Aphex Twin new album release – a statement on online privacy?

News has surfaced in the shady realms of the “Deep Web” that a new Aphex Twin album is to be released.

Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James is known as a pioneering force in the electronic genre and his new album release announcement is as inventive as his music. On Monday, James Tweeted a hyperlink to a Deep Web page detailing what looks like an album tracklist with the titles Aphex Twin and ‘Syro’ – the name of the new album.

The Deep Web is the hidden underground of the Internet, with websites that aren’t accessible by conventional web browsers and search engines. The opposite of the Deep Web is the Surface Web, which is the standard part of the Internet the majority of people are familiar with and access. The Deep Web got a lot of press in late 2013 as authorities cracked down on illegal activity conducted through Deep Web-hosted sites such as the notorious Silk Road, an illicit eBay-like site which traded anything from MDMA to assault weapons.

However, the Deep Web is not just a haven for criminals. To access it, users have to download the Tor browser, the Deep Web’s answer to Internet Explorer. Tor encrypts a user’s online identity so that they can surf the Deep Web completely anonymously. While this anonymity is the perfect cover for online crime, it also gives a voice to people who would be at risk if their identities were discovered. The New Yorker magazine uses a Deep Web server to allow whistleblowers to pass on information about illegal practices by corporations or governments without fear of being identified, whilst communicating via the Deep Web was vital to the organisation of the Arab Spring as conventional Internet sites had been censored or were being watched by repressive governments.

Fundamentally, the Deep Web is about protecting users’ online privacy and highlighting this is a more subtle aim of Aphex Twin’s ‘Syro’ album announcement that can be easily missed. As well as the Deep Web link accessible only via the Tor browser (it directs to a dead link if you’re using a standard web browser – try it) the album release page can be opened using the regular Surface Web link.

However, there are essential differences between the Deep Web page and the page opened on the Surface Web. The Surface Web page is missing the crucial details Aphex Twin fans want: the name of the album, the tracklisting…even the name of the artist. Instead, the only data on the site is personal information about the user – your data. Your IP address, geolocation, even your operating system (whether you’re accessing the site using Windows, Mac, Android etc.) are just a few details about your online behaviour that the software on the website can identify. The Deep Web version howver has the all-important ‘Syro’ specs, but significantly, none of your key user data can be collected by the website’s identification software – reading only as ‘Indeterminate’.

This is the point about the Deep Web that James is trying to make and that is often ignored by a press obsessed with stories about Tor users hiring hit men and watching tiger porn. The purpose of the Deep Web is to safeguard users’ privacy in a world where we unwittingly expose our personal data to anyone who cares to look hard enough.

And they don’t even need to look that hard. The tracking software used on the ‘Syro’ site is pretty basic stuff for any web developer and all the information it displays is already offered by users to their Internet Service Provider and web browser, whether users realise it or not.

The Deep Web album announcement on Monday ended a campaign of characteristically cryptic teases from the producer, hinting at his return after a thirteen year gap since 2001’s ‘Drukqs’ album. On Saturday, a green blimp appeared over London’s Oval Space with the iconic Aphex Twin logo on one side and the year ‘2014’ on the other, whilst across the Atlantic stencilled Aphex Twin symbols appeared on the streets of New York.

Using the Deep Web to announce ‘Syro’ could just be another marketing gimmick and it has generated enough press attention to be a successful one. However, what would be the purpose of releasing two versions of the album announcement, a Deep Web one and a Surface Web one, and including the contrasting album details and tracking software information unless it was to make a point?

And this point isn’t just to drive fans onto the Deep Web to get news on ‘Syro’. The power of the Internet meant that within 24 hours of James’s Tweeting the Deep Web link the album already had a Wikipedia entry, complete with tracklisting, accessible to regular Surface Web users.

Instead, it seems that by having two conflicting versions of the ‘Syro’ announcement, James is drawing the attention of his fans to the amount of information we as Internet users give away without even realising it. Yes, the album announcement is primarily a publicity release, but with a subversive message that fits with Apex Twin’s reputation of being one of the most enigmatic men in electronic music.

Written by Zaz Ali