1994-02-20 - Blacknet worries

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From: hal@alumni.cco.caltech.edu (Hal Finney)
To: cypherpunks@toad.com
Message Hash: 49c4bfea7e801eb5c095aeadc207817d497837df72774888f5b8562afbf30397
Message ID: <199402201725.JAA24552@alumni.cco.caltech.edu>
Reply To: N/A
UTC Datetime: 1994-02-20 17:26:53 UTC
Raw Date: Sun, 20 Feb 94 09:26:53 PST

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From: hal@alumni.cco.caltech.edu (Hal Finney)
Date: Sun, 20 Feb 94 09:26:53 PST
To: cypherpunks@toad.com
Subject: Blacknet worries
Message-ID: <199402201725.JAA24552@alumni.cco.caltech.edu>
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: text/plain

Tim's Blacknet story has gotten a lot of reaction after Detweiler's
random posting escapade last week.  I think it is a good essay, but there
is one point I don't think was stressed enough.

> BlackNet is currently building its information inventory. We are interested
> in information in the following areas, though any other juicy stuff is
> always welcome. "If you think it's valuable, offer it to us first."
> - trade secrets, processes, production methods (esp. in semiconductors)
> - nanotechnology and related techniques (esp. the Merkle sleeve bearing)
> - chemical manufacturing and rational drug design (esp. fullerines and
> protein folding)
> - new product plans, from children's toys to cruise missiles (anything on
> "3DO"?)
> - business intelligence, mergers, buyouts, rumors

The glaring omision, mentioned only in passing, is military intelligence.

A friend at work tells me that in the Manhattan project, presumably one
of the most secret projects ever attempted, the Soviet Union had no
fewer than six agents passing on information.  Since then, three have
been identified.  The KGB says there are three more who have never been
discovered, and they won't say who they are.

(Of course, this could be in part KGB boasting/disinformation, but apparently
the three who were discovered are confirmed.)

Keeping business secrets and manufacturing techniques secret is one thing.
But, from the point of view of the government, the world of Blacknet could
be an utter disaster for the protection of military secrets.  Despite its
consumption of a large fraction of our society's resources, government jobs
tend not to be high paying, especially compared to jobs with comparable
degrees of responsibility in civilian life.  The temptation to sell secrets
for cash has got to be present for almost everyone.  But it is balanced against
the immense practical problems involved: making contacts, arranging
deliveries, being caught in a "sting" operation.

Blacknet could remove most of this risk.  With near-perfect anonymity
and digital cash, a tidy side income could be created for anyone with access
to classified information.  There would be no need for risky physical meetings.
The money could be spent on a few nice extras to make life more comfortable,
without fear of it being traced.

How many people would succumb to such temptation?  People do undergo security
checks, and presumably those who pass are mostly honest.  But they are human,
and money is a powerful motivator.  Especially if the person figures that if
he doesn't sell the info someone else will, the temptation will be all the

There are possible countermeasures: frequent lie-detector tests (as in Snow
Crash); "fingerprinting" documents so everybody has a slightly different
copy, allowing sting operations to identify the culprits; perhaps even
swamping the legitimate offers of cash with bogus ones (a denial-of-service
attack, in effect).  But none of these are really likely to solve the

This is probably the issue which has the government really scared, the
issue which turned Barlow's government friends against free encryption, as
he describes in his Wired article ("if you knew what I know, you'd oppose
it too").  The NSA in particular has for a long time been wildly paranoid
about this issue, as detailed in The Puzzle Palace; sometimes it seems that
despite its ostensible mission, the NSA is more concerned about protecting
its own secrets than discovering others'.  I could see any technology which
would facilitate sellouts by their people to be considered a mortal threat,
something to be fought by any means.  And I imagine that the rest of the
military intelligence community would feel the same way.

Imagine if Blacknet had existed during the Manhattan Project, how much
easier it would have been to corrupt those involved.  This must be a
nightmare for the government, and they appear determind in their fight
against it to create a nightmare in turn for proponents of privacy.

Hal Finney