Many Western governors are pushing for laws mandating all private communication can be secretly read and analyzed for them.The latest attack targets the one technology that still enables some privacy on a massively surveilled internet: end-to-end encryption. As hackers or IT people we can not afford to lament that the public doesn’t understand the significance of end-to-end crypto or privacy if we don’t appreciate its value for societies at home and abroad ourselves.
Responding to the renewed surveillance attacks with quick technical or narrow economic counter arguments is not going to work. An appropriate response needs to consider the political history and context of the current crypto and surveillance debates. Moreover, to stem the never-ending waves of new secret agency laws a re-framing of the common security debates is crucial to avoid the never-ending succession of new powers for government.
Let me start by rejecting the idea that governmental surveillance attacks have anything to do with fighting ruthless killers (“terrorists”) however often this claim is repeated in broadcast media. This is not to disregard the power of repetition, see the endlessly repeated claims of the existence of “Weapons of mass destruction” as a pretext for the Iraq war, or the fact that advertisements work. But despite endless repetition, governmental surveillance attacks don’t have anything to do with fighting terrorists. To turn it around, and i think the burden ought to be on the framers, where is the hard evidence that mass surveillance of civilians has significant effect, if any, on preventing terrorist attacks against civilians? And even if surveillance would prevent a few attacks how would it compare to the dangers of more government power?
The “fight terrorists with surveillance” discussion framing is seriously flawed also for another reason. Within it you are always going to lose the argument against more surveillance. If not now then after the next terror event. Because proponents can always argue they were right: if no attack happens it proves surveillance works and we need more of it. If an attack happens it also proves we need more surveillance. In this framed logic there can never be any rolling back of government powers.
The way out is to unframe the discussion and discuss the political and historical contexts of “terror attacks” and “expanding surveillance” separately. Let’s start with surveillance. If fighting terrorism is a red herring what are the motivations and politics of expanding government surveillance?
Governors worry about their power base
Governors of all kinds worry that people decide to change things in ways which endanger the power their associated networks hold. And they are particularly afraid today because they know there are many reasons why people want to change things in more fundamental ways. As much as people have lost trust in governors, governors have lost trust into people to keep them and their ilk in power.
The fear of governors seems justified if you look at the example of Spain in 2015: big parts of Spain’s social movements associate with a very new party on the block: Podemos. It aims to win the election in December and currently is leading the polls against the two parties which have governed Spain since 1975. It could actually happen despite the German chancellor Merkel supporting the Spanish president Rajoy who just introduced draconian laws against protesters and is generally sending his troops everywhere to avert the decline of his power network. Having to resort to direct repression is a sign of lost political power and in the case of Spain, panic. If you remember that Spain is a major EU country it’s understandable that many other governors in the West are worried something similar might happen to them soon.
Governors are always afraid they could lose their sight and grip over what people in their constituency are up to. Today it is not enough to have buddies in broadcast media which frame the discussion and interpretation of events to the governor’s liking. You also need to understand and contain, if possible, wider internet discussions before they can effect change you don’t want. Governors learned from Hannah Arendt that private discussions form the basis for public opinions which in turn structure and determine governmental power. If that weren’t the case how could feminist and really any social struggle have succeeded? It certainly never was the broadcast media or governors who first talked about and demanded rights for women or other oppressed groups.
How to contain decentralized communication?
New realities are co-created in a more decentralized manner and quicker than ever. Communication platforms grew in the last decade because of the interests of people to communicate and connect with one another. Maybe that’s due to a lost sense of community in disintegrating city neighborhoods which make people use “social media”. But in any case, Youtube, Twitter, Gmail, Facebook and IOS/Android app platforms became big because they facilitated decentralized communication and sharing between people. This presents a problem to governors because web communications are harder to contain in acceptable ways.
For a typical broadcast media discussion format you can send allied experts and construct “position” and “opposition” and thus frame the discussion. For example, it’s acceptable to discuss the virtues and dangers of “press freedom”, how to deal with “islamist militants” or how to “defend our values and rights”. Western Governors find it much less acceptable to link the Hebdo killing of or the rise of the “Islamic State” to the recent Western wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria, or to the everyday killing of civilians through Western drones and torture. Governors can’t yet directly contain such unacceptable linking activities and they are worried about it. For the time being, they try to frame it as irrelevant and repeat the “we are being attacked by ruthless killers” on broadcast media some more. It still kind of works but it’s unclear for how long.
What helps to contain discussions is to implant “You are being watched!” into the minds of people discussing the future of their governance. Putting up some public examples of punishment for unacceptable dissent refines the message into “Watch your words (and internet links!)” … also known as internalized or self-censorship. That’s not just effective for governors in Saudi Arabia but for their Western allies as well. The recent US sentencing of journalist Barret Brown to 48 months of prison for posting a link to some leaked data on an IRC channel can be seen as an example of a public punishment with chilling effects.
Arguments and national tactics against crypto attacks
Governors have long realized they can exploit central communication platform ownership to tap into most private communications. But to their apparent shock, many IT companies in the Post-Snowden era are implementing decentralized encryption because they in turn want to assure users that they can’t surveil their private messages. As a reaction, governors are conspiring to prevent decentralized encryption reaching the masses which would see them losing their current in-depth access to private communication. Psychologically speaking, losing power is always harder to accept than not having it in the first place.
A response to the crypto attacks which I consider optimistic, if not shallow, is “it’s not technically feasible to regulate or ban end-to-end crypto”. It underestimates the ability of governors to write laws which will drastically change the playing field even if in an incremental manner. To begin with, why shouldn’t it be possible to prevent companies from distributing apps which incorporate decentralized encryption? Google and Apple already employ their own regulation on what kind of apps are distributed through their stores. Another regulation on decentralized-crypto apps can probably be added by the governors in the US. And that would prevent decentralized encryption reaching the masses at least in the short term.
As to government access to end-to-end encryption, it’s true that backdooring crypto would make people more vulnerable against all kind of exploiting attacks, not just governmental ones. Governors might frame this dillema by claiming that security against physical attacks is more important than security against someone reading your messages. Such an argument already incorporates the flawed “it’s all about anti-terror” framing. The increased vulnerability of everyone’s devices is a bit of a tricky issue for governors given they couldn’t protect their own data against Snowden. If neccessary, governors will try to make concessions. Some applications such as online banking could be allowed to use non-backdoored crypto. They have all the banking data already, anyway. They probably will want to exempt governmental communication itself as well. With that we’d end up with a complete reversal of the democratic principle: public governments to act in secret and private communication to be constantly surveilled.
Western Governors have learned from the last Cryptowars battles. They know full well that they can only break private communication encryption if they outlaw it in a synchronized international manner. Otherwise they would have a harder time to overcome national arguments like “companies are going to leave the country if you ban decentral encryption”. Therefore, we need to fend off attacks on decentralized crypto in at least some Western countries to make such commercial arguments useful. Concretely, US companies like Google and Apple will more strongly resist if the EU does not also illegalize decentralized crypto.
It is as crucial to prevent EU crypto regulations as it was two decades ago. During the crypto battles in the 1990ties I studied with the deeply inspiring Prof. Andreas Pfitzmann who consulted the German government on crypto regulation. Along with other colleagues and groups he tirelessly worked and finally turned the tides and prevented Germany and thus the EU from introducing government backdoors to crypto algorithms. This in turn lead France and then the US to drop their plans and eventually relax crypto export regulations to keep their companies competitive. Today, we are back to square zero and must again convince some EU governments or parliaments to refrain from crypto banning laws. It’s a fight we better not lose.
Lastly, I’d like to be clear if maybe controversial on the dreadful Anti-Terror topic: If the Western governments want to stop killers from targetting western individuals they first need to stop ruthlessly killing and terrorizing individuals from abroad. Nothing else will bring more physical security against terrorist attacks. It reminds me of the 2500 year old question from the chinese politician and philosopher Confucius: “The way out is via the door. Why is it that no one will use this method?”