Cypherpunks’ strange fight for freedom

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet is a short, engaging and provocative look at surveillance and freedom on the internet. The book records a series of discussions between Assange and his co-authors (Jacob Applebaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn and Jeremie Zimmerman) on March 20, 2012 (while he was under house arrest in the UK), which was later edited for readability and coherence (p. 6). As a result, the reader feels as though they are eavesdropping on particularly interesting conversation in a pub, but a conversation by people who have great expertise in their fields. A front sheet on the book provides the essential context for this conversation: “What is a Cypherpunk? Cypherpunks advocate for the use of cryptography and similar methods as a away to achieve societal and political change. Founded in the early 1990s, the movement has been most active during the 1990s `cryptowars’ and following the 2011 internet spring.” The book reads as an introduction as much to the political philosophy of this group as it does to the technical issues involved in modern encryption debates.

The introduction by Assange has a melodramatic and emphatic tone. This section of the book reads as a manifesto, and perhaps for this reason lacks nuance. Assange depicts of a chilling vision of a dystopian world. At times, the introduction seems sophomoric, in that all issues are black and white. Is the state always bad? In the introduction Assange describes the internet as “platonic,” which perhaps seems too idealistic. Does the internet truly have an ideal form? Isn’t it primarily a tool to communicate, and as such as prone to all human weaknesses as any other tool? Sometimes its hard to square the idealistic depiction of the internet that Assange depicts with the general tone on 4chan or reddit. For Assange, encryption is a magic bullet: “The universe believes in encryption” (p. 4). A cynic might reply that so do ransom-ware developers, child pornographers and ISIS. Encryption can be important, but is it an absolute value? Encryption for whom and when? At the same time, given the intense persecution that both Assange and Wikileaks have faced, this perspective is understandable. The scale of the government effort against Wikileaks has been massive, and involved multiple states.

If Assange’s vision sometimes lacks nuance, its also the case that the book makes for disturbing reading. I recently viewed a documentary called Erasing David: Surveillance versus Privacy in the 21st Century Data-State. In this documentary, a British man hires a pair of private investigators to track him, as he attempts to disappear for one month. The result is a thriller that reminds one of Hitchcock, as he shows the viewer the lengths that one must now go to in order to escape the ever-present gaze of the state. Without giving away the ending, the documentary raises key issues about the extent to which we all must surrender our privacy in the digital age, if we are to register our children for day-care, attend a medical appointment or obtain a job.

This theme, the extent to which we surrender privacy without due thought, runs throughout this work. Do we really realize the decisions that we make when we use social media?: “Facebook makes its business by blurring this line between privacy, friends, and publicity. And it is even storing the data when you think it is only meant for your friends and the people you love” (p. 52). The book describes key legal rules and how they have impacted our ability to make decisions about privacy: “. . . the court said that on the internet you have no expectation of privacy whey you willingly reveal information to a third party, and, by the way, everyone on the internet is a third party” (p. 55). The section the book from pages 52 to 56 provides a very good overview of issues related to privacy, surveillance, and companies, and alone is probably worth the price of the book. The discussion of cloud computing (76-77) is also enlightening, and again raises the question of how thoughtful we are being as a society regarding the implications of technological change.

This book is a readable, interesting, informal and disturbing look at how technology is changing societies across the globe. At the end, I was less certain than the authors that encryption is the only answer. Assange and his co-authors have a deeply pessimistic view of the state, and of our ability to control it. They have reasons for adopting this view, and the many abuses that they describe make it evident beyond any doubt that security services have overreached. It was hard to read this book without thinking of Foucault, and wondering how he would have described the global surveillance system, which makes some people fearful to put their true thoughts in emails or Facebook posts. The fear of being observed itself changes peoples’ behavior, and enhances the power of the state.

Technology is also continuously decreasing the costs of surveillance: “And storage gets cheaper every year. Actually, we made some calculations in the Chaos Computer Club: you get decent voice-quality storage of all German telephone calls in a year for about 30 million euros, including administrative overheads, so the pure storage is about 8 million euros” (38). We are reaching the point at which individuals might have the ability to conduct surveillance that once was only within the means of states. Given that this is true, there would seem to be a need for international agreements to set bounds on surveillance. There are horrifying examples of mass surveillance (p. 39), and examples of government abuses.

At the same time, the security issues are real. The authors tend to speak of these threats dismissively, as if they are boogeymen only used to frighten the gullible into abandoning their privacy: “The Four Horsemen of the Info-pocalypse: child pornography, terrorism, money laundering, and the War on Some Drugs” (43). Yet it might be difficult to persuade someone who has just been the victim of Ransomware that bitcoin and encryption are unqualified benefits for humanity. Terrorism presents a real threat, as events last week in Belgium show. Terrorist networks rely on the secret transfer of money and information to survive. In this context, a global discussion about privacy and its limits is needed; the recent conflict between the U.S. federal government and Apple regarding access to a dead terrorist’s cell-phone is a classic example of the terms of this debate. There are reasons for doubting that encryption alone may solve larger social issues. Many of these questions have shades of grey. Ironically, for all its pessimism and clarity, this book provides a persuasive argument for why this might be the case.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

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