What the Cypherpunks Got Wrong

Cypherpunk ideas have a long legacy and continue to influence how we are discussion matters of security and privacy, particularly in the relationship between citizens and governments. In a nutshell, cypherpunks posit that we can and should keep government intervention minimal by force-protecting our privacy by means of encryption.

Let us begin with what they got right:

“For privacy to be widespread it must be part of a social contract.”

 (Eric Hughes: A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto)

Social contracts are the basis of every society; they define a society and are represented in its formal and informal norms. Privacy is indeed a matter of social contract as it concerns very fundamental question of what the members of a society should know about each other, how they should they should learn it, and how they may or may not use what they know about others.

Privacy is not merely a matter of hiding information so that it cannot be found. The absence of expected features or utterances carries information, too. Some societies, for example, expect their members to actively demonstrate their allegiance. Members of such a society cannot merely hide what they think, they also have to perform their role as expected if they have no desire to become a leper.

What the cypherpunks got entirely wrong was their conception of social contracts and the hope that cryptography could be the foundation upon which they, the cypherpunks, would build their own. Cypherpunks believe that cryptography would allow them to define their own social contract on top of or next to the existing ones. This has not worked and it cannot work. On the one hand, this is not how social contracts work. They are a dimension of a society’s culture that evolves, for better or worse, with this society.

On the other hand, cryptography–or security technology in general–does not change power relationships as much as cypherpunks hope it would. Governments are by definition institutions of power: “Government is the means by which state policy is enforced.” Cypherpunks believe that cryptography and other means of keeping data private would limit the power of their governments and lay it into the cypherpunks’ hands. However, the most fundamental power that any working government has is the power to detain members of the society it is governing.

In an echo of cypherpunk thinking, some people react to an increased interest of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in travelers’ mobile devices with the suggestion to leave those devices at home while traveling. After all, the CBP cannot force you to surrender what you do not have on you, so the reasoning. This thinking has, however, several flaws.

First, from a security point of view, leaving your phone at home means to leave it just as unattended as it would be in the hands of a CBP agent. If the government really wants your data, nothing better could happen to them than getting access to your phone while you are not even in the country.

Second, the government is interested in phones for a reason. Cryptography and other security mechanisms do not solve security problems, they only transform them. Cryptography in particular transforms the problem of securing data into a problem of securing keys. The use of technology has evolved in many societies to the point where our phones have become our keys to almost everything we do and own online; they have become our primary window into the cloud. This makes phones and the data on them valuable in every respect, for those trying to exert power as well as for ourselves. You lose this value if you refrain from using your phone. Although it seems easy to just leave your phone at home, the hidden cost of it is hefty. Advice suggesting that you do so is therefore not very practical.

Third, this is not about you (or if it is, see #1 above). Everyone is using mobile phones and cloud services because of their tremendous value. Any government interested in private information will adapt its approach to collecting this information to the ways people usually behave. You can indeed gain an advantage sometimes by just being different, by not behaving as everyone else would. This can work for you, particularly if the government’s interest in your affairs is only a general one and they spend only average effort on you. However, this same strategy will not work for everyone as everyone cannot be different. If everyone left their phones at home, your government would find a different way of collecting information.

By ignoring a bit of context, cypherpunks manage to arrive at wrong conclusions from right axioms:

“We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy out of their beneficence.”

“We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any.”

(Eric Hughes: A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto)

This is true, but incomplete. Power must be contained at its source (and containment failures are a real possibility). Cryptography and other security technology does not do that. Cryptography can perhaps help you evade power under certain circumstances, but it will by no means reverse power relationships. What you really need is a social contract that guarantees your freedom ad dignity.

 

(Expanded version of a G+ comment)

 

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