Book Review: Cypherpunks – by Julian Assange

If you had sat down to read this book when it was initially written in 2012, you might think that a lot of the content belonged squarely to the tin foil hat brigade.

Julian Assange, editor in chief at whistleblowing site Wikileaks, has a marmite effect on people. Some see him as a valiant hero taking on the increasingly controlling and manipulative governments of the world, while others cast him as a fame seeking egotist. As is usually the case in things like this I’m sure a little of both is true. What is undeniable though is that inside the pages of the book are discussions about the security services and their deep spying techniques that only came to public light when another whistleblower, Edward Snowden, gave up everything in his life to bring the information to the public.

So, time to take off the tin foil hat and start paying attention.

Assange, in dramatic fashion, sets the scene with the statement ‘This book is not a manifesto. There is not time for that. This book is a warning.’

By the time you’ve finished reading, you can’t help agreeing.

Cypherpunks are activists who use strong cryptography tools to protect their identity and privacy online. They also promote the idea that everyone should do the same unless they want their every digital transaction and communication stolen and stored by the security services of the western world. It’s a harsh political stance, but over the course of the debates that rage in the book, allied with Snowden’s revelations, the reader is drawn into an incredible, scary world that isn’t like the one we imagine it to be.

Assange brings together three other advocates – Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn, and Jeremie Zimmermann – to have a round table discussion of the dangers that electronic spying has for an unwitting population, and how they can safeguard against it. The writing style is that of a transcription of these talks, which is effective in bringing out the differing standpoints of those involved.

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During the discourse they cover subjects such as government surveillance, digital currency, censorship, and from there branch into other tangential thoughts as their minds fire on all cylinders. Perhaps one of the most prescient arguments they make is how governments use the ‘Four horsemen of the Infopocalyse’ – child pornography, terrorism, money laundering, and the war on drugs – to pass overreaching legislation that none dare argue with, lest they be seen to support these awful practices.

It rings true when you look at David Cameron’s recent internet censorship bill that trumpets the filtering of pornography, but also seemingly cuts off access to dissident sites in the background. It’s a subtle, complex issue, and one that Assange and co don’t really offer any tangible solutions for (in that how do you stop these things without some form of censorship?), but the beginning of the discussion, and the eye opening effect it has to make you scrutinise government policies, is something we all can all benefit from.

It’s not a light read by any means, filled to the brim as it is with ideas, arguments, and sometimes chilling visions of the future, but it is an important book. The debates do lend themselves to easily becoming echo chambers, and I would like to see another edition where they include someone to argue the opposite position, though Assange often strays into a devil’s advocate role to keep the discussion on some kind of level footing.

Whether you care about computers, surveillance, hackers, Assange or not, Cypherpunks should be on your reading list.  The sooner the better.

 

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