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    At Personal Democracy Forum, Snowden & Co. Turn Focus To Encryption

    by Mark Hannah
    June 10, 2014
    Edward Snowden was the keynote speaker at this year's PDF conference. Photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Just as the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) was commencing last year, news broke that a young ex-CIA analyst working under contract for the National Security Agency in Hawaii disclosed reams of classified documents to the media. The leak was blasted by the Obama administration as a massive detriment to America’s national security and applauded by civil libertarians as a whistle blown on a secret, statist, and suspicion-less surveillance program.

    For PDF, one of the country’s top pow wows of digital media evangelists, the news of a tech-savvy idealist’s deployment of digital tools to surveil the surveillers (usurp the usurpers?), reinvigorated the conference, then in its 10th year. It’s no surprise, then, that when the Personal Democracy Forum reconvened late last week, Edward Snowden was the keynote speaker. The Snowden revelations are catnip for this front-line battalion of digital media revolutionaries, given the interwoven themes of government overreach, corporate complicity and individual empowerment.

    "Might corporate surveillance (i.e., data collection) be in the crosshairs as tech companies begin to outgrow, play an outsized role within, or develop different priorities than, advocacy communities like PDF?"
    The PDF conference just wrapped up in New York City.

    The PDF conference just wrapped up in New York City.

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    In the foreword to his newest book, PDF co-founder Micah Sifry warns that the Internet “is in danger of being destroyed by a combination of greed (on the part of big tech companies who are walling it off), laziness (on the part of users who are choosing free and convenient services over a more decentralized and personally secure architecture), and nationalism (on the part of some countries that fear the freedom that the Internet makes possible…).” It was this last piece of the trifecta that received the most scorn at this year’s conference.

    In the lead-up to Snowden’s presentation, security technologist and Berkman Center fellow Bruce Schneier informed us that “fear and convenience” have propelled the proliferation of state surveillance. Holmes Wilson and Tiffiny Cheng, the duo responsible for the SOPA blackout, insisted that, while the NSA are “masterminds” at targeted surveillance, when it comes to the trolling tactics of suspicion-less surveillance, they’re “scavengers” — like “raccoons going through the trash.” Without the widespread adoption of encryption technologies, they added, “we as a community left the lid of the trash can and the garage door wide open.” They also shared the news that Google will begin offering end-to-end encryption services for Gmail (!).

    EFF's Jillian York.

    EFF’s Jillian York.

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    Up next, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York proclaimed that “encryption is for everyone.” Acknowledging that encryption is “not 100 percent safe,” York suggested the encryption movement take up the spirit of the safe sex movement, in which the goal is “harm reduction” rather than the complete elimination of risk.

    Might the call for a more widespread use of encryption technology be a harbinger of a sort of technological arms race between large tech companies that try to encrypt their users’ data and intelligence agencies that seek more sophisticated surveillance technologies to crack these encryption? The conference was sponsored by tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook and, as mentioned, was primarily critical of government surveillance. Might corporate surveillance (i.e., data collection) be in the crosshairs as tech companies begin to outgrow, play an outsized role within, or develop different priorities than, advocacy communities like PDF?

    Snowden, piped in from Russia via Google Hangout, was quick to nod to the national security imperatives that he’s been accused of transgressing. Distinguishing between the need to protect “the nation” and to protect “the state,” he insisted that, while government surveillance might accomplish the latter, his actions unquestionably help us do the former. In explaining why keeping metadata private is a top priority, Snowden quoted former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden who’s reportedly said, “we kill people based on metadata.” Indeed, if the nation-state maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, as Max Weber once pointed out, state surveillance programs have graver consequences than those of the private sector.

    Edward Snowden was the keynote speaker at this year's PDF conference.

    Edward Snowden was the keynote speaker at this year’s PDF conference.

    If the fight against suspicion-less surveillance is being waged against entities that are national in scope, one takeaway from the conference was that many of the openings for meaningful online activism are local. Jerry Paffendorf left behind a career in Silicon Valley to help fight blight in Detroit. Using digital tools and large datasets to survey rather than surveil, Paffendorf created online maps to visualize and track overgrown and dilapidated properties, and launched a “blight removal task force,” which can be seen at MotorCityMapping.org.

    As the conference came to a close, I exchanged some observations with a producer for Brian Lehrer, the NYC public radio host. We reflected upon the dramatic ways in which digital media had transformed in the 11 years that the forum had been active and, yet, how unchanging the manifestos and mantras of the participants remain. Has this message consistency been a strength or a shortcoming of a revolution whose clarion calls have fluctuated between transparency and privacy, global connection and local engagement?

    If Micah Sifry is correct and nationalism is responsible for the policies that curtail Internet freedom, then nationalism accordingly becomes one of the revolution’s adversaries. But these terms are fluid and contestable. As Benedict Anderson, the author of the “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised Edition”, wrote, the “twin conceptions” of revolution and nationalism are “inventions on which patents are impossible to preserve.” Herein lies both the principal challenge and an opportunity for our digital media revolution.

    Correction: This story has been altered to correct that Wilson and Cheng, not York shared the news that Google will begin offering end-to-end encryption services for Gmail.

    Mark Hannah is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. Mark’s political career began on the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign, where he worked as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently done advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign, the Presidential Inaugural Committee and the White House. In the “off-season” (i.e., in between campaigns) he worked in the PR agency world and conducted sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and was a research fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and received a master’s degree from Columbia University. His personal website is www.mark-hannah.com, and he can be reached at markphannah[at]gmail.com. Follow Mark on Twitter: @ProfessorHannah.

    Tagged: edward snowden eff electronic frontier foundation pdf pdf14 personal democracy forum
    • oneaero

      Maybe you just don’t get it!

      They gave you and me a free and independent America Not a
      Gestapo State. In which now the White House Gestapo’s have the answers to
      violent crime by not prosecuting felons and fugitives while just turning them
      loose out of jails the Documented or Non documented, And our not even trying to
      prosecute them for gun crimes. Well how about just going after the Americans
      constitutional rights of all the law-abiding citizens! And Now they want to
      bring the people in who have Jumped the Fence come thru the back door broke all
      the Laws of this land and then give them a free ride along with Food stamps,
      what a Slaps in the Face and a kick in the A$S to all of our forefathers who
      came to this Country thru the Front Door without breaking any Laws. “1776
      will commence again if you try to take our firearms and or the First and or the
      Second Amendment of our constitution!” The history books of today do not tell
      the student a lot of what happened leading to and during the revolutionary war.
      We didn’t just fight the British. We were British subjects, a state of siege
      and repression of rights and liberties had existed for many years and a state
      of war had existed for two years prior to the signing of the Declaration, and
      we fought our own government for independence! Most of the citizens of today
      take their liberties so much for granted. They shouldn’t, for in taking liberty
      for granted, they have lost much of it. All governments progress from liberty
      to tyranny and despotism, unless carefully watched and circumscribed and that’s
      why the First and Second constitution is in place for just that purpose here in
      the United States. Much is to be learned in today’s times from the events of
      that time, the causes and the reasons for the uprising and indignation of the
      citizens in opposition to tyranny. Many parallels can be drawn as we review the
      happenings of today by our own Buffoon in the White House And once he’s a
      chancellor like this Hitler, in our own White House which then he is able to
      use his position and use his henchmen to consolidate absolute control over our
      country in a few months, Hitler just a month after being appointed chancellor,
      Hitler used the torching of the Reichstag parliament building — blamed on a
      Dutch communist — to strengthen his grip on power. He suspended civil liberties
      and cracked down on opposition parties, paving the way for the police state.
      And now this Buffoon in the White House is trying to do the same! The Real
      scary thing is a dramatic erosion of American position in the world — its
      economic, military position, as well as America’s influence. Your Obama Buffoon
      the man at the wheel desperately trying to conserve American power, influence
      and wealth. For your ideological Muslim reasons like he wants the slipping to
      continue Well guess what! He’s also an
      architect doing the same thing! Just Vote Independent!

      As Noted: The events, by and large, leading to the decision
      to declare for independence, are well delineated in the Declaration of
      Independence, a bill of particulars and reasons AND In only one place in the
      Constitution’s Bill of Rights is there’s a provision that flatly bars the
      government from regulating one of our protected rights, Why the hell do you
      think that was there for! For a Government that gone corrupted to the core!
      That’s why! BONG! That is in the First Amendment, declaring that “Congress
      shall make no law respecting” the rights listed in that Amendment. The “right to keep and bear arms” is not one
      of those rights; it is contained in the Second Amendment.

      America was born on
      guns and whiskey. Yes! It’s true we’re a violent society. And if you are a
      foreigner then you’re a redcoat. Our Government is now telling us what to do!
      And this White House’s with its ideological Muslim and Gestapo ways will never
      happen here in the States Now or Ever!!

      This White House and the Henchmen of this Muslim Buffoon is
      it now trying to take away are American rights one by one! — Vote them all
      out! Now! , First chance you get! Pass
      this on to everyone! Obama Note! You and Your pocket people in Congress and
      your Henchmen have started a War with the American people! And Yes! 1776’ will
      commence once again, so watch as All American people have always and will
      always keep their Powder Dry! , It will commence again! Let the people of
      America take back control of our Government and preserve are Constitutions
      Amendments and most of all The “First and the Second Amendment of our
      constitution” And Rid this Muslim Buffoon and all his Pocket people in Congress
      and all his Gestapo Henchmen in the White House once and for all this next Voting round, The American people still
      Remember that Hitler ordered on February 10, 1936, his Nazi Reichstag to pass
      the ‘Gestapo Law’ which included the following paragraph: “Neither the instructions
      nor the affairs of the Gestapo will be open to review by the administrative
      courts”.

      And now this Buffoon in the White House is trying to do the
      same! The Real scary thing is a dramatic erosion of American position world
      wide — it’s economic, military position, as well as America’s influence made in
      the White House just like the Gestapo had done And now this NSA Spying
      Worldwide. Yes! Your Obama the Muslim Buffoon at the wheel desperately trying
      to conserve American power, influence and wealth of this Country, For his
      ideological Muslim reasons like he wants the slipping to continue forever. And
      I quote a 14th century Byzantine emperor as saying: Islam had only brought evil
      to the world and that it was spread by the sword.

      Did you expect him also to appoint any American Patriot
      Judges?

      I guess you thought he was the coming messiah! I didn’t Vote
      for the S.O.B.

      Wake Up America! … While you can! They gave you and I a
      free and independent America Not a Gestapo State. In which now the White House
      Gestapo’s have the answer to violent crime by not prosecuting felons and
      fugitives, not prosecuting gun crimes, but now going after the constitutional
      rights of all the law-abiding citizens! And Now they want to bring the people
      in who Jumped the Fences come thru the back door bypass all the Laws, what a
      Slaps in the Face and a kick in the A$S to all of our forefathers who came to
      this Country thru the Front Door without breaking any Laws. “1776 will
      commence again you can bet on that, if you try to take our firearms and or the
      “First and or the Second Amendment of our constitution!” The history books of
      today do not tell the student a lot of what happened leading to and during the
      revolutionary war. We didn’t just fight the British. “We were British
      subjects”!, a state of siege and repression of rights and liberties had existed
      for many years and a state of war had existed for two years prior to the
      signing of the Declaration, and we fought our own government for independence!
      Most of the citizens of today take their liberties so much for granted. They shouldn’t,
      for in taking those liberties for granted, they have lost much of it. All
      governments progress from liberty to tyranny and despotism, unless carefully
      watched and circumscribed. Much is to be learned in today’s times from the
      events of the past as well as the causes and the reasons for the uprising and
      indignation of the citizens in opposition to tyranny. Many parallels can be
      drawn as we review the happenings of today by this Buffoon in the White House
      And once he’s a chancellor like this Hitler, in our own White House which then
      he is able to use his position and his henchmen to consolidate absolute control
      over our country in a few months, Hitler just a month after being appointed
      chancellor, Hitler used the torching of the Reichstag parliament building —
      blamed on a Dutch communist — to strengthen his grip on power. He suspended
      civil liberties and cracked down on opposition parties, paving the way for the
      police state.

      And now this Buffoon in the White House is trying to do the
      same! The Real scary thing is a dramatic erosion of American position in the
      world — its economic, military position, as well as America’s influence. Your
      Obama Buffoon the man at the wheel desperately trying to conserve American
      power, influence and wealth. For his ideological Muslim reasons like he wants
      the slipping to continue well guess what!
      He’s also that architect doing the same thing!

      Just Vote Independent!

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