Sunday, June 16, 2013

How to cope with Internet spying: a tip from the Gypsies

The Gypsies (that is, the Roma) may seem like an unlikely source of inspiration for strategies to cope with the tendency of governments to spy on us over the Web. But survival is survival, everywhere and any time, and the Roma are surely experts at that. In particular, we may learn from them the strategy "non-concealment" that aims at projecting a non-threatening image to potential enemies (image from Wikipedia commons)

The Roma (whom we often call Gypsies) must know a thing or two about survival. Always a minority, not especially loved and often actively hated, they underwent all sorts of attacks, including the terrible "porajmos" (the great devouring) unleashed against them by the Nazis during the second world war. And yet, after having lived in Europe for half a millennium, they are still with us; battered and troubled, yes,  but Roma as ever.

I discussed some of the Roma' survival techniques in a previous post of mine describing their practical, non-violent ways. Now, I thought that there is one further habit of the Roma that we may find interesting in view of the fact, by now unavoidable, that the government has access to all our data and to everything we do. Of course the Roma never had (and still largely don't have) this specific Internet problem; but their survival techniques can still be a source of inspiration for us in this regard.

To cope with government spying on us, we can look at the strategy that we could call "non-concealment" and that the Roma seem to practice routinely. Note how Roma campsites are always clearly visible, normally placed near roads or right inside cities. The camps are also completely open - the Roma don't seem to even dream of fortifying themselves inside. If you see a fence around a Roma camp, you can be assured that it was placed there by the Gadje (the non-Roma) to keep the Roma in and not by the Roma to keep the Gadje out. And think of how the Roma are easily recognizable when they stroll around by the way they dress. They seem to have the habit of making a point that everyone can easily know, all the time, who they are and where they are.

It is one of their survival techniques: the Roma project a non-threatening image to their nervous and aggressive neighbors. The Gadje must know that the Roma may be petty thieves, but no major threat; so they can be safely ignored. That doesn't mean that, at times, the Gadjes don't become aggressive, but it would be probably much worse if they suspected that the Roma were planning dark and dire things while hiding somewhere.

Now, let's go back to the Internet surveillance programs. What we learned recently is, actually, nothing new. You can be sure that governments never missed a chance to spy on their citizens; the Internet just gave them the possibility to do that on a massive scale. What they are doing, actually, is not so much spying on single citizens but, rather, large scale "data mining". That is, they won't (and they can't, simply because of the sheer size of the database) keep track of more than a few individuals. They do, however, identify those  people who stray away from the accepted norms and select them for further investigation.

The way the system works can be understood by the story of Hasan Elahi as told by László Barabàsi in his book "Bursts" (2010). Elahi, American citizen, was detained in more than one occasion by the FBI on his returns to the US from overseas trips. One of his problems was that he had an Arab-sounding name but, more than that, it was the fact that he tended to fly a lot to foreign countries because of his artistic activities. His whereabouts brought the FBI to detain him in 2007 when he landed in New York because of what they defined as "suspicious movements after 9/11". According to Barabàsi, Elahi's movement patterns didn't fit the average patterns. He hadn't done anything wrong; he just was the nail that stands out and that gets hammered down.

Note how Hasan Elahi was behaving like a Gypsy in his nomadic habits: always in movement and never standing anywhere for a long time. And note how, as described by Barabàsi, he ended up adopting the Gypsy survival strategy: that is of projecting a non-threatening image by avoiding to conceal his movements. He started telling everyone where he was staying and where he was going, eventually developing specific Web based techniques for doing that. If you go now to Elahi's site, you can know exactly and in real time where he is and see what he is seeing there!

As you see, the Gypsy strategy is a natural consequence of being the underdog. Facing a group that is much more powerful, better armed, and not especially interested in your well being, making a stand is by all means a bad idea. Facing your government and their surveillance apparatus, as Orlov correctly argues, the worse thing to do would be to conceal your Web identity, hide behind firewalls, encrypting your data, and the like. If you do that, you'll be immediately classed among those who have something to hide and you risk being singled out for an in-depth investigation (or much worse). Getting off-line doesn't help, either. First of all, you can't really do that unless you normally live in a forest with the rest of your tribe. Second, the very fact that you tend to stay off-line makes you, again, suspicious if you belong to a cultural group (e.g. middle class Westerners) whose members are likely to use such services as Facebook and the like.
So, your best bet to cope with Internet spying may be to adopt the Roma's "non-concealment" strategy. That is, disclose everything yourself about your identity, your whereabouts, and your ideas. After all, many of us (middle class Westerners) criticize our governments but none of us, normally, has the power of doing anything that would seriously threaten them. If we avoid giving the impression that we are plotting something in secrecy, then the best strategy for the powers that be (and that control the Internet) is to leave us to our harmless antics: e-petitions, blog rants, Facebook chats and all the rest..

Of course, we can't be certain that the non-concealment strategy will always protect us. All strategies for survival are just plans for the future and reality may turn out to refuse to conform to plans. But this strategy may be our best bet (and possibly the only one) for coping with government spying in the present situation, at least while we wait for the Internet to collapse together with its masters (as Orlov, again, points out).

So, it is funny to think that our wonderful new communication technologies may be turning all of us into Gypsies; something that brings a whole new meaning to what we call the "law of unintended consequences". But, after all, the Gypsy way is just one of the many ways of being human and maybe it is not such a sad destiny to try it, even for the proud Gadje of today.


  1. Well well....I agree fully with this concept of "non-concealment" strategy. In fact this is what I have always done but this means I have been leaving as a Gypsy? I dont think so but anyway welcome to anyone who is following this concept.

  2. "So, your best bet to cope with Internet spying may be to adopt the Roma's "non-concealment" strategy. That is, disclose everything yourself about your identity, your whereabouts, and your ideas. After all, many of us (middle class Westerners) criticize our governments but none of us, normally, has the power of doing anything that would seriously threaten them. If we avoid giving the impression that we are plotting something in secrecy, then the best strategy for the powers that be (and that control the Internet) is to leave us to our harmless antics: e-petitions, blog rants, Facebook chats and all the rest."

    The key term above is "harmless antics".

    In fact our "antics" are indeed not only harmless since by allowing us (whoever "us" happens to be at any given time or place) to engage in them is also a very good way to "prove" that we live in "democratic" and "free" systems. Which is another key objective of the so-called "powers that be". (maintaining the collective self-delusion and illusion) So we are probably helping them more than we are hurting them. So perhaps we should charge them a small fee for the favor?

    It is of course also a good thing for those of "us" who before were living in Alice in Wonderland to realize that we have been spied on from time immemorial. What is the big surprise? J. Edgar Hoover was spying on and trying to destroy people with progressive ideas from well before World War II and through his death in 1972.

    And of course lots of misinformation and disinformation and “well framed” “narratives” are ALSO being put out continually by those same actors in the mass media and also on the Internet.

    So "happy reading" and "happy blogging" and welcome to George Orwell's 1984 which in fact already started taking shape well before World War I and probably even earlier. If all of this stuff was NOT going on we probably would end up being bored so in a way we can thank those various idiots for entertaining us. ("unreal worlds" are probably more interesting to navigate than even real ones)

    But no need to worry about ending up in Guantanamo for the time being though it is probably good to learn something from Gypsies anyway since at least they have had more of a taste of real life and survival than most Western middle class audiences ever will.

    And maybe some of the more "modern types" among us might also think again about how much spoiled punk kids like Mark Zuckerberg and others of his ilk really are and how much they can be trusted.

    Also to be remembered is that governments are not the only ones doing the spying. Certain corporations and common identity and other sorts of thieves also are doing it. It is not possible to protect oneself fully from all of them. But at least make them work for your data a bit, and don't put your bank account number, date of birth and mother's middle name onto Facebook "just for fun". Ideas clearly don't matter at all so you can put whatever ideas you wish out there anytime you feel like it.

  3. Yes, but one can also remember that computers are utterly stupid powerful beasts, so that concealment or not scanning is scanning.
    But to me in this whole business what is lacking is a new role and role separation more than anything else.
    In particular for "access rights" type of things (login passwords), and what is sometimes called "net identity" (or the possibility to log on a site/service using fb, gg or twttr account).
    And here one should remember that there is absolutely no technical need for a single ID per user shared by the services.
    But a form of account, very specific organisations holding them, ability to move from one to the other with the account content, could change quite a bit the current environment.
    A bit more on this below (but in French for the time being) :

  4. By the way a good post from Nafeez Ahmed pointing to this spying being also fueled by fear of unrests coming from PO and/or CC (which would be quite understandable ...)

  5. This strategy can work fine if one will never need a job, otherwise employers will select not to hire the high nail.

    1. I see that you understand the Gypsy strategy perfectly well. :-)

  6. Not all Roma are good adopted for the future to come. My mother in law has a bosinian background she has a beautyful dark skin (my wife is not so dark anymore). She has the look of the ancient indian settler, so you can see the connection to the roma and bosnian people very clearly. But my bosnian part of my family was assimilated from the austrian culture. So my relatives learned to think like a Gadje and praise all the western-white style stupidisms about money and hording stuff and ownerships etc. So many of former bosnian refugies are now praising money before relation and stuff before liberty! So our family come togethers are looking more and more like american style status symbol show offs. With dark colored woman and men having more and more atomic relationsships. So I can witness after the post-industrial a society/family turning from a agro-centered and relation centered society to the industrial-centerd and atomized society. And soon going back to the post industrial-peak-oil-climate-shock society forced to go back to agro-centered and relation-centerd society! All this in one lifetime!
    So they cann't belive a white man like me when I try to explain them, we have to prepare for the next big change! The third transformation in our life! Will be very interesting how fast they will adapt now. When I talk to my bosnian family members about the future, they are still in a deep denial phase and very sticky to the western-white culture.

    My german thoughts about the future etc.:

    1. That's an interesting reflection, Thomas. I would comment that the Roma I know don't seem to be consciously thinking that their way of life is a good idea to save themselves from collapse. Indeed, they don't seem to have a clear idea of the collapse that we, Gadje, expect. What I notice is that most of them stubbornly cling to their old ways. Is it a conscious strategy? I cannot say.

  7. "They do, however, identify those people who stray away from the accepted norms and select them for further investigation."

    Golly gee that shure do explain a few things.

    Go on with you life neither concealing or revealing and don't give the bastards the time of day. Ignore them altogether.




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)