The World Tomorrow (Episode 8: Cypherpunks – Part 1): chatty conversation about online surveillance, loss of privacy and reclaiming online freedoms

Julian Assange, “The World Tomorrow (Episode 8: Cypherpunks – Part 1)” (Russia Today, 5 June 2012)

Yes, you read that right and it’s not a typo: Cypherpunks is a movement that originated in the late 1980s by activists aiming to improve individuals’ privacy and security and to act for social change through the proactive use of cryptography and who set up the Cypherpunks’ Electronic Mailing List to achieve those ends. In this discussion which spans two episodes, Assange shoots the breeze with Jacob Applebaum, a staff research scientist at the University of Washington and developer and advocate for the Tor Project, an online anonymity system to fight government and corporate surveillance and Internet censorship; Andy Mueller-Maguhn of the Chaos Computer Club in Germany who also runs a company called Cryptophone; and Jeremie Zimmermann of the citizen advocacy group La Quadrature du Net which is a European organisation defending online anonymity rights and encouraging awareness of government regulatory attacks on Internet freedoms. The episode available on Youtube.com and the Russia Today website lasts about 27 minutes but a transcript of the 90 minutes of the first part of the interview is available online.

The discussion ranges from obvious topics like Facebook and its role in facilitating government, corporate and military access to people’s privacy and personal information to the extent that Andy says, quite justifiably in a way, that Facebook users are the product and the client base is the advertising companies and other agencies interesting in using the information Facebook users post to their accounts with the network; to the changing role of computer hackers in the online world and their responsibility in creating online tools and encouraging their use for democracy and open exchange of information, and for fighting surveillance, invasion of privacy and repression through the violation of privacy and use and manipulation of personal information. Issues that arise include the increasing complexity of information technology and companies’ deliberate attempts to make understanding this technology difficult by designing IT hardware in such a way that people will have problems opening it to look at the components and see how they all fit together, among other things; the militarisation of cyber-space, IT hardware and even the language used in describing IT concepts and cyber-systems and structures; and how people might win back online freedoms, rights and privileges. Online surveillance of people’s activities and information by governments and other agencies arises again and again to the extent that as a theme it completely dominates the conversation.

More conversational than a formal discussion or interview, the foursome are chatty and meander from one topic to the next so that viewers really have to concentrate hard to follow the direction of talk among the quartet of hackers and media activists. The Cypherpunks guys mention Wikileaks and Assange’s previous work as a hacker in the 1980s quite a bit in a slightly fawning way.

It’s a pity that the episode doesn’t show or have Assange asking Applebaum, Zimmermann or Mueller-Maguhn what they recommend people should do to reduce their online exposure to government, corporate, military and other surveillance, and to resist attempts from those agencies to control their activities or capture information about them. Zimmermann’s admission that he doesn’t use Facebook points to one way people can reduce their online vulnerability to privacy violation. Twitter and Google are mentioned as enabling surveillance and encouraging people to surrender their privacy and information to unknown agents and so avoidance of both, where possible, should be considered.

The discussion ends on the participants more or less agreeing that decentralisation of power and control and people reclaiming that power and control and creating their own information networks are best though no ideas or suggestions are thrown about as to how such decentralisation and reclamation might proceed.

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