I met my first cryptophile back in freshman year. He was very concerned about his safety and people hacking their way into his systems. He prepared himself for eventualities, for worst case scenarios. He over-planned and over-packed. He carried a gun and talked about things like “stopping power.” He’d grown up in a suburb in the mid-west. I thought he was kind of crazy. I believed in privacy and the right to these things, but he was not just encrypting his systems to encrypt them, he was not preparing himself for the fun of it. He believed that someone, some day, would choose to go after him and needed to be ready for that eventuality.
My best friend was interested in crypto and security. It was a hobby for him. He liked rolling up his sleeved and crawling around the innards of his machines and networks, as though they were cars that had never-before-seen systems and problems. I watched his personal interest began turning into a professional one, as he entered a future where he was responsible for the secrets of others.
I met people who were cryptophiles out of necessity. This was not because they were protecting their clients or their sources, but themselves. They were people who had done nothing wrong–legally speaking. They were people who were questioned by the FBI and called to testify in front of grand juries.They were people who needed to make sure that no one could comb their machines to find any excuse to arrest them.
Security and encryption became a practical man’s game. Data theft is now common place. Adobe. Android. Apple. Sony. Twitter. Secure pay systems and secure logins. One day at the office, we heard about firesheep, looking at all the data floating around the network. The EFF gave us HTTPS Everywhere as a basic level of encryption. “Encrypt the web,” they said. Tor was used around the world during riots and revolts.
Suddenly encryption and security matter.
This isn’t to say they didn’t matter before. This is to say that crypto is in our face. We have government spying and what is equally mentionable is the number of Americans who care about it. That is to say, a Gallup poll gave us the numbers that, among American adults, 53% disapprove of NSA surveillance.** Only 53% of American adults care that they are being watch by their government.
I started encrypting. I’d installed OTR on my personal computer a while ago, but almost never used it because almost no one I knew did. I mostly chat at work, where, at the time, OTR couldn’t be set up in a way useful to talking with my coworkers. I didn’t think it mattered all that much when using gchat anyway. I mean, it’s Google. I use OTR more. I changed the password that encrypt my hard drive, and updated the security of the whole thing. I am more judicious with my use of ssh, and which keys can access what. I finally tried implementing that GPG key I generated back in college.***
I was talking to someone about this when I admitted that I feel a little silly doing all of this. I’m a pretty open person. The most delicate personal thing on my computer are naked photos (of me). But these are art. I don’t log conversations, so I’m not protecting other people’s secrets. I am a victim of the tale that if I have nothing to hide, I shouldn’t be worried. Whether or not I have anything that needs to be secure doesn’t matter. I have to remind myself this every time I “start a private conversation” or try to remember which encryption password is for which computer.
The first vehicle i learned to drive was a manual truck. Driving a truck, driving a stick, is a tool. Running a mile is a tool. Building a fire is a tool. These skills are really just tools and they are ones we need to be comfortable around, ones we’re not afraid of if we need to use them. Encryption is also a tool. It is a tool that is scary and confusing. Needing encryption seems impossibly unlikely to me, but there are lots of tools we may never deploy in action. If the time comes, we shouldn’t be afraid to use them or to interact with them. If I have to drive a car as fast as possible, I will not be afraid of how it moves and how it feels. We need to be comfortable with our tools. We need to make them familiar. We need them to be safe.
*I am only listing things I know to be related to surveillance.
**37% approve. 10% don’t care.
***Let’s talk about that later.