The inspiring struggle for digital liberation in Steven Levy’s Crypto

Back in 1999 when I first installed Linux, I discovered Steven Levy’s 1984 classic, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Since that time, I have read at least a dozen books about free and open source software (FOSS), but I don’t think any writer better captures the spirit of the people who work on FOSS than Levy. I recently picked up Levy’s 2001 book, Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government, Saving Privacy in the Digital Age. It was a fascinating read, and I learned a lot about the techno dissidents and dreamers who developed and promoted cryptography. In Hackers, Levy ends on a bittersweet note, writing about how commercial interests had divided the communities of AI hackers at MIT and the microcomputer hackers in California, but Crypto ends on a celebratory note, talking about how the techno activists had gained the freedom to use cryptography everywhere.

At the heart of Levy’s writing is the struggle for digital liberation. It is a fight where we seem to win every battle, yet we are loosing the war. I remember thinking in 1996, when I first learned about the GNU project that it would be so beautiful to live in a world where all software was free (as in free speech). A decade later, I achieved that goal in my personal life and I haven’t used Windows since 2006. Another decade later, I see everyone carrying around mobile devices running on a free operating system. Today, almost every type of hardware is compatible with free Linux drivers. No matter whether the wireless modem is Broadcom, Intel, Realtek, Ralink, Atheros or Marvell, I now assume that I can get it to run in Linux. When I was in college in the early 1990s, Microsoft was vilified as the evil empire incarnate, yet today, it looks like a shambling wreck that is rapidly becoming irrelevant as the world goes mobile and desktop applications become web apps.

As computing moves to Android, which is a free operating system, and applications move to the internet which runs on free protocols and Linux servers, the future seems to be full of free and open source software. Cryptography is being used freely all around us. It would seem that we have achieved technological liberation that was dreamed by the people in Levy’s books, but today there is more government surveillance than ever before. All those Android devices are stuffed full of proprietary apps and spyware which collects data about everything we do. All our information is being stored on private servers, which we can’t touch. Most of the cellphones and servers in the world might be running on free software, but we are less liberated today, since our information is locked up in private hands and our every action is being recorded and analyzed by little brother, while big brother collects reams of data about us.

In so many ways, the computing devices which seemed to offer so much scope for expanding liberty have become informants that help companies and governments to spy on us. Installing Linux and playing with cryptography today no longer feels like an act of liberation, but an exercise in futility in an age where our data is privatized and our lives are surveilled.

Yet, it helps to read Levy, because his stories about the first hackers and digital freedom fighters remind us how many tools we have ready at our fingertips to fight back. The first hackers at MIT stayed up all night just to get the chance to play with a multi-million dollar computer for an hour at 3am in the morning. Today, nearly half the world carries around a mobile device with more computing power than those hulking computers of the 1960s and they have access to most of the knowledge in the known world. Whit Diffie spent months driving all around the country, trying to get anyone to explain how to encryption works, much less use it. Today, anyone can look up the encryption formulas on Wikipedia and use uncrackable 4096 bit RSA in GPG. Today anyone can set up their own server on the internet for $10 a month. We have unimaginable tools at our fingertips to liberate ourselves and organize resistance, so there is no reason to accept a dystopian world where we are controlled by our digital tools and we have no right to privacy.

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