Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)