Friday, May 29, 2009

Information Wants To Be Free

The release of some of some of the Abu Ghraib photos by non-authorized means should have surprised no one. For an Administration and a politician as net-savvy as the Obama’s is the decision to withhold the photos was incredibly dense.

It has become cliché but it bears repeating; the net changes everything. The digitizing of information is as revolutionary as Gutenberg’s press. Gutenberg helped to cause an explosion of literacy and his printing press was a wreaking ball aimed at the established hierarchy of both church and state. The monopoly of information and the control it enabled evaporated in the white-hot heat of the print revolution.

Once again we are seeing something akin to that revolution. In the revolution of the blog and the on-line journal we are seeing something akin to the culture of 17th and 18th Century print culture. Ben Franklin has been reborn and has become Arianna Huffington and Markos Moulitsas.

Let us drill down to the specifics of the case at hand. Only 20 years ago the release of those pictures would be much more difficult if not impossible. The pictures would have resided on film, an analog technology if there ever was one.

Photographic film is a very fragile technology. The image is latent; it hides embedded in silver halides awaiting a very specific set of chemical and mechanical processes to become solid. Interrupt that chain and the image is lost; sometimes forever. Once one has the image it is hard to copy and hard to distribute. The negative is very fragile; it can be damaged by dirt, dust, scratches, heat cold and improper handling. One misplaced fingerprint can ruin an image for all time.

Even with a pristine negative getting a usable image is a chore. Special paper must be used, exotic chemical processes must be deployed and special light-proof facilities be employed. He or she who controls the negative has a de facto control over the image. Thus only twenty years ago all a government agency had to do was destroy the original negative and the pictures would just go away.

The digital revolution changes all that. The very image itself is nothing more than data, ones and zeros. It sits on a hard drive or a CD Rom or a flash drive. It is easily transferable from one media to another; it can easily “escape” to public data bank like Google or Yahoo. The cost of copy is virtually zero if it stays digital. $150.00 will purchase a one Terabyte hard drive; that is huge amount of photos. USB flash drives are slightly pricier but still not going to break anyone’s bank account. Blank CD ROMs are so cheep you could use them for drinks coasters in a pinch. Transfer of the data from the Camera to a computer is so easy that anyone with a modicum of intelligence can pull a copy. Once on the computer the data is just itching to escape into the wild, wild, web via a Peer-to-Peer network or some social networking site.

Data is no longer easily controlled. Digital cameras have become more common than grass. They are now a standard feature of cell phones whether you want one or not. The cameras are small, compact and extremely versatile. They are simple to use, simple keep, simple to maintain. Thus they exist in just about every servicemembers backpack; sitting right next to the OD green socks.

Remember the original Abu Ghraib photos were discovered because Grainer lent his camera to a fellow servicemember. That servicemember used the camera and then discovered the images that Gainer had taken and informed higher authority. He was able to view the images because of the very nature of Digital Cameras (they have a view feature) and because of the very nature of human beings (“what pictures is my buddy taking?”)

Obama is being hog-tied by two facts on the ground he has little to no control of. First is the very nature of the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld war in Iraq. It had next to no planning for the occupation. It also had a policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” created in the legal limbo known as “Gitmo.” George W. Bush cried havoc and let loose the dogs of war. There was no accountability, there was no control, and there were policies in place that were specifically designed to be both lawless and unaccountable. For the first two years in Iraq the only place one found “control” was in a dictionary.

The second fact on the ground is what has been alluded to in this post. Information is no longer controllable. It is far too easy to be released or even stolen. The Pentagon would be loath to admit it but it probably has been severely hacked by the incompetent management of its IT resources. Individual PCs and quite possibly servers and mainframes in the DoD are infected with worms, malware, Trojans, and viruses. All our computers are belonging to some hacker in St Petersburg.

But even if DoD computers were the acme of IT security management and control it still would not help Obama’s cause. There are just too many grunts with too many digital cameras taking too many “unauthorized pictures” to have any control over the images coming out of Iraq. There are just too many ways to sneak a copy of those images out of the hands of the government. A hidden USB jump drive and few minutes are all that are required to get those images out in the wild. It only takes one whistle-blower and an internet connection for the New York Times or the Guardian to get the goods. Unless Obama is willing to duplicate the Chinese model of absolute control, with the government owning and operating the Great Firewall of the new Sons Of Heaven, data will flow like water over, under or around any feeble barrier the Congress, Courts or Executive may erect.

If there is an operating theme of the digital revolution it has to be “its all ones and zeros as far as IT is concerned.” The music industry was the very first institution to come to that revelation. Thanks to Moore’s Law and the MP3 file the music business has been overturned. The LP is dead! Long live iTunes! Next on the chopping block has been the distribution of movies. The DVD is dead! Long live, um iTunes again?

Somehow the political elites have not been paying attention. Please note that this cultural and political tsunami has been building since Windows 95 and Netscape 2.0. Data is no longer under any formal control. It is ones and zeros zipping around the internet, flowing into desktops, laptops, netbooks, cell phones and other devices. Data lurks in massive server farms operated by Google and others. It nestles in USB jump drives, SD cards, Blueray and DVD ROM's. Some of the data have found happy homes in personal back-up storage devices or perhaps on a net storage service. It’s all ones and zeros, jepgs, gifs, pngs, and pdfs. It’s Mpegs, Movs, MP4s and other wee beasties of the IT ecosystem. All those little files, all of them breeding like rabbits. Control is an illusion. Information wants to be and will become free. If Obama does not understand this, his Press Secretary damn well should have.
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