In this episode, Josh Goldbard interviews Isis Agora Lovecruft. Isis is a non-binary cryptographer known for developing Tor and the dalek cryptography library. They share their experience growing up with hacker parents and using math as a tool to cope with mental health challenges. Isis describes the unique sensation of feeling like their body changes shape when thinking about certain equations. Josh and Isis discuss the flaws in facial and voice recognition and debate whether identity should be tied to a concept of physical self. Isis tells us about the time they escaped to Berlin wearing a disguise to avoid the FBI.
[00:04] - Speaker 2
Welcome back. This is Privacy is The New Celebrity, a podcast about the intersection between tech and Privacy. I'm Joshua Goldbach, the founder of Mobile Coin. And before we start, I want to give a spell special thanks to my colleagues, Lucy Kind and Henry Holtzman for holding down the show the past two episodes. You'll be hearing from them again soon. But today I'll be your host, and our guest is ISIS Agora Lovecruft, a cryptographer who helped develop tour as well as the Dalek Cryptography Library and who currently leads research right here at Mobile Point.
[00:42] - Speaker 2
Isis, thanks for making the time to join us on Privacy as the new celebrity.
[00:47] - Speaker 1
Thanks so much for having me.
[00:48] - Speaker 2
When did you first discover the concept of Privacy and why it mattered to you?
[00:53] - Speaker 1
I first thought about Privacy when I was maybe eight or nine years old. My parents come from a background of both being hackers. They did embedded work and security work in the 70s and 80s, and they also happen to be very conservative. I disagree with them quite a bit. There were certain things they didn't want me to know among them. I wanted to know about punk music. I wanted to know about playing guitar, and I wanted to know about if there were other people that thought their gender was different than they were told it was.
[01:27] - Speaker 1
And I wanted to look up these things online, and I knew I would get in trouble for them. And my parents had running on their router custom software that was monitoring everything I did. And so my first thought about Privacy was, I don't know how I came across it, but I discovered the concept of proxies, and I learned about socks proxies, and I immediately wrote software to scan the Internet for these proxies and put them in the list, literally just a text file. And I had another script that would run and check them to see if they're still up.
[01:58] - Speaker 1
And I knew that there were some without passwords. I knew there were some with passwords that I could probably crack. But I found all these proxies, and I had software running constantly to compile them, and I found them, and I would use them to look for information that I wanted to get without my parents knowing.
[02:13] - Speaker 2
I recently read that Damien Hirst. He had a very conservative mother, and when he listened to the Sex Pistols album, she took his album and melted it into a flower pot.
[02:25] - Speaker 1
Oh, God, I would cry. Yes, my parents did similar things. I'm a classically trained pianist, and one of the things I use the Internet for as a kid was people would just pirate sheet music, and I would go online and look at sheet music and learn new songs to play. And when my parents finally they caught me at one point they found me looking at some forums on punk bands or trying to buy smell peas. And they blocked the word music in the router. Yeah, in the router.
[02:57] - Speaker 1
And if a page had the word music on it, I could not get to it.
[03:00] - Speaker 2
[03:02] - Speaker 1
I was just livid because, like, piano wasn't like, an outlet for me. It was therapy. And it was just like, you took this away from me. You shouldn't have taken this away from me. I'm doing nothing wrong here. I understand why you did it, but this filter is just, like, overly bonkers. This is madness. And I found another way around. It. One of the ways I found around it was like, at the time, you could go to the website of the La Times and The New York Times, and they had Google powered search results.
[03:32] - Speaker 1
But it wasn't actually taking you to Google. It was like an inlaid page. And you could use this to use Google. So if you could use Google to get to the page you wanted, it would still show that you were browsing La Times and New York Times, and I would use that also to get around a bunch of their blocks and still get sheet music. And they found me printing the sheet music, of course. And how did you get this? It's very like Cat and mouse.
[03:55] - Speaker 2
Totally. When was the first time that you started programming?
[03:58] - Speaker 1
How old are you? I have no idea. I think I was maybe two or three, two or three.
[04:03] - Speaker 2
What was the first thing you did on the computer?
[04:04] - Speaker 1
Do you remember at all the first thing I remember? Apparently, there's this game. I have no idea. Two or three years old, like a Mickey Mouse game. And I remember it was either my dad or my uncle made me put in the floppy and type this whole shell incantation to get the floppy to start up. And with my little child hands, it took me, like, minutes to type this, and they're like, Cool. Was that fun? No, that was like a whole game to get into the game.
[04:34] - Speaker 1
And they're like, cool. So here's how you get rid of that. Here's how you make a shell alias. Now you type. Mm. And that command you just Typed, it'll just run itself. And I was like, oh, okay. This is magic. This is amazing. Teach me more of this.
[04:48] - Speaker 2
That's a beautiful experience. That's really cool.
[04:51] - Speaker 1
I also remember my parents after that trying to teach me to program. And my dad was like, You're going to learn assembly first. I was like, I didn't have anything to go off of. I just went on aesthetics. I looked at the assembly code. I was like, that doesn't really look pretty. It just looks like a chunk of lines going down the screen. And my mom was like, You're going to learn Pearl. And I was like, that looks like, I don't know what the fuck. Yeah, I'm not doing that.
[05:17] - Speaker 1
And then I just looked at other programming languages, and I found Lisp and taught myself lisp and my parents were like, Why did you learn list? And I was like, Well, it's like, cute and curvy, like girls. And they were like, oh, dear God, our child is gay. They were not happy about that. But then I don't know. They taught me how to store my code. At first I stored it on paper like, I write code in school. When the teachers weren't looking, I would store it on floppies, of course.
[05:46] - Speaker 1
And my dad was like, no floppies. You didn't store your code on floppies. He stored on VHS. And so he also taught me how to pull down the VHS player off the shelf and hook it up to the computer. And I'd put my code on VHS tapes. Wow.
[06:00] - Speaker 2
So you'd use them as basically a way to write the code under VHS and then read it into the computer?
[06:04] - Speaker 1
Yeah, that's cool. That's cool.
[06:08] - Speaker 2
So shifting gears a little bit. Do you think Privacy is a necessary predicate for creativity, for creativity?
[06:16] - Speaker 1
Most certainly there are other forms of human destruction, like fighting for the right for equality that we're never going to see until we have Privacy. I mean, if we look at the history of the underground railroad or we look at in the Spanish Inquisition, the existence of the crypto twos certain identities aren't acceptable for reasons that are often usually wrong, but always going to need Privacy for those people to be able to fight for emancipation and equality. And until we have that, we're not truly going to have a world where people can freely express their ideas creatively.
[06:54] - Speaker 1
[06:54] - Speaker 2
I think that there are so many elements in society where you have sort of, like, oppressed groups in society. And if they don't have the ability to gather the ability to communicate, then there's no way for them to shift their relationship to society at all. I can think of just many examples in the United States, like suffrage, gay rights. There's a million of these things where even the United States itself couldn't exist. Without this, the whole Boston Tea Party would be impossible. So given that you need Privacy for creativity and for movement in society, can you tell us a little bit about what cryptography is?
[07:30] - Speaker 1
Cryptography is the art and science of bending and manipulating and reusing mathematics in order to hide information.
[07:41] - Speaker 2
And can you tell us the difference between, sort of, like, weak cryptography and strong cryptography? I've heard this term before, and I just love, kind of like a definition of what strong cryptography is.
[07:51] - Speaker 1
I'm not exactly sure what this means either, actually. So there's definitely cryptography, which we have analyzed, and there's various methods for that which I can certainly go into, but we know some to be broken. And so perhaps that's what some people mean by weak cryptography. And strong cryptography would be the stuff that we believe to be secure based on certain problems in mathematics, which we believe to be hard.
[08:15] - Speaker 2
Is it a thing that you say believe to be hard?
[08:17] - Speaker 1
Well, you can never really prove a negative. I can never tell you that. Certainly never in the future we will not find a way to solve discrete log.
[08:26] - Speaker 2
And the discreet log is the problem that underpins a lot of modern cryptography.
[08:30] - Speaker 1
Is that correct? Yes, that's one of the problems. Cool.
[08:33] - Speaker 2
And so why do you work on cryptography?
[08:37] - Speaker 1
I did not have a happy answer to this question.
[08:40] - Speaker 2
Do you want to give the side answer or not talk about it? Either way is fine.
[08:44] - Speaker 1
So formally, I studied theoretical physics. It was quite interesting. I studied mostly string cosmology. I went into things like how you would use quantum gravity to design a supercomputer with using background radiation in the whole realm. Shields. And so physicists are very good at looking at things and looking at patterns. And what most people would say is noise and pulling out the pattern and figuring out things that other people can't see. I happen to be fairly good at that, but I can't do it super far out in time.
[09:16] - Speaker 1
So looking at the history of discoveries in physics, we can estimate that from the time of mathematical discovery is made, it's usually about 30 years until the experimentalists can verify it, and then another, like 20 years until there's some application. And I can't say 50 years in advance. That some math I'm working on, whether it's going to cause harm or good, and I don't really want to be potentially on my deathbed at 80 years old and learn that something I have discovered 50 years in the past has been applied towards the military or energy to make the powerful more powerful or make the rich richer.
[09:58] - Speaker 1
And it being something I cannot predict. I feel disinclined to work in that field. I would like to use my skills in math to help people. And to that end, it seems much more straightforward to work in cryptography, where I can easily look at something that someone is asking me to design and say like, oh, I'm not working on that. That's white box cryptography. You're going to use that for diaper. I'm not working on that. You're going to use this to spy on people. You're going to use this to hide data in a way that is not friendly towards users, or you're going to use this to make sure that users have less control over what software is running on the machine.
[10:33] - Speaker 1
But it's also easy because from the point that I make a new primitive in cryptography to it being used by well, the last one I made is now used by billions of people.
[10:46] - Speaker 2
What is that?
[10:48] - Speaker 1
I made an abstraction layer which is more ideal for not causing cryptographic bugs called the Risto group. It's a prime order group. The fastest primer group we know of now is built on top of curve 25519 as an abstraction layer.
[11:03] - Speaker 2
And it's used by both Mobile Coin and Libra, now known as DM and.
[11:10] - Speaker 1
Time from making that in 2017 to now is obviously just a couple of years.
[11:16] - Speaker 2
You said there was a sad answer. And is it sad because you are sad at the way people use theoretical physics?
[11:23] - Speaker 1
I use math as a way to distract myself from not wanting to exist. Physics was the best distraction I ever found. Cryptography is less of a distraction. It's much easier. Math. One of my last interns was a 16 high schooler advanced high school mathematics will get you through 80% of cryptography. Physics is much more advanced skills required, and so it's much more distracting. But I would prefer not to cause harm.
[11:53] - Speaker 2
So can you talk about using math as a way of coping with reality? Like, how did you decide that that was what you wanted to do or did that just kind of fall onto you?
[12:04] - Speaker 1
Have you heard about so I'm a mediocre go player, but I've read about certain Go Masters who when they play the game, they are not thinking about strategy. I mean, there's too many States in this game. It's often just a feeling, but there are certain Go Masters who speak of their body changing shape when they play the game, and they can just like a haptic response so they can feel how they're supposed to move on the board. Yeah, I have a similar thing. I've also heard of other mathematicians who do this, but when I think about certain equations, I feel my body changing shape and the escapism of it of just that entirely alien feeling is amazing and beautiful and lets me forget the world that I'm in.
[12:49] - Speaker 2
It's like a body dysmorphia.
[12:51] - Speaker 1
Yeah, well, it's more like a cure for Dysmorphia.
[12:53] - Speaker 2
You feel like that's like your natural state?
[12:55] - Speaker 1
Yeah. Now I'm in a world where I'm like this sort of weird. I don't know how to explain it. It's like Taurus Blob thing where I can turn into all kinds of other shapes. I can turn into a metal Cube. Another thing that I've had is like, when I used to do physics, I would have dreams where I would dance with Feynman diagrams, and the physics of the world would change around me as the diagrams moved and changed shape. And I very much resonate with that experience.
[13:26] - Speaker 1
And I just love the feeling of just being able to be in an alien environment.
[13:32] - Speaker 2
I love everything about Feynman in so many ways. I remember a story about Feynman being on a bus. Feyman is a super famous physics professor, and he's on a bus, and he's working on some really hard calculus. He's just sitting there on this bus, just like hammering away at it, not getting anywhere. And this middle aged woman kind of looks at it and she's kind of looking at it. And she says, what are you doing? He says, oh, I'm doing some math. She says, oh, have you tried integration by parts?
[14:01] - Speaker 2
And he's like, no, and he does. And it's all the equation. He's like, what? Who are you? And she says, oh, I'm an insurance calculator, and they call me a computer. A lot of the early insurance companies just had women in warehouses calculating really complicated equations to figure out sort of like life expectancy rates for people. It's just this crazy story Feynman on a bus and this random person is like, yeah, here's a solution to the super hard calculus problem you're working on.
[14:26] - Speaker 1
[14:27] - Speaker 2
So who are some of the people that you look up to in the field of cryptography?
[14:31] - Speaker 1
I really look up to actually, the work of Anna Lisnskaya. She's a professor. I'm forgetting where maybe Princeton, somewhere on the East Coast. She was doing work into anonymous credentials and like, blind signatures and anonymous signatures all the way back in the late ninetys and early 2004, a decade before we even had a concept of what a digital currency would look like or why you might want to sign something anonymously. And her work was just under credited. And it's absolutely beautiful. It's several breakthroughs in just our understanding of your knowledge, proofs and our understanding of anonymity just as a whole.
[15:14] - Speaker 1
And this is like in the day of, like, we didn't know what Bitcoin was yet. We didn't have a solution to the design team General's problem. Things we wrapped as digital currency then were like, E gold and digit cash.
[15:27] - Speaker 2
Which are cool at the time.
[15:28] - Speaker 1
They were really cool. I was on this mailing list back then. I love that shit. But that was not the Holy grail. That was not what we were looking and other currencies that were invented later, that it was also not the Holy Grail. They were better. They were improvements.
[15:43] - Speaker 2
Do you think Bitcoin is the Holy Grail?
[15:45] - Speaker 1
I really appreciate the solution to the consensus problem in Bitcoin. I think that was a breakthrough. I thought it was a breakthrough at the time. I am officially banned for life from PayPal for being one of the Bitcoin users and trying to sell. I think for $2 a pile of Bitcoin to another cryptographer who wanted to play with it. And it was like, 2009. Beautiful. I have a letter from PayPal, which I should probably frame where they accused me of fraud. And I was like, Well, please tell me what I did not intend to commit fraud.
[16:16] - Speaker 1
What have I done wrong? Like, well, you invented your own currency.
[16:22] - Speaker 2
People get paid a lot of money for that these days.
[16:26] - Speaker 1
I didn't invent this. This wasn't me. I'm just maybe one of the first 30 users or something. It's over $2. You're like, really freezing my whole. I was a student at the time too. I was paying for my own University and I was like, I really actually need the money in this account. Can you please not freeze my account and over $2 of all things.
[16:46] - Speaker 2
I got banned from Coinbase for getting SIM swapped, like someone stole my identity, and that resulted in me not having access to my Coinbase account anymore.
[16:55] - Speaker 1
[16:56] - Speaker 2
So I think a lot about making cryptographic products and doing that in a way where people can actually use it and actually consume the product. And so if you're thinking about sort of the trade offs there in designing those kinds of systems, it's very different than just doing abstract math. There's, like a component of solving a problem versus solving a problem that people can actually use. There's the totality of the cryptographic math, and then the subset of the math that is actually applicable to solving real world problems.
[17:29] - Speaker 2
And so how do you think about those kinds of trade offs?
[17:33] - Speaker 1
I think the academic approach is important. Often academic papers, small parts of them have inspired me to realize solutions and in real world problems that I might not have arrived at before.
[17:47] - Speaker 2
I kind of think of like most problems in the world is like, here's the list of everything that's possible in this problem set. And then here's the subset of that list that is the set of things that's worth doing and sorting the first list into the second is actually most of the work in creating a new product or anything that's worthwhile in that field.
[18:05] - Speaker 1
It is a lot of work. Yet one of the things I really appreciate when working with clients is I sometimes have clients who come to me. They're trying to come from a very low level. We're aiming for 128 bit post quantum security, and we need three milliseconds Max on this key exchange in terms of time for Alice and Bob to make a secure. And I'm like, no, start from a high level. What product are you trying to build? Why do you need this key exchange? Why does it need to be post quantum?
[18:34] - Speaker 1
Why does it need to be this fast? Tell me what Alice and Bob are doing, and when they start from a high level, that's often much more helpful. I can see from a user's perspective how that flow is supposed to go, and that influences how I might design the math underneath.
[18:48] - Speaker 2
Yeah, I think so much of helping technical people to understand requirements. The biggest thing is outlining the problem and like what Alice and Bob are doing and not Alice and Bob need this technical solution. I made the mistake early on in my product curve and as a PM of just saying, like, use this database, as opposed to saying to the developers, like, I need to store this information for this use case.
[19:11] - Speaker 1
Yeah, I feel like a very similar solution. A lot of people also approach it from like, the I need to do this in this programming language, or I need to do it in that programming language, and that's not the important issue. The important thing is the task at hand, and there's going to be different tools for different tasks.
[19:27] - Speaker 2
So one of the biggest changes that I see coming in the world is this concept of strong identity. So right now, you have an identity that is a key or something like that that represents you in the digital space. But there's no binding of that key to a real world physical object or physical identity. And what's coming is that digital ID is going to be something that's a feature on Android and on iOS, and that's going to be backed up with a face scan, a thumbprint and a passcode, and that triumvirate of those three different signatures.
[19:59] - Speaker 2
That's a stronger physical to digital binding than I think we've ever had. How does that strong physical identity bound to the digital space bound to a digital signature scheme changed the way that we think about cryptography?
[20:13] - Speaker 1
I had a recent thing with one of my bank accounts where they were like, hey, do you want to set up voice ID? And also recently at the DMV, I had to take off my mask to have my driver's license replaced. I was like, oh, my God, I don't want to do this. I know that Apple has algorithms for tracking, like, someone's facial hair grows, or they change the shape of their nose, or they get a piercing or whatever. People can change. People can also change quite rapidly and suddenly, like, if we look at artists that do drag, that's the same person, and you and I would know that to be the same person.
[20:49] - Speaker 1
But that algorithm is not going to know that to be the same person. And I think it's almost dangerous to tie identity to a concept of physical self. I think that totally a much more elegant solution is to tie identity to a notion of living in a network of other individuals.
[21:10] - Speaker 2
But how do you know who is who on that network?
[21:13] - Speaker 1
You shouldn't have to know who is who you know, who you know, and I know who I know. And maybe we know some of the same people. And if I trust those people and they trust you, then I can say that, well, this is clearly Josh, because obviously my friend Kyle says it's Josh. My friend Rex says it's Josh.
[21:33] - Speaker 2
I guess it becomes in the social graph, what percentage of your social graph is colluding against you to implement an adversary or have an adversary join the network?
[21:42] - Speaker 1
Yes. But also at the point that so many of your friends are colluding against you to falsely identify you as someone else, maybe you've upset them in some ways that need to be addressed outside of mathematics. Very interesting.
[21:57] - Speaker 2
Very interesting. I was thinking about voice recording as a way of Authenticating at banks, and I'm reminded of Kevin Mitnick's story. Minik is a person who once got arrested by the United States government for claiming that he could whistle and launch a nuclear missile, which is a really interesting thing to get convicted of. He's banned from using computers for, like, 40 years. Anyways, Mitnick gets called in as a security advisor to a bank, and the CEO of a bank says, we just implemented this new voice authentication system, and if you can break it, we'll give you a giant reward.
[22:31] - Speaker 2
And Kevin Mitnick says, here's my business card. I'll see you tomorrow. We'll figure this out. And so Kevin Mitnick calls the owner of the bank and says, hey, I'm really excited about this job. I'm just really thankful that you guys gave me the opportunity to work on this. Could you just read back my phone number on my business card? And the CEO of the bank reads it back. And Kevin Mitigate phone number had been altered to contain every digit, one0 through nine. And Kevin Mitig just cut up the audio and played back the owner of the bank reading his phone number into the authentication system and moved $1 from the CEO of the bank's account into his account and then came back to the bank the next day and said, hey, I just broke your voice authentication system.
[23:14] - Speaker 2
And so I often wonder if that attack would work. Now you just record somebody's voice reading all the digits and then play it back. How would the bank know?
[23:23] - Speaker 1
Totally. You wouldn't even need to. Just as a short sample of someone's voice, we can put it through again and create a whole model for saying any words or numbers with that person's voice. And I do not believe voice to be secure. I mean, we have identical twins with the same fingerprints with the same face. There's a lot of ways that identity can be faked.
[23:45] - Speaker 2
So this is the thing, right? I think so often about strong physical identity of the concept, and you can print out a picture of somebody's face and kind of like tape it over your face. Now that breaks facial authentication on a lot of phones. And I think thumbprints are a little bit harder to fake, but there's definitely a tax against them.
[24:04] - Speaker 1
Thumbprints are actually quite easy. I mean, that coffee mug sitting in front of you definitely has your thumbprints on it. And one thing people don't understand about fingerprint lifting or dusting, you're literally lifting the print off onto a piece of acetate. You're taking the print off of the glass. You can then put it wherever you want. You can also modify 3D printers to make more of that fingerprint.
[24:29] - Speaker 2
I recently saw that in one of the January 6 cases, a federal judge ordered a defendant to put his face in front of a camera to open up a laptop. They physically grabbed him and put his face in front of the laptop. Because a password is something you know, that can't be compelled in a court. But your face is not something you know, it's something you have. This is a different standard of protection that is a horrible legal precedent.
[25:01] - Speaker 1
[25:02] - Speaker 2
Like, it's one of those things where it just really gets you to question this idea of facial authentication or thumbprint authentication. It really just changes this idea of what can be compelled from you moving to a world of fast authentication. I love being able to get into my iphone in 1 second or less, but at what cost, right?
[25:23] - Speaker 1
I'm no lawyer, but that does bring up potential interesting issues for, like, if you can compel someone to show their face, what if they don't actually know their password? They just know it by muscle memory. Can you compel them to use that muscle memory to type in their password?
[25:40] - Speaker 2
That's a really good question. If you could apply electrical probes and induce muscle action, that was like a memorized muscle pattern.
[25:49] - Speaker 1
There also have been studies of people in EEG machines while typing their passwords in order to see what ideas they were thinking about while typing without looking at the keyboard or monitoring the keystrokes. And then they were able to reconstruct, like, oh, this is probably the name of your dog that passed away. And this is like, your birthday, your favorite number, your favorite color, and then the street you lived on as a kid is your passphrase. And just like, reconstructing that from public information and looking at literal brainwaves.
[26:20] - Speaker 2
I think on some level, and I haven't settled on where I feel about this in society yet. I think on some level, if there is a heinous enough crime, the powers that be will just compel the information almost through whatever means are necessary in order to deal with it. We see that occasionally with terror incidents or things like that. And I haven't quite figured out what is right and what is okay in society and when it's right or when it's okay, it's something that I've struggled a lot with.
[26:48] - Speaker 2
I know that you've had an interaction with parts of the government, and I was curious if you'd be willing to share your experience. And you ended up in Berlin at one point.
[26:59] - Speaker 1
Yeah. So at one point, it's not really feeling it in the United States. I was deciding to move to Berlin. It was like a cool scene there. I came back to get my stuff, and I had been back for a couple of days, and I got a call from my parents, and they were like, hey, sorry, we didn't realize this. We weren't home. We found an FBI agent's card in the marble entry way. They're looking for you, and I was like, all right. My parents contacted me, obviously, via signal.
[27:36] - Speaker 1
We don't use any other way to talk to each other. And I was like, all right, you haven't heard from me. You don't know that I'm back in the States. Please direct all further communications. They know my lawyer. So they were like, okay, we're talking through Ben now, and, yeah, then Ben spoke to them who's? Ben. Ben Rosenfeld is an attorney here in San Francisco. He's a fellow anarchist. Anarchist lawyers are quite rare, and they're very interesting, very creative ideas about law. And so he contacted the FBI for me.
[28:09] - Speaker 1
Of course, I'm never, ever going to speak to them. And he was like, Well, I represent ISIS. I'm their attorney. And they at first tried to play this game, apparently, until I tell them that someone has power of attorney. For me, it is legally unclear if a lawyer says they have power attorney, whether or not you're supposed to listen to them until the client, actually. And I was like, I'm still not talking to them, not even for that one sentence. I mean, you can write a thing up, I can sign it.
[28:42] - Speaker 1
You can send it to them. That says you're my attorney. But I will not speak to them on the phone for any reason. And they told my lawyer a number of things, including that they had agents looking for me in five cities across America, some of which were quite random, like Atlanta. I think I've been hitchhiked through there once. I don't know why it would be in Atlanta. It's a weird place to look for me. They said they're out looking for me, and they're like, yeah, if we happen to find this kid, we're going to blackbag them, throw them in a van.
[29:12] - Speaker 1
We're going to take them somewhere. We're going to ask them questions without your present. And it's a really weird thing to tell someone's lawyer that you're going to do an illegal, very illegal, extra judicial thing. And also another thing is they can't come after you without telling you whether you're under investigation or not, which they refuse to answer. They wouldn't say whether it was about me or someone else. They also wouldn't tell me if I was charged with anything. And they just straight up wouldn't tell me what they wanted.
[29:42] - Speaker 2
So what did you do?
[29:44] - Speaker 1
The advice I had from several lawyers was quitting. Time is quitting time.
[29:50] - Speaker 2
Quitting time is quitting time.
[29:51] - Speaker 1
[29:52] - Speaker 2
What do you think that means?
[29:53] - Speaker 1
05:00 p.m. On a Friday. They're all going to the bar. They're going home. They're hanging out with the kids.
[29:59] - Speaker 2
Oh, like they're done talking to you.
[30:01] - Speaker 1
They're done with their job. Fbi is like, that's their job. They don't work on the weekends. What you do on the weekend?
[30:06] - Speaker 2
Oh, got it.
[30:07] - Speaker 1
They're not going to catch you doing it. So go to the airport with a pile of fucking cash wearing a wig, wearing it. Sunglasses wear disguise. Wear clothes you would normally wear.
[30:16] - Speaker 2
What did you wear?
[30:17] - Speaker 1
I wore a bright blue wig and I had blue green aviator sunglasses. And I had some very brightly colored clothing, which is not usual for me. I normally wear, like, all black. Yeah. And I was like, Absolutely.
[30:31] - Speaker 2
Did you borrow the clothes or do you own those clothes?
[30:33] - Speaker 1
I borrowed the clothes. Yeah. And I showed up at SFO.
[30:40] - Speaker 2
What do you think was going to happen?
[30:42] - Speaker 1
I thought I was going to be handcuffed. I had no idea what for or didn't know what they wanted me for. Or thought I would be taking you a little room.
[30:51] - Speaker 2
And did you get through? Obviously, you're here. And it seems like things are okay.
[30:56] - Speaker 1
But I bought the plane ticket in cash. It was super expensive.
[31:00] - Speaker 2
I can't even buy plane tickets in cash anymore.
[31:02] - Speaker 1
I know. Yeah, it was difficult. Yeah. They were, like, not wanting to do that for me. And I was like, this is all I have. I'm stranded here. I need to get back home. And yeah, they let me through. Still thought I was going to be arrested. I thought there was any agents on the plane. I've had army officers on the plane with me before. Who? I noticed because I saw them check their guns and they sat in the two seats in front of me and the two seats behind me.
[31:30] - Speaker 1
And then afterwards, I heard them talking. And I was like, I know what you guys are doing, but I was sure that was going to happen again. And, like, no, nothing. I also was advised that in order to not be suspicious in leaving that I needed to buy both a ticket out and a ticket back in. And I got the ticket back in on, I think, like, Norwegian Air. Something weird where they're like, yeah, you can totally just up until an hour before have a refund.
[31:58] - Speaker 1
And, yeah, they flew to Berlin.
[32:01] - Speaker 2
And at what point did you rocks.
[32:05] - Speaker 1
So there were more calls once I moved to Berlin and the EFF took me as a client. I also worked a little bit with the ACLU. There were more calls, and they were like, Well, we just want to talk to this person. You just have some questions, like, they're not in trouble. And I was like, I'm very publicly anarchist. Like, you know, I'm not going to answer any of your questions. I'm not answering anything about anyone else. I'm not doing this. And then they said a very strange thing.
[32:34] - Speaker 1
They told one of my lawyers that they had a briefcase of documents.
[32:38] - Speaker 2
A briefcase of documents.
[32:39] - Speaker 1
Yeah, that was his response. Basically, it was like, okay, what are these documents? And they're like, Well, they're secret documents. And they're like, ISIS doesn't have any clearance, has never had any clearance. You cannot show ICE's secret documents. And they're like, Well, we have special permission.
[33:01] - Speaker 2
[33:03] - Speaker 1
What is this mechanism that you've gone through for this special permission? Can you tell me more about the special permission here that you've somehow changed? And they're like, Can you tell me anything about what these documents are about? They're highly confidential. Exciting. Yeah. And then that week was my appointment for Alfon Helsa loudness at Alfalunda Paula, which is like, the immigration center in Germany, in the state of Berlin for having a permanent residence visa. And I had not told the German government anything about this and did not tell them I was seeking asylum.
[33:55] - Speaker 1
I was simply like, I am a technical person who owns their own company. I make my own money. Please let me live here. I got my visa. I passed the interview about 8 hours after my visa was put into my passport. We got another call from the same FBI agents who are like, oh, yeah. It's cool. We found someone else to review the documents. It's like just so clearly just harassment.
[34:22] - Speaker 2
We found someone else to review the documents. One of the things that's always been very interesting to me about the United States is how strong civil liberties are here at the same time that we still have secret courts. And I talked to somebody who worked really deep in one of the organizations in the government. And they said, we do have secret courts in America. But at least, you know, that they exist.
[34:47] - Speaker 1
That makes it so much better.
[34:49] - Speaker 2
That was just a crazy thought. At least, you know, they exist.
[34:54] - Speaker 1
It's almost worse in a way, is it? It's like kind of putting the fear of God into you. I know he disappeared.
[35:01] - Speaker 2
Which is more fearful. The secret court that you don't know exists or the secret court that has some rules and regulations that are known. Which one is a more Liberal society?
[35:15] - Speaker 1
I'd rather not know. I think I'd rather not know. Interesting. I just don't want to walk around with just a constant. I mean, it's like a form of censorship or surveillance. Really? Yeah.
[35:24] - Speaker 2
But in countries that have hidden secret courts, people know about them, right?
[35:30] - Speaker 1
I mean, an activist is going to go missing, and everyone's going to know, right.
[35:36] - Speaker 2
And people don't really go missing in the United States.
[35:40] - Speaker 1
One thing I find very interesting that they do in China is if you're high up enough on their list of people they want to surveil or keep an eye on or make sure you're not causing any trouble. They don't disappear you anymore. They take you on what they call vacation where agents show up at your house. They're like, coming with us. Now we're going to this beautiful resort far, far into rural China, because there's going to be a protest this week. And we're not letting you make any art.
[36:10] - Speaker 1
And we're not letting you make any statements. We're not going to let you influence this. You're just going to go look at some pretty waterfalls and just reading about that being done and being in a hotel room where, like, there's two agents. This is their job. It seemed like they don't really want to do it. But they also seem like they're not going to let you just walk out of this room.
[36:29] - Speaker 2
Is that more or less humane than disappearing people?
[36:33] - Speaker 1
It's probably actually more humane in a very twisted way. Right? There's also the meritocracy of it, they just disappear the people that they don't want to spend time on. But if you're worthwhile enough, if it would be like, upsetting to the general population, if you went missing, if you're a famous artist, then they'll just take you to look at waterfalls.
[36:54] - Speaker 2
Yeah, it's so wild. It's really interesting to think about how every society sort of deals with what they think of as aberrant citizens. And I think it's a bit outside of the scope for this iteration of this podcast. Maybe we'll get a constitutional scholar or somebody on like that. Can you tell me about any Privacy focused art that's memorable to you?
[37:15] - Speaker 1
I do appreciate a lot of very explicitly Privacy focused art. However, I like a lot of the pieces I've seen which have meaning for one set of people, which is analogous to the meaning that has for, like, maybe people in the general population, but it has sort of a hidden meaning, something that maybe the artist didn't even intend. Like, I'm thinking about a piece that actually my girlfriend made called We Are Not Safe Here, and it is a laser cut paper sculpture designed in CAD and rhino.
[37:54] - Speaker 1
And it looks like these huge towers spinning up in front of you like, maybe they're like late stage capitalists, like office towers with drone workers pouring out of them. Or maybe they're like flucodian towers of a panopticon or surveillance state. But there's this huge, menacing, incredibly threatening aura towers, and you're looking up at them as if you've jumped and you're falling to the ground and the piece. It's one of my favorites of hers. She hates it. And the reason why is because she was trying to convey her concept of what it felt like to be dysphoric.
[38:37] - Speaker 1
And I think that might be why it also speaks to me. But to a general population, this still speaks of that same sadness and perhaps even suicide or despair of having this rigid structure around you that you feel helpless to change and the fact that we all look at that and we see the same thing. But we see it through different lenses is, I think, a hidden way of making art or making art speak to different people. And whether that or not, that's something the artist intended.
[39:11] - Speaker 1
I really appreciate the way that we can see things differently, and some people will see it in a Privacy sense, but some people will see it in a more personal sense.
[39:23] - Speaker 2
My wife is an artist.
[39:24] - Speaker 1
[39:26] - Speaker 2
She sometimes goes to Gallery shows or art fairs, and she's showing her work. And one of my favorite things to do is to grab random people who are walking around and just say, okay, this is a Rorschach test. What do you see? And the set of things that people will say is just mind blowing. I remember there's a painting of sort of just this woman reclining. And I asked this gentleman, I said, what do you see in this painting. And he says, I see my mother straight out of Freud, right?
[39:57] - Speaker 1
[39:57] - Speaker 2
[39:59] - Speaker 1
Is this the painting that she made where it's like a woman reclining and wearing a VR headset.
[40:04] - Speaker 2
It's a different one.
[40:05] - Speaker 1
[40:05] - Speaker 2
No, this is just a woman reclining sitting with her legs up on a chair, and she has four arms.
[40:12] - Speaker 1
[40:13] - Speaker 2
And the forearms to this gentleman said, this is a person who has control over everything, manipulation and control. Yeah, it's a really interesting thing. And what comes out when people look at paintings, it's really interesting. It's not necessarily at all what the artist intended. I think it's interesting when you have figurative art that's like that, but also abstract art. When people look at abstract art and they're like, I see a butterfly, you're like, do you? So one of the questions we like to ask each of our guests is whether they agree with the notion that Privacy is the new celebrity.
[40:46] - Speaker 2
What do you think?
[40:48] - Speaker 1
What do we mean by celebrity? Right.
[40:50] - Speaker 2
So is celebrity a vaunted feeling that is desirable in society? Or is celebrity something that people struggle with? Because I think that there's sort of aspirational idea of, like, I want to be famous. And I think there is now an aspirational idea of I want to have Privacy, but that's my take on it.
[41:11] - Speaker 1
I see. So someone might have once wanted to be known on the street, and now they want to hide. Yeah, that does make a lot of sense. I can agree with that a lot. I remember the first time I got in a lift, like, late at night, and not only so the passenger in front of me was like, hey, were you at a rave? And I was like, no, you look like you were just like, you were at a rave, and I was like, I was programming an Amiga.
[41:41] - Speaker 1
This is what I wear to program an Amiga. I don't know what you want from me. He's like, cool. Cool. What do you do? I'm like, I'm a cryptographer. And he's like, oh, cool. I've been reading about post quantum cryptography, and I've been reading about this key exchange, and he spoke of a key exchange that I worked on, and I was like.
[42:01] - Speaker 2
[42:01] - Speaker 1
And then he turns around and looks at me. He's like, Are you ISIS? I'm like, oh, God, I'm in a car. We're the stranger. We have to cross the Bay Bridge. This is going to be a long car ride. I'm in a car with a stranger who seems to know a lot about me and what I do, and I know nothing about this person. I feel like powerless. It's like, 03:00 a.m.. I Typed in my actual home address. I'm actually going to my house. I'm, like, frantically looking at my phone, praying like, Dear God, please let him be dropped off first.
[42:27] - Speaker 1
Don't let him know where I live. Oh, my God, the Asymmetry celebrity. Yeah, it's kind of terrifying. I actually don't know why anyone would want that. It's important if you do end up with that which I've read studies that say that if you look at people with similar opinions who express them in similar ways, that often it's just chance which one will end up being a celebrity. It's just luck. It's not skill. It's not public speaking. It's not influence. It's not who you're friends with. It's just luck.
[42:58] - Speaker 1
And it's awful luck, too. And I don't know, I don't know why anyone would want that. And I think it's really cool to have the safety and the Privacy of just being able to hang out with your friends and just sit in the park and no one walks up to you. No one says, hey, I know you're from this thing or I watched your talk. That's, like beautiful. There's much more freedom there to just express yourself and be yourself and play with ideas in ways that are safer than just being observed and judged constantly.
[43:35] - Speaker 2
Well, that brings us to the end of Privacy is the new celebrity. I want to thank ISIS Agora Lovecraft for joining us. This has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for your time.
[43:45] - Speaker 1
Thank you so much for having me here. This is excellent.
[43:54] - Speaker 2
We've been speaking with ISIS Agora Lovecraft, cryptographer artist and lead researcher right here at Mobile. Thanks for tuning in. And if you haven't already, please subscribe to Privacy is the new Celebrity on Apple or Spotify or wherever you podcast. We'll be back soon with another episode. And if you like our content, there's more of mobilecornradio. Com where we do a live stream every Friday at 01:00 p.m.. Pacific Time featuring live music, performances and killer DJ sets. You can find all of that at mobilecornradio.
[44:27] - Speaker 1
[44:28] - Speaker 2
I'm Joshua Goldbard, our producer, Sam Anderson, and our theme music is composed by David West. Paul, thanks for listening. We'll see you next time. And remember, Privacy is a choice we deserve.