Can Ethereum Keep You Safe From The Government?
A couple of news items this summer changed my mind about Ethereum as a platform:
- The Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiao Bo’s death.
- AlphaBay and Hansa Market’s simultaneous takedowns, leaking 10,000 user addresses.
- Russia and China banned VPN.
- China banned Winnie The Pooh.
A dying journalist who no longer had much influence in China harassed by the government, and deliberately left to perish. Perfectly normal things became illegal. Adorable things became illegal. The DarkNet shown to be vulnerable, yet again.
Then something clicked in my mind. Ethereum could be a decentralized application platform for privacy and security. There’s no central server for government to hack or raid. My brain lighted up,“hey, I bet I could build something interesting.”
Then I got worried about my personal safety.
Safety in Number?
I’ve lived in China for the last 5 years as a de facto Chinese citizen (I am a dual citizenship Taiwanese-Canadian). I felt free.
The Great Firewall, while a daily inconvenience, can be bypassed. Politically, I feel safe to say whatever I have in mind to whomever. If I choose not to talk about Taiwanese independence, it’s because I wouldn’t want to talk about tax policy with a Republican. I’ve never been harassed by the government. There are no eavesdroppers masquerading as friendly neighbours.
I didn’t think I needed privacy even in an authoritarian regime that implements pervasive surveillance. There is too much data. There is a long queue of criminals and pesky activists to jail before they come to get me. And I am not doing anything illegal anyway.
Boy, was I naive.
Are You An Enemy of the State?
“If the sovereign wishes to prosecute, how can there be a lack of laws? I shall accept my death.”
This aphorism came from the history classic Zuo’s History (左传). King of Jing (晋惠公) was recently crowned, and he wanted to kill his advisor Lee Ke (里克) who helped him to usurp. The king sent a message to Lee saying, “Without you, I’d never have become king. But you have slain two kings and one arch minister. Isn’t it hard to be your king?” Having received the message, Lee said his famous last words, and fell on his sword.
If you are irrelevant, what you say is freedom of speech. If you are an enemy of the state, what you say is political subversion.
If you are irrelevant, the software you make is art. If you are an enemy of the state, you are making tools to aid criminal activities.
If you become an enemy of the state, there’s a law to get you.
Are You Committing Thought Crime?
If you are “just” making software and not committing any crime yourself, can you get in trouble?
The answer is YES. Anyone making interesting applications on the blockchain needs to be careful. The American Laws (they’ll extradite you from most places in the world) has incredibly broad/vague definition of criminal aiding and abetting:
Whoever aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures the commission of an offense, is punishable as a principal.
Blockchain is a new technology, but a lot of legal ground was covered during the P2P sharing era. If you make software that facilitates copyright infringement, are you guilty? A good resource to start learning about the legal risks is: Technology and the Guilty Mind: When Do Technology Providers Become Criminal Accomplices.
The gist of it is that you may be found guilty of criminal aiding and abetting for a number of reasons:
- The jury finds that you have criminal intent.
- The jury finds that the software you make to has more criminal uses than legitimate uses.
- The jury finds that you actively advocate criminal uses.
- The jury finds that you don’t actively prevent criminal uses.
In other words, a random group of people who have no expertise in your domain get to decide whether you intend to be a criminal. If so, you are guilty.
Suppose that you operate an axe factory. Somebody buys your axe and goes on killing rampage. Can you be found guilty?
Clearly not. Most people buy your axes to murder trees, not people.
Now suppose that many psychopaths prefer to buy axes from you, and go on many killing rampages. Can you be found guilty?
Probably not. There are other vendors psychopaths can buy from even if you shut down the factory.
Further suppose that you like to fantasize about psychopaths buying axes from you and going on killing rampages. You design your axes so they are easy to carry an conceal. You advertise that your axes are perfect for killing animals. You post videos on YouTube of you using the axe to chop up mannequins. You don’t check the background of your customers to keep psychopaths away. You refuse to share your list of customers. You refuse to make your axes harder to conceal and carry. If you never actually kill anyone or conspire with somebody who does, can you be found guilty?
Likely? You clearly show intent to aid and abet murderous rampages!
Substitute “axe factory” with “secure email”.
My Dirty Laundry Is Forever
Privacy can be life and death for whistleblowers, informers, or activists. For the rest of us, privacy is perhaps less urgent, more abstract, and more driven by ideology and paranoia.
I used to think that normal people don’t need privacy. If I am not doing anything illegal, then I do not have to be afraid of my government. I’ve changed my mind.
Privacy’s value is not just about keeping what I am doing today private. Privacy’s is about protecting my past and future. Every little thing I say today may be innocuous, but each thing I say adds a small amount of risk of it being interpreted as criminal intent. Like cigarette, each breath I take may not kill me outright, but over a decade I elevate my risk of death substantially.
Should they ever find me an enemy of the state, privacy obscures a lifetime of little things that could be used against me. People who choose privacy aren’t suffering messianic fantasies of government prosecution. They are buying an insurance.
As a Russian friend puts it, real criminals are better prepared than we are.
Decentralization Is The Last Refuge of The Scoundrel
In the eyes of of the laws, we are all potential scoundrels.
To be sure, centralized services like Google, Facebook, Amazon all work extremely well, for now. When your government turns dystopian, don’t expect these monopolies to watch your back. If you have a hard time seeing the value of decentralized web, you don’t have to imagine. Just come to China to enjoy a version of the Internet that works in many ways better than the West, but also more unjust, less vibrant, less diverse, less creative, and claustrophobic.
One way to understand Ethereum is that it is another attempt at decentralized web. There are many difficult open questions. How can we trust each other? How do we participate in our communities? How do we conduct commerce and trade? How can we deliver justice? How can we communicate safely? How do we innovate? When we disagree, how do we part ways?
Blockchain is part of the grand adventure of our species: how do we make our own future? And that’s pretty cool!