In the Fight for Freedom, Technology Gives Individuals an Edge Over Governments

A cold civil war brews between empowered individuals and controlling officials.

Big BrotherAtlantic ReleasingSociety has taken a weird fork in the road—weird, because it's taken both of the paths. On one hand, policy in many areas of life, including money, communications privacy, and personal weaponry, has become more controlling and more intrusive as politicians seek to know who is talking to whom, what we're earning (and buying), and whether we have the means to push back against the authorities doing all that snooping. But on the other hand, technology increasingly empowers individuals to evade surveillance and restrictions, hide and transfer funds, and acquire or even manufacture forbidden goods, including firearms, without regard to laws dictated from above. Some of these technologies, such as encryption, have already had an enormous impact, while 3D printers and cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, are only starting to make waves. But this growing divergence between what we can do and what our rulers want us to do may be a portent of an accelerating technology-fueled cold civil war.

To an extent, that cold civil war has always been with us. The printing press empowered people to spread ideas far beyond the reach of the busiest censors. Firearms gave individuals a fighting chance against trained muscle in the pay of the local powers that be. But technology throughout the 20th century was more often seen as giving an advantage to the state: spy cameras, tanks, and computer databases seemed to point to a future of "a boot stamping on a human face, forever," as George Orwell so gloomily put it in 1984. But in recent years the tide has turned. The massive computers that were supposed to regiment society turned into PCs and then laptops and then mobile devices that could run encryption software, "mine" Bitcoins, and design forbidden objects for individuals.

EncryptionEveraldo CoelhoThe personal computer itself aside, the first modern breakthrough may have come with encryption. At a time when tough cryptography of any type was considered a "munition" and subject to strict export controls, Phil Zimmerman created Pretty Good Privacy and uploaded it to the Internet for anybody who cared to make their email and other messages unreadable by anyone but the intended recipient. (Zimmerman allegedly intended his invention only for U.S. distribution, but even then the online world ranged far and wde.) Furious American officials opened a criminal investigation against Zimmerman, but the cat was out of the bag long before that investigation concluded without charges, though it was undoubtedly gratifying when the courts ruled that cryptographic source code is protected by the First Amendment.

Today Zimmerman is a co-founder of Silent Circle, a commercial outfit that encrypts voice, video and mobile communications—for a price. The company bases itself in Canada to minimize its exposure to the world's snoopier regimes (including the U.S.). It also designed its network so that it can't decrypt the traffic passing through it, to minimize what it can deliver in response to court orders. And Zimmerman's commercial product isn't the only game in town. Among the more promising offerings are a free suite of products from Open WhisperSystems that do much the same as Silent Circle's software.

Why all this effort—and legal risk—to keep communications private? Because much of the world's population lives under the thumbs of nosy rulers, whether overtly malevolent or just overly officious. Even here in the United States, the federal government has induced communications companies to spy on customers by promising not to enforce privacy protections and by threatening to fine online companies that don't allow easy data access to the feds. Federal officials have dropped hints that they're already recording all the phone calls they can intercept (though good luck processing all that data, if it's true).

BitcoinPublic DomainBut biting off more than you can chew is a special skill for government officials, including those who managed to strip people's trust from the Argentine peso and the euro. Currency controls, devaluations in Argentina, and outright confiscations to fund a failing government in Cyprus have driven people to seek a safe haven for what wealth survives the predations of their political leaders. Gold has traditionally provided such a refuge, but the high-tech Bitcoin cryptocurrency recently stepped in to fill that role in a more portable way. A geek's plaything just a short time ago, Bitcoin has turned into a desperate hope for regular people. With its relative ease and anonymity, people who might once have stuffed their pockets with coins and mom's wedding ring when times turn tough instead look to a smart phone app and electronic money to put their savings beyond the reach of crashing currencies and sticky-fingered politicians.

It's not clear that Bitcoin can live up to its promise. It's the first serious crypto currency, unanchored to a government or to a physical presence, and it's just now being tested. What's obvious, though, is that people want what Bitcoin is supposed to be, and that desire will certainly be fulfilled either by it or by a successor technology that can live up to the billing.

Bitcoin has another useful feature. As governments seek to control and track money flows to such an extent that Americans living outside the United States find banks turning away their business because of the red tape involved, Bitcoin is (mostly) anonymous and (largely) untraceable. What the Washington Post sees as a negative—"Bitcoin as an underground banking system or the currency of those who seek to engage in more controversial activities"—many people see as an unadulterated positive. Bitcoin puts financial activity beyond government scrutiny, even to the point of being used on black-market websites, such as Silk Road, to purchase forbidden goods, including illegal drugs.

Whether or not you think that's a good thing depends on the side you've chosen in the cold civil war.

Speaking of civil wars: The hot ones are usually fought with firearms, which governments are often loath to see in wide circulation among their beleaguered subjects. In recent months, after the horrible crimes in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut, many control-oriented politicians saw an opportunity to blow the dust off long-moldering proposals to restrict access to firearms and limit the kinds of guns that Americans can own. Those proposals faltered at the federal level, but laws were tightened in Colorado, Connecticut, and New York.

3D-printed Liberator handgunDefense DistributedIt's pretty clear, though, that those laws mean even less than they did in the days when many people just ignored restrictive regulations. Modern technology has delivered the ability for people without specialized skills to manufacture firearms in the privacy of their homes with the push of a button. 3D printers, which build objects from plastic (or metal, in higher-end devices) based on computer designs that can be downloaded from the Internet, have been used to manufacture receivers for restricted semi-automatic rifles, and high-capacity ammunition magazines of the sort that are now banned in several states. This week, the first fully 3D-printed handgun was successfully test-fired. (By the way, don't tell the control freaks, but CNC machinery—computer-controlled machine tools—also brings gun manufacturing to the DIY builder with a lower public profile and a less-science fiction-y touch.) Crude though it is, that first pistol is a peek at a future in which virtually any object can be made at home. To the extent that it ever existed, the age of enforceable restrictions on personal weapons, or objects of any sort, is coming to an end.

3D printing is a wildly promising technology that in years to come may be used to print life-like tissue for medical purposes and chemical compounds that could potentially solve the orphan drug problem. They could also be used to manufacture any mind-altering drug under the sun, putting an end to enforceable chemical prohibitions. The RepRap project, which is developing 3D printers that can replicate themselves, promises to make even a ban on 3D printers unenforceable.

Of course, some technologies still remain state-friendly. Heavy machinery, such as tanks and aircraft, continue to enhance government control. But those spy cameras that George Orwell saw as such an important part of Big Brother's regime now serve individuals as much as they serve the state; smart phone cameras are used, both on the spur of the moment and by deliberate design, to monitor cops, TSA agents, and other functionaries.

Governments have always attempted to monitor and direct the people under their control. Now new technologies are giving individuals ever-more power to ignore and defy their rulers. If current trends continue, the future may be populated by frustrated governors and ungovernable individuals.

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  • seguin||

    First! EAT IT FoE!

  • ||

    That only matters on the PM Links. I mean, don't get me wrong, I want to see you beat FoE to it like anyone else, but you have to do it in the right place. Remember, he tasks you!

    What's sad is that he and I are of a kind. In another reality, he and I could have called each other acquaintances.

  • seguin||

    Damn, my legacy is insecure once again.

  • eddy820||

    Start working at home with Google! It's by-far the best job Ive had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this - 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringin home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, www.Mojo50.com

  • fish||

    What's sad is that he and I are of a kind. In another reality, he and I could have called each other acquaintances.

    As opposed to this reality where you call each other foul names! Still though, hat tip for kickin it TOS style!

  • semout16||

    up to I looked at the bank draft that said $5552, I be certain that my mom in-law truley making money parttime at there labtop.. there brothers friend has been doing this 4 only about 17 months and just now paid for the morgage on there mini mansion and got a great Volkswagen Golf GTI. read more at wow65.com
    (Go to site and open "Home" for details)

  • UnCivilServant||

    It's that old curse "May you live in interesting times."

    Sadly, that usually means the speaker ends up having the face the same problems, unless it's spat from their deathbed.

  • Jesus H. Christ||

    Until we can run faster than 2500 fps, the gub'mnt has the advantage.

  • Aresen||

    You are presuming it is necessary to outrun a bullet.

    If they can't find you in the first place, running is unnecessary.

    The best part of it is that "gub'mnt", by its very nature, can't hide.

  • Dr. Frankenstein||

    When I'm done with you, you won't need to dodge bullets.

  • ||

    But he will need adult diapers, at all times?

  • Paul.||

    J.D. Tuccille on Individuals' Growing Technological Edge Over Governments

    I bristle at this 'Individuals' technilogical edge over government' meme, just a bit. No disrespect, Mr. Tuccille.

    But all too often, we find that government uses the exact same tools we use to publish our drunk pics, look at our houses with Google Earth, and tweet our friends about where we're meeting for drinks after work-- and they use them against us.

    "According to Google Earth, Mr. McGillyCutty, you had two trees in the corner of your yard which are now gone, please remit $8,000 in fines and replace the trees".

    "We see on your facebook page, Mrs. McFinty, that you placed a wall post about being so drunk you came home without your panties... you're 17... please step over to car and place your hands on the hood."

    Technology always flows both ways. Precisely because technology is a tool which can be used for evil as well as posting drunk pics.

    Other than that, good post and Go Bitcoin... even though I don't use it or have any near-term plans to use it.

  • Paul.||

    Uhm, Technological...

    This is what happens when co-workers bother you with work when you're trying to post.

  • Dr. Frankenstein||

    J.D's making the same argument that Moisés Naím made in his book The End of Power. But you're right technology is a tool. One that does give a lot of power to the indvidual but can be used by the state as well. My personal opinion is that it's not a complete wash and the individual has a slight but not overwhelming edge. As always the real conflict is in the realm of ideas.

  • Paul.||

    The individuals are one step ahead. But I believe only one step.

  • fish||

    Mrs McFinty.....married at 17....and coming home sans underwear! Good movie theme for the Lifetime network!

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    There are a lot more individuals than government bureaucrats.

    Individuals have a lot more varied interests than the government, and the government can only react once they have surfaced. Government is always several steps behind.

    And a lot of the individuals who give government such headaches are government functionaries themselves, very few of whom share the government's zeal for control. They can sabotage government plans just by slowing things down and misfiling them, without getting in trouble and without drawing attention to themselves.

    Bureaucracies are their own worst enemies, and government bureaucracies doubly so.

    The people with the most to lose from all the new tech are the rich and powerful. When cameras are so cheap and ubiquitous that you buy them by the pound, the favorite webcam sites will be Gates, Trump, and Bloomberg, not ordinary people. Sure, neighbors, (ex-)friends, and relatives may be curious about us, for a short time, but the rich and famous will be the ones that millions pay attention to.

    It will be impossible for the rich and famous to go out in public without the public tracking them. No more secret White House meetings.

  • ||

    Great article. It really drives home how empowering technology has been for individuals. Just from the intertoobs, our first amendment freedoms have gotten a massive boost, from the ability to reach a much wider audience, to the ability to read all sorts of alternative media that in the past the average guy simply wouldn't have easy (if at all) access to.

    There's never been a better time in history when it comes to first amendment freedoms in the real world. We are no longer limited to what a few networks choose to spoonfeed us. And despite the dinosaur media's derisive comments about the pajama media, it's bloggers and unconventional journalists who are doing the best work.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I'm guessing Shackford has the 24/7 linking duties today, because I doubt JD would have left out 3D printers making invisibility cloaks, as it seems related.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Wake me when the plans hit Defense Distributed.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Err... I don't think I'll be sleeping that long, my las name isn't Van Winkle.

    It's a neat idea, but still in the early stages.

  • Dr. Frankenstein||

    "Secure in persons and papers" Nothing here in this old document about electronic communications.

  • UnCivilServant||

    That's why my computer was implanted into me! As a Cyborg, my electronic commincations are a part of my person!

    /end something - I don't know what I was channelling there.

  • Almanian!||

    You were channeling awesomeness, UnCiv. Pure, unadulterated awesomeness.

  • Almanian!||

    3d Printer, E...D....schminter. Or something.

    My psycho friend Ricky built a .22 out of some brass pipe and a rubber band when I was in...maybe Middle School. The image of that thing is imprinted on my mind forever. It worked. Perfectly. Yeah, you weren't picking off targets at 1500 meters, but the sumbitch shot a bullet and didn't blow up.

    It then converted into a pipe for smokin' weed. Multitasking, FTW.

    I wonder if Ricky's in jail, been assraped into psychosis by his uncle, or is assraping others into psychosis? Maybe some combination of all those things. He was one weird dude...

  • fish||

    It then converted into a pipe for smokin' weed. Multitasking, FTW.

    Hey! A Swiss Army knife for juvenile delinquency!

  • Almanian!||

    Also, in Soviet Russia, technology overcomes YOU!

  • Lord Humungus||

    *mumbles* boot...face..

  • UnCivilServant||

    Reboot Facebook?

    I can try, but I don't think I have the access rights for that.

  • db||

    Whether individuals have a marginal technological advantage over government matters little if the government uses its overwhelming force to punish the use of such an advantage to a degree that makes the risk little worth the reward.

    We're talking about a system that can logically proceed from a person not having the right numbered sticker on their car to sending armed agents of the state with arrest warrants to that person's door.

  • CE||

    We have a lot of advantages over governments, but BitCoin ain't one of them.

  • RobertWoods||

    like Amy said I'm startled that anyone can profit $6125 in 1 month on the computer. did you see this web link... www.up444.com

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