Space monkeys, art exhibits, Operation Latte Thunder – that was the plan anyways. Nameless members of Project Mayhem set out to destroy a piece of art and a coffee bar. It was all part of Tyler Durden’s plot to begin, as Caitlin Johnstone aptly puts it, “disintegrating patterns.” Things were going as planned until a trigger-happy security guard shot a retreating “space monkey” in the head. His name was Robert Paulson. Back then, that became the rallying cry for the remaining misfits hellbent on sewing discord in our personalized fishbowls as Fight Club climaxed. Today, his name was Duncan Lemp. The new name memorialized after the 21-year old became yet another shooting death in the police-pillaged countryside called The Land of the Free. Lemp’s last tweet hangs eerily prescient, “the constitution is dead.” Whatever the investigation bears out, freedom has yet again proven to be nothing more than décor for our fishbowl.
The Siege of Internet Freedom
For now, there remains a final bastion against the eroding waves of bureaucratic ink and jackboots. The world wide web. On the internet, communication and information dissemination has altered the course of human society completely. Every relevant inch of guard rail on the “superhighway” is encrypted, or functionally digitally impenetrable. That security is becoming increasingly undervalued as both user privacy demands and bad actors multiply. Amid the collective fever-dream of the novel coronavirus, the Senate was furiously crafting the EARN IT Act to quietly begin removing the last safeguard to American internet privacy: end to end encryption (E2EE). E2EE is the code that digitally obfuscates data being sent between two parties so that only they can view it, and has been a thorn in the side of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies for years. Passage of the EARN IT Act would be the legislative equivalent to siege towers landing on the wall, allowing for an endless stream of lawmen to pore over your digital private life.
The Communications Decency Act was passed in 1996. Section 230 of which has served as the legal cornerstone for internet privacy, ensuring that website owners are not held legally liable for the content their users publish. In 2018, President Trump signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) into law, making sites liable if their platform facilitated trafficking, even unwittingly. This forced sites to make drastic adjustments to ensure compliance, most notably seeing Craigslist remove its Personals section and Backpage being shut down just before passage. This had the unintended consequence of forcing sex workers offline and back to the streets, unprotected from the rampant violence they often endure. FOSTA met significant resistance from tech and privacy advocates, but a “watershed” testimony secured its passage, surprising the bill’s opponents per Protocol.
The EARN IT Act is the brain-trust alternative to issue-based Section 230 carve outs, mandating a compliance checklist for online companies regarding children. A newly minted 19-member National Commission on Online Sexual Exploitation Prevention would create a list of “best-practices” co-signed by Homeland Security, the Attorney General, and the Federal Trade Commission. This list would be made available so, “providers of interactive computer services may choose to implement,” them, or lose Section 230 immunity for their users content. The scope includes anything from comment sections to private messaging, meaning companies like Facebook would be forced to monitor otherwise E2EE protected data. In other words, tech will be forced to forge the “back door” the feds have long waited for or be hauled into court.
Children as Human Shields
Child sex crimes facilitated or committed online aren’t trivial – which is precisely why we shouldn’t want Lindsey Graham and Joe Biden sniffing around. As we well know, government has a history of fostering unintended consequences, or achieving precisely the opposite of their stated goals. We shouldn’t expect anything different with child sex trafficking regulations for online businesses.
The fight to undo encryption isn’t a new one. When the phone data of Rizwan Farook – the San Bernadino gunman who killed 14 – couldn’t be accessed by the FBI, they asked Apple to assist in unlocking it. Apple CEO Tim Cook refused, sparking public debate and a federal lawsuit before the FBI eventually dropped the case; they found a shadowy third-party who could open it. Cook’s argument for E2EE, it turns out, was evergreen, “Our smartphones are loaded with our intimate conversations, our financial data, our health records. They’re also loaded with the location of our kids in many cases. It’s not just about privacy, it’s also about public safety,” Cook said. “No one would want a master key built that would turn hundreds of millions of locks … that key could be stolen.” What Tim fails to realize – or perhaps wisely omits – is that the most dangerous hands for such a key to fall into belong to our very own government. The EARN IT Act will necessarily does just that, as co-sponsor Lindsey Graham has said, “Facebook is talking about end-to-end encryption which means they go blind,” Sen Graham said, later adding, “We’re not going to go blind and let this abuse go forward in the name of any other freedom.” The master key would never be palatable without a chorus of weeping eyes, and no shield from criticism has been more tried and true than victimized children.
More “Actionable Intel” Means More Violent Action
From embarrassing revelations of “LOVEINT” where NSA contractors were using systems to spy on lovers to the Snowden revelations that saw forgetful intelligence director James Clapper committing perjury before Congress, the public track record of abuse and dishonesty is terrifying. With transparency only brought to the surface by leaks and painstaking probes, how deep does the rabbit hole go? Without whistleblowers like Snowden, the American public would still be completely in the dark on intelligence secretly shedding light on our private lives. Any law that even potentially expands their reach should be roundly rejected.
American policing is a critical lesson in metastasizing practices and power. SWAT use has increased 15,000% since the late seventies to now, with 80% of the 50,000 annual raids being warrant executions like the one that killed Duncan Lemp. The transformation of state and local police into soldiers stems, in part, to the distribution of surplus military gear from the global war on terror, allowing for images of “kitted-up” cops patrolling streets and raiding houses that look plucked straight from Fallujah c. 2004. As local police agencies continue accessing technology spun out of federal research labs, like drones and social-media geolocating, there’s no doubt that weakened encryption will inflate frontline police capabilities and targets.
Mission Creep to a Home Near You
As the master key dangles before Congress and their army of spies, American’s are faced with a choice. They can continue to watch with eyes glazed over as an unrestrained militarized bureaucracy turns the handle to the last unbreachable door, or they can “ride out and meet them.” The war outside our encryption refuge will rage on no matter the outcome of EARN IT. Lemp was right, “the constitution is dead,” and has been a long time. His death is the consequence of a perpetually growing state codified by a legal system equipped to make criminals of us all. Losing the protection of encryption spells the definitive end to privacy and the age of thinkpol. Tomorrow, our time in quarantine can be used to dream up paths to victory in this intellectual war. Today, the EARN IT Act must be defeated, and legislative attempts on encryption along with it.