The Enemy of the NSA is My Friend

August 14th, 2013   Submitted by Kris Borer


My company was invited to present a new technology to 800 people at the July New York Tech Meetup. We showed off a self service kiosk that can save digital copies of house and apartment keys and then reproduce the physical keys when someone loses them or gets locked out. After our demonstration, one audience member asked if it would be used by the NSA to spy on people. My coworker told him not to worry because our CTO is an anarchist, which resulted in a round of applause.

At the time, it was surprising how much credibility being an anarchist brought in that context. Yet, in retrospect it should have been obvious. Technology enthusiasts love privacy. They see stories about laptops and phones being searched by the TSA and get angry. They hear about the warrantless wiretapping done by the FBI and get really angry. When the NSA scandals became big news this year, the government became a joke in technical circles. “Why should I backup my data when the NSA does it already?” or “I hear breathing in the background. Is that you Obama?”

In the tech world, there is so much contempt for what the government does that people can get past their nationalistic conditioning. They begin to recognize that anarchists, like Jacob Appelbaum of the Tor Project, are the ones defending their freedoms, not the government goons.

On the other hand, moderate libertarians who favor a government, however small, can never be fully trusted. Government necessarily tramples on someone’s rights. How can anyone be sure that their rights won’t be the next that these minarchists sacrifice to their utopian dream? After conceding the principle, it is only a question of how much evil should be foisted on society.

Not that minarchists don’t have good reason to believe that government works. Just recently the US House voted on a measure that would defund some of the NSA’s domestic spying. They voted against it, but maybe things will get better after the next election cycle.

Just in case the Libertarian Party leadership does not find a way to garner 5000% more votes this year, maybe hope can be found in the leaders of industry. Recently, Ladar Levison chose to shut down his secure email service rather than give in to government spying. Wikipedia and other large organizations have thrown their weight around to try and fend off government meddling. They spit in leviathan’s eye, and people cheer.

This may not be as exciting as a tax strike or secession, but it does show how gathering influence voluntarily in the marketplace can lead to a shift in the old struggle between power and market. It means that working hard to make a better life for oneself could be one of the fastest roads to a peaceful world. Most of all, it means that one day people might be willing to try something new.


4 Responses to “The Enemy of the NSA is My Friend”

  1. EthanNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve noticed this too, technology people tend to be more about freedom. (Except for Apple developers of course). Computer and internet are built on the idea of open source and total liberty to do what you want. I suppose it’s only natural.

  2. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    Having a CTO that’s an anarchist is not enough.

    If a warrant is issued, the information will be coughed up. The only way to protect against that is if the business literally cannot cough up information because they do not have the information, or cannot access it.

  3. Michael HendricksNo Gravatar says:

    Being an anarchist isn’t enough. Anything you know they’ll get from you through torture.

  4. RichardNo Gravatar says:

    It seems obvious to me that trust should not be easily given. Not to people and not to systems or tools.

    Seth rightly points out that the anarchist CTO will be unable to resist the government, and we should remember that good intentions are never enough.

    I hate to be a downer here because anarchists the only bunch that are rationally optimistic (and we all need that), but I think we need to exercise our own measures to protect ourselves.

    So – to the point that Kris makes, if it can be digitized, it can be easily stolen. Even the pure of heart can betray you unintentionally, or be compelled to do so.

    How can you believe that something accessible through the network is safe?

    You cannot know your property is safe if it is out of your sight.

    An old skeptic who programs machines.