Beyond Folk Activism: CISPA and Cryptography

Beyond Folk Activism: CISPA and Cryptography

We are in the last moments of a great legal battle, a battle civil libertarians, it seems at present, will lose. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) has just passed the house and will enable the Federal government unprecedented authority in accessing information without any warrants. If Obama reneges on his vow to veto the bill, we will be living in a virtual panopticon where everything online will be scrutinized and where the government has, as the panopticon’s conceptual architect Jeremy Bentham describes, “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” This post, however, is not going to solicit political activism (see my previous blog post); instead, I will make the case that we can render CISPA an empty fantasy even if it passes. The hard reality is, as Patri Friedman points out, that “folk activism broadly corrupts political movements. It leads activists to do too much talking, debating, and proselytizing, and not enough real-world action. We build coalitions of voters to attempt to influence or replace tribal political and intellectual leaders rather than changing system-wide incentives.” If CISPA passes, libertarians should retreat from our failed attempt to garner a coalition of voters to protect anonymity and legal privacy on the Internet and instead actually begin protecting our information and ability to communicate.

The integrity of social communication is being threatened by the unwanted eavesdropping of government, cataloging each of our conversations on Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, etc. under cataloged identities. In Identity Crisis: How Identification Is Overused and Misunderstood, published by CATO, Jim Harper explains “the connections or relationships that are created by identification can hinder the exercise of civil rights like free-speech. Anonymity is a core tool of free peoples.” There is a strong tradition of anonymous discourse in US history (Secret Fraternities, Cato’s letters, The Federalist Papers, The Anti-Federalist Papers, The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions) that is being threatened. However, secure communication can only take place with sophisticated and secure identification architecture, historically reserved for kings with intricate ringed signets that were pressed on wax, clay, and paper seals. However, in the digital age, we now have public-key cryptography where the “private key in public key encryption… is functionally similar to a signet ring,” and elevates anyone who uses public key cryptography to an equal footing with the monarchs of old (Harper).

David Friedman explains, “[a] major theme in discussions of the influence of technology on society has been the computer as a threat to privacy. It now appears that the truth is precisely opposite. Three technologies associated with computers, public key encryption, networking, and virtual reality, are in the process of giving us a level of privacy never known before,” and all these tools are free for download online and are so sophisticated that the “FBI has admitted defeat in attempts to break the open source encryption used to secure hard drives seized by Brazilian police during a 2008 investigation.” There is not means more practically available to render warrantless seizures of information useless than cryptography.

Here is a list of the legal, free, open-source cryptographic tools that I currently use, none of which require extensive knowledge of either computers or cryptography:

The Panopticon

I am not here to discourage folk activism or unencrypted communication, because I engage in both as well; however, actually using cryptography is more effective in securing your privacy and anonymity online than changing your Facebook profile picture to raise awareness of CISPA (even though that’s probably still a good idea). By sharing these technologies on campus we can bypass the political process and immediately achieve the full reality of free speech online and preemptively sidestep the looming panopticon.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.

– Albert Camus