Tunneled cipherspace / Burrow internet

DIY camera tunnel. Roll a sheet of paper and hold it in front of the lens.

Today I made a few remarks about the yet-another-google-gate debate about China and censorship on the Swedish site Newsmill. My main argument was that we can not rely solely on the treatises between states, nor the corporate policies deployed in various places to make sure there is a flow of communication between internauts.

Rather, we also have to dig tunnels of connectivity to destabilize regimes of oppression, wherever they appear as aggregates of power. Thus, the time has come to reflect on the ontology of tunnels and their consequences for political activism.


Tunnels come in various shapes. There are tunnels under nation-state borders, enabling flows of humans to transgress borders, tunnels in smooth space such as submarines and whales, tunnels-in-tunnels in the shape of darknets on the internets, and tunnels dug by burrowing rabbits, rats and worms.

Tunnels operate by way of hiddenness and surprise. However, as activities once are forced into tunnels for any reason, they become entrenched pathways of ordinary communication and logistics. Subways were deployed to avoid traffic jams, some tunnels are built to go under water, inside mountains, some tunnels are escape routes for mammals, drug dealers and prison convicts.

State armies built bunker-tunnels during the cold war, in Nevada, Gothenburg and Moscow. Jönköping based philosopher macdeleuzian comments this development at Copyriot:

Tunnelling is precisely increasing the surface of a body while decreasing its volume. Adding surface is obviously very useful to anyone: It adds space that can be utilized (and territorialized), for car- and subway-traffic, for storage, any kind of passage and communication etc; it kan also establish a highspeed-path through a slowspeed-medium. But access to the tunnel is also limited to certain points, easily defended, and it is protected from both insight and intrusion.

Hence, tunnels also make possible speed shifts, in the case of fibreoptics and lazors this is a drastic acceleration enabled by the tunnel, similar to the tubes we take to work in large cities. Speed is politics, but so is hiddenness. Compared to aviation, where visual optics long have been replaced by radars and GPS satellites, tunnels are detected by the surveillance of rumors, vibrations in the ground, penetration tests in the ground. The preferred attack on a tunnel is gas, not missiles.

Removing the engine from a Viggen jet fighter creates a tunnel inside the cold war bunker-tunnel in Gothenburg.


As Rasmus argues there has been a major shift in internet politics during the last few years. The dream of ultra-fast downloads came true in certain urban pockets of fiberoptical tunnels, then slowly diffused into smaller cities. Bandwidth is of course still an issue, but the laser of thought has lately burned holes in other issues concerning net neutrality and access, not so much in relation to bandwidth as such, but rather in relation to non-discrimination of data, free speech and democratic innovation. Let us further dig down in the existence of tunnels and the consequences for tunneling politics and pop culture.

Tunnels exist along certain lines of micro-tactical relaying interfaces. The first variable is system of navigation. Two extreme positions may shed some light on this continuum; the submarine, the mobile tunnel navigating in the smooth sea following vectors, bearings and sonar pings. The other side is TCP/IP-infrastructure, which is protocol-based and non-discriminatory of its medium of transportation, be it copper, glass or radio-waves.

Cipherofficer Lincoln Burrows of the Telecomix Crew attending a FRA-seminar.

A middle space in between the submarine and the protocol are friend-to-friend (f2f) darknets. On the one side they use the protocols of a packet switched infrastructure, on the other hand they build trust in communication between underground networks of people, even with decentralized DNS, as in the i2p-darknet.

Cave-dwellers were sedentary, their tunnels were seldom networked, and became sites of religious worship and residential places. Burrow dwellers, on the other hand, use tunnels to occupy a space without having to move in the visible, audible or haptic spectrum except for when jumping in and out of entry and exit points.

Tunnels are however not merely primitive tool for occupying spaces, but can also be used for displacing and deterritorializing political processes. Any legislative process may be on shaky grounds if their foundation becomes a holey space.


Undermining is the foremost power of tunnelling. A legal process may break down if tunnels render Law™ powerless. A regime such as China will be undermined the day every person communicates in tunnels without intrusive surveillance, be they in cipherspace or in a basement. Under-mining is the opposite of signification, such as in the legal overcodings of a State-apparatus. Under-mining is mining-under, switching flows of matter-energy on and off, relaying it into new channels.

However, we must also acknowledge that complete burrowing politics barely ever exists, no less than there are political strategies that are completely in the open. We all have our tunnels or bunkers (my flat is almost a bunker, i use it sometimes for hiding, sometimes for parties).

A tunnel of light enables me to see the keys on my laptop. In the future we will have lazors for this.

When tunnels cease to be merely ways of hiding or speeding up logistics, the remain in use or get filled up with concrete as with the cold-war bunkers. Some phenomena exist in tunnels out of mere convention or take on a different use. For example, the SSH tunnels that run in and out of my computers 24/7 are sometimes used for secure information when upgrading a server or generating a crypto-key. But they are also used for IRC chatting, an activity that barely benefits from encryption, at least not when used on public servers.

TCP/IP based communications may hitherto be the clearest example of tunneling-in-tunnels, but as a mode of existence, it shares features with tunnels in our everyday lives. The becoming-burrower, the proliferation of holey-spaces, the tunneling within ourselves – be it fractal synapses or intestines tunneling carbo-hydrates with delivery to the organs –; silent whispers between destinations. Surprise surfacing!

8 svar på “Tunneled cipherspace / Burrow internet”

  1. It is also quite interesting to consider the use of light and darkness in tunnels, and the hidden and the seen, the element of surprise, related to it.

    In the dark night we usually prefer the well lit path (a tunnel) through the park – even though the safest place in the dark, is in the dark. From the well lit path everything around is hidden – the tunnel is not for hiding, it’s for being seen – and any point on the path can be acessed, any step can be interrupted, taken by surprise. The path can always be surveilled by a thousand hidden eyes. It is a stretched out panopticon for sure.

    The same goes for State-tunnels. They are confined places, always easily and heavily surveilled in themselves – lit up – and not just at the entrance/exit points.

    In the end, we need to know – and trust – the gate keeper and the dungeon master (of the darknets, too!), or equipping ourselves with invisibility cloaks (encryption).

    We also have to worry about ferrets raiding our burrows. And how do we avoid endoscopic surveillance? (The State will become increasingly eager to explore such methods – escalationism…)

  2. Marcus: Indeed. Trust is always necessary in tunnel movement. Even though most darknets allows you to compile the source code of their software, it is for the average user a matter of trusting the tunnels it makes.

    Also, a wholly different set of inter-personal trust is made when anonymity is the point of departure. However, that is probably something that I need to elaborate through the uses of anthropology.

    Also, simply by taking the tube in a large city is also a matter of trust. A technological assemblage which we trust not to fall down on us.

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