Flashback: 1995. Julian Assange’s first words on the cypherpunk email list: “I am annoyed.”
Of course, Julian Assange has gone on to annoy powerful players all over the world as the legendary fugitive editor-in-chief and spokesperson for WikiLeaks, publisher of secret information, news leaks, and classified media from anonymous sources. And while the mass media world has tracked nearly every aspect of Assange’s personal drama, it’s done very little to increase people’s understanding of WikiLeaks’ underlying technologies or the principles those technologies embody.
In the recent book Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, Assange enlists the help of three fellow heroes of free information to set the record straight, aligning those principles with the ideas that Tim May dreamed up in 1989 with “The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto.”
The book is based on a series of conversations filmed for the television show The World Tomorrow while Assange was on house arrest in Norfolk, England during all of 2011. Attending were Jacob Appelbaum, the American advocate and researcher for the Tor project who has been in the sights of US authorities since substituting as a speaker for Assange at a US hackers conference; Andy Müller-Maguhn, one of the earliest members of the legendary Chaos Computer Club; and Jérémie Zimmerman, a French advocate for internet anonymity and freedom.
The conversation is sobering. If 1990s cypherpunk, like the broader tech culture that it was immersed in, was a little bit giddy with its potential to change the world, contemporary cypherpunk finds itself on the verge of what Assange calls “a postmodern surveillance dystopia, from which escape for all but the most skilled individuals will be impossible.”
How did we get here? The obvious political answer is 9/11. The event provided an opportunity for a vast expansion of national security states both here and abroad, including, of course, a diminution of protections against surveillance. The legalities involved in the US are a confusing and ever-shifting set of rules that are under constant legal contestation in the courts. Whatever the letter of the law, a September 2012 ACLUbulletin gave us the essence of the situation:
Justice Department documents released today by the ACLU reveal that federal law enforcement agencies are increasingly monitoring Americans’ electronic communications, and doing so without warrants, sufficient oversight, or meaningful accountability.
The documents, handed over by the government only after months of litigation, are the attorney general’s 2010 and 2011 reports on the use of “pen register” and “trap and trace” surveillance powers. The reports show a dramatic increase in the use of these surveillance tools, which are used to gather information about telephone, email, and other Internet communications. The revelations underscore the importance of regulating and overseeing the government’s surveillance power.
“In fact,” the report continues, “more people were subjected to pen register and trap and trace surveillance in the past two years than in the entire previous decade.”
Beyond the political and legal powers vested in the US intelligence community and in others around the world, there is the very real fact that technology once only accessible to the world’s superpowers is now commercially available. One example documented on WikiLeaks (and discussed in Cypherpunks) is the Zebra strategic surveillance system sold by VASTech. For $10 million, the South African company will sell you a turnkey system that can intercept all communications in a middle-sized country. A similar system called Eagle was used in Gadhafi’s Libya, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal in 2011. Sold by the French company Amesys, this is a commercial product, right down to the label on the box: “Nationwide Intercept System.” In the face of systems designed to scoop up all electronic communication and store it indefinitely, any showcase civil libertarian exceptions written into the surveillance laws are meaningless. But the threat isn’t limited to the surveillance state. There are more than a few self-interested financial players with $10 million lying around, many of whom would love to track all the private data in a several thousand mile radius.
All of this is beginning to sound very much like a dystopian fantasy from cyberpunk science fiction.
If, in 1995, some cypherpunks had published a book about the upcoming “postmodern surveillance dystopia,” most commentators would have shrugged it off as just a wee bit paranoid and ushered them into the Philip K. Dick Reading Room. Now, it is more likely that people will shrug and say, “that ship has already sailed.”
David Brin seems to think so. The author of The Transparent Society is well known for his skepticism regarding the likelihood of maintaining most types of privacy as well as his relative cheerfulness in the face of near universal transparency. In an email, I asked him about the cypherpunk ethic, as expressed by Julian Assange: “privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful.”
Brin’s response was scathing. The ethic, he says, is “already enshrined in law. A meek normal person can sue for invasion of privacy, a prominent person may not.” He’s just getting started:
But at a deeper level it is simply stupid. Any loophole in transparency ‘to protect the meek’ can far better be exploited by the mighty than by the meek. Their shills, lawyers and factotums will (1) ensure that ‘privacy protections’ have big options for the mighty and (2) that those options will be maximally exploited. Moreover (3) as I show in The Transparent Society, encryption-based ‘privacy’ is the weakest version of all. The meek can never verify that their bought algorithm and service is working as promised, or isn’t a bought-out front for the NSA or a criminal gang.
Above all, protecting the weak or meek with shadows and cutouts and privacy laws is like setting up Potemkin villages, designed to create surface illusions. Anyone who believes they can blind society’s elites — of government, commerce, wealth, criminality and tech-geekery — is a fool…
In other words, cypherpunk may be doing a disservice by spreading the illusion of freedom from surveillance.
I posed a similar question to Adrian Lamo, who reported Bradley Manning to federal authorities. Not surprisingly, Lamo is even more cynical.
“Privacy is quite dead,” he responded to me in an email. “That people still worship at its corpse doesn’t change that. In [the unreleased documentary] Hackers Wanted I gave out my SSN, and I’ve never had cause to regret that. Anyone could get it trivially. The biggest threat to our privacy is our own limited understanding of how little privacy we truly have.”
In Cypherpunks, Assange raises an essential point that at least partly refutes this skepticism: “The universe believes in encryption. It is easier to encrypt information than it is to decrypt it.” And while Appelbaum admits that even strong encryption can’t last forever, saying, “We’re probably not using one hundred year (safe) crypto,” he implies that pretty good privacy that lasts a pretty long time is far better than no privacy at all.
Assuming that some degree of privacy is still possible, most people don’t seem to think it’s worth the effort. The cypherpunks and their ilk fought to keep things like the PGP encryption program legal — and we don’t use them. We know Facebook and Google leak our personal online habits like a sieve and we don’t make much effort to cover our tracks. Perhaps some of us buy the good citizen cliché that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about, but most of us are just opting for convenience. We’ve got enough to deal with day to day without engaging in a privacy regimen. Occasionally, some slacker may lose his job because he posted a photo of himself cradling his bong or the like, but as with civil liberties more generally, as long as the daily outrages against individuals don’t reach epic proportions, we rubberneck in horror and then return to our daily activities.
Beneath this complacent surface lies a disquieting and mostly unexamined question. To what degree is the ubiquity of state surveillance a form of intimidation, a way to keep people away from social movements or from directly communicating their views?
Do you hesitate before liking WikiLeaks on Facebook?