My Name is Cafe Beverage

18 Jan 2018

I have a secret, so secret that it cannot be whispered without multiple layers of encryption. So secret that it could only be told to the world under a pseudonym – an alter ego – except to the closest of friends on a “need to know” basis. So secret that this pseudonym only connected to the Internet through Tor, using the Tor Browser Bundle and Tor Messenger to maintain resilience against even the most subtle of identity leaks.

So secret that I’ll write it on my blog under my real legal name, for all the world to see and criticise:

Over the summer I founded the chai project (proof). My goal was to write a free software driver for Midgard GPUs, better known as the Mali T series produced by ARM. Why? Libreboot supports the Rockchip RK3288 chipset, containing a Mali T760 GPU that is unusable without proprietary software. I purchased a laptop1 with this chipset, and thus my work began.

I was not the first to free the GPU. Luc Verhaegan, better known by his handle libv, precedes me. His project, Tamil, reverse engineered enough of the command stream2 to display a textured cube at FOSDEM.

But the project ceased there due to the pushback; he never released his work. To this day, the source code for Tamil remains only on the hard drive of libv, invisible to the rest of the free software community. Without that source code, Tamil could not enable free graphics acceleration on my own laptop.

I was aware of his ill-fated tale. That said, I was not discouraged. My work with the GPU would proceed, only carefully enough to avoid his own fate. For starters, to avoid the risk that a future me would withhold the source code, I published everything from the beginning, immediately as it was written. Thankfully, the source code remains online, downloaded by many others, spread out between several laptops and servers hosted in multiple countries. Retroactive attempts to censor me would inevitably fail thanks to the Streisand effect. The work is safe.

My other change was to adopt a pseudonym. By contrast, libv worked under his real name, so when there was alleged retaliation, they knew exactly who to target. His real person was exposed to damage as a result of Tamil. This could be a problem for me: depending on my life aspirations and my personal resilience, to work on this GPU under my real name could pose a threat to me as well. Thus, I, Alyssa Rosenzweig, student, writer, programmer, and artist, did not author the work.

Cafe Beverage did. If the project were to come into jeopardy, no harm would come to me. Only my alias cafe was at risk. And at least at first, I was surgically careful to ensure that an outsider could not correlate my two identities.

Yet here I am, six months later, proclaiming it for all to hear: I am Cafe Beverage.

What changed?

I was no longer able to handle the cognitive load of a second persona. Technically, I am well-versed in anonymity software, as an avid user of Tor, GPG, and OTR. But socially and psychologically? Nobody warned me of the mental toll it would take to have to separate myself from, well, myself.

To use anonymity technologies passively is easy. When simply browsing the web in peace, merely exercising the anonymous right to read, the only burden is the frustration of the network speed itself. But once you begin to contribute, changing from anonymity to pseudonymity, the complexity balloons. It becomes necessary to scrutinise every little thing you do, in both your pseudonymous and real lives, to ensure that there will be no crossing over whatsoever.

There is no golden rule to staying pseudonymous. No, there are dozens of rules, most of which are easy to ignore and difficult to follow. It is nearly impossible to balance it all for anyone not already well-versed in operational security (“opsec”).

What types of precautions are needed? The Whonix project maintains a short list of twenty-two basic missteps which compromise your anonymity. They also maintain a specific guide on anonymous “Surfing, Posting, and Blogging” with another endless list of attacks to defend against. There are, of course, the precautions given by the Tor project itself, although really you should read through the entirety of the Tor FAQ – it’s only twenty-one thousand words.

Of course, the mind-boggling complexity is warranted. For an activist in a repressive regime, perhaps the archetypical blogger in Iran, these precautions are necessary and hardly enough. For someone in such a situation, the slightest identity slip is lethal. Maintaining full separation of identities is difficult, but when a user’s own government is determined to kill dissidents, there are bigger concerns than the cognitive burden of pseudonymity.

But for me? For me, there is no risk of physical injury from my research. libv is still alive despite his “secret” being out for years. There are no black bags in my future from publicising who cafe really is.

Of course, there is a third option: disappear. Stop using the cafe identity, pretend it never existed, let my nick on IRC expire. The other contributors would not know me well enough to compromise me. I could cease the mental gymnastics. There would be virtually no risk. As far as an observer of my non-anonymous self is concerned, the project never existed.

For six months, I chose this option, or rather I succumbed to it. The quantity of my code contributions slowed to a halt; the frequency of my check-ins to IRC faded soon thereafter. At some point, I must have logged in as cafe for the last time, but I do not remember this final milestone. I merely faded into obscurity, until one day I wiped my hard drive during a routine operating system install and lost cafe’s passwords. I don’t mourn the missing files.

But the new year has come. I have switched computers; today, I am using my Libreboot laptop full-time. This post is being written from vim on that very laptop, running only free software. I need the free Midgard GPU drivers more than ever, and I am willing to put in the work to bring them into fruition.

So note the pronoun: I will be the one continuing on the project, alongside the awesome folks from the BiOpenly community. Not cafe nor a new pseudonym conjured from mid-air, but I. GPU driver development is difficult enough without the mental juggling associated with creating a person out of nothing.

To come out of the shadows brings legitimacy to the project. It will clear up any legal uncertainties surrounding copyright, the complexities of which are amplified when the author of a work is a pseudonym who disappeared. It will allow me to take ownership of my driver work, for instance on a C.V.

Most of all, it will allow me to be myself. It will grant me a different type of digital freedom, a familiar breath of fresh air. Coming out as the author of chai is, in many respects, the same as coming out as a queer.

My name is Cafe Beverage.

It feels good to write it.

Back to home

  1. An Asus C201 Chromebook made in 2015↩︎

  2. GPU parlance for the protocol used to interface with the hardware. It is also necessary to reverse engineer the shader binaries, a task which was completed successfully by Connor Abbott↩︎