When I was about 15 years old, I purchased a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook by mail. I’m not exactly sure why I did that; it was being heavily advertised back then in the progressive magazines I read, and I probably thought it was the cool, geeky thing for a young boy to do. I remember trying to plow through it, but it was sloppily written and I didn’t think much of it; the author has strongly disavowed it, and wants it off the market.
Even in the late 1970s, I didn’t agree with the sentiments; my parents were smart not to intervene or counsel caution. It was a very liberal household for reading, and my father, a professor of literature, also kept a “teaching copy” of The Story of O in a place that was probably a little too accessible — or just accessible enough. My purchase of the Cookbook was primarily about personal semiotics: a (failed) attempt to signal to myself, something about myself.
It was an innocent act. Now, I am not so sure that it would be. With the hands of the NSA clearly deep in international personal and organizational communications traffic, along with presumably any other national security agency around the world worth its salt, tracing that kind of information might well be worth their while. Why not? Storage is affordable at scale, and computation is pervasive.
The government now clearly understands that the most critical internet infrastructure – freely flowing information – doesn’t actually flow that freely, but is usually routed through the application silos maintained by a small number of companies that include Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo. As citizens, it is our responsibility to consider the ramifications that control over the data we generate as individuals offers for surveillance. Regardless of how ferociously companies have fought to protect user information – e.g., EFF has applauded Yahoo, and Google has apparently given ground only reluctantly – these companies remain data honeypots for government infosec query.
Our reading takes place, overwhelmingly, in those silos, within Apple, Amazon, and maybe Microsoft. With the apparent slow withering of Barnes & Noble’s business, it becomes ever more likely that Microsoft’s strategic investment of $300MM in the Nook Media unit might well become the vehicle to majority ownership. With a new reorganization under its belt, Microsoft is clearly interested in entertainment and mobile hardware platforms, and content is a critical component of hardware based business offerings.
Microsoft has drawn significant attention in the NSA scandal as being eager to please government inquiries, being accused of providing low level access to Outlook and Skype services, among others. Although Microsoft has strongly refuted these allegations, it hedges carefully by noting, “Looking forward, as Internet-based voice and video communications increase, it is clear that governments will have an interest in using (or establishing) legal powers to secure access to this kind of content to investigate crimes or tackle terrorism.”
And so whatever protections progressive States like California have been able to secure to protect reader privacy, it is not at all clear they would work against FISA orders on the national level. With our books in the hands of a few very large internet application hosts, and even assuming the best efforts by those companies to protect their users, we can not purchase ebooks, much less read them, with any sense of privacy or confidentiality.
It was a privilege to read the Anarchist’s Cookbook as a teenager and not worry about it; even to have a reasonably decent chance of not having anyone know about it. But no era is innocent, and the 1970s certainly weren’t. I would later take a university political science class on terrorism, studying the tracts and tactics of Black September and Baader-Meinhof; I would read with some fascination Marighella’s manual on urban guerrilla warfare; the Munich Massacre occurred in 1972, and hijackings continued apace through the decade.
We read in a political and social context. It is far too easy for the knowledge of which books we buy, and what we browse online, to become imbued with a deeply and profoundly political cast by organizations with great power, regardless of the intentions and free thoughts of the individual.
For now, the privilege of reading privately, digitally, has been lost. The Internet needs new architectures for distributing and securing data, using encryption that remains in the hands of the users, creating a very different kind of cloud based architecture for data storage and computation. Until then, assume that someone else has a set of keys to your bookshelf.