Climate Activism Needs Strong Encryption To Survive

I'm not going to lie, I'm a paranoid weirdo that sees conspiracies everywhere. That doesn't mean I'm not right though. In this post I ramble on about what I see as the fundamental reasons governments want to curb strong encryption. It's all to do with climate activism.

Climate Activism Needs Strong Encryption To Survive
The world engulfed in flames as a man in a aluminum hat looks on, oil painting by Dall-E.

I was minding my own business looking for shitposts to laugh at on Mastodon a few weeks ago and I came across an article by the EDRi that references leaked plans between the EU and US officials to sway public opinion regarding encryption.

The leak meeting report between EU-US Senior Officials on Justice and Home Affairs from March 2023, reveals transatlantic plans to influence public opinion around ‘law enforcement’s legitimacy to investigate’ encrypted communications and on ‘the need to mirror privacy by design with lawful access by design’. This is an unacceptable clear intention to undermine end-to-end encryption, privacy and confidentiality of communication, which are essential for democratic digital societies.

The first thing that came to mind when I read this was the op-ed in the New York Times last December by a tech influencer that was wringing his hands and worrying that apps like Signal are pushing  "a rather extreme conception of privacy" and we shouldn't let "technologists" impose their privacy-focused ideology on us all. I was remiss that I didn't write anything about it when the op-ed was originally published but others have broken the article down and extensively debunked it way better than I ever could, including the president of Signal herself. I was thinking that this article was just something I could fume over for a few days and forget about. I mermered "opinions are like assholes..." to myself and continued on with my life. Now a few months later it's like I'm seeing the puzzle pieces fitting together.

Me spouting paranoid conspiracy theories on Mastodon.

When I'm following news about encryption and digital rights in general, it's tempting for me to adopt a paranoid mindset and read consipiritorial motives into every news story I come across. I think it's a cognitive bias we are all seduced by once in a while. I mean, even the guy who wrote the aforementioned op-ed wrote that he felt there was something "somewhat sneaky" about how Signal is advocating for strong encryption. A part of me was thinking something similar about the New York Times: was it "sneaky" to release this op-ed between Christmas and New Years, at a time where most of the vocal proponents of digital privacy are likely on vacation and not ready to answer immeadiately? It's hilarious in a way. Everyone is out for everyone else. I guess the future the X-Files was warning us about sort of happened, sadly without the cool stuff like UFOs.

There are real threats to public, strong encryption both in the US and in the EU. In the US there are attempts to push the EARN IT bill through that could lead to serious problems with implementing encryption and undermine user privacy online. In the EU, the European Parliment is debating a proposal that could prevent platforms from guaranteeing end-to-end encryption to users. Both of these proposals name legitimate concerns as reasons to curtail encryption, namely to stop the spread of CSAM. I think it gives a reason to pause and reflect why these kinds of laws are trying to get passed in the first place, given that automated scanning tools are known to fail at detecting CSAM in the first place. When it comes to large, organized operations that engage with this kind of crime, there are other ways to take down these horrible people.

I now want to share my pet conspiracy theory why we are seeing this push to undermine encryption. There's a game plan I'm beginning to see slowly coming together, the construction of a giant one-way mirror with most of society on one end of it and the survaillance apparatus of the state on the other. There is one main reason why this is being done in the way it is: the world is about to change drastically due to climate change and we are all in for a miserable ride . If you are still with me, I have now put on my tinfoil hat on and I'm ready to ramble...

I'm exremely pessimistic about what we as a species can do to avoid climate catastrophe. I have heeded the call of the doomer.  I am not a climate activist but I admire a lot of the optimism activists have regarding the future and I deeply want them to succeed in changing our destiny as a species. Despite believing we are doomed to environmental Armageddon, I still try to do something; I'm a vegetarian, I ride a bike to work, I never travel abroad, I live in a larger city, I don't have kids, I keep away from exports, pretty much most of the things I can think of to reduce my carbon footprint as a person.  And I am certain that this pretty much accomplishes nothing in the larger scale. I see most of the expressed concern about environmental issues as empty political posturing to keep the masses happy, content and consuming. I agree with Andreas Malm: climate diplomacy is hopeless. Maybe in 50 years we could all get our acts together and do something about this problem but by that time it'll be way too late.

I think most governments in the West agree with Andreas Malm's assessment as well. Western governments are counting on the discussion surrounding climate change to stay on the level of vague assurances and the occassional hype for a technocratic solution, like cold fusion or some other pipe dream. Yet I think that preparations for the near future are being laid out now for a time when the impact of climate change cannot be ignored  and major social movements begin to form to actually change this way of life we are all accustomed to.

Climate activism is becoming more visible and are using direct action in ways that cannot be easily ignored, partly due perhaps to Andreas Malm's book How To Blow Up A Pipeline, and it's becoming more and more obvious that governments are taking notice. Here are but a few examples of how the State responds when your actually do something other than politely picket outside the legislature:

The cases I mention here have nuances and you can argue that in these instances the actions against these activists were reasonable and the State was within their rights to enforce law and order. However that is exactly my point: the State will completely crush any real challenge to the status quo. At this point in history climate activism, in regard to CO2 emissions, is only just starting. Some groups are making headlines throwing soup on paintings and whatnot but day to day life is generally not impacted. At least it's not impacted in a way that would make people I know to stop and reflect on what these protest are about. If anything, they are seen as annoyances that should be cracked down on.

It's only a matter of time when larger and larger groups of citizens begin to organize after facing the unavoidable, physical consequences of environmental destruction. In the modern era, it's inevitable that any larger social movement is going to do all their planning online with messaging apps. That's the reason strong encryption is so terrifying to any government that's planning for the future.  Some of these groups are going to be more extreme than others and this poses a serious security risk. Given that we are quite a bit away from PreCrime screening a la Minority Report, it's just easier to screen every conversation online, just in case. Edward Snowden showed how effective (and attractive) this sort of solution is to government agencies. Of course mass survaillence might help stop terrible groups before they have a chance to act if you're looking for a silver lining to all this. My point isn't really about if banning encryption could do something good, as I think it's pretty obvious that if we had no access to encryption as a society, it would be a bit easier for the state to stop some bad people from doing horrible things . My takeaway here is that banning encryption makes organizing the fight against the status quo difficult; for better or for worse.

I'm not the first person to make these kinds of points. I just haven't seen the topic of encryption and the pushback against it being discussed in terms of climate activism. Maybe that's because I'm a paranoid weirdo who is obsessed with seeing Machiavellian designs behind law proposals. Don't get me wrong, we are very, very far away from the horrors that face protesters in other countries.  

I just wanted to write this all down as these ideas have been swimming around as a soup in my mind as I ride the bus home from work. I wanted to see  if writing it all down in a structured way makes any sense at all. I'm probably going to end up on a governmental watch list after writing this now. But fuck it. :D