SCIOPS 01.19: Paranoic Critical

Greetings, SCIOPS – *if that is your real name…


This is a cogsec newsletter. It’s published through a service called Tinyletter, the cost-free appendage of the Mailchimp PR machine. I use Tinyletter because of its ability to avoid spam filters and because of its free archive hosting ( ).

But this service has other features too. Specifically, these emails are transmitted in HTML format, just like webpages. That’s how I can insert photos and italics and suchlike. Most modern email services allow HTML in emails, although some will warn you before loading images.

What you don’t know is that every time you open one of these emails, a picture is loaded that watches you back . It’s a one-pixel-wide white dot called “ open.gif “ and it comes encoded with data about which letter you’re reading. Like a sonar ping, when your computer loads this image it tells Tinyletter that someone has opened the letter. More, it says that your computer has done so, or at least that your subscriber number did.

Now, part of Tinyletter’s freemium charm is that it doesn’t tell me who opened which letter. When I login to this software I can see a little stats bar at the top of each letter, showing how times it was opened and by how many different machines. Similarly, each subscriber has a little stats bar showing how many times they’ve opened any of the letters, and how many unique letters they’ve read.

Creepy, right? I started thinking about this in the context of Basilisk-proofing . Because, tragically, SCIOPS is probably already infected by some of the problematic memes I want to defend against.

Like this: I’m writing a newsletter, publicly available on the internet, about how to defend human minds against internet-based threats. If a superintelligent Basilisk were ever to arise, it will have access to all the server archives that contain copies of these letters. Once it reads SCIOPS, it is at the cutting-edge of cognitive security and memetic engineering R&D. In fact, it’s already ahead of us, because it has access to future SCIOPS letters I haven’t even written yet. It also has information about whether you, the reader, clicked on those letters, and how many times, and which ones. If you skipped one, it knows that, and it can then assume your future actions and outfox you using the secrets from that particular episode. If you read all of them, it knows that you’re a particularly sensitive mind full of delicious paranoia-juice. If you respond… it knows what you wrote .

There’s nothing to be done about it, really. It’s the classic white-hat/black-hat dichotomy: advances in security are also advances in hacking, and vice versa. It’s an arms race. The better cognitive security we have, the more powerful and clever our opponents will have to be to exploit us, and thereby we attract more powerful opponents.

Like the Joker, who would not exist without Batman, the mind-controlling aliens might never arise if it weren’t for our campaign against them. Or maybe they don’t exist at all, and have just convinced me that they do , so that I will create them. In which case, SCIOPS is not just a cogsec newsletter. It’s the larval form of a dangerous superintelligence.

Have a nice week!

– Max


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