We Have Never Been Open: Activism and Cryptography in Surveillance Societies


  • Sy Taffel Massey University




 Whilst there exist a range of contemporaneous discourses surrounding the end of the open Internet, claims that the Internet was until recently “open” are highly dubious. This paper challenges readings of open which derives from the open source movement, but largely ignore the historical specificity of the term’s emergence from the free software movement, and consequently equate open to signify better. Indeed, for numerous activist projects, the default position has long been that unencrypted telecommunications present a serious security breach. Recent developments such as the revelations regarding the NSA-run PRISM program, the imprisonment of social media users for making open calls for citizens to engage in direct action, and state-led attempts to curtail online communications during periods of civil unrest, highlight that security measures taken to preserve anonymity and encrypt telecommunications are a useful strategy for contesting the pervasive surveillance apparatus of the state and large corporations within societies of control.

This paper explores a range of such anti-surveillance technologies including TOR, GPG, and FreedomBox. Additionally the paper will highlight the activity of Hacktionlab, a UK-based tech-activist collective in promoting the application of these platforms within wider activist communities. Following Bernard Stiegler’s prescriptions surrounding the economy of contribution as an alternative to prevalent pathologies of control, the paper contends that if we are to contribute towards a sense of care through digital literacy – whereby individuals better understand the footprints left by their digital activities – it is pivotal to not only delineate the increasingly pervasive forms of surveillance enacted by state and corporate actors, but to outline various methods by which control over communicative spaces can be contested.