Category: Politics

The First Rule of Human Rights is to Never Trust Legal Systems Alone to Protect Human Rights

From the Tor Project’s blog today come “10 Principles for User Protection.” The very first principle is “Do not rely on the law to protect systems or users.” Tor Project developer Mike Perry:

Unfortunately, it is […] likely that in the United States, current legal mechanisms, such as NSLs and secret FISA warrants, will continue to target the marginalized. This will include immigrants, Muslims, minorities, and even journalists who dare to report unfavorably about the status quo. History is full of examples of surveillance infrastructure being abused for political reasons.

[…W]e decided to enumerate some general principles that we follow to design systems that are resistant to coercion, compromise, and single points of failure of all kinds, especially adversarial failure. We hope that these principles can be used to start a wider conversation about current best practices for data management and potential areas for improvement at major tech companies.

Mike Perry’s full list of 10 principles:

  1. Do not rely on the law to protect systems or users.
  2. Prepare and test policy commentary for quick response to crisis.
  3. Only keep the user data that you currently need.
  4. Give users full control over their data.
  5. Allow pseudonymity and anonymity.
  6. Encrypt data in transit and at rest.
  7. Invest in cryptographic R&D to replace non-cryptographic systems.
  8. Eliminate single points of security failure, even against coercion.
  9. Favor open source and enable user freedom.
  10. Practice transparency: share best practices, stand for ethics, and report abuse.

It’s genuinely refreshing to see this sort of thing coming from techies. The danger, of course, is in failing to point out that this is the sort of stuff the marginalized groups Mike Perry mentions have already been saying for generations. This is not a “pat ourselves on the back” moment, white techies. This is a “seriously, what the fuck is wrong with us that it took a Trump electoral victory to get vocal about this super basic stuff. (Spoiler: the answer is white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and all that it entails.)

Image courtesy CurrentAffairs.org.

Defense Against the Dark Arts and Mr. Robot’s Netflix ‘n’ Hack (rebooted) at Recurse Center

Last Saturday, I hosted another Mr. Robot’s Netlfix ‘n’ Hack session at the Recurse Center. I’ve been doing these weekly for three weeks now (here is a link to last week’s), and this time was the first week when the new set of batchlings were in the space. To better include them, we rebooted the series and re-screened the first episode of the show.

Last week was also the national elections in the United States. The outcome of that election was that Donald Drumpf was voted into office as President and over the course of the week he began selecting self-described white nationalists into positions of power in his upcoming administration. In light of these events, I’ve spent most of my waking hours fielding incoming requests for help about “what to do” in a number of different areas.

This election changes very little for me, personally. I have already been aware that we live in a police state, controlled by fascists and white supremacists. I’ve been preparing for worse and prepared for this eventuality for a long time. What this election changed, for me, was the fact that everyone around me was suddenly treating me like the things I was doing made sense, rather than being treated like some overly paranoid weirdo. So, that’s nice.

This also means that I’ve been getting lots of questions about digital security, privacy, anti-surveillance and censorship circumvention techniques. Y’know, commsec, opsec, and security culture stuff. In light of these events, I decided to kick off the new round of Mr. Robot’s Netflix ‘n’ Hack sessions with a whirlwind crash course of the defensive aspects of computer security techniques. Basically, I ran a very compressed CryptoParty.

Someone suggested that we call this a “Defense Against the Dark Arts” session, and I liked the analogy well enough to take the suggestion. Like the other Mr. Robot’s Netflix ‘n’ Hack nights, this one was well attended. We filled the session room to the max. It was probably between 15 or 20 of us to start with, and then it dwindled down to about 10 for the actual screening and post-screening discussion.

In my paradoxical, eternal optimism, I somehow had the idea that we could complete this lightning CryptoParty, which included install fests of Signal and the TorBrowser, within thirty minutes. I was wrong; we went over by about 30 minutes, and the screening of Mr. Robot started late. But so many (all?) of the attendees got set up with Signal and the TorBrowser, and that was really great.

As promised, I wanted to make sure that everyone had links to the reference guides and other resources presented in this defense-focused super quick “Defense Against the Dark Arts” session. To do so, I sent a follow up email with links to those resources. A portion of that email is presented verbatim, here:

In addition to these primers and the links included in them, additional useful resources are:

  • PrivacyTools.io – Simply start at the top and read down the page. This is as guided an introduction to privacy issues and what to do about them as it gets.
  • EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense Handbook – A thorough treatment of anti-surveillance software, along with tutorials for how to get them installed and working on your system.
    • If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of this already, consider spending just a little bit of time to walk yourself through the SSD’s Security Starter Pack.
  • PRISM-Break! – An overwhelmingly large digital reference card for all the privacy-enhancing tools available to you for a particular platform, purpose, or protocol. Be cautious here, some of the listed tools are experimental, not audited, or worse.
  • Security in a Box – A slightly dated, but still generally solid, resource website featuring much of the same content as the EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense guide, but with a regularly updated blog. Created and maintained by the TacticalTech.org collective.

There’s a ton of stuff in there, and learning about how to defend yourself from governments, corporations, or malicious individuals on the Internet is more involved than simply picking up one or two tools. But a few well-chosen tools does give you a really, really good start. Taking some time to familiarize yourself with the above guides will hopefully help you become even more capable.

Following the install fest, we finally screened Episode 1 of Mr. Robot again. I already posted our list of tools, techniques, and procedures from the first week, and this didn’t change much. With a different audience, however, the discussion we had post-show did change quite a bit.

Unlike the first week, when people were interested in Tor onion routing and the dark/deep Web, this time people wanted to know about social engineeering and password cracking. So our discussion focused on sharing resources for social engineering, and books such as Kevin Mitnick’s “Art of Deception” and Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” came up. (So did Freedom Downtime, a documentary about Kevin Mitnick’s persecution by the FBI.)

After that, we also talked about the mechanics of password cracking. I gave an overview of the process from exploitation to data exfiltration, but focused on using the hash-“cracking” (really guessing) tool called Hashcat to demo finding the plaintext of hashed passwords. A lot of time in the discussion was spent showing the practicalities of how hashing (i.e., “trap door functions” or “one-way functions”) works by using md5 and shasum commands on the command line. Then I showed the syntax of the hashcat command to run a dictionary attack (with the infamous “rockyou” wordlist) against simple unsalted MD5 hashed passwords from a very old data dump file (hashcat -a 0 md5sums.txt wordlists/rockyou.txt). Have another look at the SecLists project on GitHub to find wordlists like these useful for password cracking.

We also talked about some common mistakes that application developers make when trying to secure their applications, and that users often make when trying to secure their passwords:

  • Try to generate per-user, instead of per-site, salt.
  • Don’t just double-hash passwords (i.e., hash(hash($password)), because this reduces the entropy used as input for the final result, and increases the chance of hash collisions. Instead, iterate the hash function by concatenating the original input (or a salt, or something) back into the resulting hash as well (i.e., hash($salt . hash($salt . $password))). This iteration also slows down an offline attack, but again, only if done correctly in code.
  • Don’t use multiple dictionary words as a password, even a long one, because these are easy to guess. For instance, contrary to popular belief, “correct battery horse staple” is a bad password, not because it lacks entropy, but because all of its components are likely to be in an attacker’s wordlist. Use a password manager and generate random passwords, instead.

Next week, we’ll return to our regularly-scheduled Mr. Robot’s Netflix ‘n’ Hack format: a demo/show-and-tell/exercise of a tool, technique, or procedure (TTP) featured in Episode 1, followed by a screening of Episode 2, and ending with a discussion about Episode 2’s TTPs. I thought that since we’ve done Onion services already, I would change gears and show an online attack similar to some of the ones Eliot used in the show by demoing a tool called Hydra. Another participant also said they may demo hiding data inside of audio CDs using a steganographic tool called DeepSound, also featured in episode 1.

However, this upcoming Saturday is a number of anti-Trump and anti-surveillance organizing meetings and workshops, so I may have to skip this week’s Mr. Robot’s Netflix ‘n’ Hack myself. If not, we may switch to Sunday just for the week. Time will tell. :)

Technology, the Internet, and Race: Tool for Liberation or Oppression?

Enhanced transcript of panel introductions at the “Technology, the Internet, and Race: Tool for Liberation or Oppression?” session at the recent at 25th annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in Washington, DC held on October 14th, 2015. The transcript is “enhanced” because its links were added by me, the transcriber, and do not mean to imply an acknowledgement or endorsement by the speaker whose words were hyperlinked.

[music]

Singer: iMix! What I like! What I like! What I like! What I like!

Jared Ball (producer @iMiXWHATiLiKE): Good afternoon, everybody.

Audience: Good afternoon!

Jared Ball: A’ight, we wanna keep things moving here. My name’s Jared Ball. It’s an honor and a privilege to moderate the next panel. And I just wanted to say, just very quickly, I appreciate Joe Torres and the work he does with Free Press, and that organization in general. And the efforts around these particular kinds of conversations. Because I think one important value of centering the experience of so called people of color in any question is issues of privacy and surveillance supreme among them, is that doing so immediately forces an immediate focus on the imperial and colonizing of the nature of the State itself. Such an approach lends itself to gaining a view from below, from the among the so called wretched, the subjects of colony of empire. And with that said, I want to welcome our panel.

Alvaro Bedoya: Great intro for that, thank you, Jared. Everyone, I’m Alvaro. I want to talk about two substantive points to answer this question and one strategy point which we can expand on later if it comes to point, is that surveillance technology doesn’t target everyone equally. It disproportionately targets the weak, it disproportionately targets the unpopular, and so we need to look at privacy as a shield for the weak and as a shield for the unpopular. The second point is that surveillance is often beta tested on vulnerable communities, and we need to start explaining how that happens because I think we’ll create broader coalitions. And that’s the third point: how do we act on this to counter surveillance and to stop it?

And so, on the first point, I think, and I’m aware that I’m preaching to the choir in large part here, but I think a lot of Americans, when they think of surveillance of vulnerable people, they might know Martin Luther King and the vicious surveillance of Martin Luther King by J. Edgar Hoover. What they might not know is that J. Edgar Hoover also surveilled Cesar Chavez, and also surveilled the Black Panthers. It was critical in the dismantling of that organization. But before [that], it was Japanese-Americans who were surveilled. Before that, it was a W.E.B. Du Bois who was surveilled for trying to go to Europe while Woodrow Wilson was trying to negotiate some pretty lofty principles, and point out that a major population in Woodrow Wilson’s hometown in the United States was not exactly getting that same fair deal. Y’know, after all this it was LGBT service members, and I guess what I’m trying to say is that when unpopular, powerless people meet the gears of government, they tend to lose. And so what privacy is, it’s a space that allows them to do that work without powerful forces stopping them. And I think this is a framing useful for us.

The second item: surveillance being beta-tested on vulnerable communities. So, quick story. So, I was born in Peru, I came here when I was five. My grandmother is straight out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, lives in this old, old house—it’s been crumbling—in a little mountain town in Northern Peru called [TK-NAME OF TOWN HERE]. And, um, for years, I think all of us remember when a long distance call was, like, a really big deal. And for years we would call my grandmother, and it would be a really bad connection, it was a really big deal for us. And uh, the fact of the matter is, probably from about 1993 on, every single time my brother and I called our almost centenarian grandmother in a little mountain town in Northern Peru, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was making a record of it. And this is kind of the secret history of the “215 program” that folks in this room probably know about, but I don’t think the point has been sharpened in this respect. Before 215, the program that allowed the collection of all of our call records all the time, was a Drug Enforcement Administration program that logged international calls. They were not international calls to just anywhere, they were international calls to mostly all Latin-American areas and certain areas elsewhere. And, um, I remember this story coming out, and no one making the second leap in that sentence. The first leap being all international calls were logged, the second leap being that probably means that if you’re a Latino living in the United States, every time you called your mom, or your grandmother, your grandfather, anyone back home, the Drug Enforcement Administration was keeping track of that.

And so, another instance I think you’re going to see this is with facial recognition. The FBI has a fifty-million strong database of faces that State and local law enforcement can use to identify suspects in photos. Before I left Capitol Hill, my boss, Senator Franken, inserted a request, made a request that would include in an audit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s facial recognition systems statistics on demographics and on who is in this database. And I suspect what’ll happen if GAO [Government Accountability Office] is able to produce this information is that it won’t be an equal representation of all of our communities in that database. That database is gonna be disproportionately poor, disproportionately Black, and disproportionately Latino. And so I think we need to reckon this fact.

Final point, and then I’ll close because I know we just wanted to do brief statements here. When I was a Senate staffer working on NSA reform legislation, and I know some of you have heard it before because I’ve said it to you, I noticed something very troubling. And it was this: we had so many hearings about NSA. We had so many hearings. We had hearing after hearing after hearing and that’s wonderful and each time the administration had sent people and they get yelled at and they would yell back and it was true sort of exchange of ideas, as much as you can have in an unclassified setting. Um, one thing that I never heard in any of those hearings—and I could’ve missed it, but I’m pretty sure I never heard it—was the name Martin Luther King. Or was the name Cesar Chavez. Or was any bit of this history of disproportionate surveillance of vulnerable communities. And, um, I think that’s everyone’s loss. I think that’s our loss because—I think that’s everyone’s loss because they don’t know, but I think it’s our loss because our coalition could be all the more stronger the more we have the civil rights community activated and moving alongside with us. I’ve said this before to someone and they’ve said, “Well, Alvaro, y’know, we don’t really need the Left. We need the Right. We need the Right to get to 60 [votes].” And this person was exactly right. You need the Right, you need Republicans, and God bless them, God bless folks that are in the Republican party that are with us on this surveillance issue, we need those folks to get to 60. But we need the Left to make sure that what we get out of that 60 is actually worth something. Because there are amendment notes after amendment notes and if your coalition is not strong you will lose those votes and you will get a far worse product because of it.

So, looking forward, we have a debate about Section 702, which allows for the surveillance of communications collected in the United States with one international—I’m sure I’m getting some tiny piece of that wrong—but, um, in those communications collected are some entirely domestic communications, we now know that. But in those communications are going to be awful lot of communications by immigrants. And this program does not affect everyone equally. It disproportionately impacts immigrants, it probably disproportionately impacts Latinos, and I think we need to put that forward and talk about that.

And I think I will close there.

Anika Collier Navaroli: Thank you. Thanks everyone, thanks again for coming. So before I talk a little bit about the surveillance and technology piece, I want to talk a step backwards and I want to talk about the notion of privacy as we currently know it. So the way that we typically think about it in these circles is the philosophical or the legal definition. And in doing that I think that we make certain assumptions. And I want to talk a little bit about those assumptions.

So, first, I think the assumption that we make is that there is agency over one’s own body or one’s own personhood. And I think the second assumption that we make is that privacy is this thing that exists. And in order to do so I think that we create a certain privilege. And to say that, I want to say essentially that there are certain communities within the United States who have never had the privilege of what I’m going to define as privacy.

So, privacy, by “privacy” what I’m talking about is non-surveillance, or a non-monitoring. And so basically what I’m going to talk about a little bit here is the Black community, just because that’s the community that I’m a member of, that’s the one I know the best, and it’s the one that I’ve studied the most.

So, I attended a conference very similar to this a couple of months back hosted by a lot of the same folks and I went to a panel that was about cybersecurity. So it started with the NSA programs Alvaro was just talking about and I think this is one that definitely did it right in discussing the historical impact and the disparities. And what I was shown at the very beginning of this panel was a document that was put up on the screen. And it was a very simple document. This document was stated to be the very first piece of surveillance within the United States. And what that was, was a “slave pass.”

An official "Negro Passport" issued by the Confederate States of America's official War Department in 1865.

And this was, for those of you who don’t know what a slave pass is, it was a piece of paper that was given to Black Americans back in the day. And this allowed them to physically move from one confined plantation to another. And without this pass, there was a serious risk of bodily harm and/or death. So from the very beginning of Black folks being in America, their physical presence has been monitored and surveilled. And this includes folks that were privileged enough to be free. They had Freed Men Passes, and without these, they were not able to move about freely. And as some folks have seen from “12 Years a Slave,” but those didn’t also always work all the time. So just moving back through history we see from the very, very beginning the notion of privacy as we know it never existed for Black folks in America.

And as we move through history, we end slavery, and then we have physical signs that told folks where they could walk, where they could sit, where they could eat, where they could drink, where they could do the very simple things of life. And again, very physical movements of people being monitored, being surveilled, and not following these signs again created a risk of serious bodily harm and/or death. This continued. So we go through what Alvaro was talking about, we know about the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. We know about Assata Shakur, in her book she talks a lot about when she became really big—her autobiography, excuse me—when she became pretty big in the Black liberation struggle, there was a certain point at which she stopped receiving phone bills, but yet her phone was never disconnected.

Audience: [laughter]

Assata Shakur, a Black woman.

Anika Collier Navaroli: And that was the moment that she realized that her phone was in fact wiretapped. And again, now we know what happened. Everything has been declassified, we know about COINTELPRO, we know about J. Edgar Hoover, we know all these things now. But in those movements, not just the physical movements but also the social movements of Black people were being monitored. So, to me, it’s not extraordinary when we think about today’s society. And we think about the fact that the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring Black Lives Matter movement activists at things as simple as concerts. It’s not extraordinary to me that there are allegations in Chicago of Stingray devices being used to monitor the movements of protesters as they move about the streets. These things are not extraordinary in that the existence the privilege of privacy never existed for Black folks in America and to this day is not a notion that is really known.

And so I kinda want to start my thought process there and just realize and ground this conversation in the knowledge that when we talk about surveillance, when we talk about technology, we are talking about brand new tools for a thing that has always been going on.

Hamid Khan: Hi, good afternoon. My name is Hamid. I am from Los Angeles with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. I want to start off by just picking up where Anika stopped where, what I gathered was, for many communities historically speaking and even currently as well, privacy is a luxury, it’s not really a right. So I think that’s something that we need to really just at least acknowledge and put it out there. Secondly, since yesterday, if I was not working on the ground on the streets, just organizing out in Los Angeles, one would assume that surveillance is purely a Federal issue whereas the local police is kept completely out of the equation most of the time. And when you look at history, before the FBI came into existence, the police Red Squads were very much in operation. And the police Red Squads didn’t start because the Russians were coming. The police Red Squads started in the 1880s because of the Haymarket strike in Chicago. That was the formation. In 1886 Haymarket happens. In 1888, Chicago police department is the first department to formally incorporate a section which was going to engage in covert intelligence gathering and surveillance of communities. And from there on, we see this rapid escalation of the Red Squads.

So local police is and has always been on the forefront of surveillance, spying, and infiltration. There was a conversation about Stingrays, there was a conversation around automatic license plate readers, the Los Angeles Police Department has all these tools. We talked about Fusion Centers, the Los Angeles Police Department has its own internal Fusion Center as well. New York Police Department works closely with the CIA. So the point I’m trying to raise is that locally law enforcement have been on the front lines of surveillance, spying, and infiltration.

Which brings me to the point then, of how does it impact communities, and particularly communities of color. And most of the time the conversation starts from impact, rather than core concepts. Like, y’know, okay, well, this is what has happened, without us backtracking and seeing what has been the history behind this thing. Another thing that Anika raised was that this is not a moment in time, this is a continuation of history.

So Bill Bratton is known all around the world, not just in the United States, as one of the “top cops.” I mean, as much bogus propaganda as there is. And Bill Bratton is really the one who pushed the “Broken Windows” theory. So I just want to ask Paul, if you could open that Word document from Edward Banfield. So—if you can—Edward Banfield was the intellectual guru of James Q. Wilson who was one of the coauthors of the infamous Broken Windows article in The Atlantic in 1982, which was coauthored by George Kelling, and this is what set the tone for how Broken Windows was informed:

Edward C. Banfield, a white man wearing a suit and tie.

The implication that lower-class culture is pathological seems fully warranted. Rather than waste time and public money implementing policies based on the false notion that all men were created equal, better to just face facts and acknowledge the natural divisions that exist. Members of the lower classes should leave school in ninth grade, to get a jump on a lifetime of manual labor. The minimum wage should be replaced to encourage employers to create more jobs for “low-value labor.” The state should give “intensive birth-control guidance to the incompetent poor.” And the police should feel free to crack down on young lower-class men.

Edward Banfield, mid-century political scientist, University of Chicago

So that “the police should feel free to crack down on young lower-class men.” This is the origin of “Broken Windows” policing.

So this is the tally as of yesterday how many people have been murdered by law enforcement in the United States as of 2015.

The Guardian's "The Counted" data visualization project keeps demographic records of reported police murders.

Nine-hundred and two already. This is a tally that was started by The Guardian. It’s called “The Counted.” And when you do the math, every seven hours and thirty-six minutes, someone is being murdered by law enforcement. I mean, just posit this for a second. Every seven hours and thirty-six minutes. Today, as we sit here, more than three people on average will be killed by law enforcement. And look at the numbers. Los Angeles leads that. Eighteen already in 2015. When you look at per-million, 5.24 Blacks per million. 2.42 Hispanic/Latino per million. 2.1 white. So 250% is the disparate impact on the Black community on how law enforcement is murdering them.

How is the law enforcement responding when we go and protest this? Can you go to the next slide, please?

LAPD Sheriff's Department officers wearing full body armor, face plates, and other extreme military combat outfitting.

This is what we look at. This is what we are facing. This is the intense militarization of the police. This is when we go out onto the street. This is how we are met. This is how we are brutalized. So when somebody talks about privacy and then people talk about “hacking,” the previous slide shows how families are being hacked. How their spirits are being hacked. How trauma is being created. And this is what is going on the streets of Los Angeles.

And the last couple of slides I just want to show, if you wanna go to the third one. This is now happening.

The Daily Beast reports on the first legal "Taser Drones" in the United States.

North Dakota is the first State in the country that is now authorized law enforcement use of drones armed with “non-lethal weapons,” as if tasers and rubber bullets have never killed people. And lastly I just want to show you a slide. This is what we are facing. This is the LAPD’s architecture of surveillance, something that we know now.

Circular diagram depicts how the various component of the United State's domestic surveillance, spying, and infiltration architecture fit together.

From Fusion Centers to Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) program, to “See Something, Say Something,” to the Intelligence Gathering Guidelines where they can legitimately now place informers in political groups where they can also, the cops can take fictitious personas and fake identities to Facebook or social media. Then you look at Predictive Policing, then you look at TrapWire technology, which is a street-level camera that picks up your body image and immediately transfers it to the Fusion Centers, to Stingray, and then somebody was saying that Stingray is not going to be used because now they’re using “dirt-boxes,” the Digital Receiver Technology, which is Stingray on steroids. And then we move into the Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs), Drones with high-definition cameras. The DHS memo basically, and this is what leads to the how police begin surveillance of poor people, because my work is based out of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, where gentrification is running rampant, and one of the things this memo said was it took three small cases of low-level arson and they put a memo out that said if there is any housing rights activists, that if there is any rally or if there is anything going on, that should be considered a suspicious activity, and a Suspicious Activity Report should be filed on housing rights activists. And then we see the militarization, Joint Terrorism Task Force, and the Fusion Centers.

And I want to end by saying that as we are looking at this, who ultimately is going to pay the price? I mean, when we look at the murders on the street, the most recent audit of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Suspicious Activity Reporting, two years ago, came out that—now these are counter-terrorism programs, most of the police now is heading towards counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency—that all the SARs that were sent to Fusion Centers, over thirty-one percent of them were filed on Los Angeles’s Black community, the community that is less than ten percent of the population. A three-to-one disparate impact. In the gender count, fifty percent of these SARs were opened on Black women. These are counter-terrorism programs.

Lastly, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has now become the largest repository of biometrics, they have now a database where they can gather biometrics on fifteen million subjects, and that is an extension of the US military (Navy and Marine) program called the Identity Dominance System, which started in Afghanistan where they had basically taken everything off of the whole population of Afghanistan and now as of this month are launching into the second phase, which is called the IDS-2, Identity Dominance System 2.0, where they are going to start looking at a person’s gait, how you walk, how you move your hands and your arms.

So in essence, what we are seeing is now that speculative policing is going to the next level. Because what this all is, it is speculative policing, and I’ve reached my time, so I’ll stop right there.

Singer: iMiX! What I like! What I like! What I like!

[music]

Pair with David Whitehouse on the disturbingly intimate relationship of policing and schooling.

CryptoParty Albuquerque: A Gentle Introduction to Threats and How To Defend Against Them

One of the unique things about CryptoParty Albuquerque was simply the diversity of participants. Not only was CryptoParty Albuquerque the largest cryptoparty I’ve had the pleasure to host (it began with over 35 people, check out this blog post to get a debrief on what you may have missed), but it was also the only one that didn’t have a pre-existing audience specifically in mind. What I mean is that, prior to this cryptoparty, the other cryptoparties I’ve hosted have all been for a single community—queer activists, or reporters, for example—rather than being aimed at “everybody.”

This means that, unlike other cryptoparties that functioned almost like anti-surveillance boot camps, this one really was a party in addition to being a skills-building workshop. The fact that we had ongoing educational activities that were set up kind of like museum exhibits (that you could touch, of course) in the center of the social and food spaces was really helpful. But it also meant that it was bit more difficult to set the stage for the event at the beginning, because we didn’t really know who was going to be there or what they wanted to focus on.

My co-host and I knew we wanted to start the event in one large group, because we wanted to make sure that everyone who participated was exposed to the most foundational concepts and immediately useful information. We decided that this meant we wanted to at least touch on these three things before we split up into breakout sessions:

  • threat modeling,
  • politics, and
  • digital “Know Your Rights” training.

What we ended up doing was back-to-back presentations at the start of the cryptoparty in which I gave a presentation on the first two bullet points, combining an inrtroduction to theat modeling with the political importance of what we are doing. This made sense to us because it is specifically the fascistic politics of the current Amerikkkan surveillance state that threatens the livelihood and pursuit of liberty of most people (of color) around the globe, obviously.

In my usual style, I created a fast-paced visual slideshow and distilled numerous different sources of information into a speech covering the bare essentials of threat modeling and surveillance politics that clocked in at under ten minutes. Unfortunately, my presentation was not recorded live at the cryptoparty itself, but I’ve recreated it in this video embedded below. What follows is the re-created video of my introduction to CryptoParty Albuquerque and an aspirational transcript of my welcome speech:

Are. You. Ready. To. CRYPTO?

:)

Welcome, welcome everybody to CryptoParty Albuquerque, the first crypto party in New Mexico! Thank you to our hosts, thank you to my co-host and co-organizers, to everyone who’s been working so hard this past week to make this event happen. And, of course, thank YOU all for coming!

So, the tagline of this event is “Learn how to protect your data from prying eyes,” and that’s what we’ll be doing during the CryptoParty. You’ll have the opportunity to participate in a hands-on digital safety training, some privacy workshops, and if you take a look around, you’ll see we’ve set up numerous educational activities around the space at our “activity stations.” We’ll talk more about all of these in a just a little bit.

But when we say “learn how to protect your data from prying eyes,” the obvious next question is: “Whose eyes?” In other words, who are we protecting our data from? Well, broadly speaking, there are three main categories of adversaries one might want to protect one’s data from. They are:

  • Governments,
  • Corporations,
  • and malicious individuals.

When it comes to governments, I like to quote Taylor Swift, who says, “Mass surveillance is the elegant oppression, a panopticon without bars. Its cage is small but out of sight, behind the eyes—on the mind.”

Swift is talking here about the global and domestic mass spying conducted by the NSA. And, okay, maybe this isn’t a real Taylor Swift quote, but you get the idea.

If this is a bit too abstract for you, remember that just this week we learned that the Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring the Black Lives Matter movement since anti-police protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri last summer. DHS agents are even producing minute-by-minute reports on protesters’ movements, even for the most mundane of community events. This shit is real, my friends!

With regards to corporate adversaries, we see plenty of examples of abuse and privacy violating behavior. In November of 2014, for example, Josh Mohrer, the general manager of Uber New York, was busted for using an internal Uber tool called “God View” that shows the company’s execs the real-time location of every single customer and driver. Mohrer was using the tool track the movements of a journalist, without her permission or consent. And just one month before that, in October 2014, two bombshell stories in the New York Times detailed how PR firms representing the oil and gas industry have been openly plotting campaigns of dirty tricks against anti-fracking activists and opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline.

And then, of course, there are malicious individuals:

A normal Wednesday afternoon, this Colorado man is playing his favorite shooting game: heavily armed SWAT teams battling are criminals, when suddenly the imaginary world broke into reality—quite literally.

“I think we’re getting SWAT’ed. What in the world?”

“POLICE! PUT YOUR HANDS UP! HANDS ON YOUR HEAD! GET ON THE GROUND! NOW! MOVE! GET ON THE GROUND! GET ON THE FUCKING GROUND!”

The gamer, known as Kootra, was swatted.

This is a new kind of prank called swatting. This term stands for a mean prank: anonymous hackers reporting feet hostage situations and other violent crimes, all just to see SWAT teams rush in on innocent victims.

Swatting. I also call this: “attempted murder by cop.” So these are some examples of WHO you might want to protect your data from, and why.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Okay, that’s great, but…how?”

The answer to that is: Encryption.

Encryption is just math. But don’t worry! You don’t need to know any math—not even basic addition—because a bunch of very smart people already worked the math out, and a huge community of free software advocates encoded the mathematical algorithms in computer software programs. All you have to learn is how to use the software, and that’s what we’ll do here during the CryptoParty.

For example, If you want to browse the Internet anonymously or bypass online censorship, use Tor, a special Web browser that helps keep your physical-world location secret while you explore the Internet. Or perhaps you want to send a private text message? Use an app called TextSecure. Share a file without revealing your location? OnionShare. Chat secretly? There’s an app for that, too. Software called the GNU Privacy Guard or GPG for short can secure your email, and you can install browser add-ons like Mailvelope to use it with your existing GMail account.

We’ll learn more about all of these tools tonight, during the CryptoParty. But with so many tools to learn, how do we decide what to use? And which one do we use, and when? For that, we need a “threat model.”

A threat model is just a way of narrowly thinking about the sorts of protection you want for your data, and how to go about actually protecting it. Whenever you begin assessing threats to you or your data, ask yourself some basic questions about your situation, like:

  • What do you want to protect? We call things you want to protect “assets.” Assets can be physical, like your laptop or phone. But assets can also be information, like some information in an email, or knowledge of your home address.
  • Who do you want to protect it from? We just talked about adversaries: they are the people or organizations attempting to undermine your security or violate your privacy.

There are also some other questions involved in assessing threats, but the answers to all of these questions are personal and subjective. They’ll be different for different people. And we’re not here to tell you what to think or how to feel. That, obviously, is your government’s job.

So what we’re going to do is introduce a simple framework that you can understand and use to make better informed choices about the technology you use so that you can take steps to protect your privacy, confidentiality, and integrity. Remember, after all, that different people have different assets to protect from different adversaries.

Threat Pyramid

Importantly, different adversaries pose different kinds of threats, based on what capabilities they have. For example, an individual with a grudge may be able to send you harassing e-mails, but they don’t have access to all of your phone records, so they can’t use those against you. Your mobile phone provider, however, does have all your call logs, and therefore has the capability to use that data in harmful ways. Your government has even stronger capabilities.

Notice, also, the number of adversaries who can pose major threats is much smaller than the number who can pose only mild threats or annoyances. The power to do the most harm is concentrated in governments and some multinationals with extremely sophisticated capabilities. The more of a threat these capable adversaries can pose, the more power they have over everyone below them on the pyramid.

Now, it is specifically this hierarchy, where the most resourced governments and corporations have more surveillance capability than everyone else, this situation is sold to us as “security.” And the issue is not that no measure of security can be had from this arrangement. The issue is that whatever so-called “security” this set-up does happen to offer you is a matter of benevolence from everyone above you in the pyramid.

Let’s take a second look at these. What are these things?

Cameras mounted on a wall.

I bet at least half of you are thinking to yourselves, “Those are security cameras,” aren’t you? But these cameras do not, themselves, provide security. These are surveillance cameras. They collect data about everything they can see. That data—that video record—only increases your security if the person who controls the video record has your best interests at heart. Otherwise, the data collected by these cameras only help the people controlling the cameras; think about the huge difference between cameras on cops, and cops on camera.

So the people who perform the most powerful surveillance in the world are at the top of the pyramid—that would be the USA, and the UK, etc. Anyone who chooses to rely on such surveillance for their “security” is putting blind trust in everyone who performs more powerful surveillance than they can.

A common fallacy is that with total surveillance comes security. That is, they say that after you give up your privacy, they will give you security. But what we see in reality is that even with that total surveillance, you still have the Westgate Shopping Mall terrorist attack in Kenya, you still have the Boston Marathon bombing, you still have the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in downtown Charleston, and it is not stopped. Not to mention things like SWAT-ting, abusive phone calls from your evil ex, and the constant small harassments normal people deal with on a daily basis. And these attacks are not stopped because surveillance, itself, is not security.

Surveillance brings the ability to control some people some of the time, because “When we know we might be under surveillance, our behavior changes. We might decide not to go to a political meeting, to censor what we tell friends, family, and colleagues, thinking it might fall into the wrong hands or simply be made public. Under surveillance we may decide not to become a whistleblower.” Surveillance erodes privacy, which is a necessary condition for thinking and expressing oneself freely. But it still does not make us safe.

So our privacy is violated, our ability to express ourselves is controlled. Meanwhile, violent attacks on random individuals are rarely stopped. Our security is far from guaranteed. The people who benefit from surveillance are the people behind the video camera, not the people in front of it.

If we can’t rely on big, powerful surveillance states with sophisticated technology to have our best interests at heart—and we can’t—what can we do to keep ourselves safe and secure?

In the digital realm, we can encrypt, because encryption doesn’t depend on anybody else’s good will. It depends solely on math. No amount of physical force can coerce or threaten math. The police cannot beat up encryption algorithms with a nightstick. Encryption, like an idea, is literally bulletproof.

At this point, maybe some of you are thinking, “Yeah! Encrypt ALL the things!” And maybe some other people in the audience are sitting here thinking, “Augh! This sounds hard!” To you folks, I want to say: Take a deep breath, relax. Remember that you don’t have to be perfect at this. Remember that all things are difficult before they are easy. Remember that you don’t have to encrypt all the things immediately, today. There is a lot to learn!

So pick one thing, just one thing to start out with based on your personal threat model, because every little bit does help. The more encrypted data there is out there, the safer everyone who uses encryption is. And even if all you do is encrypt your apple strudel recipes when you send emails to your mother, you’re still helping by making it harder and more expensive for the adversaries of political dissidents, activists, journalists, friends, colleagues, and family, to target them.

So choose a tool you’re interested in knowing more about, go to a breakout session, and above all else, remember: KEEP CALM AND ENCRYPT.

Thank you all for listening.

Just say OXI to capitalists: How to understand what’s happening in Greece and why it’s a big fucking deal

Greece gives austerity foisted on them by the Troika the middle finger.

Gotta admit, I haven’t been as excited about the result of a vote, of all things, as I am about the Greek referendum rejecting continued austerity through forced imperialist-capitalism. Here’s a brief roundup of articles explaining the situation that I liked, along with my own commentary sprinkled in for good measure.

Let’s start with an unusually easy-to-read and easy-to-understand article from Business Insider, whose headline is all but shouting from the rooftops in all-caps. Their article, GREECE JUST TAUGHT CAPITALISTS A LESSON ABOUT HOW CAPITALISM WORKS, reads as follows:

Greece has effectively voted to default on its debt to the IMF [which is the International Monetary Fund, basically a gigantic multi-national bank controlled by Western military powers like the USA] and the EU[, in other words, Greece voted to outright defy demands that it pay back money it borrowed], and it is a massive defeat for Germany’s Angela Merkel and the troika [“troika” is a nickname given to the three major capitalist banking institutions, of which the IMF is one] she led, which insisted there was no way out for Greece but to pay back its massive debts.

The vote is huge lesson for conservatives and anyone else who thinks this is about a dilettante government of left-wing idealists who think they can flout the law while staging some kind of Che Guevara-esque dream:

Wrong.

This is what capitalism is really about.

From the beginning, Merkel and the EU have operated from the position that because Greece took on debt, Greece now needs to pay it back. That position assumed — bizarrely, in hindsight — that debt only works one way: if you lend someone money, then they pay it back.

But that is NOT how free markets work.

Debt is not a guarantee of future payments in full. Rather, it is a risk that creditors take, in hopes of maybe being paid tomorrow.

The key word there is “risk.”

If you’re willing to take the risk, you’ll get a premium — in the form of interest.

But the downside of that risk is that you lose your money. And Greece just called Germany’s bluff.

The IMF loaned Greece 1.5 billion euros, due back in June, and Greece isn’t paying it back. Greece has another 3.5 billion due to the ECB in July, and that looks really doubtful right now. [The ECB is the European Central Bank, the bank that controls the Euro currency; the ECB is basically Europe’s version of the Federal Reserve, i.e., “the Fed,” that thing Libertarians hate.]

This is how capitalism works. The fact that it took a democratically elected government whose own offices are adorned with posters of Lenin, Engels and Guevara to teach this lesson to Germany is astonishing.

More astonishing still is that Merkel et al knew Greece could not pay back this debt before these negotiations started. The IMF’s own assessment of Greek debt, published just a few days ago, states: “Coming on top of the very high existing debt, these new financing needs render the debt dynamics unsustainable …”

“Unsustainable”! Germany’s own bankers knew Greece couldn’t pay this back. And yet Merkel persisted.

At this point you’re probably wondering, “Why on God’s green Earth would Merkel and other European political leaders agree to loan money to people they knew could not pay it back?” Well, do y’all remember that big “global financial crisis” in 2008? Yeah, so, about that:

There is another key fact that the Greeks are keenly aware of (but which everyone else has forgotten). This debt was initially owed to private investment banks, like Goldman Sachs. But the IMF and the ECB made the suicidal decision to let those private banks transfer that debt to EU institutions and the IMF to “rescue” Greece. As Business Insider reported back in April, former ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet insisted that the debt transfer take place:

The ECB president “blew up,” according to one attendee. “Trichet said, ‘We are an economic and monetary union, and there must be no debt restructuring!’” this person recalled. “He was shouting.”

[“Debt restructuring” is a euphemism that basically means the terms of a loan that was already made gets changed, usually to benefit the borrower, which has happened countless times throughout history and dates back to Biblical times, but that capitalist bankers basically never want to admit is possible because it means they don’t get their money back.] The result was that the ECB made this catastrophically stupid deal with Greece, according to our April report:

And so there was no restructuring agreed for Greece. The country paid off its immediate debts to the private financial sector — investment banks, basically — and replacement debt was laid onto European taxpayers [that is to say, instead of forcing the private sector’s big banks to account for their own financial losses, the financial records/”agreements” were altered so that the Greek government and thus the Greek taxpayer was held responsible for replacing the money that the non-Greek/big bank creditors lost]. The government [of Greece—which at the time was controlled primarily by corrupt conservatives, more on that in a moment—]agreed to a package of harsh government spending cuts and structural reforms [in other words, cutting social services, things we think of as “food stamps” and the like, and making daily life even harder for the already-poorest Greeks] in exchange for loans totalling €110 billion over three years.

Trichet made a colossal, elementary mistake. [Or so Business Insider likes to characterize it. But was it a “mistake,” or an economic power grab that ended up as an overreach thanks to Greek defiance? Hold that thought!] The right place for risky debt by definition is in the private markets, like Goldman. The entire point of private debt investment is that those creditors are prepared for a haircut. The risk absolutely should not be borne by central banks who rely on taxpayer money for bailouts.

In fact, had Trichet made the opposite decision — and left the Greek debt with Goldman et al — then today’s vote would be a footnote rather than a headline in history. “Goldman Sachs takes a bath on Greek debt.” Who cares? Goldman shareholders and clients, surely. But it would not have triggered a crisis at the heart of the EU. [In other words, if the ECB had let Goldman Sachs eat the losses they, themselves, brought on themselves, rather than demanding that already-poor countries like Greece make up for the lost revenue on Goldman’s behalf, Greek’s defiance today would not be a big deal, obviously. But since the ECB insisted that the public sector, i.e., regular working people, pay back the capitalist bankers’s own lost money, Greek’s vote to defy doing so is a major blow to the Troika’s power.]

Now Italy, Spain and Portugal are watching Greece closely, and thinking, hey, maybe we can get out of this mess too.

Not just the other EU states, though! The rest of the world, too. Like, say, American students saddled with student loan debt. After all, if an entire country can just refuse to pay back money it supposedly owes—even though they didn’t really owe any money to start with (it was really Goldman Sach’s debt), an important detail we’ll talk about in more detail a little later—why can’t you or I just refuse to pay back our student loans, or our credit cards? What’s stopping us from just saying we won’t pay back money we borrowed? It’s clearly not impossible to do just that! Look at what Greece is doing!

But of course, since this article is in Business Insider—which is basically capitalism’s version of a fetish magazine—despite being a fantastic summary of the history, its conclusions take a bizarre turn for the demagogically extreme against Greece’s defiance, predicting disaster for the Greek people:

Now, before we all start singing “The Red Flag” and breaking out old videos of “The Young Ones” in celebration, let’s inject a note of realism. Greece isn’t actually a country full of crazy socialists who don’t understand how the FX [that is, Foreign eXchange] markets work. In fact, a huge chunk of its tax collection problems[, which is one of the reasons the Greek economy has been shrinking for years] stem from the fact that there are two and a half times more self-employed and small business people in Greece than there are in the average country. And small businesses are expert at avoiding tax, Greece’s former tax collector told Business Insider’s Mike Bird recently. [Which may be true, but let’s not forget, dear capitalist wet dream magazine, that large businesses are even more expert at avoiding taxes, duh.]

Conservatives who hate paying taxes and who urge small businesses to pursue tax avoidance strategies take note: Your dream just came true in Greece.

If Greece was more socialist — more like Germany, with its giant corporations that have massive unionised workforces paying taxes off their payrolls — then tax collection would be a lot higher in Greece. [Eh, maybe, because let’s remember that tax collection, just like banking, is actually a “voluntary compliance” system, because agencies like the IRS don’t actually have a budget for hiring people to force citizens to pay taxes. Instead, the government, through a combination of its IRS auditors and law violence enforcement arms, can only retro-actively punish people for not paying taxes. This distinction matters because it’s actually exactly the same model as credit cards and debts: if you loan someone money and they don’t or can’t pay it back, what can you do about it? Sure, maybe you can afford to hire someone to break their legs, but the point is that, in America, the IRS literally can’t afford to do that to everyone who pays taxes. They can only afford to commit violence again (in the form of incarceration) or violently threaten, a few people who they are also able to catch not having paid taxes sometime in the past. And what if you loan money to an entire country and that entire country collectively declares it just won’t pay you back. What if every citizen of that country collectively decides, en-masse, they just won’t pay taxes anymore? Sound familiar to any Americans celebrating Independence day this weekend? No? Does a tea party sound good to you right about now? As the ruling government, what are you gonna do? Break the legs of every citizen in that country? Nuke it? Srsly, what you gonna do?]

Greece is now likely an international pariah on the debt markets. It may have to start printing its own devalued drachma currency. It will have no access to credit. Sure, olive oil, feta and raki will suddenly become incredibly cheap commodities on the export markets. Tourism in Greece is about to become awesome. But mostly it will be awful. Unemployment will increase as Greece’s economy implodes.

But the awfulness will be Greece’s alone. Greece is now on its own path. It is deciding its own fate.

There is something admirable about that.

Told you: Business Insider is predictably pessimistic about the Greek people’s own ability to make due without invading capitalist banking systems, almost to the point of outright racism. I mean, we can’t have people thinking a total break with capitalism will lead to anything other than death and starvation, now can we, Business Insider? But also, damn those dirty, untrustworthy, irresponsible Greeks, amirite? No. Just no. A blog post on Interfluidity perfectly sums up why not:

Greece is a remarkable country full of wonderful people, but along dimensions of development and governance, the place is plainly pretty fucked up. It has been fucked up that way for a long time, for decades at least. This has never been secret. Anyone who has visited Athens knows it has far more in common with Bucharest or Istanbul than with orderly Western European capitals. In the run up to Greece’s joining the Euro [i.e., abandoning their national currency in favor of the European Union’s joint currency], everyone who wanted to know knew that Greece’s qualifications to join the Eurozone were, shall we say, ambitious. Mainstream establishment banks “helped” Greece and other Southern European countries with accounting fudges that, while perhaps obscure, were not secret even at the time. Despite protestations when these deals hit the news in 2010 that officials were “shocked, shocked”, they were explicitly blessed by the agency that compiles the statistics on which Eurozone entrance was based in 2002 and Greece’s gaming was extensively reported in 2003 (ht Heidi Moore, both cites). The Euro was and ought to be primarily a political enterprise. In order to sell the common currency to Northern European elites, its architects required Eurozone members to meet strict “convergence criteria” and especially the requirements of the Stability and Growth Pact. But in practice, those criteria have always been interpreted flexibly. Most Eurozone members have broken their promises at one point or another, including both Germany and France. The Euro was a unification project, and erred (not unreasonably, I think) on the side of building a big tent.

Emphasis added because this is really important, my fellow navel-gazing Americans: the Eurozone and its unifying currency has always been about consolidating political power through economic power. That is, the whole point of the European Union is to be a single political union, not “a single monetary and economic one,” as former ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet screamed it was when denying Greece the courtesy of debt restructuring. As we’ll see, the presence of a unifying currency (the Euro) only benefits the rich members, while shitting on the poor members, despite all the promises to the contrary.

In simpler terms, what this means is that “the Eurozone” is like Europe’s version of the “United States.” Europe is a a lot of countries in a similar way as America is a lot of States. “Unifying” those smaller, disparate regional communities into one larger group of people has the effect of creating an even more powerful entity than all those that previously existed, but without being accountable to the smaller or less powerful constituent members. If the individual pieces of that entity all like, trust, and cooperate with one another, this kind of consolidation is a win-win, the very best of human ingenuity and empathy. But when there is animosity, resentment, or coercion between those groups, creating a larger super-group is bound to be, well, “problematic,” to put it mildly. This is pretty obvious stuff to anyone who’s ever tried playing a board game at a party one night with someone they can’t stand. And just as with the Euro, the value of a US dollar goes a lot farther in some States than it does in others, which tends to be good for richer States and bad for poorer ones.

Now, the way geopolitical power works today (in the model that world governments and nation states still operate under and have existed in since the Peace of Westphalia and the end of feudalism), is that, in basic terms, the amount of political power an entity such as a country has comes in part from sheer geographic size and in part from the unification of the beliefs and goals of the people in that geographic region. In other words, the more people in a single physical space that believe the same things, that want the same things, who make their goals the goals of their neighbors, the more political power that group has. If that unification of belief and goals is missing, there is, of course, an alternative: violence. Someone doesn’t agree with you? They won’t do what you want voluntary? Just force them to!

This is why empires colonize. It’s not rocket science, people. An empire is simply a nation state with a lot of people “belonging to” it (whatever that means) who have a lot of weapons and who use those weapons to project the power those weapons give them outside of their own home. In other word, they’re bullies. This rather bluntly describes the political foreign policy objectives of the United States and most of the richer Eurozone members like England, France, and Germany, and has throughout much of history. (World Wars. Crusades. Slave trade. And on, and on….) These are colonialist countries; they colonize other territories for the explicit purpose of increasing the amount of power they have.

Forget currency for a minute. Take one more step back, don’t think dollars. Think bullets. Forget debts. Think deaths. From a geopolitical perspective, currency and bullets are effectively two sides of the same coin. Whoever has the bullets sets the economic terms. The remarkable difference between the “barbarous” days of pre-history and today’s modern “civilization” is that, today, we have many more and different tools of violence and coercion than just big swords or guns (although we have those, too). We have tools like money, or to put it in even more euphemistically whitewashed terms, economic policy.

Which brings us back to the wrinkle that the Business Insider article conveniently overlooked: how did it come to be that the troika was able to just unilaterally decide that Greece had to pay back the debt that Goldman Sachs and other private sector banks actually incurred? How did that even happen? That’s like if you go out to dinner with three rich guys who all want to eat at a 5-star hotel restaurant (hey, they can afford it), and you want to go to a corner deli (because that’s the only thing within your budget), and somehow y’all hit up the 5-star hotel restaurant but you’re the one holding the bill at the end of the night. Like, hold the fucking phone, ya know?

The Interfluidity article described the issue here really nicely:

The European financial system was architected to make lending to Greece — and Spain and Portugal and Italy — a money machine for bankers with little career risk over a medium term. Sketchy credits tend to punch above their weight in terms of volume of issuance, so there was a lot of nice paper to buy. The bankers who lent to these states understood perfectly well that there was in fact a long-term risk, an uncertainty, a constructive ambiguity. They lent anyway, and took home very nice salaries and bonuses for doing so. It was conventional to lend, the mainstream consensus was that credit risk was over and worry warts were old-fashioned, Europe was strong and would work this out. If the worry warts turned out to be right, it was likely years away, IBGYBG.

When the game was up, when the global house of credit cards collapsed in the late Aughts, European leaders had a choice. They had knowingly and purposefully brought weak states into the Eurozone, because they genuinely, even nobly, wished to build a large, strong, United Europe. [Although who really still believes that it was about anything other than the money?] When they did so, they understood there would be crises. A unified Europe, they had always claimed, would be forged one crisis at a time. The right thing to have done for Europe at this point would have been to point out the regulatory errors and misaligned incentives that encouraged profligate lending and enabled corruption and waste among borrowers, and fix those. Banks that had made bad loans would acknowledge losses. The banks themselves would have to be restructured or bailed out.

But “bank restructuring” is a euphemism for imposing losses on wealthy creditors [i.e., “bank restructuring” is a way to say that those rich guys who stuck you with the bill should actually have to pay their own share of said bill]. And explicit bank bailouts are humiliations of elites, moments when the mask comes off and the usually tacit means by which states preserve and enhance the comfort of the comfortable must give way to very visible, very unpopular, direct cash flows.

The choice Europe’s leaders faced was to preserve the union or preserve the wealth, prestige, and status of the community of people who were their acquaintances and friends and selves but who are entirely unrepresentative of the European public. They chose themselves. The formal institutions of the EU endure, but European community is now failing fast.

It is difficult to overstate how deeply Europe’s leaders betrayed the ideals of European integration in their handing of the Greek crisis. The first and most fundamental goal of European integration was to blur the lines of national feeling and interest through commerce and interdependence, in order to prevent the fractures along ethnonational lines that made a charnel house of the continent, twice. [Two World Wars leaves a bunch of scars, after all….] That is the first thing, the main rule, that anyone who claims to represent the European project must abide: We solve problems as Europeans together, not as nations in conflict. Note that in the tale as told so far, there really was no meaningful national dimension. Regulatory mistakes and agency issues within banks encouraged poor credit decisions. Spanish banks lent into overpriced real estate, and German banks lent to a state they knew to be weak [that is, they lent to Greece]. Current account imbalances within the Eurozone — persistent and unlikely to reverse without policy attention — implied as a matter of arithmetic that there would be loan flows on a scale that might encourage a certain indifference to credit quality. [Which is to say, the math doesn’t equal out. Somewhere, someone’s debt is going to be forgiven. The question is whose? The rich banker shitfucks, or yours?] These were European problems, not national problems. But they were European problems that festered while the continent’s leaders gloated and took credit for a phantom prosperity. When the levee broke, instead of acknowledging errors and working to address them as a community, Europe’s elites — its politicians and civil servants, its bankers and financiers [the Goldman Sachs, the hedge funds, the corrupt politicians, the guys who just said “IBGYBG” and made off with mountains of cash in the process] — deflected the blame in the worst possible way. They turned a systemic problem of financial architecture[, an architecture that, due to the unaccountability of the big banks, systemically incentivized major corporate fraud that reached a head in 2008,] into a dispute between European nations. They brought back the very ghosts their predecessors spent half a century trying to dispell. Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame.

[…]

With respect to Greece, the precise thing that European elites did to set the current chain of events in motion was to replace private debt with public during the 2010 first “bailout of Greece”. [The taxpayer got stuck with the bill. Again. And this is that bait-and-switch again! How did they just “replace” it???] Prior to that event, it was obvious that blame was multipolar. Here are the banks, in France, in Germany, that foolishly lent. Not just to Greece, but to Goldman’s synthetic CDOs and every other piece of idiot paper they could carry with low risk-weights. In 2010, the EU, ECB, and IMF laundered a bailout of mostly French and German banks through the Greek fisc. Cash flowed into Greece only so it could flow out to rickety banks. Now, suddenly, the banks were absolved. There were very few bad loans left on the books of European lenders, everyone was clean, no bad actors at all. Except one. There were the institutions, the “troika”, clearly the good guys, so “helpful” with their generous offer of funds. And then there was Greece. What had been a mudwrestling match, everybody dirty, was transformed into mass of powdered wigs accusing a single filthy penitent [the Greeks] (or, when the people with their savings in just-rescued banks decide to be generous, a petulant misbehaving child). [antidote]

[…]

But don’t the Greeks want to borrow more? Isn’t that what all the fuss is about right now? No. The Greeks need to borrow money now only because old loans are coming due that they have to pay, and they have been trying to come to an agreement about that, rather than raise a middle finger and walk away. The Greek state itself is not trying to expand its borrowing. Greece’s citizens and businesses would like to expand the country’s borrowing indirectly, by withdrawing Euros from Greek banks that the Greek banks won’t be able to come up with unless they are allowed to expand their borrowing from the ECB. That is, Greece’s citizens are in precisely the place France’s citizens and Germany’s citizens were in 2010, at risk that personal savings maintained as bank deposits will not be repaid. Something was worked out for French and German citizens. Other than resorting to the ethnonational stereotypes that European elites have now revived in polite company, what is the justification for a Greek schoolteacher losing her savings that wouldn’t have applied just as strongly to a French schoolteacher five years ago? Because Greeks are responsible, as individuals, for what the governments they elect do? Well, then I deserve to be killed for what my government has done in Iraq and elsewhere. Is that where we want to go?

Put another way, France and Germany and the United Kingdom and Belgium and all these richer EU member countries didn’t get stuck with massive amounts of public debt when their banking systems came to a screeching halt due to the very same kind of banker malfeasance and political corruption that’s been plaguing Greece. Have a look at this chart showing the differences between the various “recoveries” that the troika’s “helpful” policies have provided for different EU member states:

Chart shows the Real gross domestic product of various EU member states following the 2008 global financial meltdown. Only the UK, Germany, Belgium and France have had growing economies. Greece's economy has plummetted.

That is to say, in the version of the three-rich-guys-take-you-out-to-dinner-story for French or German citizens, you (the citizen) didn’t get stuck with the bill. But in that version, you’re French, or German, or English. You weren’t Greek. Only in the Greek version of this story does the regular citizen, the worker, the taxpayer, only in the Greek version, the version of the story featuring an already-poor country, it’s only in that version where you get stuck with the bill at the end of the night. Because fuck Greek people, right?

And this is the ultimate answer to the puzzle of how the troika saddled Greek with public debt: because they had the political and economic power, backed by many, many more bullets than Greece has, to do it. When you peel away all the layers of bureaucratic and linguistic euphemisms, what it boils down to is the ability to muster sheer force to enact one’s will. In the case of the Eurozone, it is in the elite’s interest to stir up racist stereotypes of lazy, irresponsible Greeks because that pits Frenchman against Grecian. This is exactly what US politicians do when they invoke racist stereotypes of “welfare queens,” conveniently forgetting that welfare was very strongly supported by social conservatives so long as the public funds went only to widowed white women, keeping them in the kitchen and out of the workforce, which was the original intent of social welfare programs. It wasn’t until Black women got in on the deal that the narrative was flipped on its head. Point is, if you’re a banker who’s made mountains of cash while knowingly offloading long-term risk to your fellow citizens, it’s way better to have all Frenchmen hating all Greeks than to have all Frenchmen less wealthy than you are (which would be most of them) and all Greeks hating you. Just as if you’re a racist white demagogue politician in Amerikkka, it’s better to have poor white people hating poor Black people than have all Black people and poor white people hating you together. It’s a tactic right out of the classic colonial playbook: divide and conquer.

Hence why the Greeks’s collective refusal to accept the newly-horrific terms of their already-heartless creditors (the troika) is so meaningful: it shines the spotlight of culpability directly back on the creditors, avoiding the ethnonational and racial accusations that the capitalist bankers are using to wage their class war. The Greeks are not paying the bill they’ve been unfairly stuck with, and they damn well shouldn’t have to, not just because it’s unfair, but because it’s actually even worse for them than I’ve let on so far. Unlike the overly simplified analogy of the dinner bill, the actual Greek people—the schoolteachers that Interfluidity mentions and even the conservative small business owners that Business Insider mentions, I mean the actual humans that make up the Grecian population—these actual humans didn’t even get to enjoy the 5 star meal. They’ve been dealt cuts to social services imposed by the economic policies of their creditors. This latest “No” vote was not just a refusal to pay back debts that weren’t even fairly levied against them in the first place, but also to refuse to agree to even worse terms of the deal than they originally had.

Greece is supposedly the birthplace of the model of democracy that America likes to tout as delivering a truly free society. Well, there’s certainly something decidedly American about what’s happening in Greece, “where, in the Course of human events [it became] necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” This idea of national independence that was so eloquently composed by the American revolutionaries when they were colonies has now been adopted by the Greek populace, who correctly feel as though they’re being treated like a colony of an invading European (and American) Empire. Whether or not Greece chooses to leave the European Union formally, a so-called #Grexit, as Scotland almost did for similar reasons, remains to be seen, but there’s no question now that this will be determined in large part by just how heartless and sociopathic Greece’s creditors are.

And while there may be some historical analogies to draw here, many things are also decidedly different between the United States and Greece today. The biggest difference relates to who Greece’s creditors actually are, versus who America’s creditors really are. Again, Interfluidity hits the nail on the head:

If citizens aren’t going to be held responsible for their governments’ bad debts, how will sovereigns borrow at all? Well, how do firms raise equity, when an equity claim makes no promise whatsoever that any cash will be returned? People invest in shares not because they have any sword of Damocles to hold over the enterprise, but because they believe the firm will engage in activities sufficiently productive that throwing some cash back to investors will not be burdensome, and because firms know repayment enhances access to continued finance. The same is true of sovereigns like the United States or the UK, which borrow easily in currencies they can print any time. Nothing prevents the US from conjuring $100T USD and handing it out to citizens, engineering a one-time inflation that leaves outstanding bonds nearly worthless. It wouldn’t even constitute a default. But the US has organized itself in ways that persuade creditors that their funds will be treated reasonably. Inflexible debt sows seeds of coercion and enmity between borrower and lender. Equity-like arrangements, including “debt” denominated in securities issuable at will by the debtor, require and encourage trust and collaboration. Sovereign debt in particular should always look like the latter, not the former, given the regularity with which government borrowings are disbursed into insiders’ bank accounts rather than used to aid the publics who might be pressured to foot the bill.

The United States, the United Kingdom, and the Eurozone can all do something Greece simply cannot, or at least cannot if it remains agrees to remain under the strict control of the troika as things were until now: Greece cannot arbitrarily create more money. Remember, the United States can just print more money. Literally, that’s what the Fed does. If there’s a need for more dollars, the Fed just decrees, like God Himself, that the money exists, and it does. Why can’t Greece do that? Because Greece has basically no power in the troika; the IMF and the ECB are not Greek institutions. In contrast, the Fed is an American institution, so if the American government finds itself lacking dollars, it does not need to petition some external actor to create more of them. It just creates those dollars itself.

What’s bizarre here is that Britain has basically the same situation as the United States, because they trade in Pounds Sterling, not Euros, even though they’re a Eurozone member. Strange, right? What gives London the right to set its own economic policy, to decide its own monetary interest rate, while other Eurozone member states like Greece are forced to adopt the policies of the (largely British) troika? Again: bullets.

In other words, Greece’s creditors are, of course, the richer European countries and—surprise, surprise—the American government and its corporate puppet masters through their influence at institutions like the IMF (which is headquarted in Washington, D.C., by the way). Here’s what Interfluidity has to say about that:

Blaming victims for having insufficiently perfect leaders is standard fare for apologists of predation. Unfortunately, understanding this may be of little comfort to the disemboweled prey.

Europe’s creditors are behaving exactly as one might naively predict private creditors would behave, seeking to get as much blood from the stone as quickly as possible, indifferent to the cost in longer-term growth. And that, in fact, is a puzzle! Greece’s creditors are not nervous lenders panicked over their own financial situation, but public sector institutions representing primarily governments that are in no financial distress at all. They really shouldn’t be behaving like this.

I think the explanation is quite simple, though. Having recast a crisis caused by a combustible mix of regulatory failure and elite venality into a morality play about profligate Greeks who must be punished, Eurocrats are now engaged in what might be described as “loan-shark theater”. They are putting on a show for the electorates they inflamed in order to preserve their own prestige. The show must go on.

Throughout the crisis, European elites have faced a simple choice: Acknowledge and explain to electorates their own mistakes, which do not line up along national borders of virtue and vice, or revert to a much older playbook and manufacture scapegoats.

Such tiny, tiny people.

Tiny people. With fat wallets. Holding big guns.

Just say OXI.

The solution to “these are bad rules” is not more rules, it is less rules.

By the late 20th century, Graeber argues, citizens in the great free society of the Unites States had come to spend “ever more hours struggling with phone trees and web interfaces, while the less fortunate spent ever more hours of their day trying to jump through the increasingly elaborate hoops required to gain access to dwindling social services.” Bureaucracy dominates our lives and is, in fact, a defining feature of how the United States (and some European states) project power domestically and across the world.

The proposition that the United States is a nation of bureaucrats grates on anti-government ideals of individualism and self-reliance, Graeber notes. Bureaucrats are supposed to be the antithesis of true Americans. After civil servants died in the Oklahoma City bombing, President Bill Clinton was forced to point out that bureaucrats are “people … just like most of you.” Our reliance on bureaucracy also clashes with a free-market ideology that defines bureaucracy as government red tape. One of President Ronald Reagan’s famous quips was, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

But the complete interdependence of the U.S. military and the defense industry is a forceful example of how corporations actually love bureaucratic rules that work in their favor. The true definition of the corporate rallying cry in favor of “deregulation” is in fact “changing the regulatory structure in ways that I like,” Graeber writes.

Accompanying the expansion of bureaucracy is an expansion of the use of force, or at least the threat of it, into parts of life that were not previously administered. We might think of police as principally protecting us from violent crime, solving murders and muggings and rapes, but they are mainly occupied in enforcing disputes over property and non-violent behaviors. “Bureaucrats with guns,” as Graeber puts it. He notes that the United States became a world power as it built up international administrative and enforcement bodies like the United Nations, the World Bank, NATO, and the World Trade Organization; global bureaucrats with mandates in addition to guns.

“The legal order, and hence the zones where state violence is the ultimate enforcer of the rules, has expanded to define and regulate almost every possible aspect of human activity,” Graeber writes.

The “utopia of rules” in the title of the book is twofold. In their ideal form, rules exist to control bad behavior. Even young children create rules for their games because they recognize that play, creativity, and joy can be destructive and arbitrary. Societies create rules to stop the worst inclinations of the mob.

Behind the utopia of rules is a belief in fairness — that the rules are the same for everyone. This, Graeber argues, is predicated on the idea that the system is perfect. He asks, “Is this not what we always say of utopians: that they have a naïve faith in the perfectibility of human nature and refuse to deal with humans as they actually are?”

The problem is that those in power can always interpret or change the rules to their benefit.

[…]

Bureaucratic systems aspire to be regarded as “neutral social technologies,” Graeber notes, just a means to an end. But he doesn’t believe bureaucracy is actually neutral: he thinks it stymies creativity and, under the cover of neutrality, preserves the advantages of the powerful by dominating the weak. He’s onto something. As we have seen with drone strikes, spying by the National Security Agency, and detainee torture by the CIA, laws and rules are not always obeyed, and they can be designed or twisted to authorize horrendous things.

via David Graeber’s ‘Utopia of Rules’ and Drone Warfare

See also:

David Whitehouse on the disturbingly intimate relationship of policing and schooling

In part of a larger talk on “The Origin of Police” at the Annual Socialism Conference in June 2012, David Whitehouse spent some time pointing out the disturbing connections between policing and schooling:

First of all, we need to put policing in the context of a bigger ruling-class project of managing and shaping the working class. I said at the beginning that the emergence of workers’ revolt coincided with a breakdown of old methods of constant personal supervision of the workforce. The state stepped in to provide supervision. The cops were part of that effort, but in the North, the state also expanded its programs of poor relief and public schooling.

Police work was integrated with the system of poor relief, as constables worked on registration of the poor and their placement in workhouses. That’s even before the police were professionalized—the constables were sorting out the “deserving poor” from the “undeserving poor.” If people were unemployed and unable to work, constables would direct them toward charity from churches or the city itself. But if folks were able to work, they were judged to be “idlers” and sent off to the horrors of the workhouse.

The system for poor relief made a crucial contribution to the creation of the market for wage labor. The key function of the relief system was to make unemployment so unpleasant and humiliating that people were willing to take ordinary jobs at very low wages just to avoid unemployment. By punishing the poorest people, capitalism creates a low baseline for the wage scale and pulls the whole scale downward.

The police no longer play such a direct role in selecting people for relief, but they do deliver a good deal of the punishment. As we know, lots of police work has to do with making life unpleasant for unemployed people on the street.

The rise of modern policing also coincides with the rise of public education. Public schools accustom children to the discipline of the capitalist workplace, including the submission to strict rules about the proper time to do things. The school reform movement of the 1830s and 40s also aimed to shape the students’ moral character. The effect of this was supposed to be that students would willingly submit to authority, that they would be able to work hard, exercise self­-control, and delay gratification.

In fact, the concepts of good citizenship that came out of school reform movement were perfectly aligned with the concepts of criminology that were being invented to categorize people on the street. The police were to focus not just on crime but on criminal types—a method of profiling backed up by supposedly scientific credentials. The “juvenile delinquent,” for example, is a concept that is common to schooling and policing—and has helped to link the two activities in practice.

This ideology of good citizenship was supposed to have a big effect inside the heads of students, encouraging them to think that the problems in society come from the actions of “bad guys.” A key objective of schooling, according to reformer Horace Mann, should be to implant a certain kind of conscience in the students—so that they discipline their own behavior and begin to police themselves. In Mann’s words, the objective was for children to “think of duty rather than of the policeman.”

Needless to say, an analytic scheme for dividing society between good guys and bad guys is perfect for identifying scapegoats, especially racial ones. Such a moralistic scheme was (and is) also a direct competitor to a class-conscious worldview, which identifies society’s basic antagonism as the conflict between exploiters and exploited. Police activity thus goes beyond simple repression—it “teaches” an ideology of good and bad citizenship that dovetails with the lessons of the classroom and the workhouse.

The overall point here is that the invention of the police was part of a broader expansion of state activity to gain control over the day-to-day behavior of the working class. Schooling, poor relief and police work all aimed to shape workers to become useful to—and loyal to—the capitalist class.

In other words, the ruling class’s overtly violence police forces need not do a lot to retain control over a population of people who are already policing themselves and each other. Policing children’s minds is what school was designed to do from the very beginning.

“[I]n favor of change I can see, not merely change I can believe in.”

I’m used to reactionaries; I grew up in Texas. I’m just not used to reactionaries coming in from the left. I suppose it’s a sign that the left is maturing, in much the same way that Bitcoin is maturing, which is to say becoming part of an established system that finds side effects existentially threatening. And if you can con someone into holding still for fear of what waves they might make if they were to move, whether it’s through guilt or fear or what-have-you, you no longer have to worry about their side effects. It’s the liberal version of “fuck you, got mine.”

Now, I got my first taste of this right around 25c3, when there was some press coverage of the biohacking work I’d been doing with lactobacillus. If you ever want to see a Democrat supporting gun rights, telling him one of his neighbours is doing synthetic biology in their kitchen seems to work — I have never gotten more death threats than I did when the Huffington Post picked up that article. And we can talk until we’re blue in the face about why that is, but I think what’s most interesting is that when presented with a sufficiently large example, people will blithely throw away what up until then they’d considered some of their most cherished beliefs, like guns being evil or murder being wrong, at least for the sake of argument. Obviously no one’s come up and shot me yet, so apparently no one’s completely pitched those beliefs out the window, and I’ll take that as a good thing. I’m in favour of not being shot. But I’m also in favour of change I can see, not merely change I can believe in. If that means poking the status quo with a stick to see what it does, I’m more inclined to do that than not. And if it responds, I’m just as inclined to do it again, like that XKCD comic with the electric shock button. Maybe I find out a little more about how it works. Maybe I find out a way it breaks. Either way, I’ve learned more about it than I knew before. And, crucially, I never would have found out if I hadn’t picked up that stick.

Meredith Patterson, eloquently describing the importance of angering the status quo in a must-read piece called “Nearly everything that matters is a side effect” on why the people who you think of—and who think of themselves—as “the good guys” are actually terrible.

See also:

If you miss Tumblrize, Tumblr Crosspostr is for you.

Remember Tumblrize? If you’re looking for a WordPress to Tumblr crossposter, the new Tumblr Crosspostr WordPress plugin is for you:

Tumblr Crosspostr posts to Tumblr whenever you hit the “Publish” (or “Save Draft”) button. It uses Tumblr’s simple API to keep posts in sync; when you edit your WordPress post, it updates your Tumblr post. Private WordPress posts become private Tumblr posts, deleting a post from WordPress that you’ve previously cross-posted to Tumblr deletes it from Tumblr, too, and so on. Scheduling a WordPress post to be published any time in the future will add it to the Tumblr blog’s Queue. (However, the publishing schedule of your Tumblr queue will take precedence, so be careful!)

Tumblr Crosspostr is very lightweight. It just requires you to connect to your Tumblr account from the plugin options screen. After that, you’re ready to cross-post!

Check out the Tumblr Crosspostr screenshots. You can send bug reports to me on GitHub. Like the plugin? Show your appreciation by rating it highly, and donating here.

After allowing Tumblr Crosspostr access to your Tumblr account, you'll find you're able to access the remainder of the options page. You must choose at least one default Tumblr blog to send your crossposts to, so this option is highlighted if it is not yet set. Set your cross-posting preferences and click

Enjoy it! And read on if you’re interested in some of my personal thoughts on plugin development, corporate APIs, and snark.

Editorial: The rise and fall of Tumblrize, and its rebirth as Tumblr Crosspostr

Some years ago, I made significant contributions to a WordPress plugin called Tumblrize. When I first found it, it was a basic cross-posting plugin that sent your WordPress posts to Tumblr. It only supported a few of Tumblr’s post types but it was reliable enough that I started using it as a backend to one of my most popular Tumblr blogs, MaleSubmissionArt.com.

Using WordPress with the Tumblrize plugin as a backend to post to Tumblr turned out to be extraordinarily useful. For one thing, it gave me an extremely portable backup of my Tumblr blog as I was creating it, because the original content of my Tumblr blog was itself generated from my WordPress posts. (WordPress blogs can be imported and exported almost any which way, while Tumblr has yet to provide any official tool to let you export your Tumblr content from their proprietary system). But it also let me take advantage of WordPress’s powerful multi-user and workflow capabilities to create Tumblr posts.

Turns out, I didn’t really realize how beloved or widely used Tumblrize was. When I hit the road and told employers and capitalists alike to go kill themselves, I stopped maintaining Tumblrize because I just didn’t need it anymore. Meanwhile, Tumblr retired the version of their API that Tumblrize supported and the plugin stopped working. There was a bunch of griping and moaning about it, but no one who offered to pay me to update the plugin actually followed through. (Gods, never trust a capitalist.)

But the other day, Tumblr updated their Terms of Service. In typical corpocratic style, it’s condescending and dismissive and basically full of shit. And if you don’t agree to the new terms, you have to politely request an archive of your content before they’ll actually give it to you. Some folks on Twitter have been waiting for days. That’s not just shitty, it’s also possibly illegal.

It’s like I first wrote when they started including their “Web in-stream” ads into user’s dashboards: Fuck. That. Corporate. Shit.

Long story short(er), this pissed me off. And I realized that while I’m still using Tumblr, making manual backups is kind of a pain. I’d much rather just, y’know, not have my critical content controlled by people who don’t give a shit about me. All companies are like that. Yahoo!, the owners of Tumblr, especially.

Very little is as motivating to me as being pissed off by something some shitty corporation is doing. So over the past three days, I re-wrote Tumblrize from scratch. The new version, also renamed to Tumblr Crosspostr, does everything Tumblrize used to do with Tumblr and then some. Both private posts and drafts are now supported, as is the Tumblr queue feature. The settings have been streamlined and the whole thing is localizable, so if you’d like to see Tumblr Crosspostr translated into your language, sign up to be a translator on the Tumblr Crosspostr Transifex project page.

I hope you enjoy using Tumblr Crosspostr. But most of all, I hope you start advocating for your basic digital rights. Terms of Service contracts are downright bullshit, and you should break, reject, and otherwise protest every single last line in every single last one of them as much as you possibly can. You should advocate for technologies that give you control over your use of it, and your data. And perhaps most of all, as soon as it’s safe for you to do so, you should quit your job.

I know most of you aren’t going to do any of that, because most of you are brainwashed capitalists who I don’t trust or like. For those of you, well, Tumblr Crosspostr is free software, so enjoy it. But ask yourself why it is you’re probably spending anywhere from forty to sixty or maybe even eighty hours a week doing something you probably wouldn’t choose to be doing if you didn’t need the money you think you need (called your “job”) in exchange for these silly socially-constructed value-tokens called currency all because you’ve been told “money doesn’t grow on trees,” that you’re then exchanging for actually useful things that you need to survive, like food—which, by the way, does in fact grow on trees.

The food you eat has become a weapon of class antagonism

Revolutions and the price of bread: 1848 and now (via @KemoKid):

In the graph above the little blue crosses indicate the price of wheat in certain countries that have experienced social unrest this year. The further to the top right the cross is, the higher the medium and short term price hike the country has suffered: for wheat and therefore for bread.

Saudi and Algeria are stable, Occupied Palestine, Jordan and Egypt are on the high end of the price spike; Tunisia, Yemen, Morocco and Lebanon significantly high. There is, therefore, a rough – but only – rough correlation between bread prices and revolutions. So far.

To put the above into perspective, take a look at the USDA’s estimates of food prices from countries around the world:

See how Pakistan is all the way over to the right with 45.5% of the average household spending going to food and America is all the way to the left, where only 6.9% of average household earnings are spent on food? That doesn’t seem fair. Quoting the Nielsen article:

[A]t a time when many countries around the world are facing double-digit inflation on basic food items, can the U.S. be far behind?

The simple answer is no.

At first glance, it looks like America is doing well keeping its food prices low—and thus its populace safely dissuaded from revolution. But peel away the curtain and the story is far more sinister. The question becomes, “How the hell can America afford to keep food prices so low when the average American farm size has actually decreased from 431 acres in 1997 to 418 acres in 2007?”

We have less farmland and yet more food today than we ever did before. And although many people, myself included, ignorantly believed that this was actually proof of “science’s achievements,” that simplistic analysis is wholly quantitative. What of our food’s quality?

According to sources compiled in 2010, the average american eats 1,996.3 lbs. of food per year. Unsurprisingly, most of it is mostly garbage. While charts like the one below may look nice, they don’t seem to account for how much the commodity, subsidized foods like corn are inside other foods and even in the diets of food-producing animals, such as (amazingly) COWS!

american-average-food-consumption

The answer to my question, I’m sadly beginning to realize, is that America keeps food prices low using government subsidies—corn subsidies, totaling $75 billion from 1995 to 2009, are the biggest there are, and by a long shot, as wheat subsidies come in a distant second totaling a mere $31.8 billion in the same timeframe—and immigrant labor trafficking. The best documentation I’ve seen of these issues is in the movie Food, Inc., which, to borrow the words of one review:

…is the definitive statement on how America produces crappy food to the detriment of the people who eat it, the animals who are treated cruelly in farms and slaughterhouses, and the largely immigrant workforce that labors in unsafe and low wage conditions. The only benefactors it would appear are the men who run Monsanto, Purdue, Smithfield and a small group of other huge multinationals that only see food as the ultimate commodity. When they look at a tomato, they don’t see something to eat but something to turn into a dollar no matter the consequences to society.

These are the other pieces in the same puzzle that Stephen Colbert highlighted when he testified on immigration reform to Congress. And thanks in part to America’s overwhelming—and overwhelmingly corrupt—military and economic dominance, such “consequences to society” are not confined to American soil. They are actively, intentionally exported to other countries, and all the problems that America’s food lobby foists onto Americans are also being foisted on the rest of the planet.

In 2002, Andrew Cassel discussed Why U.S. Farm Subsidies Are Bad for the World:

The farm bill, which the House of Representatives has approved and which the Senate could vote on this week, calls for taxpayers to fork over some $180 billion to farmers during the next decade. That’s a 70 percent hike above the cost of current farm-subsidy programs, most of which represent direct payments to wealthy farmers and agribusinesses.

Those subsidies make it possible to export millions of tons of food so cheaply that native farmers in places such as Jamaica can’t possibly compete.

By guaranteeing U.S. farmers a minimum payment for commodities such as corn, rice and soybeans, the government encourages overproduction. That drives down the market price, forcing even higher subsidies and creating surpluses that can be shipped to Jamaica and elsewhere.

As far as I can tell, little has changed since 2002. In fact, things have gotten worse. Since then, the Bush administration’s illegal wars in the Middle East have further destabilized the region and, in turn, caused oil prices to rise. And since so much of the food industry is mechanized, it needs oil to function. And that? Yup. You guessed it. Back to the Nielsen article:

With continued unrest in the Middle East and northern Africa and the resulting impact on global oil prices, we will likely see increased inflationary pressures from rising fuel prices have a similar impact on U.S. consumers as experienced in 2008 (i.e., shopping trip compression, more at-home consumption, value buying and increased coupon usage).

In short, it is a food pyramid, except the pyramid isn’t food groups, it’s classes of people, and the food isn’t really food anymore, it’s a weapon of class antagonism.

As the Obama administration continues Bush’s wars, and engages their own in Libya, oil prices continue to rise. This, in turn, raises costs for the food corporations, which, in turn, gives them reason to lobby the government for more food subsidies corporate welfare, which, in turn, help keep food unhealthy yet cheap, which, in turn, keep the American populace lethargic and compliant and fed, which, in turn, prevents us from revolting (at least in a mass democratic movement).

And if that weren’t bad enough, with food prices so low, and with America’s military literally blowing up acre after acre of the rest of the world so that they can’t produce their food natively even if they could compete economically, the large food corporations can supply the demand for food from other countries:

Global demand for U.S. food in developing countries is great for U.S. exports, but those gains may also lead to higher food prices for U.S. consumers.

So. Are you still proud of what your country has become, my fellow Americans?