Cryptoanarchy and civil sociology

For a few days this blog has been blocked by myself using the above image, a five-minute production in GIMP, which is a remix of the United Arab Emirates block notice and the EU-flag. Even though I made it up myself, this type of blocking is very common today around the world, also in the western world. Australia, Italy, the UK and Sweden all have this system, so does China, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Different reasons are of course made to legitimize the system, but reasons change rapidly over time. In Italy they even use it for bittorrent sites such as The Pirate Bay. In many ways the EU is the chief engineer of these systems, so the next time we say nice words about the ”regimes in the east”, lets not forget history OK?.

Another, less important feature of blocking myself, is that it is very productive for my not-immediately-posting-on-the-internet writing.

Recently, while doing some complementary research for my forthcoming book on net politics, I stumbled on the edited book Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates and Pirate Utopias (2001), which contains many interesting and historically important texts regarding the rise of cipherspace and cryptoanarchy, as an order of things, and as a practice.

It contains the Cryptoanarchist Manifesto by Timothy C. May, but also the text Crypto Anarchy and Virtual Communities, by the same author. Both texts are available for download in the i2p-darknet on dissidentblogger.i2p, and on i2p bittorrent (of course I’m not gonna republish it here because it violates the human law called copyright, please behave in cyberspace and make sure your ciphers are strong! Download i2p here to access the file, and get instructions here).

One of May’s important contribution to cryptoanarchy is his notion of (virtual) communities. He defines them as:

Virtual communities are the networks of individuals or groups that are not necessarily closely connected geographically. The ”virtual” is meant to imply a nonphysical linking but should not be taken to mean that these are any less community-like than are conventional physical communities. Examples include chuches, service organizations, clubs, criminal gangs, cartels, fan groups, etc. The Catholic Church and the Boy Scots are both examples of virtual communities that span the globe, transcend national borders, and create a sense of allegiance, of belonging and a sense of community. (66)

This effectively takes away the notion of ”non-real” to the virtuality of communities, but also it of course applies outside the internet.

Communities are often prime targets of surveillance, hence the need for cryptography. And because of the laws of mathematics, cryptography will always be possible, and, more importantly, possible in large-scale as long CPU’s are still legal. Any state banning CPU’s will be instantly bankrupt in seconds in today’s global capitalism. The two facts of cipherspace, as outlined by Telecomix, lead to the conclusion that May made about ten years ago:

”The Net is an anarchy”. This truism is the core of crypto anarchy – no central control, no ruler, no leader (except by example or reputation), no ”laws”. No single nation controls the Net, no administrative body sets policy. The Ayatollah in Iran is as powerless to stop a newsgroup – alt.wanted.moslem.women or alt.wanted.moslem.gay come to mind – he doesn’t like as the president of France is as powerless to stop, say, the abuse fo the French language in soc.culture.french. (69)

There is also another manifesto in the book, A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto, by Eric Hughes. It is quite similar to May’s text, but is more explicit to what the task of the Cypherpunk is:

We the cypherpunks are dedicated to building anonymous systems. We are defending our privacy with cryptography, with anonymous mail forwarding systems, with digital signatures, and with electronic money.

Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and since we can’t get privacy unless we all do, we’re going to write it. We publish our code so that our fellow Cypherpunks may practice and play with it. Our code is free for all to use, worldwide. We don’t much care if you don’t approve of the software we write. We know that software can’t be destroyed and that a widely dispersed system can’t be shut down.” (83)

The picture of crypto anarchy becomes clearer; A technological fact, when exploited correctly, can not be stopped, and will not obey human laws.

But what would then be the consequence if such practices became widespread?

This is critically investigated by Dorothy E. Denning in the text The Future of Cryptography (from 1996). She fears a state of lawlessness and anarchy, and searches for a solution, or rather an ”emergency button” in case the social contract needed in cipherspace becomes consumed by crime, hate and threats.

She proposes key escrow – that trusted authorities of some kind holds the ”master keys” to the encryption keys, thus enabling a back door in ciphers. This would, according to Denning both give the benefits of privacy, while also being able to enforce laws in cases of serious crimes. Today, this could be said to be practiced by the voice-over-IP client Skype, that is key escrowed in the sense that the master keys belong to the company (or rather, the body which owns the company).

Key escrow, however fails. This is attested to by history. China bought the keys to Skype, just like they are able to buy themselves into any corporation, and use them to spy on the population, sometimes even blocking their calls. Key escrow will always give rise to the question of who has the keys?, and such systems will always be flawed.

Denning realizes this, and in an afterword published in the same volume five years later she claims:

Besides being woefully out-of-date, the article is overly alarmist. My more recent research on encryption and crime /…/ found that whereas encryption has posed significant problems for law enforcement, even derailing some investigations, the situation in no way resembles anarchy. In most of the cases with which I am familiar, law-enforcement succeeded in obtaining the evidence they needed for conviction. The situation does not call for domestic controls on cryptography, and I do not advocate their enactment. (103)

Yes! The rise of cipherspace has not lead to chaos and misery. When politicians today are crying out for stricter regulations, and some of them argue that cryptography helps ”the evil persons”, they should go back ten years in history, and take part in this debate. Terrible crimes such as murders, terrorism, child abuse, and everything else that politicians blame the internet for, will not be hidden in darknets. Darknets only protect information, and societies around the world will be better off when information is free and communications are secure.

7 reaktioner till “Cryptoanarchy and civil sociology”

  1. Cipherspace can be brought down, unfortunately, since it rests on three pillars. If one goes down, cipherspace goes down. The pillars are:

    1. Hardware. If governments mandates surveillance features into all hardware, then it will be harder to load our own operating system on top of it, such as Linux or BSD.
    2. Cryptography. If governments bans all encrypted traffic on the net, then all is lost.
    3. P2P communication. If governments bans tcp traffic from clients to clients, and only allows traffic to approved servers, then all is lost.

    As long as these three pillars are intact, then we can build our own ciphernet on top of the old internet, with our own decentralized DNS etc.

  2. 1. Yes, cipherspace pre-supposes computers. However, I don’t think there are governments strong enough to influence how computers are made. But there are corporations. The ”trusted platforms” advocated by Microsoft are one such example. Making your own CPU’s aren’t that easy… rly…

    2. Yes. China does this, or, you are supposed to have a license to use encryption. However… encryption comes as default programs in modern operating systems, so I dont think this law works rly.

    3. Yes, indeed. Then it is not internet anymore, but a cable-TV. This is in my opinion why net neutrality really matters.

    Thanks for the comment Mats!

  3. Hello,

    First of all, very well said, excellent. Actually I think number 2. here is the thing.

    1. Banning hardware is possible, but probably a bit to far right now. Of course we have such bans in some parts of the world. Usually not domestic ones, but so called ”terrorist states” is not allowed to buy some kinds of hardware.

    2. Totally possible, I just wrote some short stuff about this recently. My main argument being what I’ve heard on a lecture by Law professor Alisdair Gillespie. Now this is only one person, but I think it stills shows us the kind of attitude the people making the laws and working with justice has on this.

    ”… All the proper companies gives us backdoors…”

    3. This also I think is a very real threat, to be taken seriously.

  4. Agree with y’all. Number two is probably the most obvious ”next step” of totalitarian and semi-totalitarian regimes.

    This is already kindof seen in Iran; where afaik encrypted comms is not banned, but enough to send you to jail for have performed possibly illegal activities.

    This is also very important to build strategies against. Anonymity is harder and harder to keep legal. Like in Germany, where you from now on can be fined for not securing your wifi.

  5. ”They are guarding all the doors, holding all the keys, which means that sooner or later, someone’s going to have to fight them.” – The Matrix

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