Earlier this week, we looked at Jim Bell’s Assassination Politics concept, and how advances in cryptography and digital cash may give rise to permissionless markets where the anonymity of participants is preserved to allow them to deal in secrecy. In this instalment, we’ll look at a topic that’s a great deal less murder-y: information markets.
Much how you get farmers markets for the sale of produce, or Christmas markets for the sale of Christmas decorations, information markets handle the purchase/sale of various forms of data.
Late cypherpunk Tim May’s Untraceable Digital Cash, Information Markets and Blacknet paper is perhaps the most cogent exploration of such a concept.
The author outlines reasons for why information markets are important (anonymity protecting both buyers/sellers) – he believes that there is an opportunity for ‘regulatory arbitrage’ in that the distribution or storage of “corporate secrets, military secrets, credit data, medical data, banned religious or other material, pornography, etc.” may not necessarily be legal in a given jurisdiction, but completely legal in another. With modern cryptography, May predicts, this arbitrage can be disassociated from physical locations and exist entirely in cyberspace.
One application May places particular emphasis on is in the implications such markets would have on espionage (military or corporate). You could effectively incentivise anyone to sell information pertaining to a target, from intellectual property siphoned by an insider of a company to the movements of troops observed by bystanders. What’s more, infinitely more discreet digital dead drops would phase out the riskier physical ones, and remove the need for close proximity between participants — a net benefit, unless you actually enjoy donning trenchcoats and hiding cryptic notes under dustbins at the local park.
May applied the idea in 1993 with BlackNet — though published anonymously to begin with, he later announced that he had created the market as a proof-of-concept. It combined the use of a chain of remailers (a staple of cypherpunk communications), and PGP encryption (of course) to protect the identity of the organisation in question, as well as that of any potential sellers. Its stance was made pretty clear:
BlackNet is nominally nondideological [sic], but considers nation-states, export
laws, patent laws, national security considerations and the like to be
relics of the pre-cyberspace era. Export and patent laws are often used to
explicity project national power and imperialist, colonialist state
fascism. BlackNet believes it is solely the responsibility of a secret
holder to keep that secret — not the responsibilty of the State, or of us,
or of anyone else who may come into possession of that secret. If a
secret’s worth having, it’s worth protecting.
Announcing that it would be collecting inventory, BlackNet called for would-be participants to send through any information they may have on trade secrets, industrial processes, nanotechnology, drug design/chemical manufacturing, etc. Sellers were told to use remailers to publish encrypted messages to a number of forums.
In return, it offered to make payment in a number of ways – anonymous bank deposits, cash sent via snail mail or even remuneration in the form of ‘CryptoCredits’ – a closed-loop currency for use within the information market (I can only assume these credits were sold at a discount to accredited investors in a private pre-pre-sale).
May revealed he was behind the project afterwards, and that he had created it to educate people on the possibilities of these markets. Clearly, however, it had an impact: he claims that he received a number of bizarre leads, including an offer for information pertaining to the CIA’s targeting of African diplomats in Washington. Apparently, the message linked above was widely propagated, making it into several national laboratories doing ‘sensitive work’.
There’s no reason the methods employed in Blacknet couldn’t be relied on for an information market, though the distribution mechanism might seem somewhat archaic by today’s standards when there are more dedicated forums.
Indeed, there’s a thriving black market for data tied to criminal activities, though given the need for anonymity when trafficking stolen card details, online accounts, identity documents or guides for hacking/shoplifting/synthesising drugs, one would probably opt to use cryptocurrency payments and onion sites. Unless you’re Facebook, of course, because it’s not a crime when Big Tech sells your data.
Cover art by author.