Marienna Pope-Weidemann assesses the ‘transnational surveillance state’ and how helpful cypherpunks’ own perspectives are to the defence of our civil liberties

Julian Assange et al., Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet (O/R Books 2012), 186pp.

‘The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen.’ Julian Assange (p.1)

A watchman’s shout in the night

Since the infamous PRISM surveillance system was exposed by the NSA analyst Edward Snowden, the existence of what the cypherpunks have long called ‘the transnational surveillance state’ is beyond doubt. Conspiracy has become reality, and paranoia has become the number-one necessity of investigative journalism.

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, published last year, describes itself as ‘a watchman’s shout in the night’. 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 1980s, as individuals and activists, as well as corporations, started making use of cryptography and, in response, state-wide bans were introduced (p.64). For the cypherpunks, the use of encryption for anonymity and secure communication was the single most important weapon for activists in the internet age.

Their rallying cry was ‘privacy for the weak, transparency for the powerful’; the dictum to which Wikileaks has dedicated itself. 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). Assange has been hacking since the age of seventeen, when he founded the Australian group, the International Subversives, and wrote down the early rules of this subculture: ‘Don’t damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don’t change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information.’ Next we have German journalist Andy Müller-Maguhn of the Chaos Computer Club, co-founder of European Digital Rights and writer for Bugged Planet. 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. Finally, we have the co-founder of the La Quadrature du Net advocacy group, Jérémie Zimmerman, a leading figure in struggles for net neutrality and against the Anti-Counterfeit and Trade Agreement (ACTA) who does not seem to be able to get on a plane without being harassed by government officials over his ties to Wikileaks.

The state of surveillance

Strategic, or total surveillance, carried out by programmes like PRISM, collect communications indiscriminately, from everyone, all the time. Due to the rapid development and plummeting price of data storage, this has become the more ‘economical’ option for corporations and governments alike.  It is ‘like having a tank in your bedroom. It’s a soldier between you and your wife as you’re SMSing. 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’ (p.33).

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. Facebook ‘makes its business by blurring this line between privacy, friends and publicity’ (p.52). When the German secret police wanted information, they had to buy it from people; when advertisers and PR companies wanted it, they had to bribe people into focus groups; but Facebook, as pointed out by Jérémie, gets away with remunerating people with ‘social credit’ instead of cash. And it works 24/7.

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. They do not need to sell it; they get paid back in data, ‘the new currency’ (p.49). 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. This is so whether it is direct spying, as with the British at the 2009 G20 talks in London, or through private-sector projects like PRISM. ‘When Putin goes out to buy a coke [provided he pays by card], thirty seconds later it is known in Washington DC’ (p.89).

Like the arms traders, telecommunications traders are selling to basically anyone who will buy, as illustrated by the case of Amesys, the French corporation which sold its nationwide surveillance system, ‘Eagle’, to Gadaffi’s Libya. Even if you are dealing with ‘evil countries’ and ‘you bring them surveillance equipment to do evil things, you will benefit because you will learn what they are listening to, what they are afraid of, who are the most important people in the country opposing the government, organising political events and so on. You will be able to predict future happenings…’ (p.46). The next big leap, predicts Assange, will be the automation of responses (the blocking of bank accounts, deployment of the military or the police, and so on, when ‘flash words’ are detected in private communications). Siemens is already designing such software to sell to intelligence agencies.

Systematic censorship

As Assange illustrates with his ‘censorship pyramid’ (below), the combination of coercive and economic censorship has created a total system which perpetually works to edit history.

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. He has had equipment confiscated and been denied access to both lawyers and bathrooms while being interrogated on his position on the Iraq War, and given explanations for this treatment such as: ‘you work on Tor’ and ‘you were sitting next to Julian, what do you expect?’ (pp.114-15).

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. Instead of journalists being kidnapped from their homes in the middle of the night, ‘journalists are taken from their homes by taking homes from journalists’ (p.124).

Online anonymity and universal internet access, in industrialised nations at least, promised to nullify, or at least undermine, this capacity for censorship. Jérémie introduces the excellent concept of ‘internet time’. In mainstream media, ‘political storytelling relies on emotionality and a media time-frame that is of extremely short span – information appears and disappears twenty-four hours afterwards and is replaced by new information … As the great internet never forgets, we can build dossiers over years, day after day, we can elaborate, we can analyse’ (p.73). 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.

‘But what about the bad people?’

Child pornography, terrorism, money laundering and the ‘War on Some Drugs’: these are the flagship issues which are bandied around by those making the case for the surveillance and centralisation of our online lives, or the outlawing of privacy-protection software.  Cypherpunks gives them the (somewhat contrived) title, ‘the Four Horsemen of the Info-pocalypse’ (p.43). The damage supposedly done to ‘creative innovation’ (a.k.a. the obscene corporate profits in the entertainment industry) by peer-to-peer file sharing (or ‘pirating’) comes in a close number five.

These are emotive issues, which are being cynically manipulated to push through repressive legislation. In the face of negative media coverage and growing campaigns over free speech, internet freedom and civil rights, it is a common response, to quote one leaked internal document from the European Commission, to ‘talk more about child pornography and then people will be in favour’ (p.125). 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. “But what about the bad people?” asked one student, citing the Four Horsemen. His response is worth recounting in full:

‘I asked the class: “Who here has ever seen the Ammar 404 page?’ which is the censorship page deployed by the Ben Ali regime before and during the revolution in order to stop access. Every single person in the room, except the person that asked the question, but including the professor in the class, raised their hand. And I looked at the girl who asked this question and I said, “Look at all the people around you. That’s all of your classmates. Do you really believe that it was worth oppressing every person in this room in order to fight against those things?” And she said, “Actually, I’m raising my hand too”’ (p.70).

That gave me goosebumps, and Rosa Luxemburg’s words came roaring into my mind: ‘those who do not move do not notice their chains.’

Dangerous by design: the limits of democratic oversight

Cypherpunks raises another very important point: most of us have no idea how computers work. 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.

‘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’ (p.3). 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. ‘We cannot win, for example, with GSM (mobile) technologies. At the moment the way that these systems are set up, not just in terms of billing but in terms of the architecture, means they have no location privacy, they have no content privacy … A mobile phone is a tracking device that also makes calls’ (pp.48-9).

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. The movement against ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) is a good example. 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. In India, they took to the streets to protect their crops from Monsanto’s intellectual property coups. 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. We fought them, and we won: ACTA went down in Europe, and its American counterpart, SOPA, was defeated too.

But it was just one head of the hydra; you cut it off, and more grow back. ‘Wikileaks got hold of and released a new EU-India free trade agreement, and incorporated in that are large chunks of ACTA … they will all worm their way into things, into the international order in the form of all these bilateral treaties. So you can have your democratic victories that take place in public, on the surface, but underneath things are still done anyway … Although you can’t give your opponent a free kick either, because then they just accelerate’ (pp.74-5). 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 Market

Benjamin Bayart said that ‘the printing press taught people how to read; the internet taught people how to write.’ That is true, and it is an incredible thing. 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 astute observation is made that those in power only ever talk about cyber war, never cyber peace-building, and there is a reason for that: ‘They see the internet like an illness that affects their ability to define reality’ (p.32). 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? ‘It is too cheap and too easy to get around political accountability and to actually perform interception … That’s the case for most countries – there is bulk interception occurring, and when there is a legislative proposal it is to protect the ass of those who are doing it’ (p.43). Cypherpunks’ greatest weakness is its failure to follow this observation through to its natural conclusion. 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. The prime importance of the profit margin also creates a natural bias towards excessive censorship, as noted in the book: ‘If you send someone a letter demanding they take something down from the internet, they have to take it down … it is expensive for any ISP publisher to deal with the counter-argument, they just take it down immediately’ (p.74).

At points in the book, the old libertarian idea that the uglier aspects of the market will be somehow ‘slapped down’ by an invisible hand, resurfaces. There will be a market in privacy, especially now, and eventually an economic drive to meet that demand. Never mind the fact that such products must be bought, and the good ones will be expensive, so that will be tough luck for Jacob’s Tunisian revolutionaries. Market incentives offer no protection against organisations as powerful as the US National Security Agency, or GCHQ here in Britain. The ‘marketability of privacy’ and the economic advantage of a reputation for protecting users did nothing to protect the data of Twitter users in Saudi Arabia, or to protect Wikileaks from the American Grand Jury. 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.


Those elements that limit our ability to fight surveillance – both via what the cypherpunks call ‘the laws of man’ (legislation) and ‘the laws of physics’ (redesigning hardware, employing encryption, etc.) – are all reinforced by the market. ‘If it’s a fact that it’s easier to use Twitter than start your own Twitter; if it’s a fact that it’s easier to use Facebook than DIASPORA, or some alternative; if it’s a fact that cloud computing is cheaper, then these techniques and services will dominate’ (p.79). It is all very well if you are working with the latest in encryption technology from Wikileaks’ secret base or the offices of The Guardian, but if we are interested in preserving the breadth, diversity and democratic potential of the internet, then we need to concern ourselves with how the majority of people interact with it. 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. This kind of technocratic approach is another example of how disappointingly narrow the so-called ‘horizontalist approach’, which represents a counter-productive tendency in the libertarian and techno-anarchistic traditions, can be. Furthermore, claims that ‘the peer-to-peer movement is explicitly against a political vanguard’ (p.83) seem ill-thought out, coming from a group of people who engage in political action on the basis of cryptography, which is intrinsically closed-off from the outset (and does not seem to understand the concept of a political vanguard, at any rate).

There is another danger here, in fetishising the kind of activism that is confined to online activity, or based on secrecy. To rename the Arab Spring ‘the internet spring’ tells only half the story. Protesters did not give their lives on Facebook. In fact, Mubarak’s decision to cut off the Egyptian internet played a key role in galvanising the Cairo movement, because it forced people onto the streets and into Tahrir Square to find out what was going on. And that was where the real resistance was taking place.

It is not the case that ‘cryptography is the ultimate form of direct action’ (p.75). 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. ‘Secrecy and complexity are a toxic mix,’ (p.44) they say, and they are right – but that applies to the cypherpunks as well as the NSA.

It is unfortunate, dangerous even, that the fight against the centralisation, corporatisation and surveillance of the internet has been monopolised by, or considered the province of, faceless and controversial networks of ‘hacktivists’, who have not done a very good job of building bridges with the wider movement or the public at large. 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. Yet, despite ringing endorsements from the likes of John Pilger, Slavoj Žižek and Oliver Stone, the book is mired in too much technical terminology and its structure is too chaotic: formatted as an instant messaging discussion between its authors, it is frustratingly incoherent and far more ineffectual than it can afford to be.

The introduction begins by stating: ‘This book is not a manifesto. There is no time for that’ (p.1). 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.

Cypherpunks is available direct from O/R Press only:

Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Marienna is a socialist writer and campaigner who studied Politics & International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a leading organiser of the Student Assembly Against Austerity. She currently works as a filmmaker for the Islam Channel.