The Crypto- Keepers

by Ezra Buckley on September 13, 2017

How the politics-by-app hustle conquered all

For me, the paranoia made sense. For the last three years I had been investigating the grassroots crypto tech accessories at the heart of today’s powerful privacy movement: internet anonymizers, encrypted chat apps, untraceable drop boxes for whistleblowers, and super-secure operating systems that even the NSA supposedly couldn’t crack. These tools were promoted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, hackers, whistleblowers, and the biggest and most credible names in the privacy trade—from Edward Snowden to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union. Apps like Tor and Signal promised to protect users from America’s all-seeing surveillance apparatus. And the cryptographers and programmers who built these people’s crypto weapons? Well, many of them claimed to live on the edge: subversive crypto-anarchists fighting The Man, pursued and assailed by shadowy U.S. government forces. Citing harassment, some of them had fled the United States altogether, forced to live in self-imposed exile in Berlin.

At least that’s how they saw themselves. My reporting revealed a different reality. As I found out by digging through financial records and FOIA requests, many of these self-styled online radicals were actually military contractors, drawing salaries with benefits from the very same U.S. national security state they claimed to be fighting. Their spunky crypto-tech also turned out, on closer inspection, to be a jury-rigged and porous Potemkin Village version of secure digital communications. What’s more, the relevant software here was itself financed by the U.S. government: millions of dollars a year flowing to crypto radicals from the Pentagon, the State Department, and organizations spun off from the CIA.

My investigation of this community had brought me a lot of abuse: smears and death threats lobbed by military contractors against me and my colleagues; false slanderous stories planted in the press about me being a sexist bully and a CIA agent paid to undermine trust in encryption. So I learned long ago to approach my sources with skepticism and wariness—especially someone as infamous as Durov, who had recently gotten into the crypto business with Telegram, which now enjoys the distinction of being ISIS’s favorite chat app.

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