One of the most interesting outcomes of the the Snowden revelations for me are that they have exposed to the light of day an awful lot about how different groups of people relate to technology and authority. There are the side that worries about the internet becoming the “worst tool of human oppression in all of human history” and then we have the “I’ve got nothing to hide so I don’t care” vast majority. I think a lot of us have to be in the second group most of the time, just to operate normally – even if we have sympathies with the first.
One problem is the idea that the internet has gradually become intertwined with our societies to the point where it is inconceivable that we could have a functioning civilisation again without it. This does, I think provide a sense of unease to most people – but at the same time it’s easy to brush away. The fact we take the internet entirely for granted is perhaps the most surprising thing of all but I think primarily down to the unease, the easiest option is to trivialise it’s role.
In some attempt to keep up with the news in a realm I know next to nothing about, I’ve been reading a book called Applied Cryptography by Bruce Schneier – this book was first published in 1996 but feels very current, fascinating and probably quite unique in that it comprises half cultural/political discussion and half source code. On page two he explains three vital requirements for social interaction and computers that that cryptography provides (beyond secrecy):
– Authentication. It should be possible for the receiver and sender of a message to ascertain it’s origin; an intruder should not be able to masquerade as someone else.
– Integrity. It should be possible for the receiver of a message to verify that it has not been modified in transit; an intruder should not be able to substitute a false message for a legitimate one.
– Nonrepudiation. A sender should not be able to falsely deny later that he sent the message.
Jaron Lanier wrote in “You are not a gadget” that we become “less human” as we use online services like Twitter and Facebook, as we submit ourselves to their abstractions rather than demand more from them. I think Lanier’s underlying message has some truth to it, but his blame is mostly in the wrong place.
For all sorts of technical, political and accidental reasons, we are all being trained to communicate without cryptography, whilst having evolved as humans to understand social interaction in ways that absolutely require it. The evidence from psychology and history is that a society that reduces communication to this level does not have a bright future. One solution to this I like a lot is the approach of the cryptoparty movement – a great way to widely spread understanding of these issues and the solutions involved.
Oh, and this is my public key.