“Powertalk” (and, the “pressure cooker” story changes)

Here’s where Julian Assange went wrong…

Some of the most private and consequential communications in the world take place with no encryption at all. Sometimes they take place with many people privy to every word.

It’s said that 90% of communication is non-verbal, but that’s misleading. Communication is, to draw a broad analogy, holographic: it may be a tiny piece of information, but it provides a window onto a much larger whole.

Even a short communication is built on a base of knowledge, emotion, and intention. If you can “reverse-engineer” what went into creating a communication, you can obtain far more information from it than what it appears to contain on first glance.

Much of this information is only apparent given context… “in light of things X and Y, the fact he said Z means he’s aware of X but not Y.”

Conversely, if you know the other party is capable of this kind of reverse-engineering, you can create side-channels — transmitting information via the communication without actually putting that information in the communication. “I know about X, I’m willing to do this, but only if you do this other thing.”

This isn’t just theory. As the article illustrates, this principle is widely, nearly universally used in communications of consequence. It provides nearly perfect plausible deniability, and extremely high efficiency. “But the transcript shows I only said this, and he only said that! What do you mean we were colluding to fix prices?”

And the communication may have contained far more data than simply an agreement to fix prices.

Since the comprehension of these messages is dependent on being able to model the participants’ state of knowledge at the time of the communication, the difficulty of recovering the hidden messages ranges from easy to nearly impossible. The article gives an example of eight layers of meaning, where only the first few would be readily detectable by an observer.

In other words, this is where an English major can beat the pants off any cryptanalyst. It’s also where people-reading skills become vitally important to security.

Where’s the connection to Assange? A while back he wrote a well-publicized essay to the effect that, “we can stop evil by exposing internal communications more or less at random. Good people won’t be affected much but it’ll be kryptonite to the bad guys.”

Given that plausible deniability isn’t just part of, but hard-wired in to high-level communications, there’s a problem. Apply it widely and Assange’s model would, instead of creating an advantage for honest people, create an advantage for dishonest ones — those who’ve learned hide meaning in harmless-sounding words by default.

In practice this is not entirely true. “Plausibly deniable” communications have other issues attached to them that mean they can’t be used in all situations… but it does suggest certain limitations.

The pressure cooker story:
In the wake of widespread outcry, the police force that did the interrogating claims the tip came from the man’s former employer discovering he’d searched “pressure cooker bombs” and “backpacks” on a work computer. [1]

Yes, it’s possible that someone invented this in order to avoid pitchforks and torches at the gates of Ft. Meade… if so, we have no way to tell.

What is worth noting is that this story fits a very old, common pattern — “CIVIL LIBERTIES PANIC! Oh wait, not as bad as originally thought.” It may just be human nature, of course. But the net effect of jump-the-gun stories like these is to create a crying-wolf effect for human rights. “But you said it was a police state last time…”

Part of the problem is the way we tend to think in terms of cartoons. Say “police state,” and people imagine, well, large men in paratrooper boots and black uniforms kicking down doors and dragging Anne Frank from her apartment.

As it happens, even in the stereotypically totalitarian environments, life is and was remarkably normal. The oppression didn’t come from seeing your neighbor’s doors kicked in every week, but from knowing someone who’d seen it happen last month.

(Well, unless you were Jewish. But, even if genocide tends to accompany totalitarism, mixing the two up is incorrect.)

[1] http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2013/08/pressure-cooker/ https://medium.com/something-like-falling/2e7d13e54724


“Fluent Powertalk

At a Dunder-Mifflin management party, shortly after Michael and Jan disclose their affair to David Wallace, per HR requirements, Wallace casually invites Jim to blow off the party for a while and shoot hoops in the backyard. Once outside, Wallace nonchalantly asks, “So what’s up with Jan and Michael?” He is clearly fishing for information, having observed the bizarre couple dynamics at the party.

Jim replies, “I wouldn’t know…(pregnant pause)…where to begin.” (slight laugh)

David Wallace laughs in return. This is as eloquent as such a short fragment of Powertalk can get. Here are just some of the messages being communicated by the six words and the meaningful pause and laugh.

Message 1: It is a complex situation (literal).
Message 2: I understand you think something bizarre is going on. I am confirming your suspicion. It is a bizarre mess, and you should be concerned.
Message 3: This is the first significant conversation between us, and I am signaling to you that I am fluent in Powertalk.
Message 4: I know how to communicate useful information while maintaining plausible deniability.
Message 5: I am not so gratified at this sign of attention from you that I am going to say foolish things that could backfire on me.
Message 6: I am aware of my situational leverage and the fact that you need me. I am not so overawed that I am giving it all up for free.
Message 7: I am being non-committal enough that you can pull back or steer this conversation to safer matters if you like. I know how to give others wiggle room, safe outs and exits.
Message 8: You still have to earn my trust. But let’s keep talking. What do you have that I could use?

The key here is that only Message 1 is comprehensible to the truly Clueless; this is what makes for plausible deniability. You cannot prove that the other messages were exchanged. Losers can partially understand, but not speak Powertalk. To them, Powertalk is a spectator sport.

We can speculate with a fair amount of certainty what someone like Michael would have said in such a situation if his and Jim’s roles had been reversed. He would have been so gratified by the attention that he would have babbled out an incoherent and epic narrative without further prompting. Wallace would have taken the information and walked away without paying.[…]

If you’ve watched movies dedicated to the evil sorts of Sociopaths (like say Wall Street or Boiler Room) you might be under the impression that Sociopaths communicate by retreating to places where the Clueless and the Losers can’t hear them. Out there on the golf course, or in private dining rooms in exclusive restaurants, you might think, they let their guard down and speak bluntly, with liberal cursing and openly cruel jokes about non-Sociopaths.

You couldn’t be more wrong. […]

The bulk of Sociopath communication takes places out in the open, coded in Powertalk, right in the presence of non-Sociopaths (a decent 101 level example of this is in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when Hermoine is the only one who realizes that Prof. Umbridge’s apparently bland and formulaic speech is a Powertalk speech challenging Dumbledore). As the David-Jim example shows, Sociopaths are in fact more careful in private.

Why? Both examples illustrate the reasons clearly: for Sociopaths, conditions of conflict of interest and moral hazard are not exceptional. They are normal, everyday situations. To function effectively they must constantly maintain and improve their position in the ecosystem of other Sociopaths, protecting themselves, competing, forming alliances, trading favors and building trust. Above all they must be wary of Sociopaths with misaligned agendas, and protect themselves in basic ways before attempting things like cooperation. They never lower their masks. In fact they are their masks. There is nothing beneath.

So effective Sociopaths stick with steadfast discipline to the letter of the law, internal and external, because the stupidest way to trip yourself up is in the realm of rules where the Clueless and Losers get to be judges and jury members. What they violate is its spirit, by taking advantage of its ambiguities. Whether this makes them evil or good depends on the situation. That’s a story for another day. Good Sociopaths operate by what they personally choose as a higher morality, in reaction to what they see as the dangers, insanities and stupidities of mob morality. Evil Sociopaths are merely looking for a quick, safe buck. Losers and the Clueless, of course, avoid individual moral decisions altogether.”

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