As Techdirt stories regularly report, governments around the world, including those in the West, are greatly increasing their surveillance of the Internet. Alongside a loss of the private sphere, this also represents a clear danger to basic civil liberties. The good news is that we already have the solution: encrypting communications makes it very hard, if not entirely impossible, for others to eavesdrop on our conversations. The bad news is that crypto is largely ignored by the general public, partly because they don't know about it, and partly because even if they do, it seems too much trouble to implement.
The CryptoParty movement hopes to do something about that by inviting people to come along to informal meetings to learn about crypto, how to install it and how to use it in everyday computing in order to strengthen their privacy and protect themselves from surveillance. The driving force behind the idea is the Australian digital rights activist Asher Wolf, well known on Twitter. The specific impetus came from approval of the Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 by the Australian Senate. Here's what it will do, as explained on the academic blog The Conversation:
The bill effects changes in the Telecommunications Act 1997 and Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 and will force carriers and internet service providers (ISPs) to preserve stored communications, when requested by certain domestic authorities (such as the Australian Federal Police), or when requested by those authorities acting on behalf of nominated foreign countries.
That's not quite as bad as mandatory logging of all online activity, but the Australian government is working on that too, as are many other countries. Against that background, the idea of self-organizing parties introducing people to the world of crypto spread rapidly around the world, as the wiki page listing past and future events indicates. One party, in Berlin, led to a new, complementary project: a manual on crypto for beginners:
This means a warrant will be needed before the police or security agencies can force carriers or ISPs to monitor, capture and store website use, data transmissions, voice and multimedia calls, and all other forms of communication over the digital network.
The CryptoParty Handbook was born from a suggestion by Marta Peirano and Adam Hyde after the first Berlin CryptoParty, held on the 29th of August, 2012. Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, co-organisers of the Berlin CryptoParty (along with Marta) were very enthusiastic about the idea, seeing a need for a practical working book with a low entry-barrier to use in subsequent parties. Asher Wolf, originator of the CryptoParty movement, was then invited to join in and the project was born.
The well-known "book sprint" approach was used, together with open source software, and the final result was released as open content under a cc-by-sa license:
This book was written in the first 3 days of October 2012 at Studio Weise7, Berlin, surrounded by fine food and a lake of coffee amidst a veritable snake pit of cables. Approximately 20 people were involved in its creation, some more than others, some local and some far (Melbourne in particular).
The facilitated writing methodology used, Book Sprint, is all about minimising any obstruction between expertise and the published page. Face-to-face discussion and dynamic task-assignment were a huge part of getting the job done, like any good CryptoParty!
As might be expected with such a major project about a complex and sensitive topic put together so quickly, there has been some criticism of the results, notably the inclusion of the weak PPTP for creating Virtual Private Networks. Nonetheless, the CryptoParty movement and the associated Handbook show what can be achieved by committed volunteers coming together across the Internet in a very short time.
The open source, web-based (HTML5 and CSS) writing platform Booktype was chosen for the editing task, helping such a tentacular feat of parallel development to happen with relative ease. Asher also opened a couple of TitanPad pages to crowd-source the Manifesto and HowTo CryptoParty chapters.
Of course, there's still the question of whether this project will have any major impact on the use of crypto by general users. After all, it's not as if people haven't been recommending the thoroughgoing application of encryption for everyday tasks before. As the by-now venerable Cypherpunk's Manifesto put it:
We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. We must come together and create systems which allow anonymous transactions to take place. People have been defending their own privacy for centuries with whispers, darkness, envelopes, closed doors, secret handshakes, and couriers. The technologies of the past did not allow for strong privacy, but electronic technologies do.
Those words were written back in 1993, and here we are in 2012, still fighting the same battles with the same tools. Will things be any different this time?
Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+