Cypherpunks are activists who advocate the widespread use of strong cryptography (writing in code) as a route to progressive change. Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of and visionary behind WikiLeaks, has been a leading voice in the cypherpunk movement since its inception in the 1980s.
Now, Assange brings together a small group of cutting-edge thinkers and activists from the front line of the battle for cyber-space to discuss whether electronic communications will emancipate or enslave us. Among the topics addressed are: Do Facebook and Google constitute "the greatest surveillance machine that ever existed", perpetually tracking our location, our contacts and our lives? Far from being victims of that surveillance, are most of us willing collaborators? Are there legitimate forms of surveillance, for instance in relation to the "Four Horsemen of the Infopocalypse" (money laundering, drugs, terrorism, and pornography)? And do we have the ability, through conscious action and technological savvy, to resist this tide and secure a world where freedom is something which the Internet helps bring about?
The harassment of WikiLeaks and other Internet activists, together with attempts to introduce anti-file sharing legislation such as SOPA and ACTA, indicate that the politics of the Internet have reached a crossroads. In one direction lies a future that guarantees, in the watchwords of the cypherpunks, "privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful"; in the other lies an Internet that allows government and large corporations to discover ever more about internet users while hiding their own activities. Assange and his co-discussants unpick the complex issues surrounding this crucial choice with clarity and engaging enthusiasm.
©2012 Julian Assange (P)2013 Audible, Inc.
"Cypherpunks is gripping, vital reading, explaining clearly the way in which corporate and government control of the Internet poses a fundamental threat to our freedom and democracy." (Oliver Stone)
"Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet is an important wake-up call about a possible dystopian future, which is a technological reality now.… While messengers of dangerous outcomes are always met at first with hostility and even mockery, history shows that we disregard such warnings as these at our peril." (Naomi Wolf)
"Obligatory reading for everyone interested in the reality of our freedoms." (Slavoj Žižek)
So for starters, if you want a preview of this book you can watch the Julian Assange Show episode titled Cypherpunks 1 and 2 (available various places, I watched it on Hulu) . The audiobook is a text version of a conversation between Julian Assange, Jeremie Zimmerman, Andy Müller-Maguhn, anbd Jacob Appelbaum, and the show is the video of part of the interview, though the book has the entire conversation.
The book provides a very realistic, and often unseen look at freedom or lack thereof, as well as various ways the government is trying to limit privacy and free speech on the internet through various things like SOPA or through Facebook. The audibook also talks a lot of the various ways "Cypherpunks" are able to maintain their autonomy, against the will of the government.
I really enjoyed the audiobook, and finished it easily within two days. Once I started it I couldn't put it down.... I think I listened to three and a half hours straight after starting it.
This entire four hour audiobook is merely a transcript of a conversation between four activists (with the exception of a short intro by Julian Assange). The narrator literally has to cite who is speaking as each speaker changes. Believe it or not, that didn’t harm the book or pace. However, as I listened to these guys talk amongst themselves about the future of the Internet, I felt like I could overhear the exact same conversation at the corner Starbucks. These four activists are essentially of the same mind, so they lob each other softball questions and go on long-winded anti-government and anti-American rants.
The conversation began to just sound like stoner talk.
Nevermind the MAJOR paradox they embody…a crusade for transparency by a group called ‘Anonymous.’ Nevermind that we have not elected then. Nevermind that we have no idea who they are.
These so-called cypherpunks are not unintelligent people. They are simply passionate about digital privacy in an irresponsible (and illegal) way. Luckily, I have faith that men and women of intelligence have the ability to self-correct, to recognize their contradictions, to evolve in a more constructive way. They just need to stop romanticizing their role as a “high tech rebel elite” and subject themselves to the laws of society, to be a part of society not apart from it.
Still, this is probably the great debate of our time. Hearing their point of view is critical in understanding the nature of problem. We regular people, the general public, are all in the middle. On one side we have a large central government invading our privacy and/or spying on its public, while on the other side we have these guys….a secret network of digital hackers who steal information and target businesses and groups that oppose them. We regular people really have no protection from either group.
If cypherpunks believe in transparency, then they themselves must be transparent. Otherwise, their strict culture of secrecy and their militant use of digital espionage is, in itself, the very antithesis of what they claim to fight for.
"Paranoia or Prescience?"
Like Assange himself, I think this book will strongly divide people. It certainly aroused conflicting feelings in me.
It starts with a stark warning. We are sleepwalking into a surveillance society, of constantly being watched, where every detail of our lives, everything we say or write, every website we visit, our histories, preferences, misdemeanours and even gossip about us, are collected and stored by corporations and governments - essentially forever. This is contrasted with an increasing cloak of secrecy surrounding those with power, as they increasingly take control of the infrastructure of the Internet. This is the very opposite of the liberation the old style hackers and cypherpunks envisaged for the Internet.
Following that dramatic introduction, the majority of the book is a four way discussion on the implications of this. At times it verges on the paranoid, at other times it is like four blokes down the pub, speculating on possibilities for a future dystopia.
Several themes recur: the "Four Horsemen of the Infopocalypse" are the rationale used by governments to justify increasing surveillance and censorship, which the book repeatedly seems to ridicule.
Here I started to have my doubts, for these seem to me serious societal problems, and perhaps the price of more security, is more surveillance - and that is a price worth paying.
Moreover, the strong recommendation of universal personal encryption measures, to evade surveillance, such as TOR for anonymous surfing, BitCoin for anonymous financial transactions, encrypted email clients etc. left me wondering why I would want to go to such lengths to hide what I see, buy, or write. Id be a little bemused if MI5 took a serious interest.
Then I read about Justin Carter, who was arrested and held for 5 months in Texas as a potential terrorist for making a sick joke on Facebook, and government starts to look less benign and more paranoid, and oppressive - and I concede that maybe Assange is on to something. As I write this the UK government is planning universal censorship by ISPs by default.
So, it's a worrying book, the narration is pitched just right, and it left me thinking seriously about the whole area of security, freedom, censorship and surveillance. That can only be a good thing.
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