Decoding the relationship between tech and state in ‘Cypherpunks’

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WikiLeaks mastermind Julian Assange explains the necessity of “A Call to Cryptographic Arms” in his book of international political philosophy, “Cypherpunks.” He defines cypherpunks as people who write and solve secret codes to help achieve sociopolitical change and do so because of the rising fear that in the near future “global civilization will be a postmodern surveillance dystopia.” Assange calls for a widespread adoption of cryptography, or the protective coding of language, in all of our online and telecommunications in order to defend what he sees as the three basic human freedom rights of physical mobility, free speech and and free economic interaction.

In the opening pages, Assange warns that “like sailors smelling the breeze, we rarely contemplate how our surface world is propped up from below by darkness.” In eloquent simile, Assange explains that through his personal experiences he has learned that our world is riddled with more censorship, surveillance and corruption than we can imagine. Much still lies in secret beneath the surface.

In an expository nonfictional dialogue, Assange engages in an intellectual discussion with WikiLeaks supporters and fellow cryptographers Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn and Jeremie Zimmermann. Over the course of “Cypherpunk’s” 150 pages, the four men analyze and interpret various political events such as the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt from a progressive outlook. By structuring “Cypherpunks” in an endless-dialogue format, Assange evokes earlier philosophical works of the same structure such as philosopher George Berkeley’s “Three Dialogues.” The four cypherpunks explicate and support their ideas in a formal, informative manner and evoke the didactic prose style of philosophers, but with a modern technological twist.

Although the text itself is polished, primarily fact-based and serious, some light-hearted moments are peppered throughout to offer increased readability and some much-needed humor amid the depiction of the ominous, grim reality that is the “national security state.” For example, in the midst of a discussion of US copyright laws and policies and the economic corruption of US politicians, Appelbaum calls Assange out on playing the devil’s advocate to better flesh out their arguments, goading, “Troll us, Master Troll.”

While the four men often challenge one another’s ideas, either for the sake of argument or to help another develop his idea further, Assange, Appelbaum, Muller-Maguhn and Zimmerman all advocate a kind of cryptographic philosophy in which the poor and weak would have complete internet, communications and economic privacy, while the rich and powerful would be forced to exist in complete transparency. In employing cryptography to protect the privacy of a person, Assange explains that it is “the ultimate form of non-violent direct action.”

“Cypherpunks” explains that the connection between internet and state is becoming more and more indistinguishable as computer corporations, websites and internet service providers gather personal data and pass it on to various government agencies to be stored in massive, top-secret warehouses. Assange underscores the urgency of this issue when he explains that “the future of our civilization becomes the future of the internet” when a government has so much control over the online distribution of ideas.

 The book reveals some startling information over the span of its pages, ranging from facts about secret services around the world to electronic currencies, the Bradley Manning case, new computer technologies and lawful drone strikes on US citizens. As Applebaum says, “you just put lawful in front of everything and then all of a sudden because the state does it, it is legitimate.” The four men discuss the critical psychology behind nationalistic behavior, explaining that the US Navy is training “cyberwarriors” by “trying to rile people up into a sort of patriotic fervor.”

Other startling conclusions in “Cypherpunks” include Muller-Maguhn’s realization that Facebook is “the perfect Panopticon” and Zimmerman’s point that “the U.S. spying agencies have access to all of Google’s stored data,” from every Google search ever run to every email ever sent through a Gmail account. As a matter of fact, “Cypherpunks” explains that Google itself has been censored by the US government so that certain websites are unable to be found through a search. In light of this information, it becomes clear to these cypherpunks that “in a way, Facebook and Google may be extensions” of institutions like the National Security Agency. In considering all the facts and ideas brought forth in “Cypherpunks,” it becomes difficult to distinguish between the governmental and the corporate.

Kate Irwin covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].