Crypto-Activism: Hackers’ Resistance to Digital Mass Surveillance

Thursday, November 19, 2015: 5:00 PM

102 (Colorado Convention Center)

David Bozzini (Graduate Center CUNY)

Cryptography has always been embedded in warfare, but debates over using cryptography to protect personal communications are new. Technologists use the term “cryptowars” to refer to political disputes over the legitimacy of using cryptography to protect digital communications between citizens. Intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have tried to weaken cryptographic systems; for example, by installing backdoors and forming data-sharing relationships with corporate entities. Meanwhile, actors advocating for their rights to private conversations have developed encryption tools and anonymizing technologies to help computer users avoid state and corporate surveillance. This paper explores the debates between government agencies and hacktivists (in particular, crypto-activists or “cypherpunks”) to reveal the dynamics that are revamping resistance to digital mass surveillance. Drawing from online sources and interviews, this paper sketches three aspects of the contemporary response to digital mass surveillance. First, it examines how crypto-activists are reframing digital surveillance as an issue of broad social importance rather than simply a matter individual privacy. Second, hacktivists are focusing efforts on reaching out to “users” in order to educate them about surveillance. Third, hacktivists are developing ethical assumptions and political critiques of technical infrastructures, protocols and work-flows. In many cases, these critiques inform the experimental design and implementation of privacy-centric software and alternative distributed architectures. This paper aims to underline the increasing political and social importance of debates around cryptography.

A paper in the ANTHROPOLOGY OF ICT: CELLULAR INTERNET, SOCIAL MEDIA, MOBILE MONEY, DECENTRALIZED ARCHITECTURE, BIG DATA panel.

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