“Knowledge is power” is a truism that the surveillance state has taken to extremes. Technological advances have opened an unprecedented level of information-gathering and hyper-localized knowledge about where people are, what they are doing, and who they are doing it with, pushing social control to new frontiers. Effective resistance in our era requires a strategy to counter mass surveillance and the power structures it fortifies.
There are two, intertwined parts to our argument, corresponding to the two conditions of information flow in the surveillance state: unfiltered information flows up and filtered information flows down. Leaks constitute breakages in the latter, exposing and disseminating raw information that those in power want to keep secret. Encrypted communication defends against the former, protecting the mass ability to communicate without authorities listening, not only limiting the state’s repressive capacities, but also breaking free of the self-policing mindset engendered by mass surveillance. The combination of leaks and encryption holds enormous strategic potential. The popularized use of encrypted communications—which essentially means using computer code to protect digital information—gives ordinary people the ability to invert the pyramid of social control, making state secrets public and public communications private. The internet’s “web” is bound by the laws of math and physics before the laws of states, and cyberspace could be occupied by the public in a way that helps birth capacity and will to fight for a better world.
A Brief History of Surveillance
The modern state has developed around knowledge collection. Exploring the question of why nomads, migrants, and other “people that move around” are so intolerable for states, James Scott argues that statecraft is about making society legible from above; the goal is to create “a detailed ‘map’ of its terrain and its people” (Scott 1998: 2). Early states lacked the capacity for much accuracy in such mapping, and a great deal of what happened within any regime’s borders was out of sight of authorities, making those in power vulnerable to revolt from below. Medieval governments, unable to see and control most of their countries, would make public spectacles of torture and execution to compensate for the underlying weakness of their authority. As state power consolidates, it evolves to rely more on surveillance with the threat of punishment than acute violence itself (Foucault 1975). In the twentieth century, authoritarian regimes attempted massive social reorganization projects and constructed “high modern” cities in attempts to mold populations into simplified, rational, easily observable geographies. These efforts all ended in degrees of failure, as human society repeatedly proved too dynamic to be forced into such confinement for long (Scott 1998). Conditions have changed. Communications technology has advanced such that populations no longer need to be physically arranged into easily surveilled architectures; surveillance can be brought to them.
Not only is the entirety of the Earth’s surface visible to satellite, drone, or street-level cameras, but personal tracking devices—phones, cars, and “smart” things like watches and televisions—have become essential to modern life (Greenfield 2017). Today, the average American adult spends eight hours a day engaging with digital media (Götting 2021). The public is increasingly reliant on Internet communications, global positioning system (GPS) tracking, and social media to navigate everyday activities, and we have become accustomed to omnipresent cameras, facial recognition, and information-sharing with private companies and government agencies. The unprecedented precision and scale of digital surveillance in the information age opens the door to degrees of social control only so far depicted in science fiction.
If state control relies on a government’s ability to see what is going on within its borders (and for empires like the United States, to see everywhere else too), then working toward a more free, just, and egalitarian society requires blocking the state’s line of sight. For example, in the previous century, guerrilla warfare strategies organized from remote geographic locations like mountains and jungles where the state could not see. Even the everyday “art of resistance”—the constant acts of micro-rebellion engaged in by workers and oppressed peoples everywhere—succeeds through systematic concealment, by encoding meanings in words and actions that comrades can decipher while authorities cannot (Johansson and Vinthagen 2020; Scott 1990).
A decade ago, the National Security Agency (NSA) completed a facility in Bluffsdale, Utah where it can store 1,000 times the data of the entire Internet—a “Yottabyte” of data (Bamford 2012). Since then, the NSA has been filling this facility with everyone’s information by tapping the main fiber optic cables that make up the World Wide Web and accessing the servers of major Internet companies (Greenwald and MacAskill 2013). Thanks to Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak, we know just how comprehensively state security forces collect this data (Greenwald 2014: 130-7). This involves the capture and storage of all messages, often directly from the NSA’s PRISM program that taps the servers of big tech companies like Google, Apple, Meta, and Amazon (Greenwald and MacAskill 2013).
The NSA’s goal is complete visibility of digital communications, and ultimately to tie all those communications to geo-location and physical and relational meta-data. This is enabling extraordinary police-state capacities for repression, with NSA intercepts now used daily (and frequently covered up) by local police in US criminal trials (St.Vincent, 2018). Prosecutors’ discretionary powers combined with the extreme complexity of federal and state laws make it impossible for anyone to follow or even know all rules all the time. This reality has long facilitated selective enforcement in target neighborhoods—those that are predominantly Black and brown and/or working class—against sex workers and other precarious populations, and against mass movements that challenge power (see Alexander 2010; ESPLER Project 2023). Now, access to nearly unlimited NSA surveillance data supercharges the extraordinary powers of police and prosecution, facilitating their ability to harass, detain, open investigations, or pile charges on anyone. For movements organizing to shift the balance of power and democratize society, the effects of this type of control are deep; knowing we are being watched, we are not even aware of the degree to which we police ourselves into docility.
Surveillance is not merely about gathering information from above; its ultimate purpose is behavior modification. Michel Foucault used Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the “perfect” prison, which he called the panopticon, as a tool to understand knowledge control (Foucault 1975). In contrast to the dark, linear dungeons that had characterized earlier prisons, Bentham conceived of a bright, open, circular design, with a watchtower in the center and inward-facing cells around the periphery. Each cell would have a window to the outside that would backlight it, making the prisoner visible to the tower. The tower, shaded by design angles, would be dark to all prisoners. The effect is simple: at all times a prisoner is aware they could be being watched by the guards, but they are never able to know for sure.
This hierarchical arrangement of bodies in space—a few in the tower watching, many in the cells being watched—carries with it a power dynamic that effectively alters the behavior of everyone subject to it. In this arrangement, the prisoners, who are isolated and unable to communicate or act without being seen, begin to police themselves. Accurate information only flows in one direction, from those being controlled to those in control. The more that the prisoners internalize this dynamic, the less actual force needs to be applied to maintain order. In its extreme, the theory goes, an entire population of docile prisoners could be self-policed with no external coercion whatsoever.
The unverifiable but assured possibility of surveillance represents a pinnacle of state control. In its most advanced form, a regime not only has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force but rarely needs to deploy it to maintain social hierarchies. Foucault acknowledged that panopticism was directly applicable only to populations small enough to be arranged within the prison architecture, but he believed its logic could be applied to society at large. Today, digital surveillance is making possible a new version of panoptical control.
When state power is a spotlight, revolutionaries must create shadows. Encrypted communication allows us to create the shadow; leaked information is sneaking up and shining the light on authorities. Practices of state surveillance and resistance are always adapting to one another (Leistert 2012), but despite being vastly outgunned in capacity and resources, there are nevertheless ways movements can maneuver within the digital sphere to put ourselves in the best position to build power from below. In this article, we discuss the dynamics of leaks and the importance of encryption as tools of revolutionary struggle in the digital age, drawing from the most recent technologies; whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and the Wikileaks network; Foucault’s theory of panoptical control; and the strategic logic of guerrilla war theory.
Inverting the Pyramid
In 1971, US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, exposing American war crimes in Vietnam. Two years before he blew the whistle, while working at the highest levels of government, Ellsberg attempted to convince Henry Kissinger that national security clearances posed a threat to government decision-making:
“It will… become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances… You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have…” (Ellsberg 2002: 238)
Ellsberg’s point is profound. Excessive secrecy in leadership drains organizations’ capacity to communicate and thus to think together. It breeds a doctrinaire approach to political reality with a strong bias for trusting hierarchy over observation, deliberation, or science. It also shrinks the number of people who can make truly informed decisions and breeds distrust. This toxic combination makes leadership unequipped to properly examine rapidly changing, complex real-world phenomena. As Assange puts it: “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more that leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie” (Sharpe 2021: 93). Ellsberg’s whistleblowing successfully interrupted ruling class solidarity surrounding the Richard Nixon administration; it created overstretch and infighting, split elites around their loyalties and support, and reduced the cohesion of influential circles in security agencies. It made the ruling class turn inward, caused them to lose focus and initiative, fueled popular protests, and eventually led to the termination of the war and Nixon’s decision to resign (Ellsberg 2002).
Ellsberg was able to leak the Pentagon Papers because his privileged access enabled him to photocopy, hide, and distribute the necessary documents. In the age of widespread computing, the technical know-how to accomplish such a leak has increased, but so has the opportunity. Hierarchical secrecy requires that some individuals have access to enormous amounts of privileged information; the Achilles’ heel of mass surveillance is the centralized storage of all that data. For large surveillance databases to be functional, they must allow broad searching against multiple datasets, meaning authorized users can access vast oceans of information. This means that even a small handful of whistleblowers can change history.
In 2010, Chelsea Manning, a low-ranking army intelligence officer, managed to leak the full archive of an ongoing war and full diplomatic record of US imperial planning, including the now infamous “collateral murder” footage of a US attack helicopter murdering journalists and civilians in Iraq. The leak caused international outrage and contributed to the political climate that fueled the “Arab Spring” rebellions, which in turn helped spark a global wave of Occupy uprisings, and ultimately forced the US to pull its troops out of Iraq. In 2013, Edward Snowden, a mid-grade intelligence subcontractor, leaked a massive amount of highly classified internal documentation from the NSA, among the most opaque and powerful security agencies in the world, unleashing far-reaching conversations about surveillance in government and the private sector.
There are around five million people in the federal government with some form of security clearance (Fung 2014). These are mostly federal workers, most in various locations employed by the executive branch. There are tens of thousands of attorneys in major corporate law firms, and tens of thousands more are brought in to work for short-term contracts every year. And there are more than six million people in the technology sector in the US alone. Providing ideological support and technical training could substantially accelerate the revolt of insider whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden. The normalized use of encryption and anonymous submission platforms is a major step. Most importantly, the tools required to liberate information from even the most secure facilities are already free, open source, and accessible with a small amount of technical knowledge (Snowden 2018: 257-62).
Leaks impose sanctions on secrecy and coercion. Hierarchical institutions that wish to keep their communications fully secret must increasingly remove themselves from the digital realm, silo information, pass orders face-to-face and in small groups, and intentionally fail to keep records, all of which reduce their efficiency and effectiveness (Sharpe 2021). An encryption-based whistleblowing strategy thus has a threefold purpose. First, it arms resistors and the public with damning facts; second, it induces the most authoritarian elements of government to second-guess internal communication and curtail long-term planning; third, it incentivizes organizations to engage in transparent, democratic decision-making. Systemic surveillance is only required in societies of vast inequality; the more honest, horizontal, and democratic an organization or regime, the less it has to fear information being made public.
Open knowledge and cipher-shadows
The use of open-source encryption allows the exploited and oppressed to take control of the means of communication. As early as the 1980s, the African National Congress (ANC) and allied groups used modern encryption systems in their victory over the Apartheid government in South Africa. As Tim Jenkins shows in his 1995 essay, “Talking to Vula,” through a combination of classical cryptographic methods like “one time pads” and mathematical encryption functions, first using tones over the pay phone system, then early internet-connected computers, the ANC built an information system that allowed them to coordinate inside South Africa while building a broader unified strategy with members organizing outside the country. The ability to secure their communications was a key element in sustaining the uprisings and international movement that eventually brought down the white supremacist regime.
By the 1990s, the “cypherpunk” movement of radical software developers was already identifying both the dangers inherent in new digital communications controlled by governments and large corporations and the necessity of encrypted privacy in order to fight back (Hughes 1993). Three decades later, digital communications have taken over the world, increasing both the dangers of mass surveillance and the revolutionary potential of privacy (Greenfield 2017).
But what is encryption? If communications systems focus on getting a message to someone, encryption systems focus on how the message arrives. A common metaphor is: if the postal service is a communications system, then encryption is concerned with envelopes and addressing. They add strong guarantees that information is accessible only to those the sender wants to receive it and that the information also arrives in a secure “envelope,” with confidentiality intact. Unlike an envelope, however, the properly encrypted digital message cannot be opened between sender and recipient. A successful cryptographic system must utilize a “key” to translate or encrypt, and convert information into a uniform “cipher,” a text that is unreadable until it is recomposed with the correct decryption.
There are thousands of encryption techniques, with technologies or practices of breaking them constantly being innovated and tested. The Navajo (Diné) “code talkers” during World War II are among the most famous cryptosystems, which were for a time unbreakable. The US military correctly assessed that the Japanese command had no prior knowledge of the Diné language, which was also notably difficult for outsiders to learn. The US recruited and deployed indigenous Diné speakers on key radio communications systems in the Pacific theater, to great success. In this cryptosystem, the Diné language was the “cipher text” and the shared knowledge among indigenous speakers provided the encryption and decryption keys. This method, and other shared key encryption schemes like the “one time pad,” are only successful if you can keep the shared key from the adversary. The military use of Navajo code talkers today would not be secure because of more accessible knowledge of Diné language via the Internet.
Current encryption programs apply advanced mathematics to the basic process that all people engage in when creating languages or dialects. High-speed computing allows digital encryption to rapidly achieve three crucial goals for all information passing through these systems: integrity, authenticity, and confidentiality. They do so by utilizing operations such as the difficulty of factoring large prime numbers to create one-way functions that are fast to generate but extremely difficult to decipher. The level of mathematical complexity creates a situation similar to what happens when you pour cream into coffee: it is very easy to mix in the cream, but basically impossible to take it back out. Though it takes only seconds to create and to decrypt with the proper key, without that key it is functionally impossible to undo the mathematical relationship in high-level modern encryption (see Kaliski n.d.).
Most people use digital encryption every day, for example, the “https” used (hopefully) whenever you enter credit card information into a website. However, the technology behind it has been tightly controlled by the state, first through arms regulations and later through proprietary standards and funding restrictions (Kostyuk and Landau 2022). States have historically declared cryptographic science to be theirs alone due to its strategic importance, and they have expended extraordinary efforts to create systems with covert backdoors, meaning those that appear secure but have vulnerabilities only the NSA or other intelligence agencies can access (Appelbaum 2022).
In 1991, as an act of resistance in support of anti-nuclear protesters, a coder named Phil Zimmerman released a highly secure open-source encryption program called PGP onto the Internet for free. Snowden’s leaked NSA documents show that the agency, despite all its efforts, remains incapable of breaking PGP encryption (and others like OTR, the basis for the popular Signal app).
Some have raised concerns that the advent of quantum computing, which theoretically could operate far faster than anything we currently have, could end the security of modern encryption. Government agencies have indeed been collecting encrypted communications for years in hopes that someday new technology will allow them to break in. However, near-term projection of quantum effectiveness poses little threat to modern encryption. Even the most ambitious estimates put quantum computing many years away, and it is unclear whether quantum computers could work at the scale necessary to impact commonly used encryption standards (Weber et al. 2022). Quantum computing may make certain mathematical relationships more solvable, but there are already widely known encryption algorithms that are functionally resistant to even theoretical quantum computing, while publicized government hacking capabilities have been greatly exaggerated (Schnier 2023).
Hardware is always a vulnerability—if a phone or computer has malicious programs pre-installed or if the user reveals their passcode, otherwise secure communications would be compromised. There have been several rounds of reporting incorrectly claiming that the Signal app’s encryption algorithms have been broken, first in 2017 concerning the CIA “Vault 7” leak, then again in 2020 when an Israeli security firm claimed it could hack Signal. After scrutiny, it turned out there was a caveat: these “hackers” needed full access to the phone. Basically, Signal messages are not secure from the police if you unlock your phone and show it to them (see Abu Sneineh 2020; Barrett 2017).
The most secure encryption programs are open-source and user-friendly. Application of this technology allows any person with access to a smartphone or computer to create encryption so advanced that it cannot be broken by all the computing power in the world. The journalists working with Snowden reconfirmed the security of these tools through action, as open-source encryption enabled them to effectively hide Snowden’s documents from the NSA, which was desperate to destroy them (Timm 2014).
The use of non-proprietary, open-source technology, which allows software engineers and users to fully control all aspects of a computer system, is an especially important aspect of secure communications (Linux and Debian are examples). This is because proprietary software like Microsoft and Apple operating systems impose legal and technical prohibitions that prevent users from viewing the programming code, denying them the ability to verify a message’s security. Among other things, open source programs mean that any user with the knowledge to do so may inspect the encryption code at any time, preventing a third party like a corporation or security agency from slipping in backdoor access. They are also free to use and distribute. Many countries, including the governments of Brazil, Ecuador, and Uruguay are now running most of their information technology on open-source platforms (TeleSUR 2014).
Open-source encryption programs allow for free access to “end-to-end” encryption, where only the devices of participants in a chat can read the messages sent, and no third party has any role in the formal process of encryption. The best-known implementation of open-source, end-to-end encryption is the non-profit phone app Signal, which allows for encrypted talk, video, and text, and is used by more than 40 million people (BBC 2021). As the app has grown in popularity, even corporate messaging apps like WhatsApp have incorporated aspects of its technology, albeit with less-secure proprietary code. Free open-source programs like Cryptpad, Tor, Protonmail, and Tails OS offer encrypted document creation, sharing, web research, and email on any modern computer.
End-to-end encryption has enabled Wikileaks, a non-profit organization that publishes free, searchable information from leaked classified documents, to become a global leader in making government secrets publicly available (https://wikileaks.org/). Since its founding in 2006, Wikileaks has published millions of documents, many from the US government, including evidence of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, human rights violations in the Guantanamo Bay prison, and networks of political corruption. In the past few years alone, Wikileaks has revealed CIA hacking tools, international rightwing extremist networks, Amazon secret sites, and US spy tech. They achieve this through open-source encryption that creates a digital shadow even the most sophisticated government tools cannot penetrate.
The US government considers these leaks a grave threat. The documents Snowden leaked reveal that by 2010, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and the human network that supports Wikileaks were on the NSA “manhunting” target list for extreme no-holds-barred surveillance (Greenwald and Gallagher 2014). During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump claimed that he “loved Wikileaks” when its disclosures were harming his political rivals, but this quickly gave way to targeted repression once Trump took power. The CIA even discussed assassinating Assange in London, but instead settled on the use of diplomatic pressure to get British police to kidnap him from the Ecuadorian embassy, where he had previously been granted asylum (Borger 2021). Despite calls for his release from the ACLU, Amnesty International, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and many others, Assange is currently held in a high-security British prison as he appeals his extradition to the US, where he would face espionage charges carrying a 175-year sentence (Australian Associated Press 2022; Higgins 2021). Despite the repression, including an extralegal banking blockade that cut off donations, Wikileaks continues to publish, operating on a tiny budget with minimal staff and no office, yet maintaining its fifteen-year track record of never giving up a source.
One of Wikileaks’ most important contributions has been popularizing the use of encryption for journalists. When Wikileaks launched in 2006, scarcely any media outlet in the world utilized end-to-end encryption; by 2019, many journalists were using it daily and a sizeable minority of newsrooms were utilizing encrypted emails (International Center for Journalists 2019: 45-6). There are widely available toolkits for leaking sensitive information to the press (see Freedom of the Press Foundation 2019) and some organizations are now pushing for encryption to be standardized for all journalists and attorneys as a matter of ethics, since using non-encrypted communications essentially means sharing content with an unknown assortment of government agencies and corporations (see Merkin 2020; Stribling-Uss 2020). Some outlets have even adopted the Wikileaks transparency style of publishing full primary source leaked material with minimal or no editorial redactions (see DDOSecrets.com). As former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (2022) puts it: “The whole idea behind Wikileaks is to take the same technologies that allow the NSA and Google to turn you into a source of data, and turn it against them to make you more opaque and them more transparent.”
Knowledge is a Jungle: Guerrilla Warfare in the Panopticon
The central problem that all revolutionary strategies must solve is how to take masses of ordinary people from a position of dispersed weakness to one of organized strength. In doing so, it is not only necessary to build the material capacity to struggle but also to grow collective consciousness. It is precisely these qualities that the surveillance state aims to extinguish, by keeping people atomized, preoccupied, and distrustful. The history and theory of twentieth-century guerrilla warfare strategy hold important lessons in creating space outside the state’s gaze.
Guerrilla strategy is a form of irregular warfare involving small groups of militants ambushing and outmaneuvering larger and better-equipped military forces. The strategy is based on an underlying weakness in military occupations. No matter how powerful a military force is, they are unable to directly govern the entirety of any large territory by force; troops simply can’t be everywhere at once. From this observation grew guerrilla war strategies composed of three overlapping stages of struggle (Mao 1937; Giáp 1961; Taber 1965). In the first stage, rebels establish base areas of operation in secluded, rural areas, ideally in mountains or jungle—places where the central state is weak. They focus on sabotage and small-scale ambushes to grow morale, disappearing into the terrain or local populations when state forces move through. More than combat, insurgents focus on political education, training, grassroots organizing, and providing needed services to grow consciousness, fortitude, and mutual trust.
In the second stage, as the guerrillas become entrenched, they establish their own institutions and form a revolutionary government in base areas founded on a combination of pre-existing community traditions and revolutionary ideology. Rebel schools, clinics, public services, and courts expand and interconnect to replace the state in rebel-controlled areas, creating a counter-state called a liberated zone (see Roy 2010; Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness 2015). The liberated zone is a contested, semi-sovereign area organized into associations that are characterized by radical values—for example, economic redistribution, social equity, feminism, and minority ethnic rights—where people live the revolution and where the rebels can organize, train, rest, and develop resources, what is sometimes called a “duel power” situation (see CounterPower 2020). From here rebel forces can launch more ambitious hit-and-run attacks, but still avoid direct confrontation where possible.
Finally, in the third phase, as the regime overcommits its forces and loses geographic and ideological ground it becomes isolated in big cities and military bases; the rebel forces mount a conventional assault on government strongholds and seize control. Since the mid-twentieth century victories of the Chinese, Algerian, Cuban, and Vietnamese revolutions, few guerrilla wars have ended in decisive military victory for the insurgents, and scarcely any has even entered the third stage. However, guerrilla struggles that have entered the second stage have proven extremely durable. The fact that guerrilla war thrives in the second phase is instructive. The strategy is effective in large part because it creates social and psychological opportunities to experiment with radical social systems and embody the revolution. The autonomous revolutions in the rebel areas of the Zapatistas and in Rojava are essentially adaptations of the second stage of guerrilla war strategy, with indigenous armed struggle enabling the construction of liberatory institutions while abandoning the third stage, at least for the time being (see Stanchev 2015).
Guerrilla war declined by the twenty-first century in large part because surveillance technology has made remote areas too accessible. Today, there are few unseen geographic regions left and fewer still in the Global North. Most organizing now takes place in the communities and workplaces of dense, highly surveilled cities and towns. In the massive US, there are many physically remote areas but hardly a nook or cranny is not mapped and cataloged, instantly visible by satellite and drone, if not a simple internet search.
Encryption cannot create physical space in which to establish liberated zones, but it can shield communications from the state’s view. In the age of mass surveillance, this can accomplish a crucial ingredient of revolutionary struggle. As Foucault’s discussion of the panopticon reminds us, it is not only for direct fear of material repression that true alternatives are impossible in full sight of the state; it is also a matter of the psychological barriers to such possibilities that we construct for ourselves when we know agents of control are watching. In industrialized countries, modern state control has gone far beyond mapping physical space to mapping our very individualities. Today, the state’s gaze extends beyond the physical, and we may not even be aware of the degree to which we limit our horizons of change.
Popularizing the use of open-source encryption can keep organizing conversations hidden from authorities, and in doing so, can contribute to a digitally liberated space that may open minds to a more radical range of possibilities. The digital form comes nowhere close to the guerrilla-liberated zones of a previous era of struggle. The use of encryption is not an alternative to the transformation of social relations in physical space, but rather is important precisely because it can support and enhance these efforts in an age where physically building alternatives out of the state’s view is largely off the table.
In a previous era, guerrilla-liberated zones were highly effective in opening physical space in isolated regions in which to experiment with revolutionary ways of organizing, but they were also constrained by that isolation. Cipher resistance does not offer the physical space, material conditions, or social fabric that liberated zones do, but it is also not bound by geography or borders. Activists in different countries and regions in the Global South and North organize in different conditions and face state surveillance and violence to vastly differing degrees, but the technological capabilities of repressive states are similar, often tested in war zones and occupied territories for use elsewhere. Encrypted communications facilitate information-sharing, discussion, and coordination in resistance struggles between regions and for activists who cannot easily travel. And barriers to the effective use of encryption tools are surprisingly low. The combination of basic encryption with open-source hardware has the potential to seed a network of direct, popular, transnational control of the means of communication, production, and exchange on a global scale.
A Call to Cryptographic Arms
Discussing encryption feels alienating to many people (including at least one of these authors). A lot of people think it is over their heads or they find the techno-babble obnoxious—a dynamic that has not been improved by the rise of cryptocurrency scams or breathless promotion of “artificial intelligence” chatbots. But digital surveillance has become a crucial aspect of state control. For those who seek a more just, free, just, and egalitarian society, we find ourselves in a situation where encryption is an increasingly necessary tool of struggle. It is usually unwise to invite the police to activist organizing meetings, but without basic encryption and digital security practices, agents of the state have access to everyone’s organizing conversations. And while we cannot currently defend many physical spaces from the state, we can protect our communications.
Beyond the security aspect, encryption holds massive potential to undermine imperial command and control. The security state has the capacity to collect all non-encrypted digital communications, but they do not have the human resources to analyze more than a tiny fraction of that data. Unlike twentieth-century guerrilla forces, who could use their enemies’ known lack of capacity against them, without encryption techniques we are never sure if we are being watched or not. The omnipresent certainty that police could be watching you, without being able to confirm if and when they actually are, can create a self-policing effect to a degree we may not even be aware of. Encrypting communications and maintaining simple digital security measures can begin to liberate us from the psychological effect of mass surveillance.
Encryption is a defensive tool in that it can shield information from security agencies. It is an offensive tool in two ways: first in its use to effectively leak and distribute sensitive government and corporate information, and second in its ability to free us of the state-surveillance mentality, enabling us to think and communicate with confidence that we are not being overheard. The more that organizing is hidden from the state, the more room movements have to grow connections and capacity; the more that state secrets become vulnerable to exposure, the more imperialism must rely on its most base method of control, coercive force. Though it is the state’s foundational tool, the naked use of violence within its borders erodes the state’s legitimacy (Arendt 1970). As the state must increasingly rely on its most violent capacity for control, digitally liberated zones could facilitate both the capacity and drive for organized resistance.
Widespread secure communications and leaks can work in concert with mass movements, creating a chain reaction of interconnected revolutionary upsurges that escalate in scale. But instead of being based in temporary control of physical space alone, these could be increasingly connected through the collective control of a liberated Internet, from the means of communication to the totality of society.
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