Why the NSA Can’t Listen to My Mixtape

…and why I mailed it to them as a reminder.

In early 1990s a group of hackers on an email list called “cypherpunks” created and freely released military-grade encryption software which gave everyone the ability to conduct private communication and secure commerce online. Being unable to crack the algorithms behind this new software, the NSA slowly began working their way around that with programs eventually exposed by whistle blowers like William Binney and later proven by Edward Snowden.

This device was created using open hardware, machinery that can be trusted not to spy on you because of the disclosure of its design, schematics and bill of materials to anyone who wishes to inspect, build, or build upon the device. The device contains a soundtrack for the modern surveillance state. It’s designed to be enjoyed only by people I have consented it to be listened to. A second copy of this device will also be sent to the NSA’s headquarters in Maryland, but without the private key needed to decrypt it; a reminder that the rules of mathematics are more powerful than the rules of even the most powerful states.

I am a technologist. My work lives in a universe wiretapped by Washington and its enablers in Silicon Valley, but I work outside the Pokemon business model of catching every user’s data or abusing it for state surveillance. I work instead surrounded by priceless art and in giving it a voice inside and outside the thick, Faraday cage walls of the museum it lives in.

I’m fortunate in being able to practice my craft outside the forces that abuse it. However, I am, as every other who has giggled at a cat photo or groaned at a blog comment, a citizen of cyberspace, and a concerned citizen. I have goddamn feelings about mass surveillance, and they are not warm and fuzzy. To take the Internet, which I grew up with so much hope for in being so much more free than the world I physically occupied and turn it into a panopticon brings out the tortured artist in me; I can’t help but respond.

I suck at painting. I was ok with a potter’s wheel in 1998—the year before I installed Juno and first heard a 33.6k modem sing my new anthem. Just as I probably would have if it was 1999 and I was still 15, I decided I would make a mix tape to weave in my feelings to the narrative that Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras have been so great at writing and filming. Originally, I intended to share this to a small group of friends and co-workers at a staff art show using an actually cassette tape, but I didn’t own a tape recorder and I had other ideas.

I instead made my own version of a mix tape with an Arduino and wave shield sandwiched in between two laser-etched pieces of transparent acrylic. The use of a giant-ass Arduino and wave shield was chosen since the (shitty) 44KHz wave file format gave it roughly the same audio quality I figured a wiretapped AT&T phone conversation would have. The use of transparent acrylic was to symbolically give transparency to the device you were using; A response to the hidden exploitation of proprietary smartphones by computery mercenaries like Finfisher and HackingTeam. This open-hardware device would not be a black box, figuratively or literally.

As 2013 came to a close, more and more revelations of NSA abuse became known and it was made clear that the NSA intended to spy on basically everything it could. Although it was revealed the NSA has several programs to exploit and intercept systems of every kind, the actual cryptography connecting those systems was still something it fundamentally can’t break. Encryption is the blind spot to the NSA’s all-seeing eye. Math doesn’t need an information dominance center to enforce its rules. Math is the legal framework which the universe can only obey and will trump and outlast the rules of any human state. For the common person to have access to encryption was the result of several Promethean acts of defiance against the military powers that wanted to make cryptography only available to themselves to weaponize. The US government was basically trolled by the cypherpunks of the early 90s when they released strong cryptography software to the public and began to level that playing field.

In keeping that tradition alive, I used encryption (AES/Whirlpool for the hash algorithm) to make my mix tape unplayable without the passphrase needed to unlock the private key that would decrypt the SD card where the music is stored. The list of music used was kept offline and only available in a printed paper form for the aforementioned staff art show. I created special transparent red acrylic pieces to indicate this one was the encrypted version and mailed the device with the encrypted SD card to the NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, which apparently has a special mailing address for unsolicited packages like this.

My handwriting is the strongest encryption of all.

The NSA can read my stupid Facebook updates but without my consent it will never be able to listen to my kick-ass mix tape, even if it’s sitting right in front of them.