A Farewell to Conspiracies

At common law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime. I would add in many secretive government activities too, such as spying, which are crimes as far as the victims are concerned. We won’t be seeing them very often in the near future. In fact, that future is already here – just not evenly distributed.

Last month a new software program was uploaded to Github called Darkleaks. It’s billed as a decentralized auction for information. What that means in practice is that someone with access to information (such as the Pentagon Papers, a movie script, or the NOC List) can sell that information without meeting the buyer or revealing their identity. The sale is handled entirely online in a trustless manner. And the auction is distributed – it cannot be shut down any more than Bittorrent or Tor can be.

And the first auction is now underway, as I first learned from Andrea Castillo at Mercatus. The Silk Road 2.0 website was shut down by law enforcement, but now one of the administrators of the website (or so they claim to be) has popped up offering server data for sale. Transaction histories, user names, passwords, and source code are for sale. To the extent any of this information can be traced back to real world identities, it offers the possibility of exposing the buyers and sellers that participated in that dark market.

The technical details of how the auction works are interesting, but Andrea explains them well enough. I suggest reading her piece for details on how trust is established between buyer and seller under such unusual circumstances. What’s more interesting to me is how this technical innovation will affect society.

Lets examine the characteristics of this seller, and think about what it means going forward. This person is not authorized by any entity (certainly not the bosses of the Silk Road 2.0 website, or its users) to divulge this information. They simply have access to it, and are willing to trade that access (in the form of an upload) for money. And they are doing it in such a way they can deny they’re the ones providing the access. This auction could be initiated by anyone with the appropriate server access (including unauthorized hackers).

Think of all the organizations in the world that depend on secrecy to function, and use fear and force (whether legal or illegal) to make non-ideological members keep the secrets. Mafia families have accountants and secretaries (and also unreliable family members). Spy agencies and large corporations have many thousands of employees. Even ideological organizations like ISIS or Al Qaeda will have to deal with alienated members looking to get out and make a couple bucks doing it.

Further, the software used to list an auction runs on regular personal computers. Anyone with the technical skill to collect useful information in the first place will have the skill necessary to list an auction. The primary barrier to entry is that only those with decent operational security (using one-time email addresses and such) will be able to use this system with a low risk of getting caught. But with the financial incentive the auction provides, many can acquire these skills.

In essence, there’s no real barrier to auctions such as this from becoming a widespread practice. And there are a number of uses I can foresee immediately. Governments around the world are known to hoard zero-day vulnerabilities in major software (that is, methods of hacking in software systems that aren’t generally known to the security profession). These same governments also create hacking tools. Knowledge of both of these is very commercially valuable and would likely produce “good” auction results. So would lists of spies in foreign jurisdictions.

Criminal organizations depend heavily on their activities remaining secret, or at least keeping law enforcement divided and disorganized. If interested and wealthy members of a society made a practice of buying this information and releasing it to public news agencies (so that political organization could rally to defeat the criminals), this could make it very hard to organize crime. It would also be hard on the politicians and members of the judiciary who may have abetted the criminal organization’s activities.

Corporate whistleblowers will also now have a means of releasing information, making some money, and not losing their jobs. (Unless the whistle-blow causes their corporate employers to be shut down entirely I suppose) This will prove very tempting to many people who might feel their employers are up to no good, and for whom the money is just the kick in the pants they need to ‘do something’.

The list goes on, and readers should feel welcome to add more ideas in the comments.

Andrea makes the argument in her post that “defensive purchasing” of the information might be something that some governments or criminal organizations might engage in, but she misses the point that defensive purchasing will be totally ineffective. There’s nothing that prevents the information from being sold a second time. After all, information can be copied an infinite number of times. The seller doesn’t “lose” his copy when he makes a copy for the buyer. If Monsanto buys an auction that claims to divulge some ugly corporate practice, they’ll make the seller some money and then the seller can just re-auction the same information next week. Defensive purchasing just makes the seller richer while buying the target of the leak no additional security. If a seller is determined to maximize their own income, they’ll keep selling the same information over and over until someone makes it public (making future auctions pointless). And so every auction game ends eventually in total transparency.

The long term effects of this new reality are not certain. On the one hand, criminal and abusive conspiracies will never get very large or old. Each additional person who knows the secret is an increased risk of betrayal, and the knowledge end-game will drive rational actors to betray first and at least make a buck off it. This will reduce crime and also (hopefully) corruption in government.

The “downside” of this change is that all enforceable contracts will have to rely on the public courts, which means that the government will suddenly have a really big advantage in stomping out any sort of activity it doesn’t like. You may think that sounds generally like a good thing, but imagine a government that decided to outlaw things we today consider legal and safe activities (and ones you enjoy). If criminal organizations are so beset by internal betrayals that they cannot function, then even black markets won’t be an option for you. The government, as long as it retains the support of the voters and maintains the monopoly of legitimate police and Courts, will have a lot more power to regulate our lives.

Somehow I don’t think that’s the end result the anarchists that programmed Darkleaks were planning on, but then, they’re good coders, not good political scientists. And this is how I see it playing out.