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‘Cypherpunks’: Julian Assange on the future of the Internet

In "Cypherpunks," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange brings together a small group of cutting-edge thinkers and activists from the front line of the battle for cyber-space to discuss whether electronic communications will emancipate or enslave us. Read an excerpt
/ Source: TODAY books

In "Cypherpunks," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange brings together a small group of cutting-edge thinkers and activists from the front line of the battle for cyber-space to discuss whether electronic communications will emancipate or enslave us. Here's an excerpt.


I want to look at what I see as a difference between a US cypherpunk perspective and the European perspective. The US Second Amendment is the right to bear arms. Just recently I was watching some footage that a friend shot in the US on the right to bear arms, and above a firearms store was a sign saying, ‘Democracy, Locked and Loaded.’ That’s the way that you ensure that you don’t have totalitarian regimes – people are armed and if they are pissed-off enough then they simply take their arms and they retake control by force. Whether that argument is still valid now is actually an interesting question because of the difference in the types of arms that has occurred over the past 30 years. We can look back to this declaration that code-making – providing secret cryptographic codes that the government couldn’t spy on – was in fact a munition. We fought this big war in the 1990s to try and make cryptography available to everyone, which we largely won.

In the West.

In the West we largely won and it is in every browser, although perhaps it is now being back-doored and subverted in different kinds of ways. The notion is that you cannot trust a government to implement the policies that it says it is implementing, and so we must provide the underlying tools, cryptographic tools that we control, as a sort of use of force, in that if the ciphers are good no matter how hard it tries a government cannot break into your communications directly.

The force of nearly all modern authority is derived from violence or the threat of violence. One must acknowledge with cryptography no amount of violence will ever solve a math problem.


This is the important key. It doesn’t mean you can’t be tortured, it doesn’t mean that they can’t try to bug your house or subvert it in some way, but it means that if they find an encrypted message it doesn’t matter if they have the force of the authority behind everything that they do, they cannot solve that math problem. This, though, is the thing that is totally non-obvious to people that are non-technical, and it has to be driven home. If we could solve all of those math problems, it would be a different story and, of course, the government would be able to solve those math problems if anyone could.

But it’s just happens to be a fact about reality, such as that you can build atomic bombs, that there are math problems that you can create that even the strongest state cannot break. I think that was tremendously appealing to Californian libertarians and others who believed in this sort of ‘democracy locked and loaded’ idea, because here was a very intellectual way of doing it – of a couple of individuals with cryptography standing up to the full might of the strongest power in the world.

So there is a property of the universe that is on the side of privacy, because some encryption algorithms are impossible for any government to break, ever. There are others that we know are extremely hard for even the NSA to break. We know that because they recommend those algorithms be used by US military contractors for the protection of top secret US military communications, and if there was some kind of back-door in them soon enough the Russians or the Chinese would find it, with severe consequences for whoever made the decision to recommend an insecure cipher. So the ciphers are fairly good now, we’re pretty confident in them. Unfortunately you can’t be confident at all in the machine that you’re running them on, so that’s a problem. But that doesn’t lead to bulk interception; it leads to the targeting of particular people’s computers. Unless you’re a security expert it’s very hard to actually secure a computer. But cryptography can solve the bulk interception problem, and it’s the bulk interception problem which is a threat to global civilization. Individual targeting is not the threat.

Nevertheless, I have a view that we are dealing with really tremendously big economic and political forces, as Jérémie said, and the likely outcome is that the natural efficiencies of surveillance technologies compared to the number of human beings will mean that slowly we will end up in a global totalitarian surveillance society – by totalitarian I mean a total surveillance – and that perhaps there will just be the last free living people, those who understand how to use this cryptography to defend against this complete, total surveillance, and some people who are completely off-grid, neo-Luddites that have gone into the cave, or traditional tribes-people who have none of the efficiencies of a modern economy and so their ability to act is very small. Of course anyone can stay off the internet, but then it’s hard for them to have any influence. They select themselves out of being influential by doing that. It’s the same with mobile phones; you can choose not to have a mobile phone but you reduce your influence. It’s not a way forward.

If you look at it from a market perspective, I’m convinced that there is a market in privacy that has been mostly left unexplored, so maybe there will be an economic drive for companies to develop tools that will give users the individual ability to control their data and communication. Maybe this is one way that we can solve that problem. I’m not sure it can work alone, but this may happen and we may not know it yet.

Cryptography is going to be everywhere. It is being deployed by major organizations everywhere, edging towards networked city states. If you think about communication paths on the internet – fast transnational money flows, transnational organizations, inter-connections between sub-parts of organizations – all those communication flows go over untrusted communications channels. It is like an organism with no skin. You have organizations and states blurring into each other – each network of world influence competing for advantage – and their communications flows are exposed to opportunists, state competitors and so on. So new networks are being built up on top of the internet, virtual private networks, and their privacy comes from cryptography. That is an industrial power base that is stopping cryptography from being banned.

If you look at the Blackberry phone for example, it has a built in encryption system for use within the Blackberry network. Research In Motion, the Canadian company that runs it, can decrypt the traffic of regular users and it has data centers in Canada and the UK, at least, and so the Anglo-American intelligence sharing alliance can get at the world's Blackberry to Blackberry communications. But big companies are using it in more secure ways. Western governments were fine with this until it spread beyond corporations and to individuals, and then we saw exactly the same hostile political reactions as we saw in Mubarak's Egypt.

I think that the only effective defense against the coming surveillance dystopia is one where you take steps yourself to safeguard your privacy, because there’s no incentive for self-restraint by the people that have the capacity to intercept everything. A historical analogy could be how people learned that they should wash their hands. That required the germ theory of disease to be established and then popularized, and for paranoia to be instilled about the spread of disease via invisible stuff on your hands that you can’t see, just as you can’t see mass interception. Once there was enough understanding, soap manufacturers produced products that people consumed to relieve their fear. It’s necessary to install fear in to people so they understand the problem before they will create enough demand to solve the problem.

There is a problem on the opposite side of the equation as well, which is that programs that claim to be secure, that claim to have cryptography in them, are often frauds, because cryptography is complex, and the fraud can be hidden in complexity.

So people will have to think about it. The only question is in which one of the two ways will they think about it? They will either think, ‘I need to be careful about what I say, I need to conform,’ the whole time, in every interaction. Or they will think ‘I need to master little components of this technology and install things that protect me so I’m able to express my thoughts freely and communicate freely with my friends and people I care about.’ If people don’t take that second step then we’ll have a universal political correctness, because even when people are communicating with their closest friends they will be self-censors and will remove themselves as political actors from the world.

An excerpt from , edited by Julian Assange, with Jacob Appelbaum, Jacob Muller-Maguhn, and Jeremie Zimmerman