Too Hard-Headed

Originally published at: Too Hard-Headed | The Associated Worlds

Gorch steelheading, by any of its various names, originated as a street medical procedure from the freesoil world Gorch (Dinyoza’s Serpent). A retroviral treatment, steelheading affects the glial cells of the brain, causing them to accumulate metallic, particulate iron within internal vacuoles. This serves as an effective countermeasure to uploading using the standard techniques (i.e., the high-resolution NMRI built into every commercially available cerebral bridge), since the ferromagnetic particles darken and distort the image, and may indeed cause damage to the scanning equipment. As such, steelheading has become popular among every quantum-hatted forknapping-obsessed paranoid from Core to Rim.

Since it remains a street procedure, it is sadly to be noted that many of its purveyors do not inform their clients of the actual risks of placing a brain stived through with super-nanoscale iron particulate into a high-grade magnetic field, and specifically the combination of thermal effects on the glia and direct magnetic force effects resulting in said brain being stirred like a bowl of overcooked pudding. Caveat emptor, indeed!

Unfortunately, other uses of the procedure have become apparent. I draw your attention here to the incident last year aboard CS Fist of Civility, when hostages recovered from one branch of the Resolutionist Faction had been involuntarily steelheaded by their captors, a fact not discovered until it had led to a permanent death.

Steelheading, however, is a technique that is only preventative against NMRI or similar technologies, and a clean upload can still be achieved by use of the older membrane disassembler, or a nanitic burning-scan reader such as that used in a ripknife. Of course, these techniques either require an extracted mostly-dead brain or are fatal to the patient, which is why they were replaced by high-resolution NMRI in the first place, and yet they remain viable methods of extracting a mind-state from a steelheaded brain.

For this reason, we have now added testing for the presence of encapsulated ferromagnetic particulates in brain tissue and the use of alternate methods as part of the best practices for uploading brains recovered from hostages, kidnapping victims, or otherwise “left unattended”, and we commend this to the attention of our colleagues elsewhere.

– Dr. Venerí 0xCADE443E,
Noble Order of the Lancet,

Fellow of the Imperial College of Surgeons,
Imperial Sodality of Neuroscience,
in a letter to the All-Worlds Journal of Medical Incident

Huh. That seems like an uncharacteristic oops for the Empire to not discover the steelheading beforehand. Given the possibility of ferromagnetic metals in implants, wouldn’t checking for the presence of things that might misbehave in strong magnetic fields be more common practice?

Not to say that there wasn’t a medtech on CS Fist of Civility cussing themselves out for missing it at the time, but there are a few points worth making:

  1. Implants, by and large, don’t hide themselves. (Mostly, in fact, they conveniently report their presence when called through the appropriate MedAlert API, but, y’know, not everyone pays attention to supporting industry standards.) They’re also usually outside this size range: either gross and easy to spot, or smol little nanosomes that are down in the range that can be safely ignored (like the iron nanoparticles that they use as NMRI contrasts, for example). tl;dr they’re in a zone where no-one’s looking.

  2. Ferromagnetics are actually not commonly used in implants of the era. We use surgical stainless steel not because it’s good (it’s biocompatibility is lower and its corrosion-susceptibility is higher than would be preferred for implants), but because it’s cheap. High-nickel alloys are notably allergenic, but again, inexpensive. But in a world where you don’t need to look at the price chart before punching for fabrication of your implant base out of foamed-titanium/bioglass composite wrapping some nice gold workings, there’s not much incentive to move downscale.

  3. And perhaps most importantly, implant designers don’t use ferromagnetics because they interact badly with NMRI technology, which - cerebral bridges aside - is one of the core components of the medscanners found in every hospital, clinic, sickbay, autodiagnosis kiosk, home med-bed, disaster pod, and high-end ambulance anywhere in civilized space. It’s a big compatibility lose that also asks your customers to put their lives at risk, belike.

Even implants here are very strongly non-magnetic. (Says the guy who’s had an MRI in the last 2 weeks with a plate and 4 screws in his spine. Even those, which I strongly suspect are titanium, are something I can feel heating up in the MRI tube.)

wow, I didn’t know the effect would be that significant with non-ferromagnetic materials

Ookay. Prevention of forknapping is something many people will want defenses against. Probably in combination with a decent suicide implant designed to prevent post-mortem scanning (what Stanislav Lem called “tomb-tapping”) and other “older” methods mentioned. Even if forknapping is (or at least should be) a very serious crime in any civilized jurisdiction, The Empire and other higher-tech polities should have such options available. Even if they make authorized backups a hassle, require specialized non-standard cerebral bridges, etc.

As I understand it the standard countermeasure against unauthorised instantiation of your mind-state is some sort of scuttling charge in the vector stack, sometimes involving fullerened antimatter.

It’s distinctly an odd feeling, that’s for sure!


There’s a technical problem here, which when expressed in computer science terms (because it is a computer science problem) is that you can’t process encrypted data. By definition, if you could process encrypted data, it would simply be an alternate encoding for clear data. So you have a rather fundamental issue of needing your mind-state there in the clear - and thus available for read-out - if you want to, y’know, think.

(Not, I hasten to add, that most forknapping is from people’s own brains anyway. Making people unconscious, while incapacitating their muse, jamming their personal networking, and doing all of this stealthily enough to get them into the back of the stalker-van where you’ve put the cerebral bridge without attracting attention, then keeping them there long enough to do a non-PAD-assisted upload is a shit plan for criminals with plans of longevity.

You’re better off trying to compromise a poorly secured mind-state store or transfer, run a shady mindcasting provider, or go back to MAKE SOULS FAST. Only deal with bonded and secured high-rep mind-state handlers, children!)

Now, the vector stack can be encrypted, and usually is (that’s why you have to do a non-PAD-assisted upload). Those who expect to find themselves in awkward situations without network connectivity may have taken the precaution to have equipped their stacks with neutrino bug-out transmitters (powered by tiny particles of antimatter), which by the remorseless thermodynamics of the thing cooks your brainmeats well beyond the point of information-theoretic death when triggered.

Those who expect to find themselves in awkward situations involving being surrounded by barbarians may opt for a spite charge, which involves using more antimatter than you technically need to power the transmitter. Available in multiple sizes, from “on death I automatically drop a radiation-enhanced frag grenade at my own feet” to “no man may kill me without getting three Little Boy-equivalents to the face”. (Because fuck you, sir, and the entire neighborhood you rode in to.)

And finally, in partial contradiction to what’s said up top, there are ways to build cryptobrains, which involve having a small in-clear processing buffer and shuffling data in and out of it as the mind-state executes, in order never to have a useful amount of it decrypted at any one time. This can work. But you’re basically doing livelock laming (remember that?) to yourself to make yourself more cryptic, which involves having to spend ungodly amounts of processing power and use relevant thermal adaptations to approximate running at the same clock speed as everyone around you. It’s cheaper to teleoperate a meat puppet, and the chances of looking like a lag-derp aren’t significantly worse.

(Also, you don’t have to wear giant radiator fins on your head.)

But ultimately, for almost everyone, the real protection against forknapping isn’t technical. As with kidnapping here, the main defense is the knowledge that the Office of Investigation and Pursuit, possibly aided by one of the black justice teams working out of Fourth Directorate, will come for you, and will find you, and will make the remainder of your life both short and notably unpleasant.

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What about homomorphic encryption?

I’m not sure that would work - if it’s homomorphic enough to run a logos, however that bit of author-defined mathematics works, and it has to be, since you’re running it to be you, it is also you if your forknapper runs it. I guess the homomorphic encryption might prevent the forknapper from doing static analysis or editing the mind-state, but I’m not sure how much of a deterrent that is.

Not a bad idea, and you caught me in an oversimplification. Nonetheless, there are a few reasons why this isn’t viable as a general solution to the problem:

  1. A homomorphically encrypted mind-state is malleable, in the cryptographic sense, because that’s what lets you process it. (What I heavily paraphrased as “an alternate encoding for clear data”.) In this way, the homomorphism (and indeed isomorphism) greatly weakens the cipher, and it doesn’t help that there are enough similarities between mind-states of the same species that you can attempt brute-force attacks using a database of eigenthoughts.

  2. Homomorphic cryptosystems as we know them are designed to secure data being processed by an algorithm which is not itself encrypted. Encrypting the algorithm - as a mind-state is in essence a self-modifying algorithmic structure - as well as the data, in a situation where they overlap, is a rather more complex enterprise, especially when fully encrypting the algorithm implies that the processor executing it has to not know what it’s executing.

  3. As @JHPrime points out, the primary use of a mind-state is executing it. Doing this may prevent your captors from performing static analysis, etc, but it does absolutely nothing to stop them from sticking you in a hellcube until you agree to fork over the encryption key. (To work at all, you have to be prepared to input and output cleartext at the interfaces.)

  4. As with, albeit to a lesser extent than, cryptobrains, your cryptovm imposes additional running costs.

Incidentally, another hack commonly used by celebrities, geniuses, and other highly-visible forknapping targets is to go the extra step and register their mind-state as protected intellectual property.

After all, OIP and the 4D are both extremely efficacious and tenacious, but the same could be said for the Imperial Protective Association of Authors, Artists, Designers, Inventors, and Creatrices General. (And the ipmen are probably meaner.)