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.