A Day of Speaking Truth to Power

Visiting the ODNI

“It’s called ‘the crackpot realism of the present’” someone said to me, and handed me a note. I folded up the note, and stuffed it in my purse. This was a phrase used to explain, much more clearly than I was doing at the time, the bias of thinking that now is right, forgetting that the future will look back on our ideas with the same curious and horrified amusement we watch the human past with. It’s believing, without any good reason, that right now makes sense.

The present I was in right then didn’t make a lot of sense.

I was sitting in a cleared facility near Tyson’s Corner in Virginia, the beating heart of the industrial-military-intelligence-policing complex, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. I was there to help the government. Of the places I did not expect to ever go, at least not of my free will, the ODNI would be up there.

A few weeks ago, a friend from the Institute for the Future asked me if I would fly to DC for a one day workshop on the future of identity with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. "What?" I sputtered, "Did they google me?" and then, mentally: Duh. The ODNI can do a lot more than google me.

I knew IFTF had intel clients, with whom I have occasionally chatted at events in the past. My policy when confronted with spooks asking questions about how the world works is to give them as much information as I can -- one of my biggest problems with how security services work is their lack of wisdom. If I can reach people in positions of power and persuade them to critically examine that power, I consider that a win. I also consider it a long shot.

An invite from the ODNI is a strange thing. I've been publicly critical of them, sometimes viciously so. A few days earlier I tweeted that their director should be publicly tried for lying to Congress. I've written about the toxicity of the NSA spying (under ODNI direction), the corrupt fictions of Anonymous staged by the FBI (FBI/NSB is within ODNI's area) and spoken out countless times in the last eight years against warrantless spying. I have even less love for the FBI and DOJ.

I turned the offer over in my head. I was influenced by a few things --yes it was paid, but not well paid. It was what I normally get from IFTF for a day of my time, and given the travel commitment, a bit low. I weighed the official imprimatur of involvement, and that was a factor. I am afraid of being pursued and harassed by my government. This has never happened to me in relation to my work, though I have been turned down for housing by people who feared I might bring police attention. It has to my friends, sources and associates. I know what it feels like, what they do when you’re a target, because I have been subject to terrorizing tactics and harassment because of whom I chose to love. I have publicly acknowledged that I self-censor because of this fear. I have a child to raise, and you can't do that while you fight for your life and freedom in court. Raising my profile with the government as an expert probably makes me harder to harass.

I told my IFTF contact I don't sign NDAs (which he already knew) and that I'd have to be public about my attendance and write about it. He told me they were publicly publishing their work for the ODNI too. “Huh,” I said to my screen. The organizers were on board with all of it. They wanted me in particular.

Finally, I thought about the hell I would get from the internet -- like government harassment, internet harassment is part of the difficult and hated process of self-censorship for me.

In the end, I said yes, because you only get so far talking to your friends.

If some of the people at ODNI were willing to step into an uncomfortable conversation, so was I.

The woman who organized the event, Katie Suchma (named with permission) was a trained scientist and a former middle school science teacher, now with the ODNI's Office of Science and Technology. She was sweet and welcoming, and felt like the kind of person hired to sit around and think. She had handpicked everyone in the room for being iconoclastic thinkers. She welcomed me warmly and thanked me for coming. We both knew how weird this was. I wondered, and still do, how much she was a token thinker inside an otherwise ossified political structure, how much this was for show, or whether this could be consequential for the ODNI in the long run.

The room wasn’t just pure ODNI. There were other agencies there, FBI, CIA, and alphabet soup collectively know as the IC, or Intelligence Community.

The seals of the different members of the IC

I agreed to Chatham House Rule, and won’t be naming anyone. I have also condensed and rearranged the day somewhat for readability and length.

It was for the most part a normal business-world workshop, for which I was, as usual, dressed inappropriately -- cargo pants, sweater, Burning Man necklace. I knew that they had researched me, I wasn't there to be anything but me, which was mostly understood. There was some friction over my categorical distaste for wearing badges. Eventually, after a lengthy discussion of how exciting the use of ear recognition is for the intelligence services trying to identify individuals on camera, (hard to obscure, doesn't change much over the lifetime) I clipped my badge to my ear as an earcuff when I had to move around.

We, the uncleared, had to be walked to the bathroom and back. I joked with several people that I wanted a bell and a sheet.

There were 42 people in the room, 16 women, 39 were white, three black. We all had to leave all electronics outside, which was very weird for a few of us who were very closely tied to some of our devices, in the case of Rachel Kalmar, literally.

I walked in as an outside expert, and I didn't learn a lot about my field of expertise, but I did learn a lot about how these powerful people view it. My fundamental definition of identity is this: the stories we tell about ourselves, who we are, and what matters to us, which in turn describe what we are capable of doing.

The logo of the FBI-infiltrated Antisec

Early on, not long after introductions, I realized I was sharing a room with people that might have had input on covert operations that touched Anonymous. I jumped out of the format of the day to pass along a message. I wanted to tell them what I saw law enforcement agencies do to the collective I'd studied. I told them that the constant infiltration had introduced an element of violence to Anonymous that wasn't there before. I quoted Lacan, "A letter always arrives at its destination," saying that Covert Ops always find the elements they are looking for, even it it takes their presence to create them.

Sabu, aka FBI informant Hector Xavier Monsegur

The vast majority of Anonymous always rejected and continues to reject violence and harming innocents. Much of the turn to harsher methods came from obvious feds in the rooms, and not so obvious ones, like Sabu, with his constant over-the-top violent rhetoric. Law enforcement needed an enemy and wittingly or not they created one inside Anonymous, though more often than not by talking to each other rather than real participants.

The response in the room to this was thoughtful, and perhaps a touch worried. It’s far from conciliatory, but I’m ok with getting people to think. It’s a beginning, and a chance to pass information along that I doubt I will get again.

For our first and biggest exercise we wrote ideas about the future on huge postit notes, and the IFTF facilitators clustered them on a wall while we discussed ideas and responded to each other.

Each of the ideas I threw out could be another post, but I will share most of them here in their postit note form. (These are largely from memory, apologies if I mixed up the phrasing.)

Not used with permission at all.
  • “‘If you see something, say something’ ends all possibility of governmental privacy/secrecy” The people who grew up with that message, like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, are doing just that. “You should have been more specific about whom to tell,” I teased the room.
We get to pick what counts as something and what we say about it, it turns out.
  • “Make as much media as you consume” There are no gatekeepers of truth, knowledge, or popular culture anymore, which feeds into the next ideas.
  • “Reality/makeover TV undermines power distance and hierarchy in popular culture” Eighty years ago we were so far from our leaders that we had a disabled president and no one knew. Now we know everyone is just as much of a lost asshole as we are.
  • Emergent collectives, unplanned or semi-planned, will build and destroy infrastructure spontaneously."

This was a place where I disconnected with much of the room. When I mentioned the Linux kernel as an example of this, I found out many people assumed that FOSS didn’t really make anything until corporations became involved. As an example of the different way of thinking, I told them, “When you see classified data, you see a signal of importance. When I see classified data, I see something unvetted.” I got a dismissive response, a mumbled, something about I didn't know how well vetted it was. I explained the principles of Open Source, how many eyes make bugs shallow, “you just can't get that with classified data.” I told them of having this same fight with Daniel Ellsberg, about asking, does keeping things secret even help as often as we think it does?

“What if we published the addresses of terrorists and let their neighbors sort it out? We have no idea how that would work, no one has ever tried it,” I said.

My table stared at me quizzically, much as Ellsberg had.

I tried to explain that things really do get built without secrets or budgets or hierarchies, but I don't think I had the time or space to make them understand. It would have taken at least another full day to explain something like Debian to them.

  • “Non-state systems of mutual care go vast, and this creates tremendous conflict with the traditional nation-state” I talked about global remittance levels, and the state as something irrelevant or to be avoided in systems that provide the most aid across borders. Remittance that can be formally counted is already about four times foreign aid. As for the antagonism, mutual aid is the ultimate enemy of state power. What do we need the state for if they can’t even take care of us as well as we can each other?
  • “Custom reinvents civil inattention and person space for the net."

Nearly everyone in the room felt that because of the internet, no one cared about privacy anymore. To be private at all was an outmoded concept. Identity was continually seen as something exclusively living in databases powerful others kept about you, to sell or mine or monitor. This idea pissed me off. The net is new, and we don't know how to live there. It doesn't mean we think anyone should be able to know our thoughts and see us naked. It means understanding and custom hasn't caught up to the reality of how we live our lives nowadays.

Custom is always more important than law, and eventually custom adapts to new ways of being together. I talked about how custom could adapt to life on the network, and cited the urban migration as a place to look for historical examples. We don't listen in on cafe conversations or leave our bathrooms doorless, not because of laws, but because that would be awful. Increasingly on the network, like city life, it's not merely about what you can manage to physically see. The act of looking makes you a creepy fucker.

It was not lost on everyone in the room that I was calling the people who watch -- such as the IC -- creepy fuckers. Not everyone in the community is comfortable with where it has gone, but they've also spent the last decade bombarded with the message that no one cares about privacy. "People give up their privacy for the chance at a $.10 off coupon!" one person declared, to general agreement.

It was clear to me part of this mess we're in arose from the IC feeling that if everyone was giving away their privacy, then what they, the Good Guys, did with it could not be that big of a deal.

It was a room that had written off privacy as an archaic structure. I tried to push back, not only by pointing out this was the opening days of networked life, and so custom hadn’t caught up yet, but also by recommending danah boyd's new book It’s Complicated repeatedly. (Disclosure: I was a paid editor/consultant on the book) The room didn't understand that privacy is part of human life and we all want it. Their institutions were invested in not learning that people want private lives. They would be forced to either stop what they were doing, or give up their core identity -- that of the good guys.

When we learn to live online we will want to be full humans again. When, as one of the outside experts put it, the Eternal September is over, we will learn once again to mind our own fucking business, and we will expect others to, as well.

From the first discussion and through the whole day there was a lot of talk of virtual vs “real” identity. It was once understood that legal identity is as much a fiction as any other invented identity, but this seems long forgotten in these places. Legal identity, far from being “real” or “physical” as people in our government think of it now, was identity based on forms of legal liability constructed for political benefit to the state. It was about taxing you, drafting you, moving you, or throwing you in jail — legal identity was never concerned with reality. I found the conflation of that with either reality or physicality to be the single most chilling thing I encountered in that room, even moreso than surveillance. When the men with guns can't tell the difference between you and your social security number, the mechanisms of power have lost vital critical thinking. The IC has become out of touch with lived experience.

One of the intel people spoke of the illuminated vs the dark areas of the world, as one sees the globe at night, and a war between them. I found this a ridiculous divide. The areas they called “dark” I called biodiverse, muttering to the person sitting with me, and taking notes.

The dark of the Earth where the food comes from, the deep history, the life. The “illuminated” earth is relatively sterile and dead, reliant on the dark for even the matter that makes the light.

I wrote notes about the use of white and black in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, a book that felt present in the room with me that whole day. The speaker nervously told me to stop writing, but I assured them I wasn't attributing. I considered bringing up Pynchon, but held off.

-Later, one of the government people said of the rest of the world “They want our resources,” but this is as ridiculous as saying they hate our freedom. They want what all humans want: to not have to worry about too much, to hang out with their friends, and to dream. The humans who want things other than these, myself and the rest of the room included, are the weirdos. I turned over this idea of ownership, “our resources” in my head through the day, and it grew stranger. “Our” resources were the life-giving material under their feet.

To the degree that it makes sense for the dark Earth and its wild seas to belong to anyone but itself, how could the ground under their feet be “ours”?

For me it was a remarkably pessimistic and scared crowd, always thinking in terms of catastrophe, but never of the obvious catastrophes we’re definitely slated to get, like climate change or antibiotic resistance. That surprised me — I assumed they would find the end of antibiotics terrifying, but instead everyone talked about the privacy everyone handed away not being limited by the skin anymore. I said the end of antibiotics and the rise of diseases like resistant tuberculosis would mean that tech would end at our skin, and we’d be limited in our access to public assembly. It was probably the darkest thing I said all day, and one of my table mates said (not unkindly) “I don’t like your future.”

We did an exercise on alternative views of the future, and I suggested we try to do a positive one. An IFTF facilitator and I suggested a scenario in which people didn't emphasize safety, and were just left with the need and motivation to cooperate. We can and do accept some risk, so what if we decided as a society we'd rather have more freedom and privacy than security?

I was told that this was not an ok scenario, and we talked about our children. I said I could accept the idea that I can lose my child, it's part of the world. I told one the law enforcement people (roughly):

We don't want to live in a perfectly safe world. We don't want to live where no law gets broken, we don't want to live in a world without any possibility of even terrorism. That's a gray world. Co-operation takes risks. Yes, I might lose my daughter, but I'd rather she lived in a free world, and I might lose her anyway. Thanks for the concern for my safety, but I don't need it.

One person from an enforcement agency talked about bad people hurting my daughter, that this scenario was simply unacceptable. I tried to point out that I knew the bad people, and they weren't that bad, that all this protection "from" excluded people who have all the same lives as the people here. I said that the excluded were people I love, my own family. I didn't get anywhere. I fell into silent frustration.

I turned to talking to one of the ODNI people at my table and said it was like watching bars come down in front of people's eyes, and mimicked the stony faces. We both laughed at my impression "That's the groupthink." they told me, nodding. “That’s why we need meetings like this.”

"This emphasis on safety is ridiculous," I replied. "The death rate is still holding at 100%"

I realized that one of the problems is that being at the top of the heap, which the security services definitely are, makes the future an abomination and terror. There is no possible great change where the top doesn't lose, even if it's just control, rather than position. The future can only be worse than the present, and a future without fear is a future to fear.

When you're an incredibly well-funded defense and intelligence community, the lack of existential threats is an existential threat. There is nothing to do but be scared of things.

Several times before and after this we heard about the bad people, that there were bad people and good. I realized when I heard this that I went to the ODNI because I don't believe in bad or good people.

Their director called my friends accomplices. These agencies had jailed my friends, destroyed my father, and driven my lover to suicide. These should be my bad people, even if it was impossible for them to see that they might be the bad people to the people they exclude from their ideas of protection and safety. But if I don't believe in bad people, then even these agencies and the horrors they have visited on my family and friends and sources, they aren't filled with bad people either.

They were mostly pleasant and thoughtful people, and they listened as best they could. One told me I made her feel like Cheney, "And I'm not used to feeling like Cheney."

I was out of my element too. I am not used to rooms so lacking in hope.

At the last exercise we had to invent a product of the future. Ours was the most optimistic, and I'm proud of it. I’m proud of the older gentleman looking for ways to get past political representation and into direct political engagement. I’m proud of the woman who kept prodding us into wider suggestions, and looking at people our system might disenfranchise. I proud that my table took on the challenge of making something that wasn't a product, that didn't have a budget, or a market, or the blessing of an authority. Our vision of identity at the last was as people who could act on the world, of identity as powerful and meaningful force in the world.

We spoke nearly last, after a room full of projects that saw identity as a passive thing the powerful would act upon.

Our project, I believed, would be more true. The future is rarely so insane as the present.

When we left and got back to the parking lot and our precious phones, we all stared at them, catching up with the world that had been away all day. I found that the session's hashtag, #ID2030 was mainly nine identical content-free announcements about the meeting I'd just been in between ODNI and IFTF. We'd definitely been social media tokens for ODNI's press relations, which was annoying. I have been used as a token before, and surely will again. But I had learned a lot, and that was worth it to me. I had learned a lot about identity after all -- specifically about the cultural identity of the people who hold much of the violent power in this country and in this world. I can tell my bad people that those bad people aren’t so bad, just trapped, for now, in the same fear that threatens to trap us all.



A writer’s attempt to understand a world being weirded by a network. Authored by Quinn Norton.

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Quinn Norton

Quinn Norton

A journalist, essayist, and sometimes photographer of Technology, Science, Hackers, Internets, and Civil Unrest.