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The NSA’s War on Strong Encryption: It’s All About Making You Legible to the State

2013 September 6
by rahul

The latest of the Snowden revelations–that the NSA has managed to compromise most of the encryption commonly used on the Internet–is likely to come as far more of a surprise to the online privacy community than all that has come before. After all, encryption is supposed to be the one remaining unbreachable bastion of privacy and individual identity–despite ongoing concerns about issues like backdoors in encryption programs.

In a way, though, this was the most predictable of all the programs–as long as you assume that this country actually has a strong, functioning state. Though this assumption that has seemed increasingly dubious in light of the legislative shenanigans of the last several years, this heartwarming story of proactive government intervention to shape the emerging social terrain should certainly weigh in the balance as well.

In his path-breaking book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, the political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott talks about the ongoing modern-state project of “legibilization,” of reconfiguring individuals and society to make more and more information legible to the state, or, in particular, to state officials. Unsystematic local knowledge that is difficult to detach from its context and from its knower is transformed into data that can be standardized, replicated, transmitted, and analyzed. To a certain degree, the same kind of thing can be done with the physical environment. Scott describes his own process of realization that this is a fundamental imperative of modern states:

How did the state gradually get a handle on its subjects and their environment? Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification. In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored.

So, for example, even today in Afghanistan there are many people who only go by a single name. If, in their locality, there is a chance of confusion, you can also mention their father’s name. This sort of thing is fine for people who might need to know this person on an individual level, but it’s no good for a state that has an interest in maintaining a centralized record of every citizen’s identity and salient characteristics. Thus, for example, in 1934, the modernizing Turkish state under Kemal Ataturk promulgated the Surname Reform, making every citizen come up with a surname that the state could use. Ataturk himself was born just plain Mustafa; he became Mustafa Kemal in school when there was another boy named Mustafa in his class, and he took Ataturk as a surname in 1934.

This may seem a trivial example (though it really isn’t), but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Scott takes the reader through examples as varied as the conversion to arboreal monocropping fostered by 19th-century German “scientific forestry,” the reduction of a mess of locally varying customary land-use rights to the simple dichotomy of property ownership or non-ownership, and the imposition of geometrically regular street grids in urban redesign and renewal projects.

These kinds of measures generally have two important overarching effects: they decrease local autonomy and the ability to resist government impositions, and they destroy at least some local knowledge in the process of transforming and uniformizing it. Legibilization projects have sometimes had terrible consequences, especially when part of a larger “high-modernist” transformation project carried out by an authoritarian state (or by a nominally democratic one with no effective accountability to marginalized populations), but they always involve at the very least creation of further potential limits to individual freedom and autonomy.

What does all this have to do with encryption? Well, the first thing to realize is that the extraordinary scope of the NSA’s ongoing project–one tiny piece of it is the expenditure of “$250m a year on a program which, among other goals, works with technology companies to ‘covertly influence’ their product designs”–is an argument that one should actually have faith in strong encryption. If you understand number theory and cryptography, you probably already believe in strong encryption, at least in principle, since you’ve seen mathematical proof of its effectiveness, but the NSA is providing “sociological proof” as well.

Strong encryption represents in principle a permanently unbreakable bastion of illegibility, an area that must, by the ineluctable dictates of mathematics, remain terra incognita to all governments for all time. Since any kind of electronic communication can be hidden behind the walls of this fortress, there is the prospect of governments being permanently blind to a major chunk of human society.

Indeed, as soon as the threat reared its head, the U.S. government went into action to preserve the principle of legibility. The Clinton administration introduced an initiative to foster use of the “Clipper Chip,” working toward a “key-escrow” paradigm, in which strong encryption was possible, but the U.S. government would have a permanent back-door into any encrypted communication.

Lance Hoffman, a computer science professor, articulated the NSA’s concerns at the time:”The agency is really worried about its screens going blank. When that happens, the N.S.A. — … — goes belly-up.” Primarily because of the public-relations work of a coalition of hackers, IT people, the ACLU, and such types, the NSA was stymied, and, according to the New York Times, turned in 2000 (NOT 2001) to under-the-table efforts to get the same results de facto.

These efforts include brute-force encryption cracking, pressuring tech companies to build in back doors and yield up master keys and private information of subscribers, and even attempting to influence the security architecture that IT entrepreneurs build into the new systems that are constantly revolutionizing the world of electronic communication. Shelley once called poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world; today, sadly, IT entrepreneurs and computer programmers are–at least in this case, we know that democratic accountability is being intruded into that legislation by our own government’s National Security Agency.

All of this work will not preserve perfect legibility. As long as you write your own encryption programs, make sure you keep your private encryption key on an “air-gapped” computer that has never been connected to the Internet, and encrypt and decrypt messages only on that computer, the NSA will have a tough time gaining access to your communications. For the 17 people who do that, I guess, things will be just fine. But perfect legibility has never been a requirement for the ongoing encroachment of state power into our lives. As long as maintaining your own illegibility requires you to live like a fugitive–or, in this case, like a spook–the legibility project has served its purpose.

Although principled right-wingers, libertarians, anarchists, and the ACLU would surely disagree, legibilization projects are hardly an unalloyed evil. The state needs capacity in order to create public goods and to foster public coordination. An increasingly complex world is going to need a state with increasingly complex capacities. And sometimes soulless number-crunching does come up with better answers to problems than inchoate local knowledge.

These projects need to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Even here, though, it’s a big mistake to think of them as being akin to individual programs that can be judged case-by-case. Instituting a legibilization project involves an ongoing and likely permanent change in governmental and societal infrastructure that will impose unforeseeable constraints in unimaginable future situations. On this one, in principle, in the most abstract sense, I would side with states–because strong encryption is forever. In practice, however, at the current time, the results are all negative. There’s no reason to believe NSA meddling has had any real effect in preventing terrorist attacks and there’s every reason to believe that the NSA, the Obama administration, and states around the world are on a “national-security” power trip that has nothing to do with security and everything to do with increasing the asymmetry in access and accountability between individuals and the state, an asymmetry that is already crippingly stacked against the individual.

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