Communication Rights Illustrated: Pen Pals Past the Hill

A big reason the Data Roads Foundation needs to exist is that technology and enterprise need to implement and support basic human communication rights, with guidance from regular people. These rights are partially defined in the US Constitution, its First Amendment, Articles 12 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and Articles 17 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). These rights include individual freedom of expression (i.e. a right to public data), a right to privacy (i.e. personal financial and health communications), and a right to anonymity as protection from reprisal (i.e. unpopular public speech and whistleblowing).

These rights are such a fundamental basis of human law and governance that they override laws meant to protect against the harms caused by malicious communications, such as terrorist networks and personal threats. Just governments realize there are better ways to protect our fellow citizens and detect harms than to trample on individual freedoms — public anonymous speech reveals wrongs so they can be corrected, and trustworthy private exchanges deepen civil relationships. Denying these rights for illusory claims of “added security” just make everyone worse off. No government or representative has any monopoly on defining “right” or “wrong” for all humans in all times, so these communication rights are necessary to discuss and refine these definitions among equal peers.

So how can we implement these rights using communications technology? How can these systems and automatons, which inherently lack independent judgement, ever balance and enforce such complex human rights? I will attempt to demonstrate this via a hypothetical exchange between two villagers, each living on the opposite side of a large mountain. Within the hyperlinks of each villager exchange scenario, I will try to relate the villagers’ solutions to modern communication network technologies that are available today.


Secret Pen Pals From Over The Mountain.

This is the story of two villagers, living on opposite sides of a huge mountain. They are in the unique situation that the two roads leading around the same mountain are exactly the same length. Therefore, when they hire the local message carriers to take their messages to the other side, it never matters which side road the messenger takes. If they hire two messengers, and the messengers each take a road on the opposite side of the mountain from the other, they will arrive about the same time.

Both villagers have a problem: they do not  trust any of the available messengers. There is a rumor that they read everyone’s private messages as they travel, and reseal them just before delivery is complete. If you catch them in the act, they always claim to be reading only their personal correspondence. Nobody has been rude enough to confirm this claim directly.

Luckily for the two villagers in our story, they can split messages between two messengers every time they are delivered, watch to make sure that the messengers always take opposite sides around the mountain, and easily catch them if they try to meet up on either side. Both villagers also know of a method to split their messages such that each half is unintelligible without the other. So what they do is split each message, give half to each messenger, then watch as they travel to opposite sides of the mountain. When they arrive to deliver the halves, someone trusted is always there to receive them before the messengers have a chance to match halves. It also helps that the messengers rarely trust each other, which makes it harder for them to surreptitiously meet halves.


A third road is built up the mountain.

As time moves on, villagers at the base of the mountain get tired of running around it. A group of them clears a path up the mountain. It is too steep to climb directly, so they clear a gentle switchback to about half-way up the mountain, circle around the other side on a shallow slope, and then switchback down the other side. By coincidence, the length of this new mountain path is the exact same distance as the existing paths around the sides of the mountain from the two villagers of this story. Now if they hire three messengers to take separate paths, and give them each a third of the message, each message is now a little more secure.

The shared written language of these villagers has a useful mathematical trick called “parity“. If you take two entirely different messages, and write down the letters that show the parity of difference between the two messages, that parity copy can be used with either message to reconstruct the other.

As the roads around the mountain become more dangerous, or the messengers become more sloppy and lazy, they begin to lose messages about 1/3rd of the time. Instead of splitting each message 3 ways, now our two villagers go back to splitting them in half, creating a parity between the two halves, and give a random 3rd messenger the parity copy. Now if 1 of the 3 messengers ever loses their piece of the message, the receiving villager can still reconstruct the two halves using the parity. If the parity is lost in transit, the receiving villager still has the original two halves, which cannot be recreated from the parity alone.


Technology, fear, and loathing in the two villages beside the mountain.

As time presses forward, new technologies drive the messengers out of a job. Instead of hiring one messenger to travel the entire path between sender and receiver, villagers all now entrust the conveyors of their most immediate neighbors to take their parcels. If the parcel destination is another villager 10 neighbors away, then the parcel will be conveyed by those 10 adjacent neighbors until arrival, each treating the parcel as if it were their direct neighbors’ property (in most cases there is no return name on the parcel, so provenance would be hard to confirm). Armed with sufficient explanation, it is legal to punch your neighbors in the face if you feel violated (such as from parcel refusal), thus nobody dares to deny their neighbors this trivial help. This form of trust is privately called “the punchability factor“. Besides the threat of punchability, every neighbors’ own parcels are all transferred in the same way, and setting a bad example just tempts others to treat you the same bad way in the future.

If the parcel destination is on the other side of the mountain, then hikers and travelers willingly take backpacks full of parcels to the other side on a regular basis, and drop it off at the nearest neighbor on the other side. It’s on their way, and they get their own parcels transferred the same way, so no charge is ever imposed.

Before mountain path traversal, many parcels are packaged into a single parcel, addressed to a trusted villager on the other side who will open and properly distribute them.  The practice of hiding many parcels for different recipients inside of a larger parcel to a mid-way recipient becomes common in every neighborhood. Sometimes this parcel-in-parcel trick is used to bypass untrustworthy neighbors.

Like the messengers of  the past, no one trusts each other not to open and read private messages along the way, so enclosures and unique seals are devised to prevent any parcel being opened without detection. If a villager wants a confirmation that their parcel arrived as desired, it is common to enclose a return-addressed message envelope inside of the parcel. If that envelope returns with a unique thanks from the receiver, the sender can feel confident that the parcel arrived unharmed.


War rends these peaceful villages.

Without any warning, these small villages are suddenly cursed with war. Spies are everywhere, recruited within neighborhoods. The local warlords attempt to inspect every parcel their soldiers come across. Guards inspect everyone that passes along the middle of the 3 trails around or over the mountain. Our 2 villagers keep up their message friendship, undaunted but more secretive. They don’t have anything to hide, but they appreciate keeping private conversations from prying eyes, and they don’t want to be misinterpreted by third parties without context.

The same mathematical quality of their language that allowed them to perform parity also gives them another trick called “encryption.” Encryption is kind of like creating a parity copy between a message and another “shared secret” message. If no one but the intended recipient previously has a copy (or has memorized) the shared secret message, then they can’t recreate the new message just by using the parity copy alone. Only someone with the shared secret message can translate the new message from the parity copy, so only this encrypted form of parity copy is sent.

These two villagers have a great number of unique messages from each other, sent during their more peaceful past. Rather than sending any messages for local warlords to read, they use shared copies of past messages to encrypt copies of new messages, and they only send the encrypted copy. Each message is titled with the only non-encrypted text: a date referring to the old shared secret message used in the encryption process. These dates are meaningless to everyone but these two villagers, and the encrypted messages are meaningless to everyone until un-encrypted by the receiver with the shared secret message reference.

An amazing thing about encryption and parity is that you can perform them both on the same text, and still get back to the original text if you perform them in reverse order. This allows the villagers to split the encrypted copies, create a parity of the halves, send the halves and the parity around the 3 different paths to the other side of the mountain, using only trusted intermediaries via the parcel-in-parcel trick. Even if a warlord manages to get a hold of 2 or all 3 of the pieces before their arrival, they will all look meaningless to him. It is only when the intended recipient uses the correctly dated shared secret message to decode the pieces that they can be put together correctly. The parity of the encrypted copy not only means the whole message can be recreated from any 2 of the 3 pieces, but it also further confuses anyone intercepting any of the 3 pieces. If spies ever intercept the parity alone, and magically “decrypt” it somehow, they still don’t have enough information to put the original message back together.


A peaceful end.

Thanks to these language tricks, no one is ever able to read the private messages of these two villagers. If any message fails to arrive (because a warlord intercepted them and failed to finish delivery), the encryption and parity are just recreated from the shared secret and new messages again, and resent until arrival. War eventually passes, and their distance friendship continues unabated.


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