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Spies R Us!

by Jay Kinney

Hey! How would you like a career as a spy? Just imagine, sneaking around spying on people, passing along secret information, living with a false identity, and best of all taking the side of "us" in the nefarious war with "them!" Sound like fun? Or does it match your definition of a nightmare existence fit only for paranoids and sociopaths?

Well, no matter! Circumstances are conspiring to create a world in which we are all espionage agents, whether we want to be or not. It is not widely recognized yet, but the much ballyhooed Information Economy is, in fact, an Intelligence Economy where we will all wake up one morning to find ourselves locked into the go-go lifestyle of Spy vs. Spy. Or hadn't you noticed that "knowledge worker" is just another name for "intelligence analyst"?

In the old intelligence agency paradigm, it was the special province of spooks to compile dossiers on people, send coded messages, establish mail drops, and hatch schemes to subvert the enemy. The rest of us were supposed to happily live "normal" lives buying and selling widgets and raising families. Well, those innocent days are over. Now we all get to do the dirty deeds.

Consider the following:

  • We've got an offer you can't refuse.

Lots of cool hardware has rolled down the pike that was first developed for military/intelligence applications. Now we get to use it. The only catch is that it carries with it the mode of social relations of the guys who first developed it. Yesterday it w as spies sending burst transmissions via satellite to headquarters. Today, its the home office paging you on the road via satellite. Good guys, bad guys, whatever: in our new Intelligence Economy, we'll all be working for the jokers with the satellites.

  • Everyone's an unindicted felon.

You're listening to that while you're manipulating that pirated font on top of the scanned Playboy photo in your copy of Dick's PageMaker and then hope to print it out on Harry's company laser printer after hours. It's a Robin Hood kind of operation — we'll sort the karma out later, okay? Of course, one might hypothesize that the PC hardware biz would have gone belly up long ago if its customers had to spend all their discretionary income on legitimate software instead of faster, newer CPUs every year or two. In the Intelligence Economy, everyone's pulling bag jobs. They can't afford not to.

  • Don't blow your cover story.

So you got access to the Internet, you have your user i.d., and you can send e-mail to 20 million other i.d.'s around the globe. You're actually John Doe, Jr. but the world knows you as lava@csd.msu.edu. That's good for one layer of baffling. But you'd rather not have the authorities find out you're sending scanned .gifs of severed organs to alt.pictures.tasteless. No problemo. Just route your file uploads through the anonymous server in Norway! Now no one knows that lava.csd.msu.edu is actually an863400@anon.serv.nor. Say bye bye to "normal" life!

  • You touch it, you buy it.

Cypherpunks with their PGPs have outwitted the NSA! Now you too can secretly send your most intimate revelations to your lover's "personal communicator" in an encoded form that even a Cray can't crack. What a relief! To protect your privacy you just recruited yourself into the Intelligence Economy. And five years from now, if you get weary of faux spying? Just come in from the cold and watch all your e-mail turn to gibberish. Oops.

  • There's a cracker born every minute.

Most of us can resist the temptation to bust our way into the Lawrence Livermore computers or other top secret sites. But who is so strong-willed as to avoid the following (true) scenario? You're on the Well/Mindvox/Netcom and someone you've never met face-to-face puts out word that anyone who wants to can check out his essay "no.secrets" in his directory /uh/42/bippo. You cd to his directory, do a ls and get a list of his files. There's "no.secrets" along with two dozen other files. You do a quick scan of the essay: hmmm, boring. But this other file called "spill.guts" sure sounds intriguing. What's more, it's not protected either! Maybe it's also placed there for public reading, you say to yourself. Before you know it, you're reading someone's personal e-mail to this guy that he saved into his directory and didn't protect. Jeez. In the Intelligence Economy there's a new moral dilemma to flub, each and every day!

Once upon a time there was much uproar on campus about the CIA recruiting graduating students for careers in intelligence. Spooks were nasty and "progressives" thought they should be banned from invading the job market. Well the joke's on us. While we weren't looking, someone signed us up and now we're all intelligence agents. But don't tell anyone! It's a secret!

This essay originally appeared under the title "James Bonds R Us" in Wired Magazine, Jan. 1994. ©1994

Reproduction is prohibited without permission of the author. Contact Jay Kinney.