[ANSOL-geral] Encrypted resistance: from digital security to dual power

André Isidoro Fernandes Esteves aife netvisao.pt
Sexta-Feira, 30 de Outubro de 2015 - 10:37:51 WET

Quando os estados querem portas de cavalo na nossa criptografia e nas 
nossas comunicações, só significa uma coisa: querem prescindir de nos 
perguntar o que dissemos e eliminar o nosso direito a não responder e a 
não nos auto-incriminarmos.

É uma questão de direitos civis, não de terrorismo. Se querem lutar o 
terrorismo que treinem mais cães para cheirar explosivos que é o que tem 
sido mais eficaz...


Encrypted resistance: from digital security to dual power
By Ben Case On October 25, 2015

Cyber-resistance is often viewed as a hacker thing — but if embraced by 
mass movements it has great potential as a prefigurative liberation 

By J. Armstrong and Ben Case. Photomontage by yumikrum, via Flickr.

“It was a time when the unthinkable became the thinkable and the 
impossible really happened…”

– Arundhati Roy

Digital technology is often seen as a curiosity in revolutionary 
politics, perhaps as a specialized skill set that is peripheral to the 
hard work of organizing. But the growing trend of “cyber-resistance” 
might hold more potential than we have given it credit for. 
Specifically, the popularized use of encryption gives us the ability to 
form a type of liberated space within the shifting maze of cables and 
servers that make up the Internet. The “web” is bound by the laws of 
math and physics before the laws of states, and in that cyberspace we 
may be able to birth a new revolutionary consciousness.

The use of open source encryption allows for the oppressed to take 
control of the means of communication, encoding a worldwide liberated 
zone within the fiber of the Internet. Cyber-resistancei has been viewed 
(or ignored, or derided) as a hacker thing, something undertaken by 
those with science fiction equipment in their basement. But if it is 
embraced by mass movements, it has great potential as a prefigurative 
strategy for liberation.

Prefiguration is vital for radical and progressive forces in the current 
moment. The building of prefigurative spaces — spaces that model 
revolutionary values and resist state violence — is crucial for 
successful movements from both the anarchist and Marxist traditions. As 
the old saying goes, revolutionary movements use prefiguration to plant 
the “seed of the future society in the shell of the old.”

Internet interactions are often juxtaposed with interpersonal 
interactions, so the idea that cyber-resistance could be prefigurative 
might seem counter-intuitive for a humanistic revolution. However, 
cyber-resistance might well hold the key to vibrant prefigurative 
struggle in the 21st century.

Popularized in the 1970s and 80s, prefigurative political struggle has 
experienced an upsurge in the 21st century. It has been experimented 
with in the “Arab Spring,” in the squares of Spain with the indignados, 
and in the Occupy movement, as activists seized public space and held it 
in common while building political consciousness and fighting for 
structural changes in the system at large (differences between and 
problems with these models notwithstanding).

Prefigurative methods are also deployed by many left-wing armed forces. 
 From the Zapatistas in Mexico to the Naxalites in India and the Kurdish 
militias in Syria and Turkey, building prefiguration into armed struggle 
has been effective for many groups facing intense repression. In fact, 
an argument for building cyber-resistance as a form of prefiguration for 
socio-political struggle can be found in an unlikely source: Maoist 
guerrilla warfare strategy.

A Prefigurative Lesson from Guerrilla Warfare

Many militant leftists have criticized certain attempts at 
prefiguration, often for good reasons. But the logic behind it — that in 
order to build a revolutionary future we must practice a revolutionary 
present — is essential for all liberation movements. And although it is 
less often emphasized, that logic has worked very well in modern 
guerrilla warfare.

Many rebel forces have developed strategies of protracted popular armed 
struggle, but since the early 20th century this method has been 
primarily linked to the military strategy of Mao Zedong. The strategy of 
a “protracted people’s war” was laid out in Mao’s famous guerrilla war 
manual, written in the context of Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation.

While Mao himself certainly has a dubious legacy, the protracted 
people’s war strategy has been embraced by millions of people in the 
past century and has been used effectively to build revolutionary 
movements all over the world.

When it is dissected into its strategic components, people’s war has a 
lot to teach us in our 21st-century moment. The strategy is composed of 
three overlapping phases. The first is “strategic defensive,” where 
rebels establish base areas in remote regions. The second is “strategic 
stalemate,” where the base areas are developed into a liberated zone. 
Finally, there is a “strategic counter-offensive,” where insurgents 
engage and defeat the state in conventional warfare.

For the first phase to begin at all, it is crucial that the base area be 
established in a secluded region with rugged terrain that is difficult 
for the state to access, since the rebel fighting force is not yet 
equipped to confront the enemy head on.

Building has to begin in the state’s blind spots. Once an area is 
identified, insurgents focus on political education and grassroots 
organizing, providing medical care and other services to grow 
consciousness and mutual trust in order to develop the proverbial 
“water” in which the revolutionary “fish” will swim.

In the second phase, as the insurgents become more entrenched, they 
gradually establish their own institutions and form a revolutionary 
government based on a combination of community traditions and communist 
ideology. As they gain legitimacy, rebel institutions such as schools, 
clinics and courts expand and interconnect to replace the state in 
rebel-controlled areas.

This creates a “counter-state” (or, arguably in more libertarian 
versions, an anti-state), called a liberated zone. The liberated zone is 
a contested, semi-sovereign area organized into associations that are 
characterized by radical values — for example equity, minority ethnic 
rights, and feminism — where people live the revolution and where the 
rebels can rest, organize, train and develop resources.

In this way, people’s war can be seen as the construction of dual power, 
where the institutions of the state and the liberated zone coexist and 
compete for legitimacy. Today, many dual power strategists advocate the 
building of alternative institutions in the global “center,” within the 
cracks and fissures of the existing state, as we simultaneously attack 
oppressive systems with social movement mobilization.

However, this has proven difficult in many cases, as alternatives are 
vulnerable to state repression. What makes the prefiguration of people’s 
war so powerful is that it creates an area that the state cannot reach 
and in which alternatives can be safely constructed.

Most Maoist insurgencies never succeeded in (or even entered) the third 
phase, but historically the people’s war strategy has been very 
successful in creating stalemates — that is, in creating vibrant, 
stable, liberated zones. Politically, this has resulted either in a 
negotiated settlement with the government, as in El Salvador and Nepal, 
or intractable conflicts, as in India and the Philippines.

The fact that Maoist guerrilla strategy thrives in the second phase is 
instructive. The brilliance of this strategy might be not in the 
war-making, but in the prefiguration-building. The strategy is effective 
in large part because it forcefully opens up social and psychological 
space to experiment with radical systems and to embody the revolution in 
practice. It opens up space not only to see a revolutionary world, but 
to touch it, to be it. It wins people with practice as much as with 
ideas. This element of Mao’s strategy demonstrated the power of 
prefiguration long before that term was coined or popularized.

The Strategic Importance of Shadow

The single most important environmental condition required for people’s 
war is the existence of remote areas where connections to the central 
state are weak. At early stages of struggle, these are the only areas 
that are eligible to build autonomous systems, since the presence of the 
state forecloses on many possibilities for alternative practices.

Areas of operation must be out of the state’s sight in order for the 
revolutionaries to make alternatives visible to themselves and to the 
people. In other words, the state must be blind in order for the people 
to see one another as revolutionaries.

There are few unseen regions left in the 21st century world, and fewer 
still in the Global North. In the US, there is hardly a nook or cranny 
that is not mapped by satellite or categorized by title law, instantly 
accessible by drone and wiretap.

Proponents of dual power increasingly focus on creating prefigurative 
spaces, but they also tend to draw inspiration from armed struggles such 
as the Zapatistas in Chiapas or the Kurdish rebels in Rojava, which are 
taking place in areas that conform more closely to the formal liberated 
zone model.

Of course, this is not to say we cannot learn a great deal from those 
fronts, nor is it to say allies should not support these crucial 
struggles in any way we can. But most organizing in the Global North 
takes place in cities, and the conditions in western Kurdistan and the 
mountains of southeast Mexico bear little resemblance to those in the 
urban United States or Europe.

Not only is there a lack of secluded physical space in which to build a 
liberated zone, there is decreasing psychological space in which to 
build liberated minds. In the industrialized countries, modern state 
control has gone far beyond mapping physical space to mapping our very 
individualities. Today, their visibility extends beyond the physical.

Mass Surveillance and Panoptical Control

In order to assert their control, less developed state-forms used to 
publicly execute dissidents via torture or lock them in a dungeon and 
throw away the key (some still do). These practices obviously have 
devastating effects on the target individuals and their families, but 
the possibility of constant surveillance with the threat of punishment 
has a greater effect on a society’s behavior at large. Michel Foucault 
famously recognized Bentham’s “perfect” prison, the panopticon, for its 
political implications in this regard.

In contrast to dark, linear dungeons, Bentham conceived of a bright, 
open, circular prison, with a watchtower in the center and inward-facing 
cells around the periphery. Each cell would have a window to the outside 
that would back-light it, making the prisoner’s body visible to the 
tower. The tower, shaded by design angles, would be dark to all prisoners.

The effect is simple: at all times a prisoner is aware they could be 
watched by the guards, but they will never be able to know for sure 
when. This hierarchical arrangement of bodies in space — a few in the 
tower watching, many in the cells being watched — carries with it a 
power dynamic that effectively modifies the behavior of everyone subject 
to it.

In this arrangement, Foucault says, the prisoners, who are isolated and 
unable to communicate or act without being seen, begin to police 
themselves. The more the prisoners internalize this dynamic, the less 
actual force needs to be used to maintain order. In its extreme, the 
theory goes, an entire population of docile prisoners can be 
self-policed with no coercion whatsoever. Prisons around the world have 
since adopted aspects of this principle into their architectures.

The unverifiable but assured possibility of surveillance represents the 
epitome of state control. In its most advanced form, those in power not 
only have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; they come to never 
need to use it to maintain their legitimacy. Foucault acknowledged that 
panopticism was directly applicable only to populations small enough to 
be arranged within the prison architecture, but he believed its logic 
could be applied to society at large.

Technology has evolved so that mass surveillance can psychologically 
take the place of the physical arrangement of bodies. Today the average 
American citizen spends over 11 hours a day engaging with electronic 
media. The public is increasingly reliant on the Internet, smartphones 
and social media for daily life, and we have become accustomed to 
omnipresent cameras, satellite photographs and wiretaps.

In 2013, the NSA completed a facility in Bluffsdale, Utah where the 
agency can store 1,000 times the data of the entire Internet, a 
“Yottabyte” of data. In order to fill this facility with information, 
the NSA is currently tapping most of the key fiber optic cables that 
make up the worldwide web and accessing the servers of all major 
Internet companies. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know just how 
comprehensively state security forces collect this data.

This content and meta-data collection involves the capture and storage 
of all messages, with the goal being complete visibility of digital 
communications. Ultimately, the attempt is to tie all those 
communications to geo-location, physical data and relational meta-data; 
in other words, where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re doing 
it with.

Of course the NSA does not necessarily examine all of our digital 
conversations. But they could. And you have no idea if they are. You 
probably don’t really understand how they can, but you are vaguely aware 
that they can. It is a paralyzing feeling, and that is the essence of 
panoptical control.

In an era of increasing global control, pushing back against oppressive 
systems and liberating physical territory to prefigure our own 
alternative institutions is increasingly necessary, but it is difficult 
in full sight of the state’s forces. Knowing we are being watched, we 
aren’t even aware of the degree to which we police ourselves into 
docility. In the context of the surveillance state, creating the space 
to discuss and plan and grow the struggle is a prerequisite. When state 
control is a spotlight, revolutionaries need to create shadows.

Wikileaks, Encryption and Cypher-Shadows

To date, Wikileaks has been the most effective group in casting an 
electronic shadow. The NSA documents leaked by Snowden show that as 
early as 2010, Julian Assange and the human network that supports 
Wikileaks were on the NSA “manhunting” target list for extreme 
no-holds-barred surveillance. Even through this level of surveillance, 
Wikileaks has maintained their nine-year track record of never giving up 
a source.

In 2015 alone, Wikileaks have published NSA intercepts, drafts of the 
Trans-Pacific Partnership, 600,000 cables from the Saudi embassy, and 
judicial gag orders — without ever having been implicated in outing a 
source. Wikileaks accomplishes this by effectively creating a shadow 
that even the most sophisticated government eyes cannot see into, and 
they do this through the use of open source encryption technology.

Most people already use encryption every day, and just not in their 
personal communications. Encryption is used in many common applications, 
from garage door openers to online money transfer sites, but the 
technology has been tightly controlled by the state, first through arms 
regulations and later through proprietary standards and funding 

Encryption sounds fancy, but it really just means writing in code. 
Current encryption programs apply advanced mathematics to the basic 
process that all people engage in when creating languages or dialects. 
Most importantly, the best programs are free and anyone can do it.

Current applications of this technology allow for any person with access 
to a computer to create encryption so advanced that it cannot be broken 
by all the computer power in the world. To quote Snowden: “Encryption 
works. Properly implemented strong crypto-systems are one of the few 
things that you can rely on.”

Due to its strategic importance, states have historically declared 
cryptographic skill and science to be theirs alone. But in 1991, as an 
act of resistance in support of anti-nuclear protesters, a coder named 
Phil Zimmerman released an open-source encryption program called PGP 
onto the Internet for free. When Snowden released the NSA’s own 
documents from 2012, they show that the agency is unable to break PGP 
(and other) open-source encryption even after more than 20 years.

Proprietary software like Microsoft and Apple operating systems impose 
legal and technical prohibitions on users and engineers that prevent 
them from viewing the codes that make the computer programs run. 
Open-source software like Linux or Debian allows for software engineers 
and users to fully control all aspects of a computer system.

Among other things, open-source programs mean transparent and verifiable 
software improvements. These improvements are not dependent on a closed 
group, which could be collaborating with, for example, the FBI or NSA. 
They are also free to use and distribute. Many countries, including the 
governments of Uruguay, Ecuador, and Brazil, are now running most of 
their information technology on open-source platforms.

Open-source encryption programs allow for free access to “end-to-end” 
encryption. These, as well as encrypted texting and talking phone apps 
like Signal and Redphone, are becoming more accessible and popular by 
the year. Free open-source programs — like PGP, OTR, Tor, and Tails OS — 
offer encrypted document creation, sharing and web research on any 
modern computer, and their use is increasing rapidly.

The journalists working with Snowden have reconfirmed the security of 
these tools through action, as open-source encryption has allowed them 
to effectively hide the documents Snowden leaked to them from 
governments that desperately wanted to destroy them.

Beyond the primary benefit of keeping organizing information hidden from 
authorities, using open-source encryption to “shadow” our connections, 
our work and our transactions from the state may enable us to create a 
digital liberated zone on the Internet, a form that transcends physical 

We can begin to create this by expanding our capacity and moving to make 
the use of these tools our default, first for radicals and progressive 
allies, then for communities and nations.

A Call to Cryptographic Arms

Discussion of encryption feels alienating to many folks. A lot of people 
think it is over their heads or they find the techno-babble obnoxious 
(the self-described hacktivist who once mansplained all this to you 
probably doesn’t help). Nevertheless, because the US and other 
governments are engaging in global mass surveillance, we find ourselves 
in a situation where encryption is necessary for the security of even 
basic organizing — it is usually unwise to invite the police to action 
planning meetings.

Beyond the security aspect, it holds massive potential.

Global South activists in Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and elsewhere 
are now facing the full repressive capacity of imperial violence — but 
some of those areas remain at least somewhat shrouded from mass 
surveillance technology. The US and other neo-imperialist governments 
are currently interested in popularizing use of the Internet and social 
media to areas of the Global South who have yet to “go digital” to 
enable corporate profit in those untapped markets.

In addition to the capitalist motive, the techno-colonial project would 
bring the entirety of the planet within view of imperial centers of 
control. This provides us with a window of opportunity where Global 
North governments are more engaged in expanding their digital empire and 
encouraging the Global South’s adoption of their technology than they 
are in unleashing the full arsenal of mass surveillance on their own 

It is critical that we exponentially increase the use of encryption in 
both the Global North and Global South during this period. Growing the 
use of open source encryption could be the most powerful instrument in 
securing revolutionary potential for generations to come, as they can 
enable us to safely communicate across blocks and borders. The tools are 
already there; all it takes is our foresight, will and passion for 
freedom to make their use into a reality for all.

Guerrilla liberated zones are highly effective in opening physical 
prefigurative space in an isolated area. At the same time, they are also 
limited by that isolation and by barriers to participation in guerrilla war.

Cyber-resistance does not offer the physical space that liberated zones 
do, but digital liberated zones are not constrained by geography or 
borders, and the barriers to use of encryption are surprisingly low. The 
combination of encryption basics with open-source hardware (and perhaps 
cryptographic currency, like Bitcoin-based Freicoin) has the potential 
to grow into a network of direct working-class control of the means of 
communication, production and exchange on a global scale.

This network can be used as a weapon to create a sort of liberated 
e-zone that is beyond state control despite being physically located 
within oppressive states. The more resistance is hidden from the state, 
the more imperialism must rely on its most base method of control: 
coercive force. Though it is the state’s foundational tool, the naked 
use of violence erodes the state’s legitimacy.

As the state must increasingly rely on its most violent capacity for 
control, online liberated zones could facilitate both the desire and 
capacity for resistance. Human surveillance and infiltration such as the 
use of informants and agent saboteurs can be highly destructive for 
individuals and movement groups, but nowadays even these rely heavily on 
digital information gathering.

As the state becomes blinder, it increasingly becomes more desperate. 
And when it gets desperate, its moves tend to backfire. Meanwhile, as 
our vision brightens, so does our spirit. Through cyber-resistance we 
can strengthen existing liberated zones and prefigure new ones, growing 
revolutionary values and practice even inside the cities of the 
attempted panopticon.

Our secure communications, leaks and skill-shares could eventually 
create a chain reaction of interconnected revolutionary upsurges on the 
scale of the “Arab Spring” of 2011. But instead of being based in 
popular control of public space alone, they will now also be prefigured 
in the collective control of a truly liberated space, from the means of 
communication to the totality of society.


i A note on terminology: While we say cyber-resistance here, more 
accurately we are talking about cypher-resistance. Cyber refers to 
anything digital, while cypher is a process that can encode any 
language, encryption is a general term for that process, and 
cryptography is the scientific study of the two. Sometimes the root 
crypto is used to modify other words as well, such as “crypto-currency.”

Ben Case is an organizer and activist from New Jersey and is a PhD 
student in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. He is co-founder 
of the University of Pittsburgh’s Student Anarchist Graduate Association 
and is a member of the Organization for a Free Society.

J. Armstrong is a secure communication specialist and movement trainer. 
He has run encryption trainings for radical organizers and professionals 
from five continents, working with direct action movements, formerly 
incarcerated people, sex workers, veterans and revolutionary 
organizations. He is a member of the Organization for a Free Society.

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