Blackmail is Dead

There was the guy who popped a threatening e-mail into my inbox the other day saying that he’d caught me watching porn by inverting my laptop’s camera to capture my gasps and twitches of ecstasy, and was now going to post the footage for all the world to see if I did not give him a sum of bitcoin. What was this guy smoking, or what was I? Not long after, I found many posts on Facebook that were talking about the same thing. Apparently this was the next 419 scheme, except that unlike in the past when we were supposed to feel pity for our relative who was stranded in some foreign destination without a wallet, now we were being cold bloodedly extorted to pay or else be outed as a pervert.

Once upon a time, technology—spycams, tape recorders, concealable microphones—enabled spying on our dark secrets. It was a boom time for private investigators to catch errant spouses with their pants down, for secret agents across the Iron Curtain to spy on each other, and for blackmailers to mine our dark secrets for gold or cash. Then technology got even smarter: it enabled us to fabricate images with faces of people who were not on the scene of the crime and make them look real. Anything suddenly became possible. Your face, her boobs, my legs fused to make one person, an unholy trinity. And with CCTV cameras at every street corner, and everyone’s phone now a camera, and with drones patrolling overhead with more cameras, we were entering the Surveillance State. Therefore, hijacking one’s camera via the internet and turning it to spy on us became an extremely believable proposition. I thought we were entering blackmailing nirvana, and the only way out was to destroy all our internet connected devices. But then, miraculously, and overnight, the pendulum swung the other way. We suddenly didn’t give a shit for blackmailers or surveillances or other intrusive people. What happened?

I guess it was because that thing called social media happened, conditioning us to share all our private and public moments with the world: the food we were eating, the party we were at, the private moments with loved ones, the loved ones themselves, our thoughts, fears, vexations, frustrations, joys—“let it all hang out, buddy,” became the mantra. Nothing was private anymore. Google knew where we were travelling anywhere at any particular  moment, and so did the whole world. No one could go missing anymore, at least, not for long. There were even public alarms waking us in the middle of the night if someone went missing. I’m expecting to see messages on Facebook shortly saying  “Bob is now in the toilet taking a crap. Out in 10 minutes.” With this level of public sharing, how can there be secrets? Besides, where is the time to do anything in secret when every second must be accounted for to the public?  So any adverse portrayals of ourselves as perverts or porn grubbers must be fake. Right? Any pictures of us with private parts exposed must be other people’s private parts, not ours. Right again? The very act of “going public” with our lives makes anyone else trying to “go public” on us invalid.  And the coup de grâce came when Jeff Bezos told the National Enquirer to take a hike. Blackmailing went into its death spiral, shuddered, and died.

But the reverse is also true. If some real and incriminating evidence were to arise, it could be obfuscated with fake and contrary evidence—your face, her boobs, my legs. Is that why the Mueller Investigation took so long to sort the wheat from the chaff?

I don’t lament for the death of blackmail. I lament for the real people who are trying to do an honest job and are being prevented by this tsunami of artifice, who have to wade through oceans of garbage to get to nuggets of truth. I lament for the many who will discard a true but unusual story on the assumption that it is yet another fake one. And I lament for the hordes who latch on to these technology-fueled trends and follow them blindly with no thought to the consequences for society at large.

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