friendship, encryption, and servers

Let’s side aside the partisan politics for a moment and consider these matters more broadly. I believe it was Ben Franklin who said, “Three men can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” It suggests a couple things. Perhaps a lack of self control come to mind, but I think of the sociality of information and the interweaving of our consciousness and subjective with expression, perhaps what Diane Davis terms response-ability. But it also makes me think about forensics. We can learn many things, CSI-style, from the dead, but we cannot retrieve their memories. However, forensics can retrieve computer memory, even from “dead” hard drives. Matthew Kirschenbaum devotes some time to discussing how difficult it is to ensure that data is finally irretrievable and erased.

In The Two Virtuals I focused more on the opposite side of this concern–how the process of “rip, mix, and burn” as a compositional process is connected to accessibility. The capacities of that burned media object vary in terms of who might read/view/use it and how easily it can be ripped and mixed in future compositions. These are rhetorical decisions.

And sometimes the decision might be “let’s severely limit the accessibility of this data” so that only our “friends” can use it. Now I’m using the term “friends” even more loosely than Facebook does, but Fb is a good example of this, right? We all set our security settings in relation to a group of users we call “friends” and we rely upon FB network security and encryption to prevent others from accessing that data. (Sort of. We realize that anyone can read our posts on our friends’ screens over their shoulders or that our friends can screen capture or whatever and share that publicly.)

In any case, friendship, audience, and encryption/access are all tied to one another and there all connected to a broader understanding of rhetorical acts involving risk. That is, we never fully know how others will respond to what we say/write. There’s a risk. Furthermore, we can never by 100% sure who will be in that audience, let alone the context in which they will receive our messages. This what we saw with Climategate as well as what we’ve seen with some of the recent Wikileaks stuff. It’s also at stake with all kinds of private/secret information from individual finance or health records to corporate secrets or national security or even something like FERPA regulations at a university.

The Ben Franklin approach works as long as no one actually needs to use the information for any purpose. Once it does need to be used, then we move into the “need to know” approach and try to secure those boundaries. But the tighter those boundaries are, the harder it is to use that information. For example, you could keep the data on an air-gapped computer in a bunker protected by military forces. You have to go through all these layers of security just to get in the room. I’m sure you’ve since this movie before. It’s the one about how uninvited guests get in anyway. Aside from such cyber-fantasies we are then talking about secure, encrypted networks. How’s that working for you? The weakest link is almost always the people. It’s called social engineering. What’s social engineering? It’s sophistic rhetoric. Watch Mr. Robot for more details. Basically what you’re doing here is convincing someone that you’re their friend. That’s what a password is. Like a secret sign to get into a private club.

I’m not saying there isn’t a wide range of technical matters here that are well beyond my expertise. Of course there are. But this is an argument for the importance of digital rhetoric, and specifically a digital rhetoric that is attentive to the role that nonhumans play in digital media ecologies.

John Oliver quipped that Hillary’s problems with email all stemmed from an unwillingness to carry two phones. It’s the first time that “wear cargo pants” was actually a good piece of advice (he said something to that effect). That’s funny. But the larger digital rhetorical question begins with understanding how these devices interoperate (or fail to do so) to create the media ecologies in which we live. And those understandings must include the risks inherent in rhetorical acts as they slip beyond our friends and intended audiences, as encryptions fail, and mediums make the dead speak.