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Space for dissent
by Riseup
Thursday Aug 22nd, 2013 1:11 PM
Within social movements, there is a temptation to say that nothing is really different. After all, governments have always targeted activist groups with surveillance and disruption, especially the successful ones.

But this new surveillance is different. What the US government and European allies have built is an infrastructure for perfect social control. By automating the process of surveillance, they have created the ability to effortlessly peer into the lives of everyone, all the time, and thus create a system with unprecedented potential for controlling how we behave and think.

Space for dissent

It is a mistake to frame the recent US and European massive surveillance revelations in terms of the privacy of individuals. What is at stake is not privacy at all, but the power of the state over its citizenry.

What surveillance really is, at its root, is a highly effective form of social control. The knowledge of always being watched changes our behavior and stifles dissent. The inability to associate secretly means there is no longer any possibility for free association. The inability to whisper means there is no longer any speech that is truly free of coercion, real or implied. Most profoundly, pervasive surveillance threatens to eliminate the most vital element of both democracy and social movements: the mental space for people to form dissenting and unpopular views.

Many commentators, and Edward Snowden himself, have noted that these surveillance programs represent an existential threat to democracy. This understates the problem. The universal surveillance programs in place now are not simply a potential threat, they are certain to destroy democracy if left unchecked. Democracy, even the shadow of democracy we currently practice, rests on the bedrock foundation of free association, free speech, and dissent. The consequence of the coercive power of surveillance is to subvert this foundation and undermine everything democracy rests on.

Within social movements, there is a temptation to say that nothing is really different. After all, governments have always targeted activist groups with surveillance and disruption, especially the successful ones.

But this new surveillance is different. What the US government and European allies have built is an infrastructure for perfect social control. By automating the process of surveillance, they have created the ability to effortlessly peer into the lives of everyone, all the time, and thus create a system with unprecedented potential for controlling how we behave and think.

True, this infrastructure is not currently used in this way, but it is a technical tool-kit that can easily be used for totalitarian ends.

Those who imagine a government can be trusted to police itself when given the ominous power of precise insight into the inner workings of everyday life are betting the future on the ability of a secretive government to show proper self-restraint in the use of their ever-expanding power. If history has shown us anything, it is that the powerful will always use their full power unless they are forced to stop.

So, how exactly are we planning on stopping them? We support people working through the legal system or applying political pressure, but we feel our best hope of stopping the technology of surveillance is the technology of encryption. Why? Because the forces that have created this brave new world are unlikely to be uprooted before it is too late to halt the advance of surveillance.

Unfortunately, most existing encryption technology is counterproductive. Many people are pushing technology that is proprietary, relies on a central authority, or is hopelessly difficult for the common user. The only technology that has a chance to resist the rise of surveillance will be open source, federated, and incredibly easy to use. In the long run, decentralized peer-to-peer tools might meet this criteria, but for the foreseeable future these tools will not have the features or usability that people have grown accustomed to.

In the coming months, the Riseup birds plan to begin rolling out a series of radically new services, starting with encrypted internet, encrypted email, and encrypted chat. These services will be based on 100% open source and open protocols, will be easy to use, and will protect your data from everyone, even Riseup. This is a massive undertaking, made in concert over the last year with several other organizations, and will only work with your support. We need programmers, particularly those experienced in Python, C, Ruby, and Android development, and sysadmins interested in starting their own secure service providers.

We also need money. Donations from our amazing Riseup users keep us running on our current infrastructure. But in order to be able to graduate to a new generation of truly secure and easy to use communication technology, we are going to need a lot more money than our users are able to donate. If you have deep pockets and an interest in building this new generation of communication, then we need to hear from you. If you have friends or family who care about the future of democracy and who have deep pockets, we need to hear from them, too.

At Riseup, we have felt for the last few years that the window of opportunity to counter the rise of universal surveillance is slowly shrinking. Now is our chance to establish a new reality where mass numbers of people are using encryption on a daily basis.

If you have the skills or the money, now is the time to step up and help make this reality come true. Please contact waxwing@riseup.net.