ROSC 19: Back to the Shadows

ROSC19I got a strange phone call the other day. The person on the other end played like it was a wrong number, asking for Angie something, but they were listening to my voice way too closely. What they were doing, I was pretty certain, was to see if it was really me using the phone billed to me.

The next day, I stopped by Jay’s Bar*, partly because I was nearby and partly to see if anyone was hanging around looking for me. I sat at the far corner of the bar, where I had a good angle on nearly the whole of the establishment. I ordered a tonic and lime (I don’t drink a lot of booze) and read through some of my notes.

I could see the look in Michele’s eye. He greeted me and then moved past, wiping down the bar. But as he did, looking away from me, he said, “There was a man asking about you a day ago… forty-ish, white… a pro.”

“Grazie,” I murmured while taking a drink.

That settled it; “they,” whoever they were this time, were looking for me. And so I started making notes. Some kind of government operative (and there are god-knows-how-many spy agencies to choose from these days) wanted information on me and my new friends. Since we all use encryption and anonymization, getting information the usual way hadn’t done them much good. Now they were back to old-school methods: sending someone to watch and perhaps to confront.

After scribbling down a number of ideas, examining them, and choosing between them, I came to three big conclusions:

  1. We’d move our meetings between small taco joints on the north side.
  2. I’d make myself available to the watchers.
  3. I’d immediately have a talk with an old friend who is deeply connected.

I finished my second tonic and lime while trying not to look too disgusted. I motioned for Michele, handed him my money, and said, loud enough but not too loud, “See you Thursday after work.”

If “they” were listening somehow, they’d be waiting for me.

The next day I went to where my connected friend habitually eats lunch. I have his old phone number somewhere, but things like this are better done in person. And fortunately, I found him. We caught up on family and friends for a few minutes, and then I told him precisely what was going on and asked for his advice.

My friend thought for a moment, smiled at me, and pulled out his phone.

“Hey, Johnny,” he said into it. “You still bored?”

I was pretty sure whom he was talking to: a mutual friend who used to be a major player in state politics but who had left the big game and wasn’t doing much. And the continuing conversation between the two (or at least the half of it I heard) confirmed it.

“So,” my friend said as he turned to me, “you’ll meet Johnny at that bar Thursday at six, then buy him dinner next door?”

“Deal,” I said.

I thanked my friend for setting up the dinner and tried to pick up his check. He stopped me, but I protested.

“You did me a favor,” I said. “You can let me pay for your lunch.”

He shook his head and held the check.

“No,” he said. “Friends do favors for friends.”

I thanked him again and left, making a reservation at the Italian place on my way home.

Thursday I’ll meet the retired politician at Jay’s. My guess is that we’ll talk about anything but crypto for 90% of the evening: old friends, interesting stories, our families, and so on. Johnny’s a very entertaining guy.

But at least the watchers will see that I have a friend with some juice, and maybe they’ll back off a little. If nothing else, I think it will secure my position on the “non-violent dissident” list. That’s a position I can live with.

Our group’s weekly meetings, however, will have to move from place to place. That way they’ll need extended surveillance on at least some of us if they want to bug our meetings… and I can’t imagine that we’re important enough for that. The worst these kids would do is to stiff the IRS.

Our only “weapon” is cryptography… which boils down to math. This is a point that Satoshi Nakamoto made when he announced Bitcoin:

[I wrote Bitcoin to] win a major battle in the arms race and gain a new territory of freedom for several years.

The “arms race” of Satoshi and the cypherpunks was this:

They have cops, guns, bullets and court orders backed by them.

We have cryptography.

I still think that’s a good way to look at things.

More next time.

* Please note that the stories set in and around Jay’s Bar are fictional. They’re often based upon real people and events, but they are fiction.


Paul Rosenberg