Form versus Content in Enforced Transparency
Transparency is seen as vital to any functioning democracy; in the United States, citizens enjoy limited powers to bring government documents into the public domain via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and some legal protection is granted to public interest-motivated leakers and whistleblowers. Generally, transparency is understood as a net positive for liberal democracy, and organizations like the Pirate Parties International centralize transparency in their re-imaginings of more radical democratic politics. Activist organizations like WikiLeaks and Anonymous also dedicate themselves to bringing information about the political elite into the public domain—often this aligns with leftist agendas, but recent events raise questions about just who ultimately benefits from the publicization of secretive information.
Democratic theorists like Darin Barney and Jodi Dean warn us that the availability of information alone does not guarantee politically salutary outcomes.1 The commitment to analyzing and deliberating on an endlessly accelerating flow of information can actually push the event of real political organizing towards an always–elusive horizon. It is a mistake, warns Barney, to reduce politics to publicity alone.2 Deliberation can be debilitating.
And the idea of “post-truth” politics further suggests that the form of information’s coming to light can shape its reception in an even more substantial manner than the content of that information itself. The status of the emails hacked from the DNC and the Clinton campaign—their bulk and the illicit event of their publication via salacious leaks, hacks, and criminal investigations—may have overshadowed the relative innocuity of much of their content, and the significance of a foreign government’s involvement in bringing them to light. When does an all-encompassing commitment to transparency as an end in-and-of-itself —as upheld by organizations like WikiLeaks—facilitate the advancement of still other powerful agendas and geopolitical machinations, themselves hidden from view?
Raymond Johansen sits on the board of Pirate Parties International and is an outspoken advocate of hacker exfiltration, or “enforced transparency.” Founded in 2005 by Rick Falkvinge, the Pirate Parties received a major boost on October 29 of this year, when an unprecedented number of the parties’ representatives were elected to office in Iceland’s national elections—an accomplishment spurned, in no small way, by information contained in the Panama Papers leaks, which prompted the nation’s elected leader to resign his office.
Matt Goerzen is an artist and researcher interested in the political effects of anonymity, critical forms of trolling, security cultures, and memetic warfare.
In the two weeks straddling the election, Goerzen asked Johansen a series of questions about the mechanisms of transparency at work in this emerging political arena.
Matt Goerzen: Could you explain the concept of enforced transparency and where it originated?
Ray Johansen: The concept of transparency and openness is simple. If governments practice it then we, as a people, will be able to spot misuses of power and corruption, and will be better equipped to safeguard our democracy. But when transparency becomes just a word, it functions as a smokescreen that governments around the world use to keep us in the dark. Something must be done to prevent this. Traditionally, investigative journalism, using FOIA requests and whistleblowers, has been used to enforce transparency. Now, to shed light on the activities of governments or corporations, activists around the globe have turned to hacking in order to obtain information. The data is then shared with the public. The Pirate Parties calls this enforcing transparency; enforcing “the laws” of openness, if you will. The idea of framing these activities as ‘enforced transparency’ came from a group of hacktivists within the Anonymous collective. Perhaps Jeremy Hammond’s acts are the best example of this. Hammond executed enforced transparency by researching and releasing data from the global intelligence company Stratfor after the intelligence contractor had been hacked.
MG: Is there any one person who inspired you to focus your attention on enforced transparency?
RJ: Indeed. The actions of journalist Barrett Brown, released in November this year after four years of captivity, best exemplify enforced transparency. He created #ProjectPM and, by crowd sourcing journalism, exposed the evils of private intelligence contractors—namely Stratfor and HB Gary. His penalty was 63 months in federal custody. Mr. Brown—currently writing for The Intercept—is our hero, and will forever be a legend to transparency advocates.
MG: Are the Pirate Parties based around the idea that if they were to be elected to government, all activity would be transparent?
RJ: Not all information, but information that promotes democracy; relevant information that benefits society and keep governments under citizen’s control. In Pirate Parties, all activity is public and livestreamed.
MG: What are the core principles or features of the Pirate Parties, in your view?
RJ: That’s a difficult question to answer, considering that I’m not a politician. Here is how Birgitta Jonsdottir [the head of the Icelandic Party] puts it: ‘The Pirate Parties started in Sweden in 2006, and it only had one agenda: to change draconian copyright laws.’ However, the parties’ goals have changed and shifted, primarily because the questions of human rights and cyberethics have become much more relevant. So, if you want to place it somewhere on the spectrum, I would say it’s a party that has its roots in civilian rights. But we are not like many left parties that want to regulate citizens and create nanny states. We believe that regulation should be on the powerful, not on the individual.
MG: You endorse activities that many might see as questionable. Are the Pirate Parties comfortable supporting these tactics?
RJ: I do support hacktivism, which sometimes does not follow the law. Our politicians will, of course, be more careful than us activists. They’ll avoid telling people to do illegal shit. But whistleblowing and leaking are very well accepted by Pirates. Both of those things are not too different from investigative journalism. Journalists use open sources, but they often consist of stolen material. Hacktivists will carry out the unearthing of documents—the breaking in, if you will.
MG: So, you maintain a strict OpSec boundary between your hacker identity and your public advocacy identity?
RJ: Yes, the OpSec must be watertight, as must be the walls between my different identities—A.K.A. alts, or socks. Complete anonymity.
MG: What do you consider to be the proper relationship between privacy and transparency?
RJ: Privacy is for the people and transparency is for governments and the powerful.
MG: How do these concepts of privacy and transparency relate to a more societally-general concept like “security”?
RJ: Security is the key to all of this. At this point in history, privacy will only work if everybody starts using encryption. This includes governments and corporations, which must better safeguard the information that they hold on each of us. Enforcing transparency will be be harder when data is properly secured. That is why the Pirate Parties want better transparency laws and fewer loopholes than exist today.
MG: It’s looking likely that the Pirate Parties could take charge of Iceland in the country’s next election. What sort of significance could this have in global politics? Do you think we can expect Iceland to become an official haven for both legally persecuted hackers and legally gray dumps of data?
RJ: The significance of the Icelandic elections remains to be seen,. I can tell you, however, that quite a number of my peers are contemplating moving there simply because they see the potential of what the parties are trying to achieve. That also includes a number of software companies. They’ve come to think of it as a possible digital free-haven in the future. For those who are especially interested, I recommend you look up The International Modern Media Institute. It was founded in 2011 with the aim of bringing together the best functioning laws in relation to freedom of information, expression, and speech. It reflects on the reality of a borderless world and the challenges that this concept imposes in the 21st century, both locally and globally.
MG: Until then, forcing transparency rests on the responsibility of individuals with skill and determination, or with the ability to convince someone with skills that this is the right course?
RJ: That is very right indeed. And if someone in our collective steps out—does something wrong—there is a form of self correction.
MG: How does that work exactly?
RJ: Let’s say a Hacktivist hacks information and releases it. Let’s say that putting pressure on a governor in Florida means that the personal information of the governor’s 14 year old daughter gets out there. The person responsible will get into trouble and be put in his or her place. Most of the time, such information would not even be released because the crew will not let it be published. Collateral damage to innocents and children is frowned upon.
MG: Right, so you have an internal, editorial vetting process?
RJ: Very often, actions will have at least a handful of people at their core—and yes, there will be a hierarchy that vets actions and data. The older, “old phags,”3 often stop the young ones.
MG: Can you walk me through the deliberation process when someone in your community gets a data dump? How do you vet it for authenticity and to make sure no one “innocent” is affected?
RJ: The short version is the following: When data is made available to us, the exfiltrator(s)—if it is the result of a hack, we will usually employ different techniques to prove where the data was obtained from. Often, that is done by simple screen shots showing identifying details about the data and the environment from which they came. This is then shared among the crew in order for it to be stamped as legitimate. Since hackers typically don’t have particular knowledge about the content, a sample set of data is often times shared around the globe with those that may have knowledge in the particular area. Sometimes the sample set will be published online so that we automatically get feedback from independent sources like journalists, researchers or peers.
The next step is, of course, to try to clean the data. That means removing things like credit card and other personal information. At that point, (the process can take weeks), the data is shared with the public through a leak platform such as WikiLeaks or through newspapers. This act is what is referred to as leaking.
MG: Has there been any attempt to propose an ethical code of conduct for exfiltration? Do you think defining exfiltration through an accessible terminology, like you’ve done in conceptualizing “enforced transparency,” is a gesture in this direction?
RJ: There have been many attempts to do that, but in a loosely knit collectives like ours, that is almost impossible. You could say that we lead by example, learn from our mistakes, and, more often than not, witness self correction. By the latter I mean that feedback from our peers tends to root out ethical mistakes. We could all benefit from an ethical code, but in an organization without hierarchy, there are few ways to spread or enforce such rules in a formal way. We are, however, inspired by concepts and manifestos.
MG: What is your general opinion of the way enforced transparency has been used in the 2016 presidential election?
RJ: In general, it has made this election cycle the most exciting I have ever seen. People are slowly realizing what really goes on in the halls of power. They are seeing that democracy has fallen. They are seeing that their right to participate has been hijacked. This will, in the future, be seen as a historical victory for transparency and democracy. The fact that a few elites have had their privacy taken away does not even register with me. Frankly, hearing people who have advocated for the NSA whine about their privacy makes me laugh—they have stolen the privacy of the whole world, and now they suddenly find the concept important. The irony is staggering.
MG: Exfiltration and leaking are often defended as a new “fifth estate”—a sort of journalistic function that replaces the depreciated watchdog function of mainstream journalism [the “fourth estate”] by employing sometimes illegal means of acquiring information while also ensuring that establishment media outlets do not ignore stories. (WikiLeaks, for instance, has shown that the New York Times has buried stories at the request of elites, until their appearance in alternative media forced their hand lest the omission become glaring). Is this how you see your work? And do you see what you do as having the same journalistic vocational responsibility of ensuring balance?
RJ: I see it as almost exactly the same. We will always have a responsibility to act balanced, but our loyalty will never be to one particular party or block. While enforcing transparency, we act on the data we get. If there is little to no data from, for instance, Donald Trump, it may simply mean there is nothing to find, or that the collective may be concluding he is doing the job of ruining himself on his own. To be perfectly open, dozens of hackers have been going at the Trump campaign for over a year. There are even bounties on his tax returns. Every week I hear of someone going at his networks. It is neither our nor Trump’s fault that Clinton has so many skeletons after 24 years in politics.
MG: Some people are critical of these hacks because we don’t know where they come from. The US has a vested interest in pinning these hacks on Russia,4 while WikiLeaks maintains that they are of value wherever they were sourced from. Do you think that the source of exfiltrated or leaked information changes its meaning?
RJ: To me, it does not matter whether FSB, the GRU,5 or Mother Theresa did it—it only matters that the information is legit and unmanipulated. The data is cold. Whining about whether Putin hacked you is silly when the US has been doing nothing but hacking democracies around the world for 60 years. The NSA hacks everybody continually and uses the information. What is new in the US election cycle is that this information becomes public—it’s used in a different way.
MG: When you see, for instance, that a disproportionate number of leaks target one candidate and not the other, is there an expression of concern in the community? Is there a mounting realization that more needs to be done to exfiltrate data from the other side?
RJ: Target selection discussions happen every hour of every day—but not often along those lines. In my network, I see attacks on both camps happen in equal measure. On a personal note, I can tell you that there will always be more data to leak on a serial war hungry wrongdoer than on the town clown.6
MG: Do you think that corporations and governments ever intentionally obfuscate information and make it available to a leaker in a contemporary equivalent of the “Haversack ruse”? [A famous military tactic referenced in the GCHQ’s Snowden leaked “Art of Deception” slide deck. It refers to a World War 1 instance where a British officer intentionally “lost” a set of falsified battle plans while pursued by the enemy, knowing that it would cause the enemy to waste resources fortifying a position the British had no intention of attacking].
RJ: We have seen mainstream media become mere tools for such deception. It is quite possible that it has happened in the young world of leaks too. The art of deception has seen a renaissance in recent digitized years. In my neck of the woods, we sometimes call it selective leaking, and we are well aware that we must always fight to prevent ourselves from becoming useful idiots.. Both the West and Russia have infiltrated and influenced our ranks. They constantly try to nudge us to do their bidding. Russia will for instance support and amplify social unrest, as they did with live streams of the November 5th protests of Anonymous. The FBI on the hand infiltrated and directed parts of Anonymous while hacking Turkey with the local RedHack. This is where OpSec (operational security) comes in. Much of our time is spent safeguarding the integrity of our activities. We have people that only focus on counterintelligence among us. Additionally, I can tell you that our spearheads have started working in very small teams and even alone. They do not tweet or brag—and they are highly resistant to infiltration.
MG: There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the legality of journalists using or posting hacked and exfiltrated data. And misunderstandings—or outright lies—are commonplace: a Fox News talking head, for instance, recently warned his audience that, while journalists could access the Podesta emails, taking such an action would be illegal for a common citizen [a false claim]. Activist/journalist Barrett Brown is currently in jail in the US, partially because he shared a link to hacked data before it was published, and may have been part of the planning that led to the hack. I know you support this form of access and scrutiny, but do you think there ought to be any constraints on the way it is accessed and shared once it enters the public domain?
RJ: The discussions you are referring to are nothing but ploys to control the narrative—this has been done for ages. One good example is the activists that broke into an FBI building to recover information about the COINTELPRO program. The story was about the FBI doing something illegal, and it was in the public’s interest to know about it. Public interest is the only real parameter for using information or not.
MG: On the other side of the election now, do you think the effects of WikiLeaks’ publication of emails exfiltrated from the DNC emails and Clinton’s staff favoured Trump’s victory?
RJ: When we look at the outcome it’s hard not to think that it had an effect. That said, US media did not cover the stories that came out very broadly. Historians will do a better job of that and I think the Podesta emails will, over time, have a profound effect far beyond who won this election.
MG: Do you think the sorts of editorializing WikiLeaks attached to these publications (suggesting on twitter that John Podesta’s social interactions with Marina Abramović implied that the Clinton campaign participated in satanic rituals, for instance) went beyond the aims of “transparency”?
RJ: Some of the editorializing went too far. Like with WikiLeaks’ Twitter opinion polls about Hillary Clinton’s health. That had nothing to do with leaks and much more to do with having an opinion, with slander. Yesterday Birgitta Jónsdóttir said: ‘To post personal conversations between people who are indeed personal, even with people’s children, is also going too far.’ I can do little but agree on that.
MG: Is there ever an instance when opacity is preferable to transparency, not only in a personal (privacy) context but also at the level of a state or powerful corporation?
RJ: There are dozens of ways where that is the right way to go. There is a lot of information that should not be in the public domain. That will have to be governed by laws on privacy and security. Where security is a concern there must be oversight. Today, oversight has been reduced to rubber stamp courts and fake claims of national security issues. Good transparency is opacity, when privacy and security have been taken into account.
MG: In the last couple of years, info has come out about Russia’s use of sock puppets and the like to poison the well in Western political discourse, sew distraction, etc. The goal doesn’t seem to be to influence politics so much as to throw it into disarray. Russia’s influence in this election could be seen as the ultimate bid towards this sort of chaos. Does the hacktivist tactic of enforced transparency ever aim at destabilizing democracy rather than informing it? And what do hacktivists hope will replace that system if it’s weakened?
RJ: Russia has been doing that effectively for quite a while. One could say they are protecting their own interests. The West is just as bad, and in a lot more places—even using military might. Disarray and chaos are all elements needed to spark change. Nobody wants Chaos for chaos’ sake—it is what the chaos does, and its potential end game, that is desirable. Most Anons will say that Transparency must be the end game, along with a society of more equality and less corporatism. The Pirate Parties are a vehicle for such change, but hacktivists are not actively working to put governments out and put Pirates in.
MG: So, for your community, transparency is an end in and of itself rather than a means?
RJ: Yes, it is, because transparency will make societies do better. Shining a light on the bad thing in the corner will kill the evil that resides there. Corruption is a good example and tax evasion is another. Overthrowing a government is never the goal, but shining a light on human rights issues like torture will let the people choose a new one.
MG: But when does a transparency activist become a stooge or a “useful idiot”—someone facilitating the interests of an opportunistic and calculating powerful actor? And how does one guard against this?
RJ: When or if you get used to only share or spread information that furthers one side’s narrative you have become a tool or a useful idiot. That is a challenge we face all the time, but it is not a good enough reason to not leak. Guarding against it is more about being vigilant and not letting it happen. We spend a lot of our time identifying and rooting out snakes in the grass. The only real way to guard against this is more transparency, not less.
MG: What has the general feeling in the forced transparency community been during the last couple weeks of the campaign, and following news of Trump’s victory?
RJ: The last couple of weeks were very interesting. Many followed media about the leaks very closely. Thinking all the time that Clinton would surely win. After the results most people I know were in a state of shock.
MG: What’s next? Is there anything planned?
RJ: There hasn’t been much time for serious planning. But I see activists and hacktivists are already gearing up, now that the name of the new enemy is known. Many have started to point out his election promises and will follow up on them. Others, like in the LGBT community, are focusing on narrower causes, where they fear Trump will have an intolerable effect.