NOTE: Originally posted on Medium.
“Hacker culture” is often characterized by curiosity, meritocracy, independence and self-reliance. It is no wonder that libertarianism enjoys such prevalence in Silicon Valley. “Freedom through encryption” is the clarion call of a certain subset of hackers identified as crypto-anarchists or the related cypherpunks. To them, personal responsibility is the power to protect one’s thoughts and transactions (money or ideas) through encryption, without depending on government or other institutions. Furthermore, they believe democratized cryptographic tools protect the freedom to speak up when an individual sees something wrong, such as in the case of whistleblowers. Andy Greenberg’s excellent book gives a tour of the tools and philosophy of the cypherpunks through the story of the rise and fall of WikiLeaks. This Machine Kills Secrets examines the power shift between individuals and institutions using good old investigative journalism. The content is deeply researched and revealing, however the absence of analysis makes the reader want more. That said, the book’s lack of criticism is — so to say — a feature not a bug. Critiquing the cypherpunks is not Greenberg’s role, his is unearthing stories and data for future critics. This Machine Kills Secrets is truly is a work of history, and the result seems well-balanced.
Of particular interest is the dream of a universal culture of leaking. Greenberg interviews Rich Jones, developer of OpenWatch and Cop Recorder, whose goal is to “create a transparent society by force” by turning everyone’s smartphone into “reverse surveillance cameras”. He says:
“Since September eleventh, the government’s rhetoric has been that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.
… I say if those are the rules of the game, play them across the board.”
Radical transparency is a concept due for further exploration. Transparency is asymmetric, meaning those that retain power must be transparent to those under their power, but those under power must be protected from those in power. What does this mean for crypto-anarchists who strive to remove any and all hierarchy? I would be curious to know if there is a science fiction novel that has explored this concept, sort of a reverse 1984.
In the meantime, I highly recommend Andy Greenberg’s book. To get a taste, check out his appearance on the podcast Surprisingly Free.