Media @ McGill

"Cypherpunks in an Era of Internet Surveillance: A Study of a Movement and its Methods"

Submitted by Media@McGill on


By Z. Isadora Hellegren

Newspeak, surveillance, propaganda, and Big Brother. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell has been a considerably influential account of an alternative future, which still today is being referred to. Edward Snowden, the famous or infamous whistle-blowing former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor left in 2013 the United Kingdom, but also the world, an alternative Christmas message through BBC Channel 4, where he advocates for the end of mass surveillance and argues that today’s system has surpassed that which was portrayed to us by Orwell, in regards to the privacy of the average person.

 Due to events unfolding in 2013, among others Snowden’s revelations of massive data gathering carried out by the NSA, the Internet, long perceived as a symbol of free speech and empowerment, has, as a consequence, “lost face”, as doubts have arisen regarding citizens’ rights in what are supposedly democratic and free societies. The right to private life without undue outside interference in respect for the autonomy of the individual has been infringed by states and governments and been cause to a widespread debate, as the argument of mass surveillance for increased security has been contrasted with the defense of the human right to private life.

Where this debate is still ongoing and the general public may still stand divided, the Cypherpunks have since long actively promoted technological alternatives to defend the right to privacy. The Cypherpunk movement, created in 1992, is in comparison with traditional social movements a very young and contemporary movement, and its cause is receiving new attention in the aftermath of Snowden’s revelations. Advocating for privacy online through encryption, the movement is highly relevant in the current debate juxtaposing privacy as a human right and surveillance as a necessity for security.

 By studying the movement’s characteristics in relation to new social movements theories alongside with its communication strategies, this research would aim to investigate how the Cypherpunks, as a contemporary form of collective action in civil society, coordinate their activities to achieve social or political change in a post-Snowden era.

This research would equally contribute to the understanding of the development of new policies, ideologies and legislation applied in the advancement of new technology and network structures. By studying the methods and strategies used by the Cypherpunk movement to achieve change, the process and progress of the issue of privacy may be better understood. The issue of surveillance versus privacy could potentially have a significant impact on how our society develops, which in turn is of relevance for citizens and their future role in terms of autonomy and political participation and engagement.