Lavabit, Privacy Seppuku and Game Theory

US-based email service Lavabit shut down its service rather than “become complicit in crimes against the American people”. Another US-based crypto company, Silent Circle, already worried about weaknesses in its encrypted email service Silent Mail, didn’t wait for the US Government to come calling. It pre-emptively deleted all user data and shut the service.

These are acts of ‘Privacy Seppuku’- honourably and publicly shutting down (“suicide”) rather than being forced to comply with laws and courts intent on violating people’s privacy.

Is Privacy Seppuku merely a honourable end or is there a bigger logic at play here? Does it really make a difference to the surveillance state? Does it make good business sense? Will the big boys, like Google and Microsoft, follow?

Game Theory and Privacy Seppuku

The folks at Cryptocloud, part of the development of the original “corporate seppuku” pledge, have written a superb explanation of how it provides “a high-leverage, low-cost way for the entire community to create a resilient, reliable bulwark against certain forms of mass surveillance.”

Read the whole blog post for a detailed understanding. I’ve excerpted some of the important bits below to provide an explanation of the bigger logic behind Privacy Seppuku:

“… on the surface it seems either trite, or dumb, or perhaps both: shut the whole damned company down? What possible good could that do? I mean, sure you might stop the goons from getting at some certain individuals – this time. But now you’re “out of the game,” and you’ve just removed an otherwise-useful service from the market, and thus being available to everyone else out there.

This is an understandable criticism, but it’s totally wrong.

We say that because we’ve always envisioned the Privacy Seppuku issue as being of use only when it gains broader acceptance and visibility… nobody’s likely to notice unless it was actually needed in a realtime shutdown. Then, as we’ve since seen, people do notice. They notice very well.

Game theory involves analytic tools that embrace dynamic, multi-party interactions that are temporally fluid. The PS Pledge (for short) takes place in an n-iteration world, where there’s a whole series of interactions between “them” and “us.”

… users of network services now have a reasonable concern that they are being spied on by their tech tools – not only the ones already “outed” as snitchware, but also those claiming vehemently not to be such. Worse, because the court orders compelling these activities are themselves secret and require their targets to remain secret or face contempt of court charges (possible federal felonies, in the U.S.), silence is not good news. Not at all. We’re all sort of cringing and cowering, unsure who to trust – or whether to trust anyone at all.

For the surveillance overlords – “them” – this is an excellent outcome. Everyone is afraid they’re being spied on, all the time. It’s Bentham’s Panopticon, made real. Worldwide.

And even if we beat the shit out of that one guy, what happens if there’s a dozen more? A hundred? A thousand? Can we have them all get into inexplicable “car accidents?” Not really practical. Will smashing one really stop everyone else? No. In fact…

This isn’t real seppuku, the kind where you eviscerate yourself. That shutdown just made a (temporary) martyr of someone – or a team – and that team’s now earned serious credibility to start up elsewhere.

Whack-a-mole, on steroids… because even the moles you whack come back – smarter, stronger, higher visibility.

Take that, “them.”

Embrace the fluidity of events – these are n-iteration games… they go on, and on, and on. One round passes – lavabit shuts down – but there’s a bunch more rounds to come. Look at the totality of interactions, and the scenarios come pretty clear in this case.

This is asymmetric power: a diverse community of folks engaged in privacy-centric services can, collectively, protect themselves against a vastly more powerful adversary by using that adversary’s very power against it – judo for the private soul. It’s low-cost, it’s legal, and it’s (predicted to be) powerfully effective. But it’s also, in a sense, counterintuitive: how can shutting down be a powerful act? It isn’t – it’s the larger context, the public pledge to shut down, that has the real power.”

Not for the big boys

In an email to the Guardian, Edward Snowden said, “Employees and leaders at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and the rest of our internet titans must ask themselves why they aren’t fighting for our interests the same way small businesses are. The defense they have offered to this point is that they were compelled by laws they do not agree with, but one day of downtime for the coalition of their services could achieve what a hundred Lavabits could not.”

But the big boys aren’t going to go down the path of Privacy Seppuku. They are deep in cahoots with the US Government. Read Bruce Schneier’s The Public/Private Surveillance Partnership to know more about the corporate-government surveillance partnership.

Besides, looking after their corporate interests and shareholders makes it impossible for the “Internet titans” to play this game.

Is it working?

The Privacy Seppuku pledge is simple: if a company is served with a secret order to become a real-time participant in ongoing, blanket, secret surveillance of its customers… it will say no. And it will shut down its operations, rather than have then infiltrated by spies and used surreptitiously to spread the NSA’s global spook malware further.

As explained by game theory, this requires widespread adoption. Both Cryptocloud and Cryptocat have signed up as I suspect will others.

And so the fight back takes one more step forward.

And customers applaud and become even more positive.

seed lucero tweet

30 thoughts on “Lavabit, Privacy Seppuku and Game Theory

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