Dread Pirate Roberts

Technology and terror

State antsiness about the ‘dark web’ reveals profound contradictions, argues Paul Demarty

On January 13, a trial began in Manhattan federal court, of some interest to followers of the technology industry’s wilder fringes. The defendant is one Ross Ulbricht - the American state alleges that he was the fiendish kingpin behind the website Silk Road. A kind of eBay for illicit substances, Silk Road was seized by the US authorities in the autumn of 2013, and Ulbricht arrested shortly after.

Tech cognoscenti on this side of the Atlantic, however, had bigger things to worry about - the day before Ulbricht’s trial began, prime minister David Cameron announced his latest wizard wheeze to fight international terrorism, which had, of course, forced itself back onto the immediate agenda with the Paris shootings. In his infinite wisdom, Cameron wishes to ban secure encryption altogether, to prevent terrorists from eluding the attention of spies.

Speaking of earlier stages in the history of surveillance, he told a Tory campaign event in Nottingham: “In extremis, it has been possible to read someone’s letter, to listen to someone’s call, to mobile communications … The question remains: are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to do that? My answer to that question is: no, we must not.”

Between them, Ulbricht and Cameron paint an interesting picture of the problems modern communications technologies pose state regimes - and illustrate neatly how such problems are very often at least partially self-inflicted.

Dumb pipes

It is probably fair to say that, on hearing of Cameron’s proposals, the whole of the civilian tech community groaned in despair. There is good reason for that: it is, prima facie, technologically and economically illiterate.

Cameron’s government has made much of the great prospects for web technology. Nobody likes a fresh-faced entrepreneur like a Tory chancellor; and nobody is more likely to be titillated by the capitalist-utopian rhetoric which emerges from the consumer technology industry. Tax incentives aplenty have come from the treasury in my profession’s general direction, in the vain hopes of pretending that all that stuff about “the march of the makers” was more than opportunistic hogwash.

The trouble with the internet is that it is basically indifferent to what it transmits. It is, as the jargon goes, a bunch of ‘dumb pipes’: these pipes can, of course, be tapped, quite as easily as the landlines of yore (and, if Edward Snowden has taught us anything, it is that they certainly are tapped), but if all you get is an encrypted message (that is, a bunch of gibberish that can only be read by its intended recipient), then the beleaguered spook’s job is significantly harder than it otherwise would be.

So Cameron - ever the Blairite - wishes to be tough on the causes of encryption, banning secure communication services without GCHQ-friendly holes in the technology (so called ‘back doors’). The first trouble, of course, is that back doors are equally ‘dumb pipes’: as novelist and techno-libertarian Cory Doctorow writes, “there’s no back door that only lets good guys go through it. If your [app] has a deliberately introduced flaw in it, then foreign spies, criminals, crooked police … and criminals will eventually discover this vulnerability.”1

Doctorow’s bigger objection is economic: the most reliable technology for securing messages is open source, thus widely available on the internet globally, and trivially easy to distribute (it is also easy to ensure that it has not been tampered with). Any attempt to demand a blanket back door will have the effect of completely disabling ‘legitimate’ technologists from doing their jobs effectively (it is difficult to see how Amazon could conduct business if they were forced to introduce a security hole in their payment processing, for example), without affecting technologically competent enemies of the state one iota.

For these reasons, we hope wiser heads will prevail when there is not an election to win. Alas, not all technologists are civilians: British spooks - an indolent crew, always looking for some way to avoid having to do some old-fashioned tradecraft - are thoroughly excited. So, we are sure, are the shadowy contractors who will benefit from the extra work.

Sailors and pirates

Above all, the web and modern communications are both a product of the hypertrophic state in declining capitalism, and a persistent irritant to it. Here we arrive at Ross Ulbricht’s predicament.

The story of Silk Road begins - of all places - in the US navy research labs. It was there that, in the mid-1990s, a mathematician and a pair of ingenious computer scientists first sketched out a new way of anonymising network traffic.

The internet may be a dumb pipe, but under normal circumstances, one can easily enough (if one is a spook with the right tools) suss out who sent a message, and who received it - and suss that out at any point. An encrypted message will have a sender and a receiver. A devious miscreant can misdirect things to a point, but not so much that a serious intelligence agency will be impeded significantly.

Then Paul Syverson, Michael Reed and David Goldschlag came up with a new approach - ‘onion routing’. Take a message, apply complex encryption to it, and send it around a series of known points on the global network. At each point, a successive layer of encryption is removed, revealing the location of the next destination - hence the onion metaphor. By the time the last such relay sends the message to the recipient, all trace of the origin is lost entirely. At no point in the chain can an eavesdropper know both sender and receiver, or indeed deduce how far along in its journey it is.

A hypothetical possibility became a reality in the next decade, with the Tor Project (‘the onion router’). Thousands of volunteer-run relays provide secure, anonymous web access to millions of people. And they do it all on the state department dime, which provides 80% of the funds for Tor, in support of its foreign espionage.

It was Silk Road that gained Tor its first mainstream-news notoriety. Sitting behind the Tor network, it enabled the minimally tech-savvy to purchase and sell illegal drugs in maddeningly full view of the authorities, which for years could not do anything about it. (Transactions were made in the equally anonymous cyber-currency, bitcoin.) Presiding over the bazaar was the ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’, who picked his name from the novel and film The princess bride, where ‘Roberts’ is a persona handed down from one pirate to the next, to preserve a fearsome reputation. It was plainly a pre-emptive middle finger to US law enforcement (‘Even if you get me, someone else will spring up in my place’).

‘Roberts’, according to the US authorities, turned out to be Ulbricht. He was caught the old-fashioned way - somebody fingered him to the FBI, and he subsequently attempted to commission a hit, unaware that the would-be assassin was an undercover agent. His lawyers are suggesting that he was set up, and the real ‘Roberts’ was one Mark Karpelès, whose bitcoin exchange (by far the largest at the time) went spectacularly bankrupt last year, costing many foolish speculators their life savings. Karpelès was under heavy legal pressure at the time of the Silk Road seizure, and was (we now know) believed to be ‘Roberts’ by the FBI; we cannot discount the possibility that he squealed on Ulbricht, although the latter’s story is hardly credible.

Somewhat predictably, Silk Road was immediately recreated, with a new ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ in charge, and, while that site too has now been shut down, various online drug markets remain.

Thus, we have the complement to Cory Doctorow’s warning about back doors: a security protocol funded by one arm of the American state, while others try desperately to break it. We know from the Snowden files that cracking Tor was a major priority, and an endless source of frustration, for the National Security Agency; we doubt Ulbricht’s pursuers in the FBI could have fared much better.

Great chaos

We on the Marxist left are accustomed to arguing that capitalism throws up its own gravediggers: the class of wage labourers: indispensible to the reproduction of the system, but with a collective interest in destroying it.

Something like this phenomenon operates in a fractal way - it seems that we cannot zoom in on some tiny component of capitalist society without finding its own opposite in the same place. Nowhere is this clearer than modern technology.

I have argued before that, as befits its explosive growth in the period of capitalism’s epochal decline, modern communication technology is primarily driven by state actors.2 This is quite plain in the case of the secure encryption relied upon by both cybercriminals and spooks - not only is Tor propped up by the state department, but the basic building blocks of encryption, the techniques and algorithms, are based on highly abstruse mathematics and thus are developed in the academy far more than corporate R&D.

Any secure medium, however, is secure for everyone; only the most marginal advantages are available in technical competition, so long as the internet remains truly global. Attempts to gain an advantage are most successfully made through crude, clumsy, ‘extra-technological’ means (like Cameron’s back door proposal). This is an aspect, in fact, of the contradictory nature of the state: quite as indispensible to capitalist reproduction as the proletariat, it nonetheless is forced by the ruthless logic of the system to act in ways that directly undermine day-to-day commerce.

This is visible both in the increasing statisation of economic activity and in the destructive effects of state institutions. Hardcore neoliberals like to claim that capitalism is good for peace, because war is bad for business (carpetbaggers and corrupt contractors excepted). Indeed it is: but by bringing forth a system of states in profound inequality with each other, capitalism makes destructive wars quite inevitable; and so we arrive at the present, marked by great chaos in large parts of the world.

Such is the final connection between Ross Ulbricht and David Cameron: the worst chaos is wrought by the so-called wars on drugs and on terror. A sane society would legalise the one, and prevent the other by ending the brutalisation of whole populations, rather than ramping up surveillance and repression at every opportunity. Unfortunately, we cannot expect such reasonable acts from a system at perpetual war with itself.



1. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/13/david-cameron-internet-surveillance-syria-russia-iran-communication.

2. ‘The internet in the epoch of decline’ Weekly Worker March 27 2014.