De-chilling Mass Surveillance

Every panel discussion on mass surveillance post-Snowden that I’ve ever been to has always brought up the concept of chilling effects where the fear of being “on the list” would prevent you from saying something that might upset someone in power, thus leaving you to chill in front of your laptop instead of posting anything. The ability to efficiently apply the same level of surveillance weaponized against peace activists in the past against anyone that could become the next Dr. King, Albert Einstein, or Molly Crabapplepre cog” is a pretty good deterrent for dissent, and anything that deters dissent, deters democracy.

Before the word prism gained a double-meaning, we had only suspicions of how much of our data was being stored and mined by large state actors. In the early days of the internet at least in the United States, few people would consider the Internet — including the web, email, non-sms texting, and internet voice calling their primary means of expressing or storing their thoughts. At the turn of the 2010s though, it became most of it.

Few of the analog telephone privacy laws which were spurred in previous battles with the NSA could be applied to the way the modern internet worked, not simply because of the wording of old laws but because of the architecture of digital communications — the Internet is distributed across a sprawl of undersea fiber that ends up landing in any number of countries’s jurisdictions. This minimizes a single state’s power to repress speech but also unfortunately makes it easier for any connected states to try to surveil that flow of digital speech. As more and more of our communications are transformed into storable packets in that flow, a more absolute form of power grows to a degree that never could have with the technologies of the past, as much as some tried. Unlike the technologies of the past, however, the ubiquity of digital communication was followed by the revolution of the personal computer, and with that, the ability to perform mathematical processes that were too expensive for people to do without being a bank or a government. Like encryption.

Strong cryptography, meaning cryptography that is as strong as what the most well-funded intelligence agencies can use, carries the potential for empowering the free expression of civilians who didn’t already have that power. Using it expresses that you own your thoughts and can selectively reveal them as you see fit. This pisses off people who hate that kind of freedom, and also people who hate freedom in general. Every oppressive regime in history has had total surveillance at the top of their todo list because that particular freedom has historically been a threat to their power.

I, however, like freedom.

The encryption systems which broke ground in the 90s were revolutionary for their time. Not “revolutionary” like the way the word “disrupt” is used by startup bros who’ve never actually read Schumpeter, but revolutionary as in this changed the relationship between people who’ve always had the power to keep secrets and people who couldn’t up until that point. It didn’t mean everyone was empowered — this was an architecture designed for hackers by hackers without the input of anyone beyond a small circle of cypherpunks. As the 90s roared on and more people signed up for Hotmail than PGP, the surveillance of communication en masse became a stronger possibility until it finally crystalized into the reality of today. While governments can’t break encryption tools, people also can’t use them. The promise of ubiquitous encryption — of ubiquitous privacy — has remained unrealized, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

If we, as technologists who understand and use these technologies help others understand them and the need for them, we can together bring more people into a space where they can speak freely. As we learn of the surveillance of journalists, activists and others based on flimsy premises, we can not only criticize its justification from the sidelines, but cripple its effectiveness.

Since I helped organize the first NYC CryptoParty in 2012 — which was certainly not the first in the world, I’ve met many people who thought privacy was beyond their reach at the start of the evening and then leave at the end of the night with a signed PGP key, some snacks, and a sense of empowerment that would embolden their will to speak freely. The warmth of an earnest desire to bring your abilities to help others can defrost the chilling effects of mass surveillance, even if only by a few degrees.

That’s not to say that bringing the full weight and complexity of privacy-enhancing tech from “freedom fighter” hackers to the general everyperson will result in the perfect security of all their communications. Security is hard. This inherent truth gives privacy-enhancing technology a disadvantage in its usability. However, if we give people a chance to use software without being used, we can learn a lot about how to build software people actually can use. We can bring back input from more people to help direct design decisions that will make it accessible to even more people so that the next generation of cryptographic tools can be revolutionize not only the hacker society of a few, but address the needs of the many, pitting a mass against surveillance.

CryptoParties and similar events are popping up in every community in every city from Phoenix to Berlin. Since that first chilly night in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2012, there’s been 40+ crypto parties in NYC in 14 venues organized by over 12 fine human beings. You can bring your knowledge and share your skills with your neighbors in your community to. Join us!

Digital Security Trainer at Freedom of the Press Foundation, CryptoParty NYC co-organizer and chill dude.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store