The Poverty of “Crypto and Empire”: against a narrowing of the politics of cryptography

7 April 2016

One of the rare joys of being a live author, is the ability to interpret your own works, as well as to help others when they try to do so. In that context it was, as ever, a pleasure to read Gürses et al. recent article on “Crypto and empire: the contradictions of counter-surveillance advocacy” and reflect on the insights it provides. It is also nice to be in a position to highlight that a number of thesis it puts forward are in fact artefacts of preconceptions and selective reading of events. While this is useful to abstract and present a clear argument, it is unhelpful when it results in misleading conclusions and interpretations.

Broadly speaking the article argues that the distinction between mass surveillance and targeted surveillance, sweeps under the carpet questions of political legitimacy of current forms of targeted surveillance. It also ignores the fact that mass electronic surveillance, as revealed by Edward Snowden, was in fact targeted towards select populations, for specific political reasons.

I think this is insightful — although I like this straight forward formulation better than the one from the original article, which makes broad assertions linked with a specific, US centric view of identity politics. Are the mass surveillance programs selecting on a “racial, gendered, classed, and colonial” basis per se? Or simply on the basis of the national and economic interests of the nations that implemented them, current geopolitical priorities, and the needs of political elites that commissioned them? I find the latter explanation simpler. Although, I have written in some length about how control of technology among certain nations could lead to a new form of cyber-colonialism. So I may be partly to blame for inspiring this — to which I will return.

Then the article takes a turn: it discusses how technical privacy advocates have used economic arguments in relation to the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of mass surveillance, an further how support for rabid deployment of encryption is somewhat privileged over a deeper political engagement with target communities.

Let me fist state it clearly: I am a proponent of the mass deployment of secure end-to-end encryption on all communications, free of government or other backdoors, as a major ingredient in countering mass and other (including some targeted) forms of electronic surveillance. Why is that? Why not privilege political reform to protect privacy; is it because I do not trust social institutions or the possibility of politics? No. It is simply because even if institutions in a particular nation were perfect and provided strong and adequate protections, there would still be other nations that may not feel bound to follow them and would still be able to conduct mass surveillance on its population.

Thus, while the politics that bound the use of mass or other surveillance are discriminatory on the basis of territoriality, or even worse nationality — as most current legal proposals are, then they are not a credible avenue, in isolation, for protecting privacy in any nation. Can politics, and collective action be part of the answer to mass surveillance? Absolutely: a number of industrial policies could be foreseen to ensure technical artefacts are harder for anyone, including national or foreign entities, to turn into surveillance systems.

The above conclusions were not reached through pure reason, but instead informed from the bitter experience of the Athens Affair from 2005, in which top Greek government, army, police officials and extra-parliamentary left activists were under foreign surveillance due to technical interception interfaces being activated. I note, in passing, that in the full list of targets most were male, white, in power, and no — despite some self delusions — Greece was never a Western colony (and the Ottoman empire was in no way responsible for the wiretaps). I interpret this story as teaching us that only technological sovereignty and technical protections, could have made a difference — with the political and social institutions it entails and presupposes — and not some abstract engagement in privacy / identity politics; neither an engagement with Muslim or Black populations in the US.

This, re-interpreted from a UK national lens, is the essence of the argument put forward by UK researchers when it was revealed GCHQ contributes to backdooring security systems — of which I am a proud signatory. Why not also use this opportunity to condemn the political aims of surveillance? Simply, because there would be no consensus on the matter — since the group is politically and otherwise diverse. Like grown-ups we agreed to agree on what we agree, and did not let what we disagree on divide us for the sake of political or moral purity.

Similarly, it is surprising to see my article with Dr Wittenben, on the Economics of Mass Surveillance, as being interpreted to promote some kind of “efficiency” argument against surveillance. In fact I take in it no moral stance on surveillance, exactly because I did not believe that the community studied (the dataset used was from the Independent Media Center network active at the time) could be misconstrued as an illegitimate target by a liberal state — and thus the only protection that it could benefit from was technical and economical. The privacy, and ability to act, of those activists depended — and still does — on technical protections as well as the economic limits of the state surveillance apparatus. The liberal courts and judges would afford them no protection. It also concludes that the purely technical protections at the time, were inadequate to provide such protections, at least to the degree they purported to.

This leads me to point out the very selective view the discussed article takes on the work of technical privacy experts: even from the direct sources, the arguments highlighting the preferred themes of technical solutions and ignorance or politics are emphasized; while the themes — in the same works — that promote skepticism of pure crypto, engagement with social actors under surveillance, and the recognition of wider effects such as cyber-colonialism are erased. Is this for the sake of making a clearer argument? I would argue it makes it more confused, and leads to poor conclusions — and even disastrous political strategies.

So, what would a technical expert do, if one was to take the conclusions of the article at face value? I guess it calls for the most earnest of public denouncements of the political nature of surveillance. The problem with this is that the majority of technical experts — like the majority of people — do not see all forms of surveillance as illegitimate per se, and do not subscribe to the same political views. It also calls for a deeper engagement with specific targeted groups — without any clear political or other strategy or theory of social change associated with such an engagement. Presumably they could follow the lead of the targeted on what to do next? A radical critique of such “ally politics” is best found elsewhere.

It also only recognizes as legitimate political statements only those that wholeheartedly align with a US centered, identity inspired, view of politics. One must denounce surveillance of “racial, gendered, classed, and colonial” nature that protects the privileges of the “liberal subject (White, male, and middle class)” to be political. Protesting at surveillance on the basis of liberal values; on the basis of national interests; on the basis of good governance; on the basis of economics; on the basis of technical feasibility and ultimately rationality or effectiveness; on the basis of the rule of law; and even on the basis of protecting political, even radical or social revolutionary, but not identity based groups; all of those are seen as a-political and purely technocratic, despite dealing fundamentally with the management of the common affairs. This represents an incredible narrowing of politics, to ultimately what the article, considers “the right politics” at the detriment of all other.

It is important to remind technical experts of their social obligations, and the need for political engagement, as very recently Phillip Rogaway did in his essay on “The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work“, and to some extend this article does that. Narrowing this to a “right” set of politics, however, serves a very different agenda.

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