View From The Side: Aphex Twin & Surveillance Culture
This month saw Aphex Twin announcing his first LP in 13 years via two links – one that worked on a standard web browser, anything from Safari to Chrome to Firefox – and one that could only be accessed through Tor, the untraceable browser that can access so called ‘deep web’ sites. There was a crucial difference between the two links – whilst the Tor link showed details of the album, including track list, track times, and album title, the standard browser link told you nothing about the album (all the details were xxxxx’d out), but a whole lot about your internet connection. Running an algorithm that scraped info from your browser, the ‘normal’ link displayed your location, the browser you used, your internet provider, your operating system, your IP address, and a host of plug ins your computer was running.
Yep. That's my info right there. Please don't steal my life.
The implication was obvious; use an unencrypted browser, and this is what any force, malignant or otherwise, can find out about you with a minimum of effort. Imagine what someone who was genuinely trying could find out. It was a remarkably relevant advertising campaign, going way beyond the remit of promoting a long awaited album, into a space where a (minor, granted) celebrity was using his leverage to remind an immense fanbase just how much information they were giving away about themselves on a daily, and how little they get in return.
I was curious to see that none of the media outlets I looked at (Pitchfork, Guardian and FACT for starters) bothered noting the difference between the two links – it seemed an odd decision considering this disparity was kinda the point of the campaign. I doubt the reasons why are anything sinister – like this isn’t some sort of conspiracy of silence. Most music journalists (including me) are lazy bastards, and as there was no press release accompanying the links to spell out the obvious, it clearly proved too much of a cognitive leap to examine what Aphex – or Warp Records – might have been saying when they decided to release the album details in such a pointed way.
But I think there is an underlying reason why there has been no deeper engagement with the campaign – people genuinely don’t want to think about how much they are being watched, and how exposed they are. Whilst there is a slowly increasing acknowledgement that information is currency in our internet age, there seems to be little corresponding action in controlling the flow of our personal information. Perhaps there is a general consensus that it’s OK for a company like Facebook to access more and more of the facts of our life – but I doubt this is the case.
Just last week, the online protest group SumOfUs requested I sign a petition against Facebook – apparently the new FB messenger service “allows Facebook to access your phone camera and record audio, call and send messages without your permission, identify details about you and all your contacts, and send that info on to third parties.”
They went on to rail that
“If you want to carry on sending and receiving messages on Facebook you now have no choice but to install Facebook Messenger – and give the company access to a wealth of personal data stored on your phone.”
This email tickled me. On the one hand it showed a general outrage at the monetising of personal details by a vast conglomerate, and on the other hand it showed a near inept misunderstanding of the workings of technology, business and information.
First of all, it was inaccurate – you can still access Facebook via your browser on a smart phone – these changes only affect the Facebook app – so they only affect you if your simply too lazy to go online to tell someone you liked their picture of cats pouring ice buckets over each other or whatever. Complaining is mistaking convenience with neccessity.
Secondly, the petition seemed to have mistaken Facebook for somebody who gave a shit. As though the company was some sort of public service, some sort of inalienable human right. It is neither of those things – it is an incredibly successful multinational group set up on a capitalist model that requires constant expansion. That means making money. That means exploiting its resources in the most efficient manner possible. Once you sign up you become that resource. Congratulations, you’re the oil and gas of the modern age. Someone might fight a war over you one day.
Thirdly, there seemed to be some sort of misguided belief that Facebook – along with Google, Twitter and whatever else you signed up to this week – isn’t already accessing a vast wealth of personal details and handing them over to whoever the hell wants them. I’ve got no evidence to prove it has, but, PRISM. Remember PRISM? Whatever happened to that guy huh? Edward Snowdon? Ring any bells? It may interest you to know that the government slapped a D-Notice on stories concerning the joint American/ UK internet mass surveillance program PRISM pretty swiftly after it broke. A D-Notice is a big fucking stick used to beat the media into submission – basically once one drops you’re not legally obliged to comply, but then you’re not legally obliged to keep a hold on your job/house/life. With stories about PRISM – covering the intensity with which UK and US security forces were fingering through our supposedly private digital lives – expunged from the press, the public could slump back into its convenience-above-all mode of existence, artfully looking away if anything should upset the status quo, briefly sputtering grumbles when yet another liberty is taken, settling down once that catchy Chris Brown song comes on again. And meanwhile, over in the spook centres of GCHQ and wherever the nutters of the CIA hang out, information is being gathered quite openly. I even suspect they take a joy in trolling the world.
Here's an example; PRISM is an offshoot of a group called the Information Awareness Office – here’s a couple of paragraphs from their Wikipedia page:
“The Information Awareness Office (IAO) was established by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in January 2002 to bring together several DARPA projects focused on applying surveillance and information technology to track and monitor terrorists and other asymmetric threats to U.S. national security, by achieving Total Information Awareness.”
“This was achieved by creating enormous computer databases to gather and store the personal information of everyone in the United States, including personal e-mails, social networks, credit card records, phone calls, medical records, and numerous other sources, without any requirement for a search warrant. This information was then analyzed to look for suspicious activities, connections between individuals, and "threats".“
Now check out their logo:
LOL! Seems legit, and not in any way like a shadowy intergalactic force bent on world domination. Could they be baiting the internet anymore? And more importantly, can I get that shit on a T-Shirt?
So this kind of surveillance culture is all right there in plain sight, but most of us just don’t care. It’s too big, too confusing. For those of us in our 30s, we have a vestige of a pre-web existence clouding our judgement about the workings of the internet. Maybe a generation of kids are growing up who feel entirely different, who aren’t comfortable with their every action being watched by a strange, perverse, and often useless group of men dreaming of the budgets they could raise from a sexy new Cold War. But in the meantime we’ll have these ridiculous fantasy figures such as ‘Jihadi John’ cluttering up the press, clunking fabricated justifications for authority to rifle through our rubbish for ‘our own protection.’
So thanks then to Aphex Twin, or to whoever came up with Syro marketing, for offering a subtle little reminder of which way the wind blows. Not that anyone cared. Hey! Why not share this on Facebook if you like it…!