Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

The Campaign Against Privacy:
How Propaganda is Used to Perpetuate Surveillance and State Power

-- EthanThomas - 03 May 2017

Propaganda and Power Through Subtle Influence

The American public's deep reliance on the internet and cloud services has given rise to a problem that is not unique in nature, but has changed in type. Governments hunger for power, and surveillance is a time-tested way for governments to ascertain knowledge and control in subtle ways. Influencing behavior not by heavy-handed force, but by understanding and manipulating people's own preferences, is a particularly desirable method for democratic governments that must keep the people content that they are making their own decisions. In other words, allowing people to make their own decisions but surreptitiously influencing those choices has proven an excellent means of control for the American government.

This strategy is by no means new, but the battle has assumed a different form, as reliable means for encryption and anonymity have become easily accessible. The most powerful surveillance network ever to exist has risen simultaneously with the most effective means of widespread yet anonymous communication. Some governments have tried to respond with traditional means of control, such as mandatory key disclosure programs,(1) or outright bans of privacy-protecting software.(2) But the American government chooses to fight this threat to its growing power in its traditionally subtle way: do not exert direct force, but persuade people that there is something dangerous or taboo about circumventing the surveillance and control networks. This is accomplished through a campaign of propaganda against effective, widely available, and largely open-source programs that protect secrecy and anonymity.

The Importance of Anonymity and Protected Communication

Individual autonomy is drastically undercut when the threat of monitoring always lurks in the background. "Autonomy is vitiated by the wholesale invasion of secrecy and privacy. Free decision-making is impossible in a society where every move is monitored . . . ."(3) The ability to communicate anonymously and free from this fear of eavesdropping is central not only to personhood, but to a functional democracy as well.(4)

Even with relatively secure means of communication, government access is a serious concern. Last year, the FBI sought information about users of the encrypted-messaging app Signal.(5) Notoriously, encrypted email service Lavabit was required by a court order to turn over its private keys, which would have given the government the ability to break through the encryption of all Lavabit email accounts.(6) The regular use of national security letters in this context amplifies these concerns, because there is a severe lack of transparency and judicial oversight.(7)

Many times, targets of surveillance will never know who is seeing their private correspondence, when, or why; thus, without reliable encryption and anonymization, any individual is constantly at risk that they are being monitored or profiled.

The Tactics of Anti-Privacy Propaganda

The U.S. government and corporate entities that benefit from commonplace surveillance have taken a strong stance against secure means of communication, and encryption in particular, by highlighting instances where criminals or terrorists use these tools and perpetuating the "if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide" narrative.(8) These tactics and the overall message against encryption ignore legitimate needs for the technology, and they reveal troubling motives to the government's approach to technology, privacy, and free speech.

A prevalent tactic is to associate secure or anonymous communication with criminality or terrorism. In one report (by a private firm), Tor, VPN services, and several messaging applications are identified as "Tech for Jihad."(9) Tor in particular has gained a reputation as "the web browser for criminals,"(10) merely because it serves to anonymize users. Telegraph, an app which can send encrypted and self-deleting messages, has been identified as "the app of choice for jihadists."(11)

The government has itself played a significant role in associating privacy-protecting or anonymizing tools with criminality. The standoff between Apple and the FBI over the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone brought to the forefront the government's discomfort with encryption.(12) The Manhattan District Attorney's Office argues that "[t]here is an urgent need for federal legislation that would compel software and hardware companies that design or build mobile devices or operating systems to make such devices amenable to appropriate searches."(13)

This treatment of encryption and anonymity is classic propaganda.(14) adapted to a new world. Where information spreads more easily and the public is skeptical of obvious exercises of power, propaganda takes the form of subtle suggestion. The government can easily enlist corporations that also benefit from naked communication and total information gathering. Such a campaign makes sense: encryption is easy to implement and access,(15) so the best way to keep people from it is to treat it as if it were dangerous or presumptively criminal. The goal is to change behavior through misinformation and fear, rather than through direct enforcement. This is at its core self-censorship and self-regulation, gradually imposed on the citizenry. Simply put, the best way to ensure that behavior can be comprehensively monitored is to normalize snooping (by both the government and private parties) and to stigmatize evasion of such intrusions.

More Speech is the Appropriate Counterpropaganda

Privacy threatens government power and corporate profitability. This campaign thrives on ignorance, misinformation, and ultimately restriction of true expression. The best way to combat it is perhaps through the opposite: vigilance, more information, and increased uninhibited speech. If the public is more aware of the use to which their information is put, as well as the legitimate uses for privacy-enhancing tools, misinformation designed to skew the need for privacy and suggest that people have ";nothing to hide" would quickly lose legitimacy. Of course, that information is and has been available, and some portion of the population will continue to opt for convenience over privacy. For those who do not, however, it remains paramount to recognize patterns of despotism as they develop and to intervene with information or litigation. Continuing to speak freely and access information uninhibited, while ensuring that channels remain open and accessible for others to do the same, will be the challenge of the near future, but that task is central to preserving the right to exist free from the comprehensive collection and direction of behavior that the government desires to implement on a systematic level.


1 : See Jeremy Kirk, Contested UK encryption disclosure law takes effect,

2 : Kevin Collier, The Countries That Are Considering Banning Encryption,

3 : Eben Moglen, Privacy under attack: the NSA files revealed new threats to democracy,

4 : See id.

5 : Open Whisper Systems, Grand jury subpoena for Signal user data, Eastern District of Virginia,

6 : Ladar Levison, Secrets, lies and Snowden's email: why I was forced to shut down Lavabit,

7 : See EFF, National Security Letters,; see also ACLU, National Security Letters, (listing several challenges to legality of NSL use).

8 : For one discussion of this argument, see Alex Abdo, You May Have 'Nothing to Hide' But You Still Have Something to Fear,; see also Business Insider, Comcast Denies It Will Cut Off Customers Who Use Tor, The Web Browser For Criminals,; see also PC World, Google's Schmidt Roasted for Privacy Comments, (citing Schmidt's comment that "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place . . . .").

9 : See Flashpoint, Tech for Jihad,

10 : See Business Insider, Comcast Denies It Will Cut Off Customers Who Use Tor, The Web Browser For Criminals,

11 : See Washington Post, The "app of choice" for jihadists: ISIS seizes on Internet tool to promote terror,

12 : See, e.g., NPR All Tech Considered, A Year After San Bernardino And Apple-FBI, Where Are We On Encryption?,

13 : Manhattan District Attorney's Office, Smartphone Encryption and Public Safety,

14 : (See Oxford Dictionaries, Propaganda, "Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.").

15 : For example, RSA encryption utilizes basic number theory, and a simple program can create extremely difficult-to-break encryption. See, e.g., A Simple RSA Implementation in Python,


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r14 - 03 May 2017 - 21:42:32 - EthanThomas
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