Omnivore, Carnivore - VEGAN?

or what the FBI is up to now

How do you make a paranoiac laugh? I balked at the press coverage of the FBI's latest tool (or publicity stunt), CARNIVORE. Sure, the mention of CARNIVORE's precursor, OMNIVORE, suggests an advance from brute-force methods to more direct targeting of the data the FBI are after. That suggestion itself, however, is old news. What most published versions of this man-bites-dog story fail to point out is that nobody ever heard or read about OMNIVORE - until now.

Does the issue really come down to a choice between the untamed carbo-loading of a program such as the one often rumoured to be at work behind Echelon, the transatlantic surveillance network, and a more finicky device of limited appetite and responsible eating rhythms, such as an elegantly pared-down chess software which would not run all numbers on all possible moves, but focuses on the most likely choices? To stay with the chess image, we are led to believe by this sudden and unexpected candor on behalf of the FBI that recent exploits of the Deep Thought series against champion players may have convinced the FBI labs to look into more selective ways to tame internet traffic. Now the news industry is busy mocking CARNIVORE's name, following the lead of that fountain of news that's fit to print, Janet Reno. Makes me wonder how the next version will have been named:

"This just in - the FBI is now testing their new surveillance system, VEGAN (Voluntary Electronic Gateway Analytic Network), which they vow won't touch anything but the criminal tofu of society."

Gadget lovers have always considered the expert systems attempt to mimic human thought processes more elegant and sympathetic, but given Moore's law, most neurotic geeks silently assume that this strategy is ultimately doomed to succumb to brute force trawling for all possible chess moves, or all data flowing through the fangs of the FBI. However, the paranoiac will think differently about VEGAN, I mean CARNIVORE, suspecting that the debate indicates that the government's intent is more of a PR nature, and that the program may be a cover for something altogether more - hungry.

While an ideal computer would have infinite memory and yield instantaneous calculations, the limitations on computing power today have to do less with computation and more with storage. Compression and encryption do little to alleviate the burden. And it certainly seems as if any expectations that greater speed of processing will not catch up with the increase in traffic. In other words, the sheer quantity of traffic on the net goes a long way to keep the 'secret' of computer-mediated communication initiated by you. A computer able to intercept all communications would have to be able to store it by recirculating it, yet the fantasy of a computer that would contain, and recirculate within itself, the entirety of net traffic must be called what it is - an ancient and unattainable fantasy with quasi-religious overtones. It is this insinuation that is at the core of the news item: nobodaddy is watching you, so behave!

The complexity of what goes on in cyberspace is represented in certain more or less efficient codes, which means as a sequence of simpler parts of its complexity. If lossy compression of my email to you whittles it down a bit, even today's very limited encryption of net traffic is likely to result in a roughly equivalent increase in data flow. Add to this the error detection codes and interface protocols - will the FBI invent a measure of information that does not rely on representation? No, in order to identify with any certainty what is going on, they will incur a computing burden that keeps growing incrementally; their only chance to tame the net is to create the illusion of competent monitoring. So to take a bite out of cyber-crime, they let loose a big beast, a deus ex machina called CARNIVORE. The invocation of an invisible, omniscient entity is truly an old and time-honoured trick. Only divine power encompasses everything and renders judgement in an instant. But do not dismiss this computing God as dead just yet: just because we are paranoid does not mean we have no adversaries. Paranoia gave birth to the first intelligent agents, one called DOCTOR or ELIZA modelled on the behaviour of a psychoanalyst, and the second programmed to imitate a paranoid patient, PARRY. Any cultural history of the representation of power will recognize behind the interface, the monitor or screen, the "hidden" workings, the various protocols for mail, ftp, web, and natural language parsing descended from ELIZA and PARRY. Monitoring, from the first screen interfaces to electronic censorship in the workplace today, is the essence of the internet. What makes you laugh when you pause for a bite of the most recent PR stunt by the FBI is the ingenuity behind this media event: to spin one of the oldest ideas and make it news-worthy is truly an awesome ability. Now the paranoid have to start worrying again: what else will they be able to re-invent?

[cryptanalysis | hacktivism | journalism ]


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