Forgetting Cypherpunk History
William A. Blunden
Ed Snowden recently gave fellow NSA whistleblower James Bamford an “extended cut” interview in Moscow.1 While Snowden offered up a few morsels of headline-worthy information, like how he purposefully left forensic artifacts for investigators or details on the NSA’s automated cyber-attack system called MonsterMind, Bamford’s piece ends with Snowden describing what he views as the answer to the NSA’s global surveillance program:
We have the means and we have the technology to end mass surveillance without any legislative action at all, without any policy changes… By basically adopting changes like making encryption a universal standard–where all communications are encrypted by default–we can end mass surveillance not just in the United States but around the world.
So, that’s it, huh? All we need is strong crypto? Download the latest app and guaranteed civil liberties are but a click away…
Pleasant fiction, caws your humble narrator.
Snowden’s train of thought echoes that of many cypherpunks back in the 1980s, doesn’t it? There were true believers in this milieu who thought that strong encryption alone would be sufficient to thwart Big Brother. This idea is founded on the stance that political considerations can be entirely eschewed in favor of strictly technical or market-oriented solutions. One might even posit that there are intimations of Libertarian ideology (i.e. corporate feudalism2 ) at work, which might not be surprising considering that Ed Snowden was a supporter of Ron Paul.3
Such a mindset no doubt serves the interests of an entrepreneur like Pierre Omidyar, a billionaire who plans to generate income by peddling security products. Products that will address the very scandals that his new media venture unearths.4 Isn’t that convenient? To be able to present a problem with one hand and then proffer a solution with the other? Problem-Reaction-Solution; also known as the Hegelian dialectic. By the way this tactic has also been employed, to the hilt, by a Pentagon carpetbagger named Keith Alexander.5