#J20, Signal, spies and the cult of crypto

I'm hearing from concerned activists taking part in the #J20 anti-Trump protests next week that their comrades insist on doing their organizing "securely" through Signal, an encrypted chat app marketed to the activist crowd by Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, Wired magazine and the wider Internet Freedom community.

To be honest, I'm a bit at a loss for words. So let me repeat what I've been saying for the past several years:

Signal (like Tor and other related "grassroots" crypto Internet Freedom projects) are creations of America's spooky military-corporate machine. They are regime change weapons, designed to project American imperial power in the age of the Internet. Signal might work if you're chatting with your local neighborhood dealer to score a few grams of coke, but don’t expect it to protect you if you decide to do anything really transgressive — like organizing against concentrated corporate political power in the United States.

And that's what makes Signal's successful marketing to activists in America so disturbing.

The way the app is designed — your smartphone pinging back and forth with a very particular server — almost certainly guarantees that by using it you will flag yourself and your activists comrades for further surveillance. Signal will make it even easier to isolate the activist from the general smartphone population when all the activists are clustered in a particular location, say, Washington D.C. — which is exactly what will happen next week. The app might be able to encrypt the content of your messages, but it will tag you with a giant red sign that says: "WATCH ME."

I'd say that using Signal during #J20 will be no different than proactively going to the FBI and registering yourself, your activist buddies, your phone number and social media accounts. That's how safe and secure Signal makes you.

I guess the bigger question is: Why is today's activist culture so focused on crypto and operational security? As far as I can tell, encryption and leftwing mass politics are contradictory. How are you going to involve millions of people in your cause if you're so paranoid about your chat messages getting read by the cops?

I feel like "protest culture" has replaced politics or political movement building. Using crypto might help you evade the cops long enough to block a highway or something, but other than that — what's it good for?

My own hunch is that if you're an activist who spends their time obsessing over op-sec and encryption, you're probably just playacting at politics and won't ever pose much of a threat to concentrated corporate power.

Stay safe out there!

—Yasha Levine

Want to know more? Read...

  1. Government-backed privacy tools are not going to protect us from President Trump
  2. German magazine "konkret" interviews me about about Tor, spies and the cult of crypto
  3. Listen to my interview about politics of crypto on Doug Henwood's "Behind the News."

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