How Criminals Communicate - thoughts for above and under ground

Just finished reading Diego Gambetta's "Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate" (Princeton University Press 2009). One of Gambetta's contentions is that criminals face more extreme versions of the same problems people face in above-ground life. I read it thinking about the connections and differences between political activism (which is often criminalized) and crime.

Gambetta uses the concept of signaling. How does a criminal find other criminals to work with, or to sell his criminally gained loot to? He has to signal this to other potential participants in crime without accidentally giving himself away to infiltrators, undercover agents, or just everyday non-criminals who might report him. Undercovers can fake these signals if they're easy to fake. The first section of the book is about finding these "costly signals" that are hard to fake - like a a prison record or extensive and painful prison tattoos. Criminals can also signal trustworthiness by giving each other incriminating information: if you give the other person the means to blackmail you, it shows them you are not planning to betray them.

Gambetta studies why prisoners fight, and why they harm themselves. Here, he argues, a different type of signaling is going on. To avoid becoming targets, prisoners need to signal a willingness to use violence to defend themselves. If they are outnumbered and unlikely to win a fight, prisoners could resort to self-harm to signal fearlessness and "craziness".

(there's an aside here for those interested in prison reform, though it might not be relevant to those who want to abolish prisons altogether: perhaps an unexpected outcome of a lot of transience in prisons with a high turnover and lots of transferring of prisoners is increased violence between prisoners, as the signaling - and therefore the violence - has to be repeated over and over again as new people are forced together)

The idea of signaling craziness is familiar in politics: think of nuclear brinkmanship and the "madman theory", where being seen as irrational can be an advantage in bargaining (though not in principled bargaining).

The idea of costly signaling is also interesting, in an underworld context. For activists in a repressive total-war context in which dissent is fully criminalized, opposition goes underground all of these kinds of costly signals are necessary.

What is more interesting, and more complex, is a situation like ours, in which there is tremendous scope for above-ground political action, but in a context of mass surveillance, in which some actions could be criminalized after-the-fact, or in which there are anti-civil liberties laws on the books - national security laws, conspiracy laws, unlawful assembly laws, etc. - that can be brought out and used for political persecution, if the political context is right. This isn't Gambetta's area of study, but reading him can inspire thinking about these questions.

As I read Gambetta's work on the underworld, including the second section on "ordinary signaling" (how criminals send coded messages to one another using open channels) I think that above ground is where the most effective political action is taking place right now. We have more political space than we use. If that changes, we could end up underground, in the world of costly signals and coded messages. To the extent that we are there now, we have Wikileaks and other hackers working on technological solutions - platforms for communication that are appropriate for the context (trusted, or anonymous, or at the other end, totally open and transparent). Following their work will be important if something happens to change the political context to one of more extensive criminalization.