A Marxist’s Defense of Privacy in The Age of Mass Surveillance

Over 200 hundred years ago today, a famous bourgeois revolutionary named John Adams wrote the following in a letter to Thomas Jefferson:

“When people talk of the Freedom of Writing, Speaking, or thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed. No such thing now exists; but I hope it will exist. But it must be hundreds of years after you and I shall write and speak no more.”(15 July 1817)

John Adams couldn’t have been more correct. As a bourgeois revolutionary who fought in the American revolution, John Adams and his contemporaries understood the revolutionary potential of capitalism. They understood that it had, was, and was going to transform human society irrevocably. For them, they hoped this progress would work towards the betterment of mankind. As such, the bourgeois-democratic republic they established was one in which individual liberty was to be protected by a rigid adherence to formal guarantees of liberty, to a jury by ones peers whose decisions were bound to interpretations of these texts, and to a free press which was to challenge a state power already limited by the separation of powers. These bourgeois republicans had found within their system something fundamental to any so-called free society. Most of the rights they proclaimed therein “for all” were not actualized for the majority until the civil rights movement, and the countless working class struggles from below. Every nation thus far which has attempted to ‘skip over’ a bourgeois stage of development and go directly into socialism has failed miserably not only because of economic backwardness and isolation, but because of the lack of liberty that came as a result of this backwardness, and the suffocating effect it has on any attempt of socialism or the rule of the masses. Trotsky once said “socialism needs democracy like the human body needs oxygen”. We can only affirm how right he was.

As Rosa Luxemburg has said, “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.”

Naturally, “On the other hand, it is a well-known and indisputable fact that without a free and untrammeled press, without the unlimited right of association and assemblage, the rule of the broad masses of the people is entirely unthinkable.”

(The Russian Revolution, Chapters 5 and 6).

Why did John Adams say to Jefferson he could “only laugh” at the assertion of any real freedom of speech, writing, or thought? Yes, we can say Adams recognized the limitations of formal bourgeois declarations of liberty and equality, especially in the 19th century. But more than that, Adams also realized the revolutionary potential of capitalism and the technological innovations it would inevitably bring, innovations that would revolutionize human communication forever. I do not think in this Adams predicted the coming invention of the internet per se, but I do think he believed a new form of anonymous communication was bound to come about. But as he said in his letter, it could come about only hundreds of years after he and Jefferson spoke no more.

As I have stated previously in my article ‘The Marxist Defense of Human Rights’, and ‘The Dictatorship of The Proletariat and America Today’, I believe the ethics of the bourgeoisie no longer are in line with liberty or equality, but are opposed to them. I believe that when the bourgeoisie in 1776 took control of society in the name of society, that its interests were those of the people at large. Hence the great slogan of sovereignty: “We the People”. But today, the bourgeoisie has outlived its usefulness and its right to rule. It has endangered the future of humanity by its reckless and nihilistic plundering of the earth, it’s destruction of the prerequisites of human prosperity for the generations to come, and its refusal to address the fundamental social ills that still plague humanity of which, it alone is responsible for. I believe that only the revolutionary proletariat has the potential and self-interest to preserve human freedom, strengthen it, and bring about real equality for all in actuality and not merely on paper.

When Adams and Jefferson spoke of liberty, their interests were those of the people at large. The interests of the bourgeoisie were, for a very long time, the actual interests of the people. It is in this that the bourgeois founders of the American republic said fearlessly to the tyrant king “We the People”. Today when Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton speaks of “freedom” it is an empty catch-phrase to gain the popular support of the bourgeoisie, petty-bourgeoisie, and the upper strata of the proletariat. It means nothing in actuality. At every possible instance the modern ruling class has acted against the interests of liberty by attacking its only real prerequisite in the modern age: privacy.

Teresa May of the United Kingdom, where GCHQ already siphons and stores not just the metadata, but the content of the digital communications of every citizen, has called for the total ban of encryption altogether! She later quietly changed her mind when told banking would be made impossible without encryption, but the fact remains. If the modern bourgeoisie could, it would place cameras in every home, it would collect and store every digital communication, it would ban encryption and any technology that gives the individual any power above that of the state. Not in the name of totalitarianism, not as some evil plan, but in the name of “national security” and “safety”. Far from being enthusiastic about the new recent actualization of fundamental liberties, the modern bourgeoisie is horrified by the technologies that have now been invented that make freedom of speech, thought, and writing a possibility. Sadly still, most people are apathetic to the abuses of mass surveillance, and to the possibilities these new technologies offer for liberty as such.

The Cypherpunks of the 1980’s and 1990’s rightfully predicted the importance freedom of privacy has to a “free” society. The Cypherpunk Manifesto by Eric Hughes is short. I have included it in its entirety here:

“Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.

If two parties have some sort of dealings, then each has a memory of their interaction. Each party can speak about their own memory of this; how could anyone prevent it? One could pass laws against it, but the freedom of speech, even more than privacy, is fundamental to an open society; we seek not to restrict any speech at all. If many parties speak together in the same forum, each can speak to all the others and aggregate together knowledge about individuals and other parties. The power of electronic communications has enabled such group speech, and it will not go away merely because we might want it to.

Since we desire privacy, we must ensure that each party to a transaction have knowledge only of that which is directly necessary for that transaction. Since any information can be spoken of, we must ensure that we reveal as little as possible. In most cases personal identity is not salient. When I purchase a magazine at a store and hand cash to the clerk, there is no need to know who I am. When I ask my electronic mail provider to send and receive messages, my provider need not know to whom I am speaking or what I am saying or what others are saying to me; my provider only need know how to get the message there and how much I owe them in fees. When my identity is revealed by the underlying mechanism of the transaction, I have no privacy. I cannot here selectively reveal myself; I must always reveal myself.

Therefore, privacy in an open society requires anonymous transaction systems. Until now, cash has been the primary such system. An anonymous transaction system is not a secret transaction system. An anonymous system empowers individuals to reveal their identity when desired and only when desired; this is the essence of privacy.

Privacy in an open society also requires cryptography. If I say something, I want it heard only by those for whom I intend it. If the content of my speech is available to the world, I have no privacy. To encrypt is to indicate the desire for privacy, and to encrypt with weak cryptography is to indicate not too much desire for privacy. Furthermore, to reveal one’s identity with assurance when the default is anonymity requires the cryptographic signature.

We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy out of their beneficence. It is to their advantage to speak of us, and we should expect that they will speak. To try to prevent their speech is to fight against the realities of information. Information does not just want to be free, it longs to be free. Information expands to fill the available storage space. Information is Rumor’s younger, stronger cousin; Information is fleeter of foot, has more eyes, knows more, and understands less than Rumor.

We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. We must come together and create systems which allow anonymous transactions to take place. People have been defending their own privacy for centuries with whispers, darkness, envelopes, closed doors, secret handshakes, and couriers. The technologies of the past did not allow for strong privacy, but electronic technologies do.

We the Cypherpunks are dedicated to building anonymous systems. We are defending our privacy with cryptography, with anonymous mail forwarding systems, with digital signatures, and with electronic money.

Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and since we can’t get privacy unless we all do, we’re going to write it. We publish our code so that our fellow Cypherpunks may practice and play with it. Our code is free for all to use, worldwide. We don’t much care if you don’t approve of the software we write. We know that software can’t be destroyed and that a widely dispersed system can’t be shut down.

Cypherpunks deplore regulations on cryptography, for encryption is fundamentally a private act. The act of encryption, in fact, removes information from the public realm. Even laws against cryptography reach only so far as a nation’s border and the arm of its violence. Cryptography will ineluctably spread over the whole globe, and with it the anonymous transactions systems that it makes possible.

For privacy to be widespread it must be part of a social contract. People must come and together deploy these systems for the common good. Privacy only extends so far as the cooperation of one’s fellows in society. We the Cypherpunks seek your questions and your concerns and hope we may engage you so that we do not deceive ourselves. We will not, however, be moved out of our course because some may disagree with our goals.

The Cypherpunks are actively engaged in making the networks safer for privacy. Let us proceed together apace.

Onward.”

The technologies Hughes speaks of here, are the very same technologies spoken of by Adams to Jefferson. They are the very same technologies that the modern bourgeoisie opposes in every instance. The US funds the Tor project only because it serves its interests abroad by helping political dissidents in China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran speak out against an invasive government. But when the people use these tools against the invasions and abuses of our government, it tries to stop them. It detains Tor’s developers and spokespersons when they try to travel. It approaches developers of key technologies and services all over the board and subpoena’s them to place a backdoor in their software, and to hand over their records as a matter of “national security”. The NSA motto is the same as the Stasi’s: “Collect everything”, “Know everything”.

In addition to the class struggle on the streets, with its many signs of protest, another struggle is taking place all around us. The defenders of liberty in the modern age take to the keyboard and write software that realizes the freedoms Adams spoke of, they build software that makes freedom of speech, writing, and thought a reality. They give the individual with all their faults, supreme power over the state with cryptography: mathematical algorithms that not even the most determined state or three letter agency can solve. They continuously update and perfect software designed to anonymize and secure communications between individuals and organizations. They work to free information from the fetters of “intellectual copyrights” and to free individuals from data-capitalism and intrusive state surveillance at the same time. In small niche’s of digital communities, a heroic people of varying religious, political, social, national, and ethnic backgrounds are fighting with persistence and heroism for the preservation of liberty, and privacy. Their names are not known to us but in small corners of the internet. Many contribute without ever revealing their true identity. These are the real heroes of the modern age.

But those who do not regard these heroic acts and vital technologies with apathy, often view them with disdain. Like any freedom, there are those who abuse it. But a person who utilizes freedom of movement to strangle his neighbor does not merely use his freedom, he abuses it. In having the freedom to go where one wishes, there are inevitably casualties. But everytime someone strangles his neighbor, the enemies of liberty do not pop up to advocate the abolition of freedom of movement. In the digital world, by some strange alchemy, it is different. If someone uses Tor to create a marketplace where one can easily find unregistered firearms, we naturally condemn that person as far as morality is concerned. But the enemies of liberty go further. An abuse of the right to privacy in their mind necessitates the abolition of the right itself. Surely people wouldn’t sell guns over the internet if they had no right to privacy, but so too would a person never kidnap anyone if the police routinely barged into peoples homes without even the mere suspicion of a crime. Crime would be abolished overnight in a police state. But the question here is neither safety nor crime, it is one of liberty.

Those who do not regard these heroic technologies with apathy, all to often view them with the narrow lens of self-interest alone. A college student might use Tor to buy weed online instead of meeting a shady drug dealer. While I cannot condemn this act in particular as far as morality is concerned, one has to admit that the darknet is far too often used for criminal activities, many of which are far worse than buying the occasional gram.

Finally there are those who regard these heroic technologies as supremely benevolent. Those in authoritarian countries are extremely offended by the Western use of the term “Darknet”. For them it is the only place where they can speak freely, organize, and air grievances without fear of persecution. When one goes to ZeroTalk (a default site when one installs Zeronet), one will find a large amount of Chinese comments. What does one find when one translates these comments? They find that the Chinese people openly talk about the Tienanmen Square massacres without fear. People who were part of the protests speak out. They keenly re-post news articles from the West and discuss them with great interest. They talk about the tyranny the people suffer under the yoke of the Stalinist Communist Party. In other authoritarian countries, we find the same thing.

By design, these networks are resilient to censorship. Even when some form of speech is horrible or causes real world harm, information itself and the tools used to exchange it are morally neutral. The abundance of criminality on the darknet is a result only of the irrational comfort a people feel in a surveillance state that at any time could turn into a police state. They are convinced that such a thing “would never happen here”. But so said the people of Germany and countless other “free” nations before degenerating into totalitarianism. Free society is dying and we are fighting on the loosing side. But in this fight we will never surrender. And in the end when all is said and done, we just might win. The bourgeois politicians clamor on about “freedom” but at every instance they condemn the only prerequisite to civil liberty in the modern age: privacy. “National security” is not the same thing as public safety nor is the national interest the public interest. National security is and always will be, in a bourgeois republic, the security of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

When one buys a computer, they are by default forced into using proprietary software which limits the users freedom and invades their right to privacy. When you use a modern phone or computer, it is 99% of the time, defective by design. It comes with a proprietary operating system that spies on you. You use a search engine which sells your search history to advertisers and governments. As of 2017 your internet service provider in the United States can sell your internet history without your consent. When you connect to the internet without using a VPN or Tor, you are merely giving everything you do to an institution with almost unlimited power, that operates with virtually no oversight. When you do so, your information is being stored in massive state-owned data centers. Where in 5 or 10 years, the state can hypothetically blackmail or threaten you if and when you become “interesting”.

Those who do not oppose mass surveillance, consent to mass surveillance. Here there is no middle ground. For now real privacy is not a pipe-dream. It is realized by those who seek to find it. Right now, anyone in a western liberal democracy can use encryption tools, and with these tools you can circumvent mass surveillance and data-capitalism. You as an individual still have the freedom to say “I do not consent.”

By default, though, this freedom is illusory. By default you are forced to consent to mass surveillance, for wherever you, the average consumer turns, you will find only technologies, services, and computers that are privacy invasive. But those who seek out such tools will find them. And in finding them, the individual will find that in spite of the many complexities of the modern world, that they can exercise supreme power over the powers that be. They will find that far from being an inconvenience, they will be able to say and do whatever they like without fear of being watched and spied on.

Soon they will find the invasions of the modern world- mass surveillance and data capitalism, are intolerable. When they connect to the internet without using a VPN or Tor, they feel as a person changing feels in front of an open window at night. Suddenly the indifference and apathy they once felt, and were conditioned to feel by the modern world, peels away and they are at once horrified by those who still use privacy invasive technologies without thinking twice, and by those who oppose privacy respecting tools out of concerns for “national security”.

Many unintentionally quote Joseph Goebbels when they say, “If I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear”. Yet the same person closes their window blinds at night, and locks the door when they use the bathroom. The same person whispers when they speak of something private to a friend. Such a person may have “nothing to hide” but they certainly have nearly everything to protect.

Snowden hit the nail on the head when he said:

Technology can actually increase privacy. The question is: why are our private details that are transmitted online, why are private details that are stored on our personal devices, any different than the details and private records of our lives that are stored in our private journals? I think, you know, saying that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. It’s a deeply anti-social principal because rights are not just individual – they’re collective. What may not have value to you today, may have value to an entire, you know, population, entire people, an entire way of life tomorrow. And if you don’t stand up for it, then who will?”

Such people expect people like us who use these tools to justify the use of our rights. But on the contrary, we do not have to defend our right to privacy. It is the government which has to defend any invasion of our right to privacy. And in the modern age of mass surveillance, where everyone is being spied on by default, it cannot do so. So I will not consent, nor will I ever consent. To defend privacy in the age of mass surveillance is to defend the very existence of liberty.

But more than that, I call on everyone reading this to refuse to consent also. Included on my blog (clearnet) is a mirror of PrivacyTools.io titled “Privacy Tools for Activists” which every person without exception should take advantage of. In my post “Why Every Activist Should Use a VPN/Tor” I elaborate further on this position. I Invite you, as an individual, to use a VPN, to install Tor, to install I2P, and to try out a Linux based operating system. I invite you to put tape over the cameras on your phone and computer. I invite you to use DuckDuckGo instead of Google. I invite you to encrypt every aspect of your digital life without exception and I invite everyone to do the same. In this fight for privacy only one side can win: the people who value their freedom, or the enemies of liberty. Edward Snowden made his choice. Now it is time to make yours.

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