (who invented the internet), scientists, academics, spooks, and geeky early-adopting hobbyists.

The launch of “the Web” prompted visionaries to paint glorious metaphorically-confused word pictures of an information superhighway where no one knows you’re a dog.

Now, as one wag put it post-Snowden, they not only know you’re a dog, they know your breed, number of fleas, how often you scratch (and behind which ear), when you’re in heat, who you hump, and how often.

Who is this “they”?

A bewildering set of three-letter acronyms who style themselves “intelligence agencies” – the NSA and CIA for starters. A dozen more in the US alone. The GCHQ – the NSA’s counterpart in the UK. The Five Eyes alliance of SIGINT agencies in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and that arch-imperial power, New Zealand. Plus Russia, China, France, Germany, Israel. The usual suspects, and then some.

The information superhighway of cat picture-chasing anonymous dogs has turned into a live-fire war zone in which spooks duke it out with each other, and anyone who gets in their way – including billions of civilians on a battlefield where action is covert, the only rule is “don’t get caught,” and we, the people, look a lot more like foe than friend.

What’s a peaceful, self-respecting, cat picture-loving, porn-watching modern netizen to do? What are we supposed to make of this? How are we supposed to live in this new world?

The ground has shifted under our feet. In the 90s, as the Web spread its tentacles around the world and into our brains, we gaped at a dystopian vision of a matrix where the virtual world was more real than meatspace…but failed to notice that the filmmaker’s nightmare predicted our present-day reality: We have already been uploaded, but most of us haven’t realized it yet.

We no longer live “in the real world,” but in the cyber domain. The so-called “Internet of Things” is the most obvious symptom – physical objects connected to the internet are now subject to the rules of the cyber domain. The collection of vast, detailed information about our personal lives puts our fortunes, and our happiness, into the hands of those who wield power in this new dimension.

Cybersecurity is the central political question of our times. This book will give you the tools you need to understand what the hell is going on.

So why “95 Theses of Cyber”?

For fifteen years I’ve worked as a programmer, sysadmin, and security journalist. In 2002 colleagues at my first job in IT sat me down and taught me the ropes of information security. Ever since, I’ve been fascinated – and horrified – to watch what was once a niche technical oddity come to disrupt and dominate the world we now live in.

There’s a lot of bullshit about hacking and surveillance in the media. These 95 theses cut the crap. Natural laws explain the fundamental workings of the cyber domain. Learn them and play the new game. Your old expectations of how power works in meatspace are obsolete. Reject my theses if you wish, but do not leave thinking the old rules will save you. They won’t.

Like Martin Luther in his day, we too face a corrupt, hypocritical empire that must be reformed. Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door – the BBS or reddit of his day – and demanded change to an intolerable situation.

A Europe-spanning empire, founded on the principled teachings of Christ – love your neighbor, give money to the poor, and so forth – had become a farcical remnant of the original vision of the church’s founders. Warped by greed, convulsed by lust for conquest and power – kings of sovereign nations crept on hands and knees to kiss the pope’s ring – the Catholic Church of Luther’s day had betrayed every founding principle that it continued to hypocritically espouse.

I’m no Christian, but that sounds pretty shitty to me.

Now we face a similar challenge. The internet, like every technology before or since, disrupts and redistributes political power. The invention of the stirrup created medieval feudalism, many argue. Nuclear weapons, deployable by intercontinental ballistic missile, enable empires to project power – nuclear blackmail – across the globe, a finger always on the trigger to ensure other, smaller, nations’ obedience.

Cyber also disrupts existing power structures. The power to hack and surveil takes political power from the people – what scant measure we have left – and gives it to spies and gangsters. When the power to govern leaves the hands of the people – democracy (literally: “people power” in Greek) – and finds itself snug in the holster of secret agencies who operate outside the law, what should we call this new form of government? Espiocracy? Rule by spies?

The printing press disrupted the Catholic Church, destroyed an empire, and made modern democracy possible. The internet seems set to destroy that democracy and return us to unending empire, if not outright feudalism.

Power corrupts, no matter how good the intentions. Whatever we call this new system of goverment, we no longer live in a democracy, or even the republic envisioned by America’s founders. The cyber domain has accelerated this loss of freedom. Once lauded as a democratic platform that gives voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, the internet has been warped into the exact opposite: the means of totalitarian oppression by the secret police, both at home and abroad.

America’s spies, in taking up this power, betray every principle of liberty and justice on which the United States was founded, and in so doing make a mockery of the Constitution.

Information is the coin of the realm in this new world, and surveillance the tax collector. But surveillance robs us not just of our privacy, but of our humanity, our dignity and our liberty.

The surveilled life is not worth living.

Like Martin Luther, who challenged an empire of lies with 95 clear statements of truth, I too throw down the gauntlet.

Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.

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