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Hacking Apartheid - Cryptography Tools for Activists

“Cryptography is the ultimate form of nonviolent direct action.” - Julian Assange
By Sophie Toupin / beautifulrising.org
May 9, 2017
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Hacking Apartheid - Cryptography Tools for Activists
Infographic showing the African National Congress (ANC) communication network during apartheid. Infographic: Ariel Acevedo | CC BY-NC-SA

During the apartheid era in South Africa, the ban imposed on the African National Congress (ANC) party meant that anti-apartheid activists were under constant surveillance, and were frequently forced into exile, arrested, jailed, tortured, or even killed.

Until the beginning of the 1980s, the ANC had a very limited communication network. It often used couriers who traveled in and out of the country to carry instructions, banned literature, and pamphlets. It also used Radio Freedom, the ANC’s propaganda wing, to inform and inspire supporters. However, because communication methods were limited in their effectiveness, due in part to the distance separating ANC leaders in exile in Zambia from activists in South Africa, the creation of an encrypted communication system greatly improved the ANC’s organizing capacities.

When exiled in London in the 1980s, the South African freedom fighter and hacker Tim Jenkin crafted an encrypted communication network that enabled operatives working underground in South Africa to report back to and communicate secretly with the African National Congress (ANC) leadership in exile in Zambia.

Known as Operation Vula, the system worked like this: Once it was fully up and running in 1988, Janet Love, a commander with Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC, would go to a safe house set up by a Canadian anti-apartheid couple and type a message on a laptop computer that had been smuggled in a few months before by Antoinette, a Dutch anti-apartheid flight attendant acting as a mule for the ANC. After typing the message and enciphering it, she would pass it out through the computer’s serial port to an acoustic coupler modem. In this manner, she converted the digital data to sound, and the audio was recorded on a small cassette tape recorder. She would then dial Tim Jenkin in London, who had in his apartment a special answering machine attached to his landline phone to receive messages from South Africa. Jenkin played the received audio message back through a similar acoustic modem coupler attached to his computer, which converted it back to digital. The digital data would be deciphered using a matching floppy disk, which would make the plain text appear on Jenkin’s computer screen. The floppy disk was based on an algorithm Jenkin had taken years to craft and polish. Depending on the content of the message, Jenkin would re-encipher it and pass it on to Lusaka, Zambia, where the senior leadership of the ANC was based. There, Lucia, a Dutch anti-apartheid activist, would receive Jenkin’s enciphered message, decipher it, and print it out. A foot courier would pick up the message in Lucia’s flat to take it to the senior ANC members.

By the late 1980s, the mass resistance in South Africa had reached unprecedented levels due to the fearless work of underground ANC activists, many of whom had slipped back into the country after having been exiled. The underground communication network became a highly effective means of passing information across borders to coordinate the anti-apartheid struggle. The anti-colonial hacking experimentation in the 1980s and 1990s came at a time when personal computers were just emerging, when cryptography was becoming recognized by many states as a weapon, and when countries such as the United States were restricting the selling of computers to South Africa for fear they would be used to strengthen the apartheid system.

WHY IT WORKED

The encrypted communication network was successful for many reasons. First, it was on the cutting edge of an emerging technological practice and ethos: hacking. The hackers responsible worked relentlessly to develop their algorithm and perfect its use. Second, the number of people who knew about the system were few (about ten), lowering the chances for infiltration. Third, an extensive network of global anti-apartheid activists were raising awareness about the brutality of the regime, while at the same time lobbying their governments to apply diplomatic and economic pressure. Many also raised money for the larger movement. By itself, the encrypted communication system could not have brought about change, but in the context of a strong anti-apartheid movement acting on many fronts, it proved a powerful means for an outlawed organization to communicate and coordinate actions.

WHY IT FAILED

The development and use of encryption is essential for social movements to counter state, corporate and other surveillance. However, encryption alone will not bring about social transformation. Hackers who are developing such tools must be connected to larger social movements, and social movements ought to become closer to the hacker community so each can learn from the other. Additionally, while developing and using encryption is no doubt important, community organizing in the open remains essential to transforming society for the better.

KEY TACTIC

ENCRYPTION

Encryption enabled the building of an underground communication system that not only established a strong international communication network among key figures of the anti-apartheid movement, but also limited the apartheid regime’s ability to surveil. While for many encryption projects today encryption is an end in itself, Operation Vula provides an example of a more practical encryption project, aimed at a politically specific and highly context-dependent outcome. It was not only about safeguarding communications, it was about enabling the exchange of strategic and tactical information crucial to the ultimate aim of liberating a people from oppression.

KEY PRINCIPLE

PRACTICE DIGITAL SELF-DEFENCE

The development of a non-commercial encrypted communications infrastructure was indispensable to the anti-apartheid movement within and beyond South Africa, as it struggled against the surveillance, repression, and brutality of the apartheid regime. This network helped overcome a vicious circle: “Leaders could not go [to South Africa] because there were no underground structures in place to guarantee their safety; the underground structures could not develop because there were no key leaders in the country” (Jenkin, 1995).

KEY THEORY

HACKING

Hacking can be loosely defined as a practice that involves programming and/or tinkering with technology. Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman (2014) defines a hacker “as a technologist with a penchant for computing” and a hack as “a clever technical solution arrived at through non-obvious means.” At the time, Jenkin did not identify as a hacker. Nevertheless, his tinkering with the phone system, computers, encryption, and acoustic coupler modems, among others, depended upon his ability to repurpose technologies through non-obvious means. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that when asked if Jenkin considers himself a hacker today, he responded in the affirmative.

The Vula Connection | Film documentary about the story of Operation Vula, 2014

Escape from Pretoria | Film documentary about how Tim Jenkin and his comrades escaped from prison doing lock-picking with ten different sets of wooden crafted keys, 2013

Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest | By Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum, MIT Press, 2015


Sophie Toupin’s work explores the linkages between technology and activism. She presently works for Media@McGill, a hub for research and scholarship on media, technology, and culture at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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