My story in The Baffler: Pavel Durov, CIA-funded privacy and the paranoid grift of crypto politics
Issue No. 36 of The Baffler Magazine features a big story that I worked on over the summer while in Russia: The Crypto- Keepers.
It's about Telegram, Pavel Durov, and how American intel agencies deal with encrypted chat apps (well, at least the ones that they don't fund). The story starts with Durov ("The Mark Zuckerberg of Russia") and details the FBI's attempts to bully and bribe the developers of his encrypted chat app Telegram in the hopes of turning them in moles for the agency. The story then moves into bigger and weirder territory: the technocratic, libertarian trend in our politics and culture to outsource our privacy politics to apps made by Google, Facebook and the CIA.
I have been exploring this terrain ever since I wrote about the Tor Project and US intelligence support of privacy technology almost four years ago—a topic I get into on a much deeper level in my forthcoming book Surveillance Valley. One thing that Durov and I shared was bewilderment that big name privacy activists, including Edward Snowden, could with a straight face promote Internet crypto tools like Signal and Tor—apps that are openly and brazenly funded by CIA spinoffs, the State Department and the Pentagon.
Imagine being teleported back to the Soviet Union and watching Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn promoting a KGB-funded a crypto fax line, telling other dissident samizdat writers to use it and promising that it was totally shielded from KGB operatives because of "math-based encryption technology." Ha. If that had happened in the Soviet Union, the KGB’s efforts would have been ridiculed and mocked, while Solzhenitsyn would have been branded as a KGB rat.
Yet here in America, things are different. Spies are our friends, especially when they're making anti-spy privacy technology for the masses. Just ask the EFF, Wired or Pierre Omidyar's The Intercept.
Read it for yourself: https://thebaffler.com/salvos/the-crypto-keepers-levine
IT’S 7:30 P.M. ON A MONDAY in June at an undisclosed location somewhere in northern Europe. I’m sitting in a private dining room in an upscale hotel, talking to Pavel Durov—the “Mark Zuckerberg of Russia,” a young internet mogul who had built the country’s most popular social network and lost it to the Kremlin all before he turned thirty. Not long after the famed American whistleblower Edward Snowden had fled to Russia to avoid federal prosecution, Durov had offered Snowden a job—but then himself had to flee Russia because of a widening conflict with the Russian government. Initially hailed as a cyber-dissident because of his spat with the Kremlin, Durov has since drawn the repeated, aggressive interest of American intelligence officials, as well.
A group of wealthy tourists milled around in the lobby, excitedly chattering about their day of sightseeing and museum tours. Our conversation was of a darker nature. Durov and I were talking about the murky, hyper-paranoid world of the crypto-obsessed privacy movement—a place where spies ruled, nothing was what it seemed, and no one could be trusted.
Now, four years after the Snowden leak, we can see that all that energy and outrage and potential for civic action has been redirected into a narrow band of mass-politics-by-app. The new consensus, bruited loudly in and around Silicon Valley, holds that all we need to do to protect ourselves from surveillance is download whatever crypto chat app is in vogue at the moment, and run it on our iPhones. Instead of finding political and democratic solutions to the government and corporate surveillance crisis plaguing our society, the privacy movement somehow ended up in a libertarian rut. In remarkably short order, online privacy advocates had abandoned the idea that people and politics could change the world for the better, and instead chased something closer to an NRA fantasy: the idea that if everyone was equipped with a crypto weapon powerful enough, they could single-handedly take on both corporations and powerful spy agencies like the NSA. They could use technology to guarantee their own privacy on their own terms...
In our post-Snowden world, we have outsourced our privacy politics to crypto apps. By doing so, we’ve entered a paranoid game theory nightmare world—a place where regular people have no true power and must put their faith in the people and organizations stoking the algorithms that make this crypto tech. In the end, it all comes down to trust. But can any of these people and organizations be really trusted? The young Russian mogul on the skids with the Kremlin? The former American spy-for-hire on the run and hiding out in Russia? Boutique crypto apps funded by the regime change wing of the State Department? Google and Facebook, who partner with the NSA?'
Illustration by George Bates Studio