The Second Great Crypto War

The founder of Wikileaks issues a call to cryptographic arms.


Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, by Julian Assange with Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn, and Jérémie Zimmermann. OR Books, 186 pages, $16.

The first great conflict over cryptography and state power happened in the 1990s. In one corner were cryptographers equipped with subtle math, digital technologies, and new ideas. In the other were the Clinton administration and its National Security Agency (NSA), which sought to maintain and extend the federal government's control over cryptography. They struggled over the concept that cryptography could be classified as munitions, over requirements to include NSA-friendly chips in communication hardware, and, in general, over the shape of post–Cold War security.

The geeks eventually defeated the feds, freeing up crypto for public use. Cryptography became a huge force in business and private life, making ecommerce possible and enabling relatively secure interpersonal communication. At the same time, the rise of mobile devices and early social media raised new questions about privacy. In response, a "cypherpunk" movement arose, its name and attitude drawing on the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction. Its proponents argued that only through personal use of encryption could individuals defend their right to communicate without interception.

The cypherpunks achieved a new level of fame when one of them founded Wikileaks, a website for sharing leaked or liberated documents. The site terrified national governments, setting off the Second Great Crypto War.

Cypherpunks is partly a history of this new cryptographic politics. It also looks to the future, exploring what new worlds different combinations of math and policy might engender.

Cypherpunks has an unusual structure. At first glance it looks like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is its author. Copy and notices prominently feature Assange's name, but the main text is really a multi-part conversation between four hackers and activists, without any one participant dominating. It has more in common with Galileo's dialogue Sidereus Nuncius, or Semiotext(e)'s great run of short interview books, where journalists and critics received equal word count with targets such as Michel Foucault. The book's plural title is accurate.

The book begins with a manifesto that doesn't want to call itself one ("there is no time for that"), dubbed "A Call to Cryptographic Arms." Here Assange sets the tone for the volume, warning of the rise of a "postmodern surveillance dystopia, from which escape for all but the most skilled individuals will be impossible." Governments are increasingly seizing control of networked digital technologies by imposing filtering and surveillance systems, which now mediate "relationships between all people." Dominating that middle layer leads to global power: "The universality of the internet will merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control." Assange wants us to "declare independence" (a la John Perry Barlow) through a mixture of cryptography on the personal level, policy pressure on the social level, and the ongoing development of free and open software. This cryptographic battle, Assange asserts, can help shape a better society, with cyphers serving as "a basic emancipatory building block for the independence of mankind in the platonic realm of the internet," even "redefin[ing] the state."

After Assange's jeremiad follow the discussions, which are the heart of the book. Free-wheeling, reflective, and sometimes funny, Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn, and Jérémie Zimmermann think through a series of topics, each receiving a chapter: censorship, the economics of the Internet, business surveillance, the militarization of cyberspace, and so on. The quartet explores different aspects of this emergent dystopia, along with methods to oppose it.

Certain themes arise across these exchanges, starting with the nature of that dystopia. The cypherpunks acknowledge commercial surveillance, but emphasize the central role of state power. Governments benefit from technical advances and practices, such as increasing centralization of Web services (think Facebook) and the dramatic decline in data storage costs. The latter leads to what the discussants describe as "mass," "bulk," or "strategic" surveillance: Once governments had to target individuals for wiretapping, but they now can simply download everything from everybody and search what they need later on. "US citizens should assume that all their telecommunications traffic (including voice calls, SMS, email, and web browsing) is monitored and stored forever in NSA data centers," an unattributed footnote warns.

The proponents of this process use fear tactics to win support, what the four cypherpunks dub "The Four Horsemen of the Info-pocalypse: child pornography, terrorism, money laundering, and the War on Some Drugs." In other words, laws passed to go after child pornographers, terrorists, money launderers, and drug dealers end up chipping away at everyone's privacy. The classic example is the PATRIOT Act, passed to prevent terrorism but soon used to expand wiretapping and National Security Letter powers in other contexts.

The quartet offers a series of oppositional strategies, beginning with encouraging everyone to encrypt themselves away from surveillance. They also enjoin us to use open software and hardware, on the grounds that they enable users to carve out spaces free from surveillance while encouraging a hacking, tinkering mentality. (To their credit, the 'punks recognize that mass adoption of such new, sometimes awkward practices isn't easy.) They discuss a variety of strategies for political change, some more realistic than others; at one point they dream up a very entertaining market for openly buying and selling U.S. senators. They are heartened by popular movements such as the 2011 outburst against the Stop Online Piracy Act, in which intellectual property owners' power to go after alleged copyright infringers would have included the ability to quash noninfringing content along with allegedly infringing material, not to mention driving Web hosts and Internet service providers to police content they support but neither create nor own.

The discussants are at times friendly to business, seeing an untapped market for anti-dystopian services and reminding us that some industries will battle against governmental technology controls. That doesn't make them uniformly pro-corporate: They also identify enterprises that profit from surveillance or spy on their employees. They consider new currencies, such as BitCoin, as alternatives to an easily surveilled monetary ecosystem. Perhaps surprisingly, they generally avoid technological jargon.

Throughout these discussions are glimpses of worlds beyond the near future. Perhaps Wikileaks is the first of a breed to come, what Müller-Maguhn calls the Post-Governmental Organization. PGOs, he suggests, could encourage more combinations of politics and technology in order to build a new, better democracy. The details are a little underdeveloped, but the general idea is that new institutions might be better suited than states to deal with problems such as climate change. He also argues that freeing digital networks from surveillance would free up the relationships those networks media, from art to banking, eliciting more cultural diversity. Failing to take such steps, meanwhile, could lead to a homogenized dystopia, a "transnational surveillance state, drone-riddled."

Appelbaum, Asange, Müller-Maguhn, and Zimmermann bring each other's arguments down to earth by questioning and disagreement throughout the book. No Platonic discussants these, the quartet correct, tease, troll, and occasionally horrify each other. While Assange is the most famous participant, his compatriots show no signs of being awestruck. Ideas float, are torn apart, or are left unresolved. That openness may leave some readers dissatisfied, but it impressed this reviewer. A book arguing against uniformity should have a loose weave.

The result is an inspiring text. Their dystopian claims should resonate with our apocalyptically minded time, and their aspirations may connect with young activists, technologists, and entrepreneurs. Current events certainly bear out at least some of their ideas, such as the growth of state surveillance around the world and the increasing use of software vulnerabilities for spying.

This accessible conversation becomes even more approachable thanks to fine supplemental materials. The book includes a "Note on the Various Attempts to Persecute Wikileaks and People Associated With It," a nicely done, brief history. This "Note" and all of the following discussions are backed up by 129 endnotes, which do a solid job of explicating technical terms, sourcing claims, and explaining policy battles. These supplemental parts of the book present an accessible and detail-rich history of the crypto wars from the mid-1990s through 2012. Cypherpunks' conversations energetically carry that history into the future.