t byfield on Wed, 25 May 2016 17:29:25 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> artfcity: Turbulence.org Going Offline

On 24 May 2016, at 19:35, morlockelloi@yahoo.com wrote:

> BTW, note that one way to really 'write in private' is to use hardware 
> bought for cash while not carrying cellphone, connect to the network 
> in a crowded public space, without carrying cellphone or credit cards, 
> send one message through the Tor relays, from one throwaway mail 
> account to another, and then pulverize the hardware. Gets expensive 
> after a while. Postal letters are a bit simpler, just don't use nearby 
> mail boxes, wear bunny suit when handling paper, and print with a 
> single-use printer paid for by cash while not carrying a cellphone. Of 
> course, in all cases the message must be made resistant to stylometry, 
> so use something like Anonymouth on your original input 

Morlock, I'm dismayed. I expected more of you.

A few years ago at a conference on 'obfuscation' held at NYU, I served 
as a respondent to a presentation of Anonymouth. Since I like to do a 
bang-up job, I did my homework to get a fuller sense of the project.

It was striking how the researchers had been speaking out of both sides 
of their mouth, as it were -- pitching it as an anonymization tool in 
pro-privacy contexts and as a forensic tool in more LEO-oriented 
contexts. That's understandable. We don't need to stage a recital of the 
'technology is/n't neutral' debate, and I think many people understand 
that research funding comes with, if not the cartoonishly puppet-like 
image of 'string attached,' then at least with a certain spin. In many 
spheres, people try to build on an insight and search for contexts, 
applications, support -- so that kind of 'contradiction' isn't 
contradictory at all. But it's worth noting that one of Anonymouth's 
cumulative effects, if it were widely adopted, would be to 'mediate' 
between those seeking anonymity and those seeking identification -- in 
effect, getting them to agree on the terms of reference, a very reduced 
set of stylistic variations. So that's one reason (there are more) I'd 
steer any anonymity-seekers *away* from it.

An experienced editor could defeat most stylometry on the level that 
Anonymouth was implementing at the time (I haven't looked at it since). 
If you rummage through my contributions to nettime ca. 1999, you'll see 
that quite a few are fully justified, typographically speaking -- not 
just padded out with extra spaces but written to specified line lengths, 
in some cases with hanging punctuation. I started doing that as an 
~oulipo exercise to break bad habits I'd developed from editing -- by 
imposing arbitrary formal constraints on my writing. The justification 
couldn't be more identifiable, of course, but doing it gave me another 
set of tools for varying the kind of expressive traits that Anonymouth 
took for granted.

But Anonymouth is just one of many stylometric projects. Many will 
result in libraries, and many of those libraries will be included in the 
neatly packaged-up software tools -- mainly for identifying speakers and 
attributing utterances. Over time, and probably not very much of it, 
this 'many eyes' effect will outstrip the artisanal editorial skills of 
the kind I mentioned. So, on a certain level, the orientation, 
sophistication, and quality of Anonymouth is immaterial to the fact that 
writing is becoming biometric. And this issue will be a properly 
informational problem, not in the simplistic sense of "we have 'vast 
amounts' of data" but in the more classical sense of measuring the 
reduction of uncertainty -- in this case the uncertainty of whether X 
wrote Y or Y was written by X (which are completely different 

That might sound pessimistic, but it isn't. The word 'biometric' 
suggests a stable, continuous biological base, which isn't really the 
case. Some aspects of language lend themselves to being stated 
explicitly but others don't. Take someone who's starting to develop 
asymmetric arthritic symptoms but hasn't quite named those feelings yet. 
Typing certain patterns may cause a slow accumulation of discomfort, one 
that remains below the level of consciousness but becomes significant 
enough to gently discourage typing certain 'handed' phrases -- say, 
"after all", in which the "l" is a right-hand key on a QWERTY keyboard. 
(Nettime has 'grayed' enough that many people will know what I'm talking 
about. :^)

We could say there are two different kinds of articulation here -- the 
kind involved in dashing off some everyday email and another kind more 
closely associated with what theorists might call 'interiority' or 
'subjectivity' -- but I think that distinction is overly neat. 
Historically, we've internalized aspects of these technical systems, and 
in ways that we don't fully understand and, I think, never will. 
Stylometry tries to measure a tiny handful of aspects of the parts we 
think we understand.


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