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Cypherpunks, Edward Snowden, and the politics of mass surveillance

Edward Snowden has confirmed that the ‘surveillance dystopia’ Assange had warned of is already here
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First Published: Tue, Jun 25 2013. 12 27 PM IST
A file photo of Edward Snowden. Photo: AFP
A file photo of Edward Snowden. Photo: AFP
Updated: Tue, Jun 25 2013. 05 18 PM IST
“The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen... Left to its own trajectory, global civilization will be a post-modern surveillance dystopia, from which escape for all but the most skilled individuals will be impossible. In fact, we may already be there,” writes Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, in his latest book Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet.
When it came out in late 2012, Cypherpunks may have seemed like a book ahead of its times. After all, even six months ago, how many in the world had heard about the PRISM worldwide surveillance programme of the US National Security Agency (NSA)? Or about Boundless Informant? Or that India was one of the top five countries monitored extensively by the NSA? Or that Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Skype, and several other tech companies shared user data that were supposed to remain private? But a few weeks ago a man named Edward Snowden confirmed to the world that the “surveillance dystopia” Assange had warned “may already be there” is, in fact, already here.
The Snowden saga, far from being an exception that concerns only the American government, points to what nearly all governments have been doing for some time now: snooping on their citizens with no democratic oversight.
The Indian state already has a Central Monitoring System (CMS) that will tap directly into your emails and phone calls with zero oversight by courts or Parliament. In the offline world, surveillance will be taken care of through CCTV cameras, compulsory use of biometric data/identification, elimination of all anonymity wherever possible, and of course, a comprehensive aerial surveillance system that will deploy helicopters and drones to man the skies 24 by 7.
The sheer scale and ambition of state surveillance programmes—with everyone from the US and the UK to India, Saudi Arabia and North Korea eager to get their hands on the latest systems—the exchange of data between private corporations and state agencies, and the extreme secrecy surrounding these operations, should leave no doubt in anybody’s mind about their real (as opposed to the proclaimed) use: control.
Yet it is still common to find conservatives and even liberals framing the whole surveillance issue as one about privacy. Restricting the debate to privacy enables them to argue that one necessarily has to sacrifice some privacy in order to enjoy security. The idiocy and mischief sponsoring this argument is laid bare in Cypherpunks.
Opening with an introduction by Assange titled “A Cryptographic Call to Arms”, Cypherpunks is essentially an edited conversation among Assange and three of his activist/hacker friends, Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn, and Jeremie Zimmerman, organized into 10 riveting chapters.
The book opens with a discussion on “Increased communication versus Increased Surveillance”, which offers a historical and political overview of the rise of mass surveillance alongside the growth in communication and information flows via the internet. The following chapter elaborates on the “militarisation of cyberspace”, which is “like having a tank in your bedroom. It’s a soldier between you and your wife as you’re texting. We are all living under martial law as far as our communications are concerned, we just can’t see the tanks—but they are there. To that degree, the Internet, which was supposed to be a civilian space, has become a militarized space.”
The discussants then exchange notes on private sector spying, how it collaborates with state surveillance, and the nature of what former CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson describes as the “intelligence-industrial complex”. As you’d expect, much of the discussion here is about Google. “Do you know what you looked for two years, three days and four hours ago? You don’t know; Google knows,” notes Muller-Maguhn.
Assange argues that there are three basic freedoms from which all other freedoms derive: freedom of movement, freedom of communication, and freedom of economic interaction. While the three are interlinked, privacy becomes important for freedom of communication (if there’s a threat involved in speaking publicly, then the only way to protect yourself is by communicating privately), and for freedom of economic interaction. The surveillance debate, therefore, is not merely about loss of privacy—it is about an attack on the freedom of whoever is put under surveillance. Therefore, any surveillance can only ever be undertaken for a specific reason and with permission—there can never be any case for mass surveillance of innocent and guilty alike, as is the case now with programmes like PRISM and CMS.
Assange attributes the drive for mass surveillance to the insecurity of the nation state when faced with the burgeoning transnational reach and influence of the Internet—which is beyond the jurisdiction or control of any one state. But then, he asks, what if nation states, and a world divided by national boundaries, are no longer the answer to humanity’s problems?
The outfit he founded, WikiLeaks, is a transnational entity that belongs to no country. It took on the world’s most powerful nation state, bore the brunt of its vengeance, and has survived. The weapon that helped WikiLeaks survive—cryptography—is what Assange recommends to all those who would fight to protect their privacy and freedom in an era when “transnational surveillance and endless drone wars are almost upon us”.
Cryptography is the art and science of making sure that when you want your data to be read only by yourself, nobody else can read it. “The universe believes in encryption,” writes Assange, which is why it is easier to encrypt information than it is to decrypt it. It’s probably also why in many countries, including the US and Russia, it is illegal for individuals to practice cryptography beyond a certain strength—for then they cannot snoop on you.
Assange envisions the Internet as a free, platonic realm that could be fortified “behind a cryptographic veil.” He wants the netizens of the world to unite and “create new lands barred to those who control physical reality, because to follow us into them would require infinite resources. And in this manner to declare independence.”
“Cypherpunks advocate for the use of cryptography and similar methods as ways to achieve societal and political change,” says a small note explaining the term at the beginning of this book. While cryptography is one part of it, the politics and values of cypherpunk can be an even more effective weapon and rallying point against the abuses of power that lead up to, and can be the outcomes of, mass surveillance.
The fundamental cypherpunk position is summed up in the motto: privacy for the weak, transparency for the powerful. Obviously, the reality today is the exact opposite, which is why much of civil-political action is about using one’s freedom of expression to force transparency and accountability on the powerful. This was also what Snowden attempted to do, as he explains in this video interview .
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. History has borne out the truth of this observation, and will do so again if we let it. Though Assange insists that “this book is not a manifesto”, it is worthy of being one. Cypherpunks is a must-read for anyone and everyone who has an email account and/or uses a mobile phone.
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First Published: Tue, Jun 25 2013. 12 27 PM IST