With the FBI continuing to hound, bribe, and threaten tech companies to add “backdoors” into cryptographic tools and applications, the lengths state power will go to fulfill its own ends regardless of the social cost becomes all the more apparent. Most legislators and judges do not know the most rudimentary basics of cryptography, and so their ignorance is somewhat forgivable. But the fact that the FBI does understand cryptography and makes these obscenely Orwellian and universally harmful demands regardless, makes this whole social issue that much more terrifying.
Whether intentional or unintentional, one must understand that it is the social function of the police and military of every country to regard rights as a hindrance to their work, as inconvenient at best, and as unnecessary at worst, and to demand greater control and power over the people. Naturally the same rights that protect an alleged criminal protect everyone else as well. The founding fathers of the United States, to their lasting credit, understood this fact all too well and established the Bill of Rights regardless, because they understood its social necessity, because they took to heart the slogan of “Liberty or death”. The FBI today, it seems, does not.
The only thing stopping the FBI from going full-on Gestapo is transparency (both forced by legislation and through the free press), in addition to checks and balances. The separation of powers here is crucial. If the FBI had the power to write legislation today we would be living in a totalitarian society. The same is true of any police, intelligence, or military organization (i.e. organization that enforces state violence). Unlike those organizations found in the legislative and judicial branches, these organizations have a tendency to rarely be on the side of liberty, but ever on the side of the ceaseless strengthening of the state, of moving the lever of power away from the people and towards the state.
I do not deny the social necessity of many of the social functions of the FBI, but the FBI itself should not have the power to dictate policy, to threaten or to bribe people, especially to such anti-social ends. One must never forget the horrors of COINTELPRO. If we let up social pressure for even a moment, every phone and computer would be bugged, every home listened to, every person living in fear- not of individual crime as that would cease to be the main concern, but of the crimes of the state and its secret police. This is not an exaggeration.
Liberty prevailed in America when we decided that it was far better to be free than to be safe. Today many people, indifferent advocates of the prevailing political consciousness, prefer safety to freedom, convenience to privacy. Yes, a post-Orwellian surveillance state would likely mean the virtual end of violent crime. But at what cost? “Liberty or Death” was a just slogan in 1774 and it was as much a just slogan then as it is today.
The effectiveness of a policy in merely reducing crime alone should never be the sole deciding factor, if it trumps liberty and its main prerequisite in our digital society, privacy, its abandonment ought to be strongly considered if not encouraged. For the executive, the effectiveness in policy in reducing crime is typically the sole consideration. The legislative branch, even in our bourgeois republic, considers the problems of liberty infinitely more seriously than the executive.
I do not think such notions as the “class character” of the state make any real difference here either. I am increasingly coming to believe that the separation of the executive and the legislative branches are crucial for maintaining a free society (in our admittedly statist use of the word). Here I, with a historical hindsight not had by the man, disagree with Marx’s criticism of this aspect of bourgeois parliamentarianism as espoused in ‘The Civil War in France’. It is clear that even with the universal suffrage advocated by Marx to the lower classes (which we have more or less today, and which we have examples of from the 20th century), bountiful threats to liberty still manifest themselves and threaten free society. Even with an armed population, police subjugation to the community, extremely short terms of service for public representatives, the abolition of high wages for representatives, and the countless other essentially libertarian aspects of the Paris Commune that Marx praised, I still think the danger is too great. Without this barrier between the executive and the legislative, I am convinced we would today be living in a totalitarian society. With the experience of the Soviet Union and the Cold War the obviousness of this historical lesson becomes abundantly more apparent to any serious socialist or student of history. It is not the place of the executive to dictate what ought to be the task of the legislative. Any attempt of the executive to do so or to influence such decisions, ought to be regarded with suspicion and in in the highest consideration to the interests of liberty.
I think this perspective has been lost in our modern society. NSA keeps its bulk collection (mass surveillance) programs in spite of their proven ineffectiveness and their threat to our open society, yet most of the public could care less. What happens when better processing power and AI’s make mass surveillance actually somewhat effective? Even then I argue, they are never acceptable! They simply should not be allowed to exist. If you throw backdoors in what should be fully encrypted communications in addition to an effective mass surveillance program, we will slide into totalitarianism overnight, into something far more total and absolute than the totalitarian societies that have hitherto existed in the 20th century. Do not think we have somehow “come to our senses” after the 20th century, nothing of the sort! The most important lesson of history is that it is all too rare for a society to take to heart the lessons of history. The threat of totalitarianism and nuclear war is still upon us, arguably now more than ever.
You cannot expect these state organizations of the executive to be reasonable in policy recommendations when the FBI thinks it’s a good idea to put backdoors in encrypted messaging apps. Virtually every cryptographer in the world, and everyone remotely informed as to the practicality and implications of the issue, agrees that this is a terrible idea. Yet the FBI persists, blind to the social ramifications of its demands like a dog chasing a rabbit off of a cliff. The social function of the FBI is not legislative and ought never be regarded as such, nor is it judicial, the very fact that this organization is relegated to the executive branch shows the correctness of the principle of the separation of powers, and confirms the dangers of totalitarianism in our own society. A police state is always only a fortnight away, people stay vigilant!
Cryptography is the last weapon the people have against total tyranny and total surveillance in the digital age. It is the last stand of privacy, privacy being the pillar that holds up free and open society as its prerequisite. This point is best exemplified, I think, by Julian Assange in the introduction to his book ‘Cypherpunks: Freedom and The Future of The Internet‘ which I will quote below. The title of this introduction is ‘A Cryptographic Call to Arms‘:
“This book is not a manifesto. There is not time for that. This book is a warning.
The world is not sliding, but galloping into a new transnational dystopia. This development has not been properly recognized outside of national security circles. It has been hidden by secrecy, complexity and scale. The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen. The internet is a threat to human civilization.
These transformations have come about silently, because those who know what is going on work in the global surveillance industry and have no incentives to speak out. Left to its own trajectory, 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.
While many writers have considered what the internet means for global civilization, they are wrong. They are wrong because they do not have the sense of perspective that direct experience brings. They are wrong because they have never met the enemy.
No description of the world survives first contact with the enemy.
We have met the enemy.
Over the last six years WikiLeaks has had conflicts with nearly every powerful state. We know the new surveillance state from an insider’s perspective, because we have plumbed its secrets. We know it from a combatant’s perspective, because we have had to protect our people, our finances and our sources from it. We know it from a global perspective, because we have people, assets and information in nearly every country. We know it from the perspective of time, because we have been fighting this phenomenon for years and have seen it double and spread, again and again. It is an invasive parasite, growing fat off societies that merge with the internet. It is rolling over the planet, infecting all states and peoples before it.
What is to be done?
Once upon a time in a place that was neither here nor there, we, the constructors and citizens of the young internet discussed the future of our new world.
We saw that the relationships between all people would be mediated by our new world, and that the nature of states, which are defined by how people exchange information, economic value, and force, would also change.
We saw that the merger between existing state structures and the internet created an opening to change the nature of states.
First, recall that states are systems through which coercive force flows. Factions within a state may compete for support, leading to democratic surface phenomena, but the underpinnings of states are the systematic application, and avoidance, of violence. Land ownership, property, rents, dividends, taxation, court fines, censorship, copyrights and trademarks are all enforced by the threatened application of state violence.
Most of the time we are not even aware of how close to violence we are, because we all grant concessions to avoid it. Like sailors smelling the breeze, we rarely contemplate how our surface world is propped up from below by darkness.
In the new space of the internet what would be the mediator of coercive force?
Does it even make sense to ask this question? In this otherworldly space, this seemingly platonic realm of ideas and information flow, could there be a notion of coercive force? A force that could modify historical records, tap phones, separate people, transform complexity into rubble, and erect walls, like an occupying army?
The platonic nature of the internet, ideas and information flows, is debased by its physical origins. Its foundations are fiber optic cable lines stretching across the ocean floors, satellites spinning above our heads, computer servers housed in buildings in cities from New York to Nairobi. Like the soldier who slew Archimedes with a mere sword, so too could an armed militia take control of the peak development of Western civilization, our platonic realm.
The new world of the internet, abstracted from the old world of brute atoms, longed for independence. But states and their friends moved to control our new world — by controlling its physical underpinnings. The state, like an army around an oil well, or a customs agent extracting bribes at the border, would soon learn to leverage its control of physical space to gain control over our platonic realm. It would prevent the independence we had dreamed of, and then, squatting on fiber optic lines and around satellite ground stations, it would go on to mass intercept the information flow of our new world — its very essence even as every human, economic, and political relationship embraced it. The state would leech into the veins and arteries of our new societies, gobbling up every relationship expressed or communicated, every web page read, every message sent and every thought googled, and then store this knowledge, billions of interceptions a day, undreamed of power, in vast top secret warehouses, forever. It would go on to mine and mine again this treasure, the collective private intellectual output of humanity, with ever more sophisticated search and pattern finding algorithms, enriching the treasure and maximizing the power imbalance between interceptors and the world of interceptees. And then the state would reflect what it had learned back into the physical world, to start wars, to target drones, to manipulate UN committees and trade deals, and to do favors for its vast connected network of industries, insiders and cronies.
But we discovered something. Our one hope against total domination. A hope that with courage, insight and solidarity we could use to resist. A strange property of the physical universe that we live in.
The universe believes in encryption.
It is easier to encrypt information than it is to decrypt it.
We saw we could use this strange property to create the laws of a new world. To abstract away our new platonic realm from its base underpinnings of satellites, undersea cables and their controllers. To fortify our space behind a cryptographic veil. To 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.
Scientists in the Manhattan Project discovered that the universe permitted the construction of a nuclear bomb. This was not an obvious conclusion. Perhaps nuclear weapons were not within the laws of physics. However, the universe believes in atomic bombs and nuclear reactors. They are a phenomenon the universe blesses, like salt, sea or stars.
Similarly, the universe, our physical universe, has that property that makes it possible for an individual or a group of individuals to reliably, automatically, even without knowing, encipher something, so that all the resources and all the political will of the strongest superpower on earth may not decipher it. And the paths of encipherment between people can mesh together to create regions free from the coercive force of the outer state. Free from mass interception. Free from state control.
In this way, people can oppose their will to that of a fully mobilized superpower and win. Encryption is an embodiment of the laws of physics, and it does not listen to the bluster of states, even transnational surveillance dystopias.
It isn’t obvious that the world had to work this way. But somehow the universe smiles on encryption.
Cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action. While nuclear weapons states can exert unlimited violence over even millions of individuals, strong cryptography means that a state, even by exercising unlimited violence, cannot violate the intent of individuals to keep secrets from them.
Strong cryptography can resist an unlimited application of violence. No amount of coercive force will ever solve a math problem.
But could we take this strange fact about the world and build it up to be a basic emancipatory building block for the independence of mankind in the platonic realm of the internet? And as societies merged with the internet could that liberty then be reflected back into physical reality to redefine the state?
Recall that states are the systems which determine where and how coercive force is consistently applied.
The question of how much coercive force can seep into the platonic realm of the internet from the physical world is answered by cryptography and the cypherpunks’ ideals.
As states merge with the internet and the future of our civilization becomes the future of the internet, we must redefine force relations.
If we do not, the universality of the internet will merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control.
We must raise an alarm. This book is a watchman’s shout in the night.
On March 20, 2012, while under house arrest in the United Kingdom awaiting extradition, I met with three friends and fellow watchmen on the principle that perhaps in unison our voices can wake up the town. We must communicate what we have learned while there is still a chance for you, the reader, to understand and act on what is happening.
It is time to take up the arms of our new world, to fight for ourselves and for those we love.
Our task is to secure self-determination where we can, to hold back the coming dystopia where we cannot, and if all else fails, to accelerate its self-destruction.”
It does one well to recall that the above passage is from a book written in 2012, before the Snowden revelations. What was written above is doubly true today as it was back then. Cryptography is everything to a free society in the digital age. Without it, the people have nothing. This is why the cypherpunk movement needs to be revived in full former glory and beyond. This is why censorship resistant networks such as Tor, I2P, Freenet, and ZeroNet are so crucial to maintaining a free and open society. This is why the attacks by the FBI on encryption are morally bankrupt and Orwellian in the extreme. This is why we need to keep the executive separate from the legislative, and the judicial.