Online Privacy Is Worth The Extra Work

This past week, Laura Poitras’s documentary, Citizen Four, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. When he provided the documents that revealed the details of universal spying by the US National Security Agency (NSA), the subject of the documentary, Edward Snowden, wrote an accompanying manifesto. His “sole motive”, he wrote, was “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them. The U.S. government, in conspiracy with client states, chiefest among them the Five Eyes – the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – have inflicted upon the world a system of secret, pervasive surveillance from which there is no refuge.” (1)

Snowden, who made careful plans to try to avoid capture before he could get the materials out, nonetheless assumed that he was going to be spending the rest of his life in prison. Even though his greatest wish was for the public to know about the surveillance programs, he was pessimistic about the possibility that the programs would be reformed through the existing political system. His manifesto concluded with the repurposing of a quote from Thomas Jefferson about the U.S. Constitution: “Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography.”

In other words, maybe if the public found out, they would find the idea of being surveilled by unaccountable powers unappealing, or maybe they would not. If they rejected universal surveillance, they might demand that the program end. But maybe the political system was in fact so closed, undemocratic, and unresponsive that it could not change in response to such a demand. But even then, the public had options: the public could change their behaviour in order to make universal surveillance more difficult. How? What are these “chains of cryptography” to which Snowden referred?

In a lecture at the 31c3 conference late last year (2), Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras showed the systems that the NSA have so far been unable to crack. Taken together, and used carefully, these systems offer the continued possibility of privacy, a fundamental right, a right which enables people to form their personalities, their philosophies, and their politics, a right which has been taken away by spy agencies for their own grandiose plans.

What are these systems? They include public key (GPG) encryption for email, onion routing (Tor) for web browsing, and Off-The-Record (OTR) protocols for online chatting. Importantly, all of these tools are free software/software libre (3), which means that their source code is published and can be studied, so that bugs and problems can be identified and fixed by the community of users and developers. Security experts like Bruce Schneier (4) have long emphasized that no user should trust any product that promises online privacy or security that is not free software. Unless the source code is published, there could easily be “backdoors” built in – and, as Snowden’s documents have shown, they often are. Richard Stallman of the GNU free software project made the argument connecting free software to online privacy and security at his own lecture at 31c3 (5).

The above tools – GPG, Tor, and OTR – may be cracked one day by the NSA, or declared illegal by oppressive governments (including that of the US). The important point is that they are tools that were created by the free software community and offered to the public as ways to try to achieve the right to privacy. Unlike corporations, the writers of free software don’t try to control users in order to profit from them. But nor do they have the resources to create vast call centres to do customer service, and indeed all free software comes with a warning that it has no warranty or guarantee. Although the difficulties are often exaggerated, the free software versions of many programs can be difficult to use. What this means is that the price of freedom, or of privacy, online, is not measured in dollars or even in suffering, but in convenience and patience.

Greenwald recounts in his book, No Place to Hide, that Snowden tried to contact him many times before finally reaching him through Laura Poitras. Greenwald didn’t want to go through the inconvenience of learning GPG, and Snowden wouldn’t write him any specifics without it. Even now, most people, including journalists and activists, don’t take the extra time to learn these tools, or to learn about the free software movement. Until Snowden, this included even Greenwald, the very reporter who ended up breaking the story. The ‘crypto party’ movement has arisen to make it possible for people to get together and help each other learn the tools (6). If only a tiny group of people attempt to exercise their rights to online privacy, it will be easier for governments to isolate them. On the other hand, if people assume they have the right to privacy and join the free software movement, it is better for everyone. By exercising your right to freedom, you are making it easier for others to exercise theirs. If you are already using a computer anyway, isn’t it worth some inconvenience?

NOTE: If you are having difficulty getting to a crypto party, but are willing to put in some time and effort to learning the tools for online anonymity that we do have, some of the principles of online privacy and security, and some of the principles of free software, please consider joining the Z School course (7) on the topic, which will begin in April 2015.

First published at TeleSUR English March 2/15:


(1) The manifesto is quoted in its entirety in Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide.

(2) See the talk, “Reconstructing Narratives”, here:

(3) Free software, or software libre, is software that gives its users the freedoms to view, share, modify, and use the code as they wish, and it is regulated by very carefully constructed licenses, especially the GNU Public License or GPL.

(4) See Scheneir’s blog:

(5) See the talk, “Freedom in your computer and in the net”:

(6) In my city, for example, there’s Toronto Crypto: Find out if there’s one in your city.

(7) The course opens in April 2015. Details will be posted on:

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.