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Party with paranoia

Charting the rise of cryptoparties – social events to build encryption codes


CryptoParties are the coffeehouse vanguard of an increasing interest in encryption tools. Attend one and you'll come away with a healthy urge to indulge newfound tin-hat paranoia with an array of tools to gird yourself against the prying eyes of Big Brother. At a time when cryptography apps like Silent Circle and RedPhone are even cropping up within mobile app stores, these parties encourage crypto-revellers to get beneath the hood of internet communications. 

The “party” moniker might be a touch misleading; CryptoParties are more “fight for your right” than “party hard”. The best point of reference is the mystery cult meetings of antiquity, and like those Dionysian gatherings, fun is to be had as you learn how to disappear down the darknet rabbit holes offered by Freenet and Tor. They've become regular fixtures at hackerspaces around the world. You can even run your own with the aid of the 442-page CryptoParty Handbook – a “how to” guide to ensuring maximum communication exclusivity. These gatherings stretch into the small hours, as grizzled hackers and novice computer-users perpetuate the legacy of the cypherpunks, a group of cryptoanarchist mavericks who reclaimed cryptography technology from the US government in the early 90s, empowering future internet users with a greater say over their privacy.

The promise of a CryptoParty is an old-yet-new way of looking at the internet: once initiated in the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) protocols, you share your public key with your friends in person and so connect directly to their computer and communicate with greater security. Prying eyes can tell who you're communicating with but not what you’re saying. 

The nuts and bolts of networked communication can be foreboding territory for anybody not jonesing to walk the Silk Road, so “why bother” is the predictable retort to a CryptoParty invite. One co-author of the CryptoParty Handbook explained that whether you're an Arab spring rebel or a sheep grazing within the “walled gardens” of the big service providers the stakes are equally pressing. “The same basic human rights to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association we defend in public space are increasingly threatened – even extinguished entirely in some political contexts – on the internet today. Ignorance as to the functioning of computer networks has a significant market value on the internet. To educate oneself and others is to take an inherently political position here. We need to not only protest, but actively perform our defence of these rights.”


Peter Lunenfeld’s book The Secret War Between Uploading and Downloading (MIT Press) argues that after half a century of passive television-watching (“the high-fructose corn-syrup of the imagination”), our new networked world allows us to actively engage and create. Here he puts the case for uploading more and downloading less.

The internet was founded on the idea of active participation. But engineers listen to their marketing people when they build their systems so you end up with tablet computing, which is what we’ve got right now. It’s far better suited to buying things than making things. We need to be active and participate, uploading our own opinions and contributions to the polity.

There’s a lot of talk that allowing people to connect would lead to more Tahrir Squares. But governments keep pace, and sometimes outpace the people. Ai Weiwei may be able to tweet or post, but his blogs are carefully monitored, his internet access is blocked – he’s in a real battle with the forces of Chinese oppression. When you look at Iran and its use of these technologies, there’s nothing liberating about it. Look at the American plans for a total monitoring system. No technology is inherently liberating. It is only liberating if used by masses who want to liberate themselves.

There’s been an explosion of maker fairs across the world, increased interest in open-source programming, and some high-school classes now teach the use of (open-source microcontroller) Arduino. Part of the cult of Apple was to close the box completely. But there’s an interesting new book called 10 Print Chr (205.5+Rnd(1)); : Goto 10, named after a one-line program in BASIC designed for the Commodore 64. The first thing it told me to do was to program something. Contrast that with opening a PlayStation 3 and flipping on BioShock. The ability to get in and change or modify things on a basic level is almost completely lost. So we gain things and we give them up. One of Marshall McLuhan’s core insights was that we make our tools and our tools make us. That’s one of the reasons we have to encourage the use of hacktivist tools. If they don’t exist, they won’t remake us as better, more engaged citizens.

Text Francesca Gavin