Computers - Technology Cypherpunks are activists who advocate the widespread use of strong cryptography writing in code as a route to progressive change. Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of and visionary behind WikiLeaks, has been a leading voice in the cypherpunk movement since its inception in the s. Now, in what is sure to be a wave-making new book, Assange brings together a small group of cutting-edge thinkers and activists from the front line of the battle for cyber-space to discuss whether electronic communications will emancipate or enslave us. Far from being victims of that surveillance, are most of us willing collaborators? And do we have the ability, through conscious action and technological savvy, to resist this tide and secure a world where freedom is something which the Internet helps bring about?
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Conspiracy has become reality, and paranoia has become the number-one necessity of investigative journalism. An apt description, given everything we have learned lately. What the book is trying to hammer home is the immense importance of the internet as a new political battleground: how it is structured, monitored and used has serious ramifications for political organisation, economics, education, labour, culture and just about every other area of our lives, because increasingly, their world is our world.
And if knowledge is power, and it is never been as ubiquitous as it is in cyberspace, there is a great deal at stake. Who are the cypherpunks? Begun by a circle of Californian libertarians, the original cypherpunk mailing list was initiated in the late s, as individuals and activists, as well as corporations, started making use of cryptography and, in response, state-wide bans were introduced p. For the cypherpunks, the use of encryption for anonymity and secure communication was the single most important weapon for activists in the internet age.
As discussed in the book, the subsequent evolution of the internet has taken it in the opposite direction: citizens, politically active or otherwise, law-abiding or otherwise, have lost all right to privacy, while the powerful hide increasingly behind secret laws and extrajudicial practices.
Cypherpunks is a collective contribution of four authors, three of them leading figures in the cypherpunk movement. First we have Julian Assange, who needs less and less introduction as time goes by there are even two films now devoted to this problematic figure, the independent Australian feature, Underground, and the highly inaccurate box-office disaster We Steal Secrets.
Jacob Appelbaum, also a member of the Chaos Computer Club, is the developer who founded Noisebridge, an award-winning educational hackerspace in San Fransisco and international advocate for the Tor Project. The state of surveillance Strategic, or total surveillance, carried out by programmes like PRISM, collect communications indiscriminately, from everyone, all the time.
The ramifications of this kind of surveillance become even clearer when you recognise that it is the private sector collecting it, often but not always on behalf of the government. At the international level, what is today becoming a global and completely unregulated trade in telecommunications puts an absolute curb on the practice of national sovereignty. There is a reason the Chinese are gifting entire systems of fibre-optic internet infrastructure to African nations. And because the largest internet providers and therefore the data that passes through them are all American, and much of this technology is restricted by intellectual property rights, it gives a serious leg up to the imperialists.
You will be able to predict future happenings Siemens is already designing such software to sell to intelligence agencies. The authors of Cypherpunks know plenty about coercive censorship. Wikileaks has faced a vast barrage of legal and political attacks. Jacob recounts the numerous occasions he has been detained by the FBI and immigration officials, usually in countries with lax judicial rights.
All the other layers of censorship are naturalised as part of a free-media market. However, the fact that they are less apparent just makes them more effective mechanisms of control. Online anonymity and universal internet access, in industrialised nations at least, promised to nullify, or at least undermine, this capacity for censorship. For individuals, it was a new and vital right, to have an anonymous political voice not just in the ballot box, but online.
To speak freely, and for free, and have your contribution judged directly and democratically by an international online audience: that would have been a beautiful thing.
Yet ask any Chinese resident what total cyber-surveillance does to that voice: a chilling degree of self-censorship is the result, not just among the media, but the population as a whole. These are emotive issues, which are being cynically manipulated to push through repressive legislation. However, these dangers are a case for tactical surveillance and nothing more. Before the internet, child pornography was reproduced with Polaroid cameras. No one advocated the destruction of photography as a medium, or the surveillance of every camera anyone ever bought — and total strategic surveillance is the online equivalent of that.
The fallacy of total surveillance was perfectly illustrated by an anecdote from Jacob Appelbaum, recounting a computer science discussion on Tor in Tunisia soon after the fall of the Ben Ali regime. Every single person in the room, except the person that asked the question, but including the professor in the class, raised their hand. Do you really believe that it was worth oppressing every person in this room in order to fight against those things?
We could not tell a laptop component from a satellite component, or a Dell microphone from an NSA microphone. And most of us lack both the time and the incentive to educate ourselves. Which means, we are taking an awful lot on faith in a system that has proven itself addicted to secrecy.
So, there are two sides to the internet. One is virtual: it is ideas, sounds and images hurtling through cyberspace. But the other is objective; both mechanical, and rooted in a complex social-institutional reality determined by the mining, telecommunications and judicial bodies that collaborate to make the thing work.
The tangible aspect of the internet reflects these vested interests. Computer components are not designed to be understood: they come in self-contained cases, and are difficult to alter and adapt. That has political consequences, because, as the authors point out, when we do not understand these systems, we have no choice but to defer to corporate authority.
As long as these components are dangerous by design, they put real limits on what can be achieved by campaigns for democratic oversight. Yet that does not mean that political campaigns do not matter. Now, there was a great campaign that generalised itself, fast: an obscure piece of highly complex international-trade legislation, de-mystified for the public, and effectively used to marshal militant international opposition all over the world.
What galvanised young protesters in the West was the threat to peer-to-peer file sharing. They felt that as a real power, a right to duplicate cultural and educational material that made life better and was under threat.
But it was just one head of the hydra; you cut it off, and more grow back. So the political campaigns have their place: they buy us time, raise awareness, and engage new people in the political process. That has power, and the cypherpunks would do well to remember it. The Vision vs. The printing press had a revolutionary impact on society, and the kind of interaction facilitated by the internet can be even more so because it is dialectical; you are not just able to receive ideas, you can argue with them.
That opens the gate to potential levels of participation and deliberative democracy that we have always been told is simply not possible on a scale any larger than the village folk-motes and Athenian forums of ancient times. And if we can log in and connect with like-minded people from Egypt to Tibet, from our living rooms, we are in a very real sense not as atomised and alienated as we once were — at least, we do not have to be. The potential is there, to synthesise different cultures, to educate each other, share experiences and collaborate to re-define it for ourselves.
The workers of the world have a better chance of uniting via fibre-optic cables, than they did by carrier pigeon. And that is an encouraging thought.
The guiding vision is there: a decentralisation of services, local providers, users independently hosting and able to encrypt their data, free, open-source software that can be understood and adapted. So what is getting in the way? They have nothing to say about capitalism or the free market. And surrendering the internet to the laws of that market is precisely what threatens to turn a potentially very progressive force into a reactionary one. The standardisation of content control and payment systems, the centralisation of servers that facilitates mass-surveillance, all of this is inevitable as long as such things are in the hands of corporate monopolies for which cost-efficiency is the bottom line.
It is simply cheaper to ride roughshod over your civil liberties. There will be a market in privacy, especially now, and eventually an economic drive to meet that demand. When it comes to a clash of interests between individual users and big business, let alone the government, they will win every time because our outrage costs them so much less.
We do live in a class society, after all — even in cyberspace. And that is a political battle, not a technical one. It is this mass of ordinary people whose communications are no longer safe; whose thoughts and feelings the advertising companies are mining, all the better to exploit them; whose politics PR lobbies are investigating, all the better to package the false promises of the next set of parliamentary candidates.
And despite the dawning awareness demonstrated by the ACTA campaign and those like it, there is still a huge vacuum that needs filling in terms of how many of these users are really aware of what an invasive and oppressive power imbalance is being stacked against them online.
Alas, the internet is not some magical realm where all the problems that plague our attempts to organise on the streets — issues of indoctrination, apathy and uneven political consciousness — no longer apply. The reality is, we can not all be cypherpunks. There is another danger here, in fetishising the kind of activism that is confined to online activity, or based on secrecy.
Protesters did not give their lives on Facebook. And that was where the real resistance was taking place. It is a useful tool, to be sure — but nothing more, because it is a private activity by definition, and the power of direct action comes from its potential to set a public example, and thus spread.
Unless it is employed for the purposes of investigative journalism, to get classified material that belongs in the public sphere back into it, cryptography does nothing to raise the political consciousness of the general population.
Ultimately, we cannot postpone forever the need for a public confrontation. Cypherpunks has not managed to bridge that gap either. Many of its arguments are crucial; its anecdotes, explosive; its usefulness for anyone interested in everything from press freedom to file-sharing, undeniable.
However, a serious manifesto is needed, and its absence wastes time rather than saving it. With total surveillance now a global reality, and the true potential of the internet slipping through our fingers, there is a need for the cypherpunks and hackers to popularise their message, get serious about political organisation and start building bridges with the wider movement.
The time is coming for the battle for the internet to be fought in the light of day. They are good with codes and cyphers, and can probably protect their privacy alone. But to protect their internet, they are going to need our help.
And anyway, it is our internet now, too.
Assange and Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet
Conspiracy has become reality, and paranoia has become the number-one necessity of investigative journalism. An apt description, given everything we have learned lately. What the book is trying to hammer home is the immense importance of the internet as a new political battleground: how it is structured, monitored and used has serious ramifications for political organisation, economics, education, labour, culture and just about every other area of our lives, because increasingly, their world is our world. And if knowledge is power, and it is never been as ubiquitous as it is in cyberspace, there is a great deal at stake. Who are the cypherpunks? Begun by a circle of Californian libertarians, the original cypherpunk mailing list was initiated in the late s, as individuals and activists, as well as corporations, started making use of cryptography and, in response, state-wide bans were introduced p.
Cypherpunk – Freedom and the future of the Internet
Here are some quotes that jumped out at me: Within a few years, global civilization will be a postmodern surveillance dystopia, from which escape for all but the most skilled individuals will be impossible. In fact, we may already be there. Such people are often talking about cyber war and not one of them, not a single one, is talking about cyber peace-building, or anything related to peace-building. So when we have no control over our technology such people wish to use it for their ends, for war specifically. Cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action.
Cypherpunks: freedom and the future of the Internet
“Cypherpunks- Freedom and the Future of the Internet”