When I was 12 I begged for, and got, the Time-Life Enchanted World Series. The first book on ghosts had a line that tickled not only my fantasy-novel-addled brain, but also my budding writerly instinct. We fear ghosts, according to Ghosts, because their gazes say to us: “As I am, so shall you be.” Today, that’s what the Compromised are silently saying to everyone else, with their pained faces, naked selfies, and ruined credit histories. Ask not for whom the next Ashley Madison tolls, it tolls for you. All of you.
No matter how it happens, it’s the same thing that always gets you — the paper trail, the accounting, the database, the logs. Logging, archiving, history, whatever it’s called in this next app, this is what always fucks you in the end. It used to be it fucked you because you were running a mob front company, and someone absconded with the books, which were physical books. Now, it’s because you’re a person-who-is-on-the-internet. This is the magic of living in an age where chit-chat is no longer ephemeral. Our minutia ends up on Pastebin, on the hard drives of journalists, discussed on Reddit, tweeted in screenshots. You don’t have to be important for this to happen to you. You just have to be on the net.
Sometimes it’s hacking. We hear a lot about those in the news these days. But it’s not always, and it’s not even usually hacking. The barrier to data betrayal is so low now that it often doesn’t feel like betrayal at all. Screenshotting a Snapchat, posting a mail thread, or copy-pasting some Slack logs hardly feels like wearing a wire when you go to your friends’ house or your boss’ office. Getting it all is so easy when our devices gather it for us, and data has none of the feel of looking into the eyes of a human you are lying to in order to betray them. Most of our leak-able data is right there, burning a hole in our hard drives. It’s so easy to share data with the wide world, and then it’s done. It’s public, it belongs to the attention of the whoever.
I have a habit when I drop into apps like Slack, or start a long DM conversation on Twitter, or whatnot. I say “Hello future Pastebin readers!” or sometimes “Hello officer, sir!” If it’s a conversation with one of my sketchier friends.
While I am known for my writing about security, my chill attitude doesn’t come from my security knowledge. It comes from being hacked so many damn times it’s become a life style. I was first interviewed about what it was like to be a hacking victim 15 years ago, and it had already happened several times in the 1990s by then. When I was working with Anonymous many years later, It was important for me to assume I was compromised by not only law enforcement (and boy, does that ever look more likely now than it even did then). I was also definitely going to get hit by various hackers from the collective itself.
One day, some of my sources got worried about my finances. “Guys,” I said, “Stay out of my bank account.”
“But you have a kid to take care of!”
“Just, stay out,” I told them.
Sometimes, people ask me why I don’t keep a sticker over my webcam. “If you’ve already owned me enough to turn on the webcam,” I say, “The least I can do is force you to watch me pick my nose.”
The first time your data goes traveling without you is surreal. It’s disturbing in a way that feels like it should be physical, like you should be able to drive somewhere and get it all back. There should be someone you can talk to and set it all right. Eventually you realize it’s all copied endlessly without you, that it’s ultimately indifferent to you. It’s simply this property of math that happened to you, personally. Like any developmental milestone, over time you realize: This is how life is. Data just travels, and getting upset about it won’t do anything more than getting upset at a storm, or God.
By this point in my life, anything I say in an unencrypted or logged medium, I tend to ham it up for the day it’s released to the public. Goodbye former audience, hello unintended audience!
You’ll all be like me in a few years.
More Data, More Problems.
I have a law named after me by the internet. It’s very exciting, and I don’t know if it will take off and enter the pantheon of Moore’s and Godwin’s laws, but it is relevant to your interests, because you are on the internet.
This is Norton’s Law:
Over time, all data approaches deleted, or public.
All data leaks. This is not a property of the internet, but a property of data — just ask the Pharaohs of Egypt about their secret tombs. Data is observed (and therefore replicated), or obliterated through time. All public data has the power to replicate on its own. That may seem a strange statement, but I mean that it doesn’t have to be pushed to be preserved. It can be copied, learned by new people, archived in strange places, and ultimately passes out of control. I’m not yet talking about the internet, per se. This is a property of information and its relationship with entropy. It was always there, but it wasn’t something we needed to understand before, at least not on this scale. But life on the net means much more of the data gets copied, and therefore, ends up where its creators didn’t intend.
Sometimes I understand why people are interested in some bit of information, like Snowden’s leaks, or the tombs of pharaohs. I don’t understand why many people are interested in a lot of datasets, like Ashley Madison or the crushing weight of millions of lines of chatlogs on Pastebin. Except perhaps that we are, as a species, information predators. We spend a few hours of our day getting and eliminating food, and most of the rest of it hunting information. It’s an interesting species trait, and probably what lead to all of this weird altered planet we have now. But not all of humanity’s personality quirks are good, especially at scale. This is something journalists in particular are going to have to start thinking about, and nothing has brought that up more than Ashley Madison.
The journalistic community is going to have to come up with a code of ethics to deal with this kind of data in the contemporary age if we want to differentiate our vocation from stalkers and shills, which has always been the point of our professional ethics. That’s pretty hard right now, this is new ground, and I don’t have much criticism about how people are choosing what to cover. I don’t have the answer, what right have I to judge anyone? But it’s the most important question journalism should be asking right now, right after how we will make money without screwing our readers over.
How should we deal with a world where all the logged data either crashes sooner than we want it to, or ends up floating free around the world? All data gets deleted, or released.
I think we should stay calm, and accept that these things happen. I think the best way to cope with the new normal isn’t to hide, but to perform for the Unintended Audience. Like bodily fluids, ephemera is a thing that can only really be exchanged face to face.
We chat, we laugh, sometimes we kiss and hold each other, and then it’s gone. It’s not a perfectly preserved digital experience. The analog echoes of memory become ever more strokes of the trillions of impressionistic moments that make us into people. Our records, perfectly preserved digital information, make us into legal entities. Sometimes, they make us into accidental performers, but they never make us into people.
So now, we who live so much life on the net should think about how to embrace that performance, understanding we’re all on stage, just waiting for the spotlight to fall on us next.
I’m not going to lie. Our tools are great at getting us to open up. Chatting online doesn’t feel like being on stage, it feels like being in a nice cafe with friends. But in the new normal, that’s a little bit feature, and a little bit bug. It’s not anyone’s fault this happened. It’s just how the world works now, and we all might as well get used to it.
As I am, so shall you be.