How the recently leaked NSA surveillance programs will re-embolden a librarians worst enemy.
Recently news outlets, digital intellectuals, and the tech-savvy children of every ‘conspiracy theorist’ in the US have been trying to find an explanation that satiates their audiences meta-data craving. The recent wave of leaks funneled through Glan Greenwald exposed a wide-scale global surveillance and data analysis program that monitors the who, where, when, and how of global communications. This surveillance only stops at the wide scale monitoring of the what. Over time this newly awakened population is going to start to ask how they can regain their privacy. And, much to every codemakers chagrin, the answer is not simply to make our communication unreadable, the last shreds of our fourth amendment still seems to shield our speech, the answer is in making our conversations and ourselves un-indexable.
A few months ago I began a wikipedia dive fueled by the kind of listless boredom that lead to toothbrush cleaned grout and junk-drawer sorting before the dawn of the Internet. At some point in the haze I found myself exploring the odd world of library catalog systems, and that is where I found malin-grey. Malin-grey literature is a subset of a librarians most hated realm of literature; grey literature. Grey literature is high quality writing not controlled by commercial publishing, and therefore difficult to catalog. These publications range from leaflets, to speeches, to yearbooks, to government reports, and beyond. These are the kinds of documents that cause lifelong feuds in the basement of the Library of Congress. But malin-grey is a special sort of evil. Works of its type are written to actively avoid dissemination, cataloging, and archiving. Through deception, disinformation, rapid decomposition, obscure formatting, and a lack of bibliographical indicators this writing is constructed out of the nightmares of librarians. In fact, malin-grey’s wikipedia snippet defies the power of the Internet, being as self-referential and obscure as the topic itself.
The open standards for distributing and accessing devices and data that make the Internet work, also make everything on it indexable. Grey literature has found a home in this digital age with The Internet Archive, Google, The Sunlight Foundation and many others working to archive and index this difficult but important information. At the same time these tools and techniques have been used by Google, Facebook, the NSA, and a multitude of other advertisers, and meta-data monetizers to index us. The specks of meta-data culled from our digital interactions and pieced together form a Seurat that can encompass enough of a human to to manipulate with advertising or incriminate in possible . In a world that increasingly resembles one huge library, the only intelligent choice is to shuffle the card catalog.
The first step in shuffling the card catalog is to learn just how those small flecks of meta-data can be pieced together to identify you. The EFF wrote a primer on how bits of information are used to identify an individual you should start with. Secondly, you need to learn how to isolate the small flecks you are bound to leak. The more you can isolate the various aspects of yourself, the more that you form an incomplete and un-indexable picture. Devices that phone home constantly, like a cell phone, and accounts that you carry across devices, like cloud services, tie your identities together. Proper sanitation of the various devices and services of your life can also lead to a forced work life balance, which is a perk I am quickly starting to enjoy. The last piece of this first step on your journey is to start using services that are built with your privacy in mind through connections that are secure.
The journey to become un-indexable is on a long and constantly changing path. As new methods for tracking and sharing meta-data are invented, utilized, and legalized the methods for obfuscating ourselves must also adapt. But, at each step we must demand the right to be unseen, to control who shares our moments, to keep secrets, to blend in with the crowd, and to be forgotten. Welcome to the world of malin-grey.