Cypherpunk: A History of Resistance to the NSA
Cypherpunk: A History of Resistance to the NSA
By Eloisa Lewis /

Cypherpunk: A History of Resistance to the NSA

Cipher + cyber + punk = cypherpunk = a social and political movement.

Whether you’re an activist, a journalist, a student, human rights defender, globetrotter, technophile, or ordinary citizen of any country — you’re effected by surveillance. Edward Snowden said, in 2014: “Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are less free.”

A cypherpunk is an advocate for the general use of rigorous cryptography (such as various forms of digital encryption) as a means of protecting an individual’s privacy. Several manifestos have been published online summarizing the cypherpunk ideology and many prominent cypherpunks have emerged into the mainstream; such as Tor developer Jacob Applebaum and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Originally, cryptography was a strategic practice mainly utilized by spy agencies and the military. This changed during the seventies, when two major publications introduced cryptography to the computer passionate masses. These were (1) Data Encryption Standard and (2) an article by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman

Diffie and Hellman solved one of the most fundamental problems of cryptography  — secure key distribution — and ended the monopoly that surveillance institutions, like the National Security Agency (NSA), had on crypto technology. Any citizen or company was now able to access and implement powerful encryption — the sort that had once been ranked alongside the atom bomb in importance to the US government. This generated new fears that emerging methods of encryption would be impossible to decipher — which could potentially serve to fortify the activities of national security threats. (For those who are interested, Youtube hosts a useful history and explanation of the Diffie-Hellman key exchange dating back to the 1950’s.)

By 1992, the cypherpunk movement had fleshed out more, gained its name, and started a mailing list. Subscribers of the early mailing list debated public policy, philosophy, mathematics, technology, and economics. The ideals of personal liberty and the right to privacy were at the core of their discussions — encryption being the means to obtain the necessary amount of privacy a free democratic citizen requires, enough to protect against both standalone hackers and governments. Until the start of the June 2013 NSA scandal, few U.S. nationals knew that almost all public communications were being logged by government agencies. However, to cypherpunk-mailing-list subscribers, this fact was as obvious as it was concerning even in the early days.

Cypherpunks encourage civil disobedience as a means of reacting against institutional oppression, and many work on projects that promote anonymity online and in telecommunication. Cypherpunks argue that anonymous speech and publication are essential to an open society and to free speech. They often cite the Federalist Papers, which were originally published under a pseudonym, as an important example. Cypherpunk is ever evolving, but has consistently been involved in the creation of anonymous peer-to-peer communication services, secure network tunnels, mobile voice encryption, untraceable electronic currency (e.g., Bitcoin), and secure operating environments. 

The 1990s were pivotal to cypherpunks as they fought for legislation that protected the right of an individual to encrypt their personal data. This period and series of struggles was known as the early “crypto wars”. During this time, mathematicians and cryptographers fought against the Clinton administration and the NSA in a debate over encryption rights. The government sought to maintain and increase their control over cryptographic practices in the post-Cold War era. In 1996, crypto code was declassified as a munition, and until 2000 export required a permit. There were also battles over whether or not there should be a legal requirement that NSA-friendly chips be installed in communications hardware. In the end, tech privacy advocates prevailed, freeing up digital crypto for public use.

Some thought that the laws addressing encryption, passed in the 90s, marked the end of the crypto wars. Though there was certainly progress in this period, the last few years have brought the struggle over encryption back into public awareness and sparked new waves of outrage. Another wave of crypto controversy emerged as backlash caused by NSA whistleblowers such as Thomas Drake, William Binney, and most prominently, Edward Snowden. It was in June of 2013 that Snowden, a member of the US government intelligence community, released documents that described the constitutionally questionable domestic and international activities of the NSA.

Since then, corporations like Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Apple have admitted that they allowed the NSA to access their users’ data. Recently, Apple reacted to public criticism by offering their users stronger privacy options. In response, FBI director James Comey issued statements that accused Apple of creating unfair and unsafe obstacles for the intelligence community to navigate. 

The debate between freedom-and-privacy advocates with government officials in intelligence communities rages on — centering mostly around fears that the US and it’s intelligence allies are enabling a military-industrial empire, one that risks being oppressive and undemocratic. Government officials involved in national security have the potential power to ensure perpetual war, and their agencies can provide an ideal machine for surveillance and propaganda. These are the concerns of the cypherpunks. 

In the words of Edward Snowden to journalist Laura Poitras: “Know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit, and subject line you type, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not.” (This quote was taken directly from Poitras’ documentary on Snowden, CITIZENFOUR.)

Shortly before Snowden went public, the director of the NSA, James Clapper, spoke in Congress and lied under oath, a crime he has yet to be held accountable for. Senator Ron Wyden asked him whether the NSA collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Clapper answered, “No, sir… not wittingly.”

Cypherpunks are involved in a socio-technological race. How fast can they build and deploy counterintelligence processes, raise public awareness, and advocate for government reform? How fast can the government develop decryption methods, dissociate from scandal, and pass legislation that justifies mass surveillance? The crypto wars are, in short, far from over

To find out how to make your online communication safer: check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s guide, ‘Surveillance Self Defense.’

/ Eloisa Lewis 
Follow on Twitter @EloisaALewis

Further Reading:

1. Security Without Identification: Card Computers to Make Big Brother Obsolete (1985)
2. Battle of the Clipper Chip (1994)
3. Crytography’s Role in Securing the Information Society (1996)
4. Dual-Use Technologies and the Equities Issue (2008)
5. The Evolution of US Government Restrictions on Using and Exporting Encryption Technologies (FOIA: 2010)
6. Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet (2012) 
7. The Fog Machine of War (2014)
8. When Google Met WikiLeaks (2014)

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Cypherpunk: A History of Resistance to the NSA