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August 22, 2013

Filed under: politics»national»agencies»nsa

The Revolution Will Not Be Encrypted

This week, Internet law commentary site Groklaw shut down, citing the lack of privacy in a world where the government is (maybe, possibly) reading all your e-mail. On the one hand, you can argue that this is evidence of dangerous chilling effects from surveillance on the fourth estate. On the other hand, shutting down a public blog (one that's focused on publicly-available legal filings) because the NSA can read your correspondence seems... ill-considered, but sadly not atypical.

In the initial wake of the NSA wiretapping stories, David Simon, author of The Wire, wrote a series of essays saying, effectively, "Welcome to the security state, white people."

Those arguing about scope are saying, in a backhanded way, that thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, can have their data collected for weeks or months on end because they happened to use a string of North Avenue payphones, because they have the geographic misfortune to live where they do. And it’s the same thing when it’s tens of thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, using a westside cell tower and having their phone data captured. That’s cool, too. That’s law and order, and constitutionally sound law and order, at that. But wait: Now, for the sake of another common societal goal — in this case, counter-terror operations — when it’s time for all Americans to ante in with the same, exact legal intrusion, the white folks, the middle-class, the affluent go righteously, batshit, Patrick-Henry quoting crazy? Really?

Whether you find these situations comparable will probably indicate how credible you find Simon's argument in general. It's important to note that he's not trying to say we should just roll over for the NSA. The question he raises is one of social justice: when we talk about fixing these problems, are we worried about strengthening protections for everyone? Or just in ways that will preserve privacy for people who can afford it? What Simon doesn't say is that technological solutions are mutually exclusive with social justice — without fail, they always fall into the latter category.

By this point, there's been a lot of ink spilled on how to "protect yourself" from the NSA. People write long how-to guides on setting up a secure mail server (like hilariously long "two hour" guide) or using PGP encryption. None of this is manageable by normal human beings: speaking as someone who has actually set up a private, unencrypted mail server, it's completely out of reach for all but the most devoted shut-ins. You could not pay me enough to edit my Postfix config again, much less try to add encryption to it.

Okay, so the open-source situation is rough at best. That scratching sound you hear is a million start-ups raiding their trust funds to create the new Shiny, User-Friendly Crypto Solution. None of them will answer the following questions:

  • Does this make Facebook/Twitter/Social Network X secure? Because those aren't going away.
  • How much does it cost? If it's not free, it's already only for the privileged, and an ad-supported privacy program is a contradiction in terms.
  • How do you know it's safe — as in, how do you really, really know? Even if I trust the app, can I trust the random number generator that powers its cryptography? Can I trust the OS that provides that generator? Can I trust the chip running the OS (or the baseband chip running the radios)?
But see what happened there? We got distracted by the technical issues again, forgetting that there are no technological solutions to political problems.

I am increasingly uncomfortable with all of this technocratic rhetoric — "the solution to our political problem is more software" — because it sounds an awful lot like "the solution to a dangerous government is more guns (and particularly more guns for white people)" from the NRA. Both arguments are misguided, but more importantly they both invoke a siege mentality. They assume that nothing can be done as a community, or even at all. Instead, their response is to hole up in a bunker and look out for number one.

Personally, I think the great thing about our system of government is that it is designed to be rebuilt on a regular basis. There is no law in the USA that can't be changed. Everything up to and including the Constitution is under debate, if you can convince enough people. Granted, activism requires participation and cooperation, and both of those (especially compared to buying a firearm or coding a protocol) are hard. But they are robust solutions that address the wider problem for everyone, instead of merely fulfilling someone's resistance fighter fantasy.

It's easier to look for loopholes and clever fixes. It's easier to write manifestos for (just to pick on a single random example that popped up while I was writing this) "a better web" through framework improvements or decentralized software. But neither of those actually changes anything. At best, they're workarounds. At worst, they're snake oil. Take whatever actions you want online--write new code, sign petitions, or unpublish your blog. Until that energy is matched offline, with old-fashioned, inefficient politics, you're just wasting your time.

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