The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 219 | On Heartbleed, The Private Eye, and why secrets are an integral part of communications

Leaving Proof 219 | On Heartbleed, The Private Eye, and why secrets are an integral part of communications
Published on Thursday, April 10, 2014 by
In an eerie case of life imitating art, the “Heartbleed” server security bug mirrors the catastrophic private data exposure depicted in Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s The Private Eye.

… once upon a time, people stored all their deepest, darkest secrets in something called ‘the cloud,’ remember? Well, one day, the cloud burst.

- Patrick Immelman, The Private Eye #1

Have you changed your passwords yet? E-mail, bank account, credit cards, online file storage, social media, image and video hosting—the sheer amount of personal data that could potentially have been exposed for at least the five months immediately before the Heartbleed bug in global network communications was publicly announced earlier this week is staggering.

Between the recent international surveillance disclosures, scare stories about how algorithms are taking control of international trading, the extreme volatility of the Bitcoin currency, and the continued curbing of electronic freedoms in various countries (and not just in the usual dictatorships), it’s a wonder that the added bad news of having a glaring vulnerability in the OpenSSL cryptographic protocol that serves as a fundamental component of network security for two-thirds of the world’s servers didn’t drive the online world to collectively curl up into a fetal position and stare blankly into space in an existential daze. It’s either a show of resilience or a sign of indifference (or worse, a sign of learned helplessness) in the wake of another IT crisis the general public is fairly powerless to affect, at least directly.


But what can the layman do in the face of an issue like this? Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin provide an interesting speculative answer to that question in The Private Eye, their ongoing “pay-what-you-want-for-it” digital comic, launched in March of last year on the Panel Syndicate site. In a case of art presciently depicting life, the near-future world of The Private Eye has refashioned itself after the “cloud burst,” revealing every sent e-mail, every uploaded picture, every flirtatious text message, every Google search to the online world at large. In an instant, secrets (at least secrets that pass through a network) ceased to exist. The result is neither a tech dystopia populated by roving gangs of Google Glassholes and swarms of rogue Facebook drones nor a utopia of digital openness. After the initial fallout—people lose jobs, families are torn apart—the world keeps trucking along as it always did, but without the important element of trust that is the foundation of all communications, digital or analog.


As a social corrective to the failure of technology, the people of The Private Eye have taken the concept of privacy to a ridiculous, satirical extreme: Everybody hides behind pseudonyms, whether online or in the “real world,” they wear infrared signature-dampening suits, and they walk around with full-head masks, prosthetics, and obscuring make-up to deter surveillance cameras and facial recognition software.


The cause and motivation behind The Private Eye‘s world-changing global data leak (or more appropriately, “data explosion”)  is a mystery, but if it was an attempt to dramatically erode digital privacy as we know it as some social network company executives would prefer, it is terribly misguided. Trust in communications isn’t built on an unthinking, indiscriminate policy of transparency. It is when those engaged in a discussion believe that they can control what they can reveal about themselves, that they have a say in what others can do with that information, and that they can restrict access to that information (within reason, of course) that the free exchange of ideas is best cultivated—privacy should not be an all-or-nothing proposition, and in everyday circumstances, determining how much or how little one can share should be up to the individual. Counterintuitive as it sounds, trust in communications is contingent on allowing people to have secrets.

That the future society of The Private Eye continues to function despite citizens’ overwhelming loss of faith in the security and the motives of digital institutions is because they’ve taken responsibility for effectively safeguarding their own privacy. Will the same be true in our world? I would certainly hope so.

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Comics recommendations

Hacktivist_001_CoverVaughan and Martin’s The Private Eye isn’t the only comic out there that is addressing contemporary socio-technological issues beyond using a variant of the “technology gone wild” conceit as a bogeyman or clumsily shoehorning contemporary tech issues and buzzwords into the script.

After an uneven start, Hacktivist (BOOM!/Archaia, first issue reviewed here), by Collin Kelly, Jackson Lanzing, Alyssa Milano, and Marcus To has settled into an entertaining, cinematic thriller-esque groove with its examination of the role social networks and instant messaging play in catalyzing protest movements around the world. Eric Garcia and Javier Fernandez’ City: Mind in the Machine (IDW, first issue reviewed here) addresses the topic of unchecked public surveillance, although I’m not entirely sold on the “sci-fi-meets-superheroics” execution of their premise. And of course, we shouldn’t forget Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan (DC/Vertigo), which, more than any comic during the late 1990s, presciently depicted the transformative effect instant, live, embedded news reporting enabled by the Internet would have on not just journalism, but on society at large.

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