The Hidden News Stories You're Not Supposed To Be Reading

News you're not supposed to read about technology you're not supposed to use.

The Hidden News Stories You're Not Supposed To Be Reading
Warning labels I've taken picture of over the course of the last 6 months informing people they are being watched. 

Last year you may recall me raving about the ongoing Cryptowar (Part 2) on Mastodon and elsewhere when the first push to strong ban encryption in Europe was being discussed in the European Commission. The current narrative that is being used to condone this corrosion of personal privacy is that this will "protect the children". I was overjoyed when around November 2023 it seemed like the most current attack on E2EE had been routed, or at least postponed.  I thought I could relax for about year and start living the dream; shitposting memes and taking longer naps. I started to feel something that almost felt like hope: that civil discourse online can apply enough pressure on legislators that we can keep some of our rights in these tumultuous times we find ourselves in.

This week I've yet again been coming across more concerning news regarding the EU wanting to limit end-to-end encryption.  You are even given the illusory option that you can opt-in this time and prove you have nothing to hide by turning off encryption just to show how trustworthy you are as a citizen. It didn't even take 6 months this time to reload and push again, but I understand why the attacks on privacy are able to be so resilent and unrelenting. This is a story that is not being picked up by any mainstream news organizations and most people legitimately do not care about any of this. The reasoning seems to go that if you have nothing to hide, why are you helping criminals hide by allowing apps like Signal to operate in Europe anyway? That's a good question to be honest, since anyone in the majority will unlikely ever be in a position where Interpol would want to peer into their chat history in the first place.

News about the current attack on privacy in the EU doesn't get any mainsteam attention. My main source for any updates is Mastodon.

So, in the face of this most current threat to online privacy, I thought I might as well give you the whole story as to why I began giving a shit about any of this at all. This is how I became radicalized.

For years, I felt completely burned out by political discussions online.  I legitimately feel utterly powerless in the face of world conflicts, civil unrest and the existential threat of climate change. I had in some not-entirely-conscious way decided to give up, let nature take its course and allow humanity to destroy itself. Hopefully I wouldn't get too badly hurt. I knew it was a bad take and fundamentally wrong and so this newly adopted nihlism didn't really ever sit right with me. It was a like a psychic pebble in my shoe, easy enough to ignore most of the time but always uncomfortable.

It was some time during Covid lockdowns when I happened to watch the movie Snowden on television. The story is an unapoligetically hagiographic account of Snowden's life and what he did. For the most part I thought the movie was way over the top and painfully biased and I didn't care much for it. There were a few scenes in that movie though that left a lasting impression on me. The first one was when Snowden was talking to his future wife and she knew he had read her blog by cross-referencing the IP addresses in her server's access logs with their geographic locations and saw someone accessing her blog from Virginia where Snowden was currently living. The other was when Snowden was setting up an encryption server for an test being held by the NSA or some other organization. These two scenes are fairly unremarkable and likely aren't even based on actual events but they got me thinking: how would you actually get up a script to cross-access IP addresses with geographic locations? How would you actually set up an encrypted communications server?  It left a seed in my mind that cryptography and privacy aren't only principles, they are things you actually do. It would be many years later when I would stumble upon that ancient battlecry "cypherpunks write code".

It was some time later when I found Cryptohack and started to learn more about the actual implementation and detailed workings of cryptographic systems. I realized quickly that I wasn't going to become a cryptographer, but I could begin to implement and use cryptography. I started using PGP, using Tor, using Signal. I could also learn more about the current legal situation of cryptography. I joined the EFF and other digital rights groups.

It was in the phase that I first ran into backlash from my peers. To me, it seemed that the desire for privacy was self-evident. Why would anyone not want to advocate for their own right to privacy, especially online?  When talking to people I knew, I realized that my stance wasn't all that popular. People felt that I had "gone down a rabbit hole" and adopted a view that was purely based on principle. In a sense I had actually, but I was taken aback that most people I knew didn't have the same knee-jerk reaction to government survaillance that I had, especially when it could be justified in the name of security. It was also a time to reflect, since I myself am usually sceptical of people who have views that are only rooted in principle. It seems dogmatic and divorced from reality most of the time, a person being held hostage by the very ideas they think they are protecting.

The only way to get out of this hole was to read. I sought out and read Why Privacy Matters by Neil Richards and Privacy Is A Superpower by Carissa Véliz. The former explained by own previous belief of the self-evident value of privacy, as this seems to be something a lot more common in Europe where I happened to grow up:

Usually, when I ask my European friends why they think privacy matters, the reaction I get is puzzlement. "Why does it matter?" they say. "What a strange question. Privacy just does matter. It's a fundamental right."
- Neil Richards, Why Privacy Matters

I won't go further into the actually arguments, but both books outline the value of privacy and what a lack of privacy protection looks like on a societal level. Without privacy, people are generally more easily manipulated covertly, are unable to see what factors affect the decisions made about them and a lack of privacy and anonymity has a quieting effect on civil discourse. If you want to read more about privacy, Proton now has a Privacy Reading List they update every once in a while:

When I generated my PGP key pair, I knew I had irrevocably decended into the depths of privacy extremism. 

This was the moment when I realized I had found a political topic I wanted to advocate. This was an issue I found technically interesting. I could actually do privacy and this gave me an intoxicating feeling of agency I hadn't felt in a very long time. It was like the revelation described in a passage from Barton Gellman's book about his reporting on Edward Snowden, Dark Mirror:

With tools like these, anyone could read and write and meet on the internet without censorship or fear, cloacked in the elegant mathematics of cryptography. Anyone could, and hardly anyone did. Muggles did not treat with the conjurings of wizards. Not many heard tell of such arcana; fewer had the motives or patience to master them. I took a certain nerdy pleasure in the effort, and I had strong incentives as a journalist covering secret diplomact, intellegence, and war. I started with GPG, the gold standard of email and file encryption, in 2006 - not long after Time magazine overrode a reporter's objections and handed his notes to prosecutors in the criminal case against Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.
- Barton Gellman, Dark Mirror

Along with the this new ability to do something, I felt inducted in a secret world of cryptography news. This was a whole new world of news stories that never got talked about in the mainstream, stories that showed how frightened governments are becoming of the mass adoption of strong encryption. How Europol is calling for the complete ban of strong encryption in Europe. How the EU and the US planned to covertly sway public opinion to be against encryption. How the EU Commission illegally targeted creepy political ads in the lead up to discussions about banning encryption. The list sadly goes on and on.  

I might not have all that much sway on public opinion, but at least I can be one more person bringing these stories to light, because it really looks like no one in the mainstream is going to be doing it.

It's clear to me that the reason most governments in the West are starting to attack strong encryption is a reaction to storming of the US Capitol on January 6. Such a massive social movement seemed to take a lot of people in the political apparatus by surprise and I think that's due to the fact that most of the major organizers of the most radicalized factions storming the Capitol were using Signal. For instance in the documentary A Storm Foretold by Christoffer Guldbrandsen, you can see the leaders of the Oathkeepers and the Proud Boys using Signal to coordinate their plans and it would seem that any intelligence agency was able to get wind of any of their plans. Later in court, Signal messages from the phone of the leader of the Oathkeepers were used as evidence in his trial. Of course, these messages came to light after the fact as federal prosecutors had confiscated his phone and were able to gain access from there and there is not indication that any message data was obtained from Signal themselves.

I personally find what these far-right groups did was deplorable and everyone involved rightfully belongs in prison. What I do think is terrifying the heads of state in the West is this ability for groups to plan in secret, to the point that strong, modern, democratically-elected governments can face unprecedented unrest planned out and syncronized amongst dozens if not hundreds of groups.  On January 6, it was a group of complete shitheads doing the organizing that were fortunately quelled, but as I mentioned in a previous blog post, it could be more radical climate protest that gets targeted next. Be whatever side of the political spectrum, I think you can see that if you want to change the status quo, if you want to see radical change in society, you will have to do it with the security encryption can give you as you plan. Once your plans are sniffed out by the powers-that-be, it's game over.

Tor user stories showcasing that people from all walks of life can benefit from using Tor. Read more stories here:

Encryption, or the lack thereof, can have serious consequences and pretty literally change the world and the course of society. As heady as these kinds of dreams of grandeur can be, I want to end this post by sharing Tor User Stories. These are stories collected by the Tor Foundation where users of Tor talk about why they use Tor. Many of them relate using Tor to access the internet without censorship but many others mention wanting to protect democracy and support freedom of speech. I think it's an uplifting and relatable way to learn about why strong encryption is so important and showcases that Tor is not just a seedy tool used by seedier cretins up to no good.

I'm going to give it to you straight, outlining all of this on my public blog feels oddly dangerous, as if having this outspoken view on online privacy attached to me and my online nickname might come to haunt me. I'm fortunate in that I am a nobody and it is unlikely that any scrutinizing gaze is upon me. However that is the power and the curse of the internet, that now I can make a small little ripple online with my blog post and feel like I'm doing something. Yet years later I might find myself getting targeted by something, be it a government agency or a group of people who don't like something I said online. Then suddenly all these worlds become a confession that can be used against me. My nature is to keep my head down and try to be ignored but some weird worm wriggles in my mind and wants to buck fate and take a stand once in a while.  Ha, maybe that's my dreams of grandeur talking now. :D