"Assassination Politics" Part 8

The following article appeared in the Sunday, February 4, 1996 issue of Asahi Evening News, in an article written by columnist Paul Maxwell, page 6. He writes a regular column about the Internet for this newspaper.

"Networks: Paul Maxwell"

"Dial Internet for murder"

'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." (Shakespeare, Henry VI).

A startling and controversial idea has surfaced on the Internet recently--fear with me for a moment while I explain it. It is based on two technological developments: digital cash and encryption software.

Briefly, digital cash is a system for transferring funds from one person to another on the Net. For this system to be as good as cash, the transactions must be capable of being conducted anonymously, just like in real life. (You go into the Seven-Eleven, buy a Cafe Latte, and nobody knows your name or your credit history. The purchase is not recorded in a database of your consumer preferences.)

Several competing schemes for digital cash have been launched, but the one that eventually gains universal acceptance will surely have this anonymity feature.

The second innovation is a kind of software called public-key encryption. It allows you to send a file or an email message that is "locked" in such a way that it can only be opened by the intended recipient. The recipient, however, cannot open it until given a "key." This "key" may then be used to encrypt a return message that can only be opened by the original sender.

Freelance visionary and tinkerer Jim Bell has been following both of these developments for the past few years. Recently, he asked himself a couple of tough questions: "How can we translate the freedom afforded by the Internet to ordinary life?" How can we keep government from banning encryption, digital cash, and other systems that will improve our freedom?"

Suddenly, Bell had a revolutionary idea. ("Revolutionary" is the word he uses, and it fits.) You and me--the little guys, the ordinary working people of the world--could get together, all pitch in, and pay to have every rotten scoundrel in politics assassinated. And we could do it legally. Sort of.

Bell imagined an organization that would award "a cash prize to somebody who correctly 'predicted' the death of one of a list of violators of rights, usually either government employees, officeholders, or appointees. It could ask for anonymous contributions from the public, and individuals would be able to send those contributions using digital cash."

He explains that "using modern methods of public-key encryption and anonymous digital cash, it would be possible to make such awards in such a way so that nobody knows who is getting awarded the money, only that the award is being given. Even the organization itself would have no information that could help the authorities find the person responsible for the prediction, let alone the one who caused the death."

Are you following this? Let's say that we, the public, decide we've finally had enough of [insert name of villain]. Ten dollars from me, ten from you--suddenly there's a million dollars in a fund. The money will go to the first person who can "predict" the date, time, and circumstances of the villain's death. Obviously, this information is only known in advance by the assassin.

He sends an anonymous, "locked" message. He kills the villain. He sends the "key" to the message. He has, without ever revealing his identity, "correctly predicted" the murder. The "key" that he has provided is then used to "lock the award money in a file that is then publicly posted on the Internet. Only the person who originated the key may open the file and claim the digital cash.

In other words, public anger could finance cash awards for assassinations. The organization that collected the money and announced a list of possible targets would never know about a crime in advance, and would never know the identity or whereabouts of a criminal. It would not technically be guilty of conspiracy or complicity.

Jim Bell has thought about this a lot, and feels that the idea is technically feasible, practical, even foolproof. Suppose for a moment he's right? What are the implications?

World leaders live with the threat of assassination every day of their lives. But at the local level, this could really have an impact. And the "target" list wouldn't necessarily to politicians--any offensive public personality would be fair game. Picture yourself a year from now, sitting around with friends. Somebody says, "Remember when Juice Newton got whacked?" And you say, "Yeah--best ten bucks I ever spent."

Satisfying as it might be to declare war on asinine pop singers, Bell has a more civic-minded suggestion: Let's kill all the car thieves. He reasons that a very small number of career criminals are responsible for nearly all car thefts. If one million car owners in a given metropolitan area contributed just four dollars a year, it would create $10,000 a day in "prize money" for the "predictor" of any car thief's death.

"Assuming that amount is far more than enough to get a typical car thief's 'friends' to 'off' him," he writes, "there is simply no way that a substantial car-theft subculture could possibly be maintained."

Jim as high hopes for his plan--he thinks it could eventually lead to the end of political tyranny. But if you don't like this idea, he has others. In a recent email exchange, I asked what he was doing now.

"I recommend that you rent the movie, "The Day the Earth Stood Still.," he answered. "I'm working on a similar project."

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