Fight for your right to (Crypto) Party

20th July, 2015 — Jo Porter

As with any David and Goliath battle, the fight for privacy is an uphill challenge. To win it, we’ll need the dedication and tenacity of as many allies as possible. At, our goal is to create beautiful, easy to use, privacy respecting tools that help you do simple things, like communicating directly with friends, without sharing your data with third parties. For the average person, taking control of your privacy should not require special training or expert knowledge. It should be convenient and seamless.

That’s our approach, but many groups are tackling the same issues from different angles and doing important work in the privacy sphere. One such group is Crypto Party. On a recent trip to London I attended my first ever Crypto Party and was lucky to gain some insight into what they do, and the amazing people in the community behind it.

Crypto Party

Crypto Party is an international, decentralised, community-run organisation, working to raise awareness about and train non-technical folk in the use of encryption and privacy technology. Today, the effectiveness of most commonly-used privacy tools is let down by how difficult they are to use. They can seem intimidating, even stigmatised, to many people. As an attempt to counter this, Crypto Party host regular, free events, where anyone can come along and learn basic cryptography skills.

The Crypto Party I attended was hosted by Silkie Carlo and Arjen Kamphuis, co-authors of Information Security for Journalists. Silkie and Arjen were fantastic hosts, showing patience and enthusiasm in equal measures. Crypto Party’s guiding principle is ‘Be excellent to each other’ and you could feel it thriving at this event.The entire evening felt like a supportive, judgement free space. The trainers weren’t just interested in getting us tooled up, they took the time to ensure everyone knew what they were doing and why. I want to share a few of my favourite points from the night, and maybe even inspire some of you to attend a Crypto Party too.

Facebook - The digital asbestos of the 21st Century

Could there be any better metaphor for our current relationship with Facebook than Arjen’s “Digital Asbestos” analogy? Just decades ago, the battle to ban this carcinogenic building material saw concerned citizens and experts alike take on the powerful asbestos industry. The industry, in return, fought hard to protect its own economic interests, even at the cost of human safety. (Interestingly, the negative health effects of asbestos, while only scientifically proven in the 20th century, were recorded as early as Romans times with Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – 79) noting that “quarry slaves from asbestos mines not be purchased because ‘they die young.’”)

Today, it’s unthinkable that we tolerated such unacceptable harms for so long and yet we allow Facebook to do to our digital selves what asbestos did to our physical selves. We willingly hand over swathes of personal data, allowing them to analyse, sell and use it however they see fit. We exchange free services for our digital souls.

We’re already beginning to see the initial consequences of this Faustian bargain in the psychological testing and manipulation that is carried out on us without ethical oversight and in the hugely personal predictions being made about us from aggregated data sets. What effects will we be suffering in 10, 20, 50 years time, when many orders of magnitude more information about us is owned by corporations and analysis techniques and processing power have increased exponentially?

As a society, we’re failing to treat our digital selves with the same level of respect as our physical selves, in spite of the hugely vulnerable position that puts us in. With asbestos, we eventually reached a tipping point, and were able to either ban it outright or at least strongly regulate its use. Unfortunately, this came only after many lives had been ruined. Hopefully, as we come to better know the harms that free services such as Facebook cause, the tide will turn there also and society will demand that human rights take precedence over the selfish, exploitative business model of Spyware 2.0 that rules mainstream technology today.

It's not all about you

For anyone who understands and cares about privacy, the ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ argument falls flat on its face. As Snowden put it:

“When you say I don’t care about the right to privacy because I have nothing to hide, that is no different than saying I don’t care about freedom of speech because I have nothing to say or freedom of the press because I have nothing to write.”

Giving up a fundamental right because you don’t think you need it right now, is both selfish and shortsighted. Not only do you not know how your data is being used today; you also don’t know how it might be used in the future, or by whom. None of us can make a truly informed decision to hand over our data, because many of the harms that may result could come about through techniques that have yet to be invented, or at the hands of governments that have yet to take power.

Regardless, even if you choose not to care about your privacy, it’s important to remember that using privacy protecting technology isn’t just about protecting you: it’s also about protecting those around you, including people who are in more vulnerable situations. It’s about recognising the need for it to exist, and supporting those who depend upon it for their safety. Today the use of tools like PGP and Tor is relatively uncommon. Consequently, if you are a political dissident, or an activist, or anyone else whose life depends upon effective email encryption or online anonymity, using these tools can increase authorities’ interest in you.

Given the recent revelations that GCHQ spied on NGOs like Amnesty International, it’s clear that — even in a supposedly democratic country like the UK — people working to safeguard the rights of the vulnerable are being targeted. So simply using these tools (as opposed to not) is a really easy way to help those who fight for our rights. Whether you use PGP to send banal emails to your friends, or Tor to search for kitten images, you can add noise to the network, increasing the safety and effectiveness for people who really need it. It’s standing up and crying out “I’m Spartacus” for the digital age. With more kittens.

Talk about it

Every taboo that is now socially acceptable had to go through the phase when people started talking openly about it even though it was socially unacceptable. The current narrative being churned out by government agencies says that if you use encryption, you must be a terrorist. Vladimir Putin uses a similar tactic to demonise homosexuality, (by grouping it together with paedophilia).

These kinds of cheap non-sequiturs can be powerful when used against the uninformed, especially when there’s no counter-narrative. By talking about privacy, encryption, and the tools you use to protect yourself day-to-day, you can help create a counter-narrative. It’s easy to smear something most people have never heard of outside of their government’s fear mongering. It’s a lot harder to smear something that society accepts as mundane and normal.

Talk to them

Cartoon: Now and then I announce “I know you’re listening” to empty rooms. If I’m wrong, no one knows. If I’m right, maybe I just freaked the hell out of some secret organization.

Perhaps my favourite piece of advice from the night: If you think you’re being surveilled, talk to the spies. As Edward Snowden proved, at least some of the people working in these organisations are good people with a sense of right and wrong. We aren’t going to stop needing whistleblowers any time soon, and if you can make someone stop for a moment, and consider whether they’re fighting for the right side, you might just help create the next Snowden.

Information Security for Journalists

On the night, the trainers set us up with a fantastic range of tools, but there’s always more to learn. Silkie and Arjen’s book is a great resource not just for journalists but for anyone who wants to start protecting their privacy. It offers step-by-step guidance on a wide range of privacy tools and talks further about why you should be protecting yourself online. It’s available for free online (under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license) and definitely worth a read. Meanwhile, remember to check out Crypto Party to find out what you can do today to stay safe, change the narrative, and fight for a world where privacy isn’t a dirty word.