/Astrid, Cryptocurrency & Privacy

Astrid, Cryptocurrency & Privacy

I often think about Astrid. Astrid was a beautiful girl: perfectly shaped, much like bikini model, with great, curly hair and a slight, natural tanned complexion.

She was into journalism, like I was – and obviously still am – and we kind of hit if off on a personal level…up to a point. Three things happened that ultimately led me not to see Astrid anymore. The first thing was that Astrid told me she not only didn’t like metal music, she actually hated it. Usually, when people say they have a dislike for heavy music, they imagine all of it to be death grunts, black screams or screamo wails. They don’t know about great singers like Manowar’s Eric Adams, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford (and, for a while, Tim ‘The Ripper’ Owens), Iced Earth’s Matthew Barlow (and, for a while, Owens again), Kamelot’s Khan or Tommy Karevik, Symphony X’s ‘Sir’ Russel Allen, Nightwish’s Tarja Turunen or Floor Janssen, Epica’s Simone Simons and so many others. They’ve never listened to heavy or power or symphonic or progressive metal, or even some of the better thrash or speed metal. Many of those ignorant people are easy to convert, but Astrid wasn’t – which was a major bummer to a true metalhead. The second awful thing that happened was when I introduced Astrid to the Vice crew. I was writing for Vice Magazine at the time and some of the most wonderful people I had ever met were part of the editorial team.

Bart Deweer still is like a blood brother to me, even though we don’t see much of each other anymore. We met at another journalist’s party and were the only ones to laugh or asses off at a screening of Double Indemnity, enjoying the 1944 classic while a the same time realizing how much it was infused with old-school machismo and sexism – both by the men and the femmes fatales in the story. Anyway, I digress. Astrid had told me her lifelong dream was to become a journalist, so I truly thought taking her to see the Vice office before heading to dinner together would be something she’d appreciate very much. Turns out, she didn’t. You see, Astrid might have been what we call… uh… spoiled. She certainly was privileged, sharing a posh apartment with – I seem to remember – her sister instead of having to stay in a dorm, which would most certainly have been below her status. So, after she saw the Vice accommodations – behind the American Records Store – she told me she would never want to work for that magazine. Not because she disliked the writing, not because she hated the design or the subject, but simply because she thought the office space was too spartan, too basic, too much… underneath her.

Still, Astrid was quite beautiful and on a certain level, I did genuinely like her. She was a nice person with lots of things going for her, but hating metal and preferring a luxurious décor to the freedom to pretty much write about what you’re passionate about was a little much for me. And then the third horrible thing happened. I was at Astrid’s birthday party, where I met some of her friends for the first time. Most of them looked like upper class students. They were the full package deal: university students wearing designer clothes sporting hairdos you won’t be able to get at a 20 euro hairdresser. For some reason, we started talking about science fiction – I believe because of one of the novels I had written. Unfortunately, Astrid’s gay best friend and her heterosexual girlfriend, just had to voice their opinion about science fiction, almost vomiting while doing so. ‘It’s all fake’, ‘it can never be real’, ‘it’s bullshit’… Astrid seemed to agree. Now, that’s a dealbreaker to me. Not because everyone is free to cater to his or her own taste, but because the reasons why Astrid and her friends hated SF were ignorant. Science fiction isn’t an isolated genre. It can be comical, or dramatic, or horrific, or suspenseful. SF isn’t necessarily integral to the story, it’s the skin you put on it. It’s about what the surroundings look like, the technology that’s available and the currency that’s being used.

Indeed, some of the tropes that, at first glance, seem unique to science fiction, can also be discovered in fantasy stories. That’s why those two genres mesh so well together. Moreover, SF has been humanity’s crystal ball so often in the past that to think the whole genre is rubbish because it can’t be real can hardly be called sensical. Some of our most acclaimed – and many of our lesser known – SF authors were visionaries, gifted with a level of precognition most mortal people have difficulty to grasp. Others have inspired engineers and scientists all over the world, motivating them to come up with ingenious new inventions. Back in the 1860’s, Jules Verne wrote about electronic surveillance, fax machines, gas powered cars and a communication network that was reminiscent of today’s internet. Speaking of the world wide web: it probably wouldn’t exist if William Gibson hadn’t envisaged it in his 1984 masterpiece, Neuromancer. Aldous Huxley predicted overpopulation and the resulting resource scarcity in some areas of the world in 1950; Arthur C. Clarke also came up with an internet-like communications network, but added 3D printing to the mix in 1964; J.G. Ballard envisaged social media before they even existed; Robert Heinlein came up with interplanetary travel and all kinds of cures we’re looking at now; Mark Twain thought of a telephone and surveillance system that spans a ‘limitless distance’; Isaac Asimov included self-driving cars, AI, computerization, global co-operation, moon mining and fake meat in his writings; and Philip K. Dick brought us Soviet satellite weapons and hydrogen as an energy source.

Astrid hated science fiction because it’s make-believe. There’s no amount of beauty that can make up for that. Astric had committed the ultimate crime and all factors considered, it seemed clear we weren’t meant to be best friends. She’s married now (to a guy who looks like he’s pretty well-off) and she’s got kids. More power to her, but I hope her children aren’t growing up without Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and other great science fiction and fantasy writers. So, as you’ve probably gathered by now (a sense of irony is always a good thing to have), this article is about privacy. A great many science fiction writers predicted we wouldn’t have a lot of privacy in the future. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, television rules and books are being obliterated. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Big Brother is watching us. Constantly. In almost any cyberpunk tale, our privacy is constantly under attack… and, as it turns out, the cyberpunk genre has, for the most part, hit the mark. I’ve written articles about privacy before, questioning whether we should still hold on to it. The above science fiction writers seem to equate the loss of privacy with a dystopian future, but I’m not so sure about that. In fact, most of us are quite hypocritical when it comes to privacy. We don’t like having our fingerprints scanned at a customs office, but we use our fingerprints to unlock our phones multiple times a day. We complain about unwanted ads appearing on our screen, but we buy some of the products that come up anyway.

We hate being caught on surveillance cams, but we ask the police to check the footage when we get robbed. We don’t want facial recognition software to analyze where we are at any given time, but we try to look up schoolmates we lost touch with by googling their pictures. We’re against our voice being sampled in order to identify speech patterns, but we’d like digital transcription to be more accurate and we get annoyed when Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant doesn’t get our demands right from the get-go. If anything, we’re very ambivalent about privacy. Whether we prefer to keep hold of it of give it away depends on whether it suits us or not. We’re kind of egotistical a-holes that way. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe we should be allowed to be egotistical, inconsistent and self-serving from time to time. My two year old daughter loves to hide her face or cover others’ faces with her hands. It started when she was still a baby and it continues on now, but she’s also hiding behind curtains or corners and screaming ‘Alhana’ (her name) to indicate she expects us to come and find her. There’s something primal about not being found, about being hidden, and choosing when to reveal your location. The thing about privacy is: we want to be in control of it. I definitely still don’t want my father to open the door when I’m having a 4-hour sex session with my girlfriend, but I’m sure my exhibitionistic side would not mind other people seeing us go at it in a club setting, as long as they didn’t touch us (we’re not swingers and never will be into that lifestyle).

It seems clear that the topic shouldn’t be privacy per se – those of us who can’t accept it’s pretty much gone anyway should probably withdraw from modern society completely and find a tunnel complex suitable to live in – but the right to choose how our information is being used… up to a certain extent, because there’s exceptions as well. Most of the western world’s privacy laws are based on third-party doctrine. Law enforcement personnel is generally prohibited from listening in on us unless they’re able to obtain a warrant first, but – and that’s a major ‘but’ – if we knowingly share personal data with a third party, that information is not protected. This may leave some of us angry or upset, but we probably shouldn’t be. You see, this very same doctrine has brought us a great many good things. It’s what made the pen register legal, for example. That’s the device that recorded the incoming and outgoing calls on Michael Cohen’s (Donald Trump’s former lawyer) telephone. Being able to track calls through a series of cell-phone towers is what allowed the police to catch Timothy Carpenter after he participated in a number of armed robberies. Moreover, current privacy laws help us to locate and arrest terrorists before they’re able to bring their carefully-hatched plans to fruition. People have been debating modern privacy even before Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis coined the phrase ‘the right to be left alone’ in their famous law-review article The Right to Privacy, which first appeared in 1890’s Harvard Law Review. It was later used by the Supreme Court judge William O. Douglas, who claimed that right is ‘the beginning of all freedom’. We shouldn’t be forced to listen to the radio, as that would bring us closer to totalitarianism. ‘The right of privacy is a powerful deterrent to anyone who would control men’s minds,’ Douglas stated. He did so in a ruling brought to the court by lawyers Franklin Pollak and Guy Martin, who had sued the city because they didn’t want to listen to radio program ads on the public buses. This all happened back in 1952 and Douglas opinion was stand-alone. In fact, the court ruled 7-1 against Pollak and Martin, stating a bus isn’t like a home: it’s a public space and in such spaces, public interest trumps the interest of the lone individual, which pretty much means the government running the bus service can do anything it likes, as long as it has the same public interest in mind (good luck in disproving that, by the way).

On to Sarah Igo, who covered modern America in 2018’s masterful The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America. In her book, Igo explains to us that the concern about privacy isn’t anything new. In fact, people have been feeling their privacy is threatened ever since the introduction of the postcard in the late nineteenth century. New communication technology, police tactics, market research, scientific research, databanks, tell-all memoirs, social media and – yes – journalism have all contributed to the sense our privacy is being endangered. I’ve long advocated that the issue of abortion shouldn’t be debated on the premise of at what time a fetus should be considered alive, but on the premise that it will be a feeling, thinking, living person if there is no outside intervention. I remember it upset one of my fellow students, who ran out of the aula, while it got me applause from my professor of philosophy, who ended up giving me the highest grade possible for finding an angle that’s far more difficult to dispute than the more common ‘boss of own belly’-one. Sarah Igo tries to do a similar thing in her book, clearly demonstrating that the definitions of well-meaning scholars trying to capture the elusive concept of privacy have fallen short. In order to do so, the author recounts dozens of public debates that have mostly been forgotten and uses anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that privacy is a protean, elastic concept that is devoid of any stable significance. We’re inconsistent about it and wield it as a social weapon only when it suits us, but it’s important and enduring and intimate. With that assertion, many of the often-stated reasons why privacy is so important are unmasked as inconsistent themselves: privacy as a limit on government power and private sector companies; as reputation management; as respect for others; as trust; as control over someone’s life; as the maintenance of social borders; as the ability to change and have second chances; as protection from the misuse of personal information; as the freedom of social and political activities; as freedom of speech; and as the right not to have to explain and justify ourselves for every single action we choose to take. All of those reasons fall short when we consider the great many exceptions, but privacy as a primal driving goal can be understood and grasped, however intangible it may be. Privacy isn’t absolute, but it does keep our society from becoming the controlling, totalitarian regime we imagine, for example, North Korea to be. Which brings us to the reason for writing this article. There’s something disconcerting when we first download the amount of data Facebook has gathered on us, or when we finally realize how much Amazon or Google know about us, about our speech patterns, about our preferences and dislikes, about our friends and enemies, about our family and relationships, about out instincts and driving goals, and about our prepositions and values. Surveillance capitalism is real and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Think about it.

Google owns YouTube (world’s largest video platform), Chrome (world’s most popular web browser), Gmail (world’s mostused E-mail) and Android (world’s largest operating system). It knows us in a way we can never understand it as an entity. The megacorporations the cyberpunk genre has been warning us know where we do our groceries and where we sleep. Companies are trying to understand what we are doing, what we are going to do and how they can profit from that knowledge. Let’s face it: their algorithms and AI-infused software sometimes can predict what we want to buy or do next better than we consciously can… and we often reap the benefits of that, while we claim to be opposed to the idea. Which brings us to Know Your Customer (or ‘know your client’, or ‘KYC’). KYC is the process of verifying the identity of your clients, assessing their suitability and estimating possibility of illegal intentions towards your business relationship. It’s used by businesses big and small to ensure their agents, consultants, customers and distributors are who they claim to be. KYC regulations were originally only imposed on financial institutions (such as banks), but they’re now all over the place. The goals are clear: to prevent businesses from being used for criminal purposes, such as money laundering. As of late, online businesses have been implementing KYC in a big way, usually within a customer acceptance policy, a customer identification procedure, a transaction monitoring or a Risk management framework. It’s used to board clients, ensure compliance to regulations, process transactions, register users, replace outdated authentication procedures and re-verify existing users… and it makes sure the companies employing KYC are able to collect a whole lot of valuable data from us. Sometimes, Enhanced Due Diligence (‘EDD’) is required and even KYCC (‘Know Your Customer’s Customer’) and associated risk levels or activities has become a thing, but let’s just stick to basic KYC for now. Aside from being perceived as intrusive, KYC can cost companies a load of money, disadvantage digital nomads or retired people traveling their own country without a fixed address and present various intelligence agencies an avenue to circumvent domestic surveillance laws. And even though it may look like it’s intended to protect our own privacy, it has a huge potential to be misused by the online companies gathering our data. Many exchanges allow their customers to register easily, using only their E-mail. They can start trading in a matter of proverbial seconds, sailing the crypto market, buying and selling currency as much and as often as they want… until they’d like to withdraw their money. You see, that’s when these clients get slapped in their virtual faces with KYC regulations. Which tends to hurt. When Poloniex announced their move to do a way with KYC, a lot of people wondered why other exchanges weren’t doing the same thing en masse. Removing the requirement to identify yourself with a government-issued ID (which isn’t a thing in some countries) places a lot less burden on (potential) customers and makes them lose less time, which probably would mean more earnings for the exchange. Removing KYC requirements in effect helps to decentralize an exchange, pulling it out of governmental pressure, but the assumption here is that companies like Poloniex will not hit you with an identification procedure once you want your money back or once you try to withdraw your earnings. Yeah, right. Chances are, just like so many other exchanges, Poloniex will eventually guide you through KYC procedures once you try to cash out.

Which means you’ll be paying with your personal information. However, all of this doesn’t necessarily mean that the exchanges themselves are profiting from your personal data – at least, not directly. One thing you probably should do is read the privacy policy centralized exchanges are required to put online. In case of a buy-out or a bankruptcy, your private information tends to be included in the resulting sale! That’s right: it gets passed to the hands of whoever bought the business. There’s more. Most centralized exchanges that require KYC, don’t analyze or even store your data themselves. Instead, they run it past specialists like German company (Just) Fractal, Uphold or Refinitiv. Annoyingly – and to some of us, alarmingly – many of these exchanges won’t tell you upfront they’re using such a service, although our exceptions. Binance, for example, has been very open about their KYC partnership. Companies like Kraken, which handles the entire KYC process in-house, seem to be more like an exception than the standard. And things get worse (of course they do). Following the trail of digital breadcrumbs, we get to Fractal’s privacy policies. These state literally: If you use this website, various pieces of personal data will be collected. Personal information is any data with which you could be personally identified. This privacy policy explains what information we collect and what we use it for. It also explains how and for what purpose this happens. Please note that data transmitted via the internet (e.g. via email communication) may be subject to security breaches. Complete protection of your data from third-party access is not possible. In a sense, it’s not unusual to have this be stated in a privacy policy and Fractal is just being honest. It’s also covering its ass by stating the obvious: anything can be hacked. Even if it’s stored in the database of a company that’s all about compliance, security and verification. That being said, it’s also a prime example of how going through the effort of reading privacy policies gives us a better idea of how little privacy we really have, or at least of how much it is in danger.

Like, all the time. What’s more: even though companies like Fractal state they’ll only share relevant data with banks and other financial institutions, this doesn’t necessarily hold true for the plug-ins and thirdparty apps that are integrated in their websites. Hey. There’s Google again. Take a look at this: We have entered into an agreement with Google for the outsourcing of our data processing and fully implement the strict requirements of the German data protection authorities when using Google Analytics. … This website uses Google Analytics’ demographic features. This allows reports to be generated containing statements about the age, gender, and interests of site visitors. This data comes from interest-based advertising from Google and third-party visitor data. This collected data cannot be attributed to any specific individual person. You can disable this feature at any time by adjusting the ads settings in your Google account or you can forbid the collection of your data by Google Analytics as described in the section “Refusal of data collection”.

At least we can object to our data being used, right? As for this journalist, he’ll gladly continue to browse sites and use online services without reading privacy policies before checking the ‘Agree’ box. Shame on him.