The civil war between empowered individuals and controlling officials

by Robert Maynard

As governments intensify efforts at controlling people, new technologies empower individuals to bypass government control.  Here is how a recent article in Reason Magazine describes the tension created by this situation: “A cold civil war brews between empowered individuals and controlling officials.”

Society has taken a weird fork in the road—weird, because it’s taken both of the paths. On one hand, policy in many areas of life, including money, communications privacy, and personal weaponry, has become more controlling and more intrusive as politicians seek to know who is talking to whom, what we’re earning (and buying), and whether we have the means to push back against the authorities doing all that snooping. But on the other hand, technology increasingly empowers individuals to evade surveillance and restrictions, hide and transfer funds, and acquire or even manufacture forbidden goods, including firearms, without regard to laws dictated from above. Some of these technologies, such as encryption, have already had an enormous impact, while 3D printers and cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, are only starting to make waves. But this growing divergence between what we can do and what our rulers want us to do may be a portent of an accelerating technology-fueled cold civil war.

To an extent, that cold civil war has always been with us. The printing press empowered people to spread ideas far beyond the reach of the busiest censors. Firearms gave individuals a fighting chance against trained muscle in the pay of the local powers that be. But technology throughout the 20th century was more often seen as giving an advantage to the state: spy cameras, tanks, and computer databases seemed to point to a future of “a boot stamping on a human face, forever,” as George Orwell so gloomily put it in 1984. But in recent years the tide has turned. The massive computers that were supposed to regiment society turned into PCs and then laptops and then mobile devices that could run encryption software, “mine” Bitcoins, and design forbidden objects for individuals.

Everaldo CoelhoThe personal computer itself aside, the first modern breakthrough may have come with encryption. At a time when tough cryptography of any type was considered a “munition” and subject to strict export controls, Phil Zimmerman created Pretty Good Privacy and uploaded it to the Internet for anybody who cared to make their email and other messages unreadable by anyone but the intended recipient. (Zimmerman allegedly intended his invention only for U.S. distribution, but even then the online world ranged far and wde.) Furious American officials opened a criminal investigation against Zimmerman, but the cat was out of the bag long before that investigation concluded without charges, though it was undoubtedly gratifying when the courts ruled that cryptographic source code is protected by the First Amendment.

Today Zimmerman is a co-founder of Silent Circle, a commercial outfit that encrypts voice, video and mobile communications—for a price. The company bases itself in Canada to minimize its exposure to the world’s snoopier regimes (including the U.S.). It also designed its network so that it can’t decrypt the traffic passing through it, to minimize what it can deliver in response to court orders. And Zimmerman’s commercial product isn’t the only game in town. Among the more promising offerings are a free suite of products from Open WhisperSystems that do much the same as Silent Circle’s software.

Why all this effort—and legal risk—to keep communications private? Because much of the world’s population lives under the thumbs of nosy rulers, whether overtly malevolent or just overly officious. Even here in the United States, the federal government has induced communications companies to spy on customers by promising not to enforce privacy protections and by threatening to fine online companies that don’t allow easy data access to the feds. Federal officials have dropped hints that they’re already recording all the phone calls they can intercept (though good luck processing all that data, if it’s true).