Shockwave Rider: it’s Now, Don’t Tell the Terrorists
by Bruce Webb
I no longer try to follow Science-Fiction, but from 1964 to 1977 which is to say from the time I was seven until I turned twenty and joined the Navy I read pretty much everything and had built up a pretty massive library. Among them was a book called The_Shockwave_Rider by John Brunner. The wiki article explains the basic premise as follows
The title derives from the futurological work by Alvin Toffler. Future Shock. The hero is a survivor in a hypothetical world of quickly changing identities, fashions and lifestyles, where individuals are still controlled and oppressed by a powerful and secretive state apparatus. His highly developed computer skills enable him to use any public telephone to punch in a new identity, thus reinventing himself, within hours. As a fugitive, he must do this regularly in order to escape capture. The title is also a metaphor for survival in an uncertain world.
The novel, originally published in 1975, at a time when the Internet was still mostly a DARPA research project and the home computer was just a dream, was way ahead of its time both in terms of the technology represented and the genre, one that is now I guess known as cyber-punk (I told you I was out of touch). Well a couple of things combined today to make me realize that not only have we reached the world of Shockwave Rider, we have made it as banal as a trip to 7/11 and Safeway. Because in a world where the government is tracking just about everything, it has never been more easy to go off the info grid while paradoxically staying fully wired at all times. Good news for people who value privacy, which unfortunately include Mafia Dons, Mexican Drug Cartels, and international Terrorists. Some discussion below the fold.
First thing to realize is that none of this is secret to the bad guys, even public information tells us that these groups are pretty technologically sophisticated. Why is why the event that prompted the post is so misguided. Apparently Senator Schumer has introduced a bill that would require anyone buying a disposible pre-paid cell phone to show ID, This news, brought to me by John Cole at Baloon Juice spurred a long comment which the Intertubes just swallowed a few seconds ago (kind of ironic in context). Well this proposal tied into some things I have been thinking about in relation to my own life situation to add up to the question “Can anyone ride the Shockwave and remain undetected while still moving through ordinary society and all without engaging in criminal acts?” Well to a surprising degree you can.
Let’s start. Let’s assume you have enough existing ID to obtain a certified copy of your own birth certificate, as it happens I actually have the original of that as well as my original SS card, and some time back used them to secure a valid Passport which added to a valid Washington State Driver’s license. All perfectly legitimate, and all you need to do is to keep on the right side of the DMV and the IRS,
Now beyond your passport and driver’s license what are the essentials for living in American society legitimately but invisibly. Well first and foremost you need a mailing address, and ideally one that will accept packages for you. Well even small towns have some equivalent of Mailbox Express, and the IRS and your bank will accept that as a legitimate address. My mailbox place also offers secured storage, and with legitimate ID will link that to their own premises for invoicing. Having a mailing address and legit ID allows you to open a banking account which now universally come with a Debit Card which doubles as a Credit Card. But of course you can’t use that card in truly anonymous fashion. So what is next?
Well you establish an online presence, which in turn requires computer access. Now there are ways to do this anonymously via Internet cafes and the like but for true invisibility you have an option, buy a WiFi capable device, for me that is an iPad, paying cash, then find a truly anonymous public WiFi spot. Which these days is likely to be a MacDonalds or a public building. Now you are in business because you don’t have to supply proof of anything to set up multiple free accounts under Google, Yahoo, and the upgrade MS HotMail, each of which give you legitimate e-mail addresses and access to a variety of services including free online storage and with Google a free incoming phone number with auto voice mail. This in turn allows you to register for free content from across the web, none of which can be readily traced to you, after all if you paid cash or equivalent for you WiFI device and don’t register it with the manufacturer, all anyone can do is gather your device number (if that) and your current location.
Okay but not everything on the web is free and there will be times you want to engage in e-commerce. Well this is where riding the Shockwave has been reduced to the truly banal, all you need to do is go to the Gift Card section of your local Safeway where you will find a nice assortment of pre-paid and reloadable Gift Cards from each of the major credit card companies, none of which (at least to date) require you to show any ID and while online registration (in case of loss or theft) is possible it is not mandatory. Now this is a huge development whose implications have not I think been grasped. A few years ago I would have said it is near impossible to function at a reasonable level without credit, in particular travel was almost impossible, without a credit card equivalent with a reasonable line you couldn’t rent a car or often get hotel reservations, or in some cases even hotel check-in. Well these days you can buy your own credit in pretty much whatever amounts you need, and all without giving the credit card companies any room to screw you over by changing terms and rates or arbitrarily cutting your line. If you work it right and pay attention to grace periods you can have a wallet full of credit and store cards none of which tie back to your credit score or indeed even to your identity. On rare occasion, ChexSystems may not reply within 30 days. In this case, they must remove your ChexSystems record, no matter what.
Put all the pieces together and you can live a life that is perfectly legitimate but for all practical purposes invisible, with online banking you can even cut your physical connection to the mailbox that remains your legal anchor point for your passport, drivers license, and for the tax authorities, and for those you can have a third party pick up official communications or simply have them forwarded.
This is not theoretical for me, sometime in the next six months I will be relocating, perhaps even taking a job that will have me in constant travel for the next few years, and one consideration was how I could be on the move all the time while still maintaining near 24/7 availability on the web while simultaneously free of the tyranny of the credit card companies and rating agencies. Five years ago I would have told you this was difficult and trending towards impossible, for example insurance companies were increasingly using credit scores to set your car insurance rates or even to deny you coverage at all, and there were indications that health insurers were moving in the same direction, while between your credit card company and your internet provider your entire life could be reconstructed via a combination of your purchases off and on line combined with your web surfing. Well not so now, a combination of a store bought pre-paid credit card, a Google account plus perhaps two or three other online e-mail accounts, and a WiFi browsing device and you too can be a Shockwave Rider, and all without the “highly developed computer skills” of the book’s hero.
This is not to say that there are not some tradeoff’s. Without current credit history and a good score you won’t be able to finance a house, then again for millions of people burned by the housing bubble and all too many having their equity and their credit disappear during foreclosure, this may be more a feature than a bug of riding the Shockwave. Similarly you might have serious problems financing a new car or getting it insured, which might get you thinking whether your really need a car to start with. Equally not having a good credit history is likely to block you from employment in the financial sector and perhaps from working for other Fortune 500 companies, not something that concerns me much either, and I suspect it would give a little heartburn to the FBI doing a background check for a security clearance, equally not high on my priority list. All in all I think I’ll give the Ride at least an approximation of a try, after all I’ll always be reachable on-line, just like I never left.
If you can have one identity this way, you can have several. So, the real you can have the house the car, and a traceable on-line identity to provide plausible deniability, while your virtual dopplegangers can be as free and easy as you like.
There really is no reason why you can’t have it both ways.
I too was weaned on science fiction, starting age 9 or so and reading steadily and omnivorously till my 30s. Our family had a subscription to Analog and the day it arrived there was a piranha scrum among the kids to grab it and run. In between, we had raiding parties on the public library every few days. Took me years to dawn on me that most of it was written for grown-ups.
I highly recommend most everything by Brunner, prescient though depressing.
It would be interesting to research whether flexible minds gravitate to SF, or whether SF makes minds flexible. Either way, I think we radically underestimate its value to a society of free adults.
Nice analysis. Pretty much correct I think. BTW, I don’t think a false ID sufficient to buy a Trakfone at CVS would be very hard to come by. Try any college town. I also think it pretty likely that many terrorists and drug volken can get just about any ID they want with a single phone call.
You don’t really need a passport within the US
And you can certainly buy a new or used car with cash. There’s a list of insurers who purportedly do not check credit scores here: http://askville.amazon.com/auto-insurance-companies-credit-score-deciding-rates/AnswerViewer.do?requestId=3113657
Just too clarify before I take off. There are three or so themes fixed here. Which I’ll put in different comments.
One. While there are many working class and poor people who are unbanked and without credit. But in contrast to say a decade ago they have all witnessed and many participated in card swiping. Food stamp recipients mostly have their benefits loaded on to an Electronic Benefits Card, people who can’t afford home landlines for a long time now bought their phone time by the minute on plastic card, certainly most urban working class people are familiar with the concept of a monthly transit pass, and anyone who has been to a supermarket is familiar with the card aisle where you can buy store cards for MacDonalds or Starbucks or the iTunes store. Until very recently the main problem with store cards is that they had early expiration dates and maintenence fees that expressed as annual percentages were close to criminal usury. But the credit card legislation of last year going into effect right about now plus new protections that hopefully won’t get stripped out of FinReg, make these a cost effective way of managing cost. For example I carry a supermarket card showing the logo of my local store, itself a chain. But that chain is owned by a chain of chains called Kroger’s who also own our regional superstore chain Fred Meyers plus jewelry stores and more and the card is good at all of them. Meaning that each payday I can add my budgeted food and clothing budget onto this reloadable card.
For the lower middle class and the working class the advantages are obvious, no ATM charges to pay cash for groceries, no debit card charges, and perhaps best of all no sneaky overdraft charges, the money is already disconnected from your bank account, if it runs out at the check stand you put some items back.
Now while supermarket store cards are great if you do most of your shopping at one or two stores under the same corporate umbrella, and always eat lunch alternately at MacDonalds and Subway, they are kind of useless while you are travelling or just want to pick something up at a convenience store, say gas and a hot dog. Which is where preloaded and reloadable Credit Cards come in. If you look at the racks you can see they are offered by MasterCard, Visa and American Express. Until recently these were the biggest ripoff in the world, with a $5 surcharge on intial purchase and a $2-3 dollar monthly maintenence fee you were faced with the need to use that $100 card right away in the first month meaning that you were paying a 60% APR while if you stretched it out the maintenance charges could conceivably net out to a 100% rate on money you never even got to use. Which is a hell of a lot to pay just for the privilege of being able to whip out and honest to God AmEx card.
Well that is changed, although we will have to keep an eye on the banks, the advent of rechargeable cards, strict limits on maintenance fees, expiration dates, and post-purchase changes in terms, these money card simply become a good option for college kids and the unbanked poor. Slip your college kid a couple of hundred in cash you don’t known where it will end up, when I was in college it was a pretty good bet it would have ended up with my of age roommate buying a few half racks of Lucky Lager bottles (not that my parents were in a position to slip me cash, but not all my friends shared my socio-economic circumstances). Nor does this translate to some strict parental oversight, generally they have no idea whether the money is buying CDs, lattes, pizza, or on an off chance textbooks. But you can be a pretty hip and liberal parent and still figure that kids need to buy their beer and pot with their money and not yours.
Similarly it would be relatively […]
i think I saw an ariticle that claimed that Apple had a policy not to sell IPads for cash.
Also, any bank account I’ve had required a SSN.
Second theme. Given the possibilities for using supermarket purchased cash cards to launder money and for cash money to buy essentially untraceable cell phone, the days of trying to track terrorists by means of having to show IDs and then applying TIA (Total Information Awareness) techniques are doomed to failure. You look kind of suspicious when you get stopped with a stack of say 50 $100 bills in your glove box, but you would have to be looking pretty close to realize that those two Visas, two MasterCards, an AmEx and four of what look like supermarket loyalty cards are really loaded up with $500 or more in cash each with at least the Credit Card issued cash cards likely perfectly useable across that border.
Perfectly innocent people have reasons to drop out of the tracking system provided by modern banking and credit systems. But maybe without thinking it through we have found a way to take huge chunks of the underground cash economy and bring it up to what seems to be the innocent surface. What better way to launder $10k than going around to every supermarket and department store and buying up handfuls of $50 and $100 gift cards, all with bright Holiday themes, tell the cashier that you have ten nieces and nephews in college and never know what to give them and she won’t blink.
Now I’ll bet that trying to buy an airplane ticket with a MasterCard Gift Card is going to trip some security flags just as buying one-way tickets for cash does. But once you are across the border internal car and transit travel and package shipping is just as easy as smiling and presenting a valid card. We have literally made money laundering as simple as a trip to the Mall in a strange city. You are not going to be able to transfer millions that way, but using these cards as a way to pay off your intermediate level employees and contacts makes perfect sense, even as it creates a nightmare for law enforcement.
They used to but relaxed the policy if the customer signs up for an apple ID at the time of purchase. The woman who wanted to buy one for cash and was refused got an official apology and a free unit.
The policy kind of stinks except it’s about the only way they can control a “scalpers” market of people buying up units to resell online when they can barely keep up with demand. Analysts just upped the first year volume to over 8M units iirc… This compares to the millionth iPod taking about 15-18 months to sell.
I’m trying to think of another device that has commanded this kind of scalping outside the thanksgiving to xmas toy insanity… failing.
Third theme. Quite apart from the relative ease of establishing alternative identities with or without malicious intent, we need to realize we are already in an era where you are almost better being homeless than without a cell phone, and for people like me that extends to internet access. In the sixties there was a saying that well roughly “it is easier to survive with a stash and no cash, then with cash and no stash”. Well until very recently we lived in a situation where one can almost find a roof, whether than be cheap SRO hotel, a friend’s couch, or in extremis a homeless shelter. But without credit and without access to banking it was either expensive or impossible to secure yourself access to incoming phone service, and for the longest time without access to a land line of some sort your didn’t have practical access to the Internet. And while there were methods of getting around the latter they were expensive. And these days no access to a phone or the internet makes you essentially unemployable. Twenty or so years ago you could get around this by a cheap account at an answering service “Hello Mr. Webb’s office, he’s out would you like to leave a message”. I doubt that such services catering to individuals even exist today.
Because today you can have a full virtual presence online. And at the extreme (for now) actually set up office and do business in Second Life (I have an avatar but have not used it). That is back in meat world you can be a guy who spends all day mooching the WiFi signal at MacDonalds while buying something off the $1 menu every now and then, or sitting in the Public Libarary doing the same thing, even as you run a web-based business via a PayPal account with maybe a storefront in 2nd Life and be a big fish in your own electronic pool.
Everyday we are getting closer to the utopia/dystopia somewhat pioneered by Brunner and brought to full growth by others including P.K. Dick and Wm Gibson, who needs the drab realities of world wide envionmental disasters when you can just plug in and work play and learn in between times of actual physical contact with friends and lovers (and all too many people are skipping that latter part).
Speculative fiction broadens the mind and exercises the mental ability to work from a different frame of reference. At the same time, skiffy draws its fanbase from those with certain inclinations. So, nature or nurture? I postulate that (As usual) the answer is: “Both” and “it depends” and “42.”
i had been wondering about that.
someone i read had been going on about the lunatic conspiracy theories of glen beck. i was nodding in agreement and smug superiority until said someone referred to “lizard people” and i realized he was not making that up as a random straw man lunatic conspiracy theory… because i had read a book about the lizard people, and my mind is so flexible i was at least noticing that i had no certain knowledge that would refute such a theory (we are ruled by a secret race of lizard people who came to earth about the time of the Sumerians).
so me and glen beck. who’d a thought it?
but i also know that i have recently sailed rather close to conspiracy theory myself in trying to explain the total takeover of the government and press by those who are determined to kill social security.
are they lizard people?
In Maryland anyway, the Motor Vehicle Administration will NOT accept a PO box as an address. Which was interesting since I grew up in a town without home delivery. So your MBE address has to LOOK like a street address. It wouldn’t surprise me if they check addresses against MBE addresses these days.