The “Man in the Middle” Is Media Messing With Your Messages

In this edition of Tech Turncoat Truths, William Softky explains the role of a “man-in-the-middle attack” with digital communication.
Man-in-the-middle attack, MITM, digital media, digital media news, digital media communication, digital communications, Alice and Bob, science news, science, William Softky

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The global tsunami of mental misery is ever-more-closely tied to rising human interaction with digital technology. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff explains why in his recently-published manifesto, “Team Human.” In short, our natural collaborative instincts have been undermined and toxified into an unnatural anti-sociability, caused by (and also causing) digital dependencies.


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Such digital demonization must be reversed for humans to survive. Whether you think Rushkoff is right or wrong, what other discipline of scientist (besides media theorist) is there to understand our communications problems, and to pose it specifically enough so we might have hope to solve it?

Cryptographers

Enter cryptographers because they are, in essence, media theorists too but of a much more powerful sort. Rushkoff is a traditional media theorist, who studies “the media” directly. His tribe examines various media (books, TV, the internet, Facebook) via historical examples and then publishes the results through similar outlets. It seems straightforward enough. Other media theorists using that approach have been Ray Bradbury,  Michel Foucault,  George Orwell and Marshall McLuhan.

The superpower of a media theorist is direct domain expertise through evidence of how media actually operate in the real world. The super-weakness (or Kryptonite) is the reliance on the data — historical examples — on which their own work proves to be systematically biased and untrustworthy. The super-lesson of media theorists is, in Orwell’s words, “He who controls the past, controls the future; and he who controls the present, controls the past.” Or more pithily, “History is written by the victors.” Hats off to theorists like Rushkoff, who have to fight fire with fire, and muck with muck. Media theory is slippery, the hardest sort of theory there is.

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Fortunately, there are other ways that humans communicate and miscommunicate besides “the media.” Studying those ways might address our problems more effectively. For example, you could understand brains as signal-processing instruments and then calculate how nervous systems establish trust in mathematical terms, as Criscillia Benford and I have done. You could be a magician or a medium (pun intended) who understands how to fool humans in real-time, and how easily we can be fooled. Or you could be a cryptographer who understands communication as a general mathematics process of code-making and code-breaking. In that case, your results would be statistical, bulletproof and guaranteed.

Cryptographers are the ones responsible for ATMs, data encryption and Bitcoin. They do the numbers so carefully that their results are guaranteed by the unchanging laws of mathematics and statistics. When they understand a communications channel or encoding/decoding protocol, their understanding is as reliable as anything in science.

Alice and Bob

A typical cryptography dilemma involves communicating between A and B (usually denoted as Alice and Bob). Alice and Bob want to communicate privately. That means they don’t want outsiders to eavesdrop and certainly don’t want outsiders to rewrite their messages surreptitiously. The name that cryptographers have for such maleficent manipulation of messages between Alice and Bob is a “man-in-the-middle attack” (MITM). In their lexicon, MITM is the mathematical term for a particular kind of hostile communications exploit, in this case exactly the kind of thing that digital media do between humans.

It’s already obvious that digital media companies read our messages. That’s how Facebook and Google admit to making money in the first place. It’s less obvious how they write, rewrite and reorder our messages, at least until you consider how much people rely on auto-response, auto-correct and spam filters. And digital media read and rewrite not at random, but in ways specifically calculated to take money and attention from us. That is, they mess with our messages in part against our interests. That means digital media act like a “man in the middle” when we communicate, making those communications — in cryptographic terms — presumably not trustworthy.

Cryptographers calculate code-breaking, so applying their term has a kind of heft that traditional media theory could never have. Banks listen to cryptographers. The Pentagon listens to cryptographers. Bitcoin listens to cryptographers. Even venture capitalists listen to cryptographers, if they listen to anyone.

The only problem is that cryptographers typically solve different problems, using different assumptions. Cryptographers typically want trust to be perfect, then try to change the codes and channel to hit that goal. Compared to that, a human’s digital dilemma is inverted: We already have a faulty channel we can’t fix, a bunch of media corrupted by specific biases toward profit and power, so we need to find a way to use those damaged media in the most trustworthy way possible. This isn’t the kind of problem cryptographers usually solve, but I’m sure they and their mathematical tools are up to the job.

Faking It

So, perhaps, in an ideal world, an official cryptographer or two could restate the “Team Human” problem, the problem of fake media, as something like this: Suppose many Alices want to communicate with many Bobs through media channels in which a man in the middle is guaranteed to selectively amplify and filters messages, in secret, as advertising and profit-driven media must do for business reasons. Given this breached channel, what is the best strategy by which Alice and Bob can still communicate with and trust each other?

Worldwide, ever-more important decisions — those about politics, business, personal finance, medical care and so on — are being made through digital rather than real-life media channels. Because so many digital interactions are already faked or fake-able, the channel is clearly not trustworthy and seems to be getting worse. Humans need a fail-safe, fail-over plan to maintain trust. Who better than the caretakers of mathematical trust to set it right?

So, if you know an actual cryptographer, please forward this article. If you yourself are an actual cryptographer, please consider this request: Uniquely among professions, you have both the tools for calculating what has gone wrong with human digital communication and the respect for suggesting a fix or two. We humans have been hacked. Please help us un-hack ourselves.

*[Big tech has done an excellent job telling us about itself. This column, dubbed Tech Turncoat Truths, or 3T, goes beyond the hype, exploring how digital technology affects human minds and bodies. The picture isn’t pretty, but we don’t need pretty pictures. We need to see the truth of what we’re doing to ourselves.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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