Future

A Cryptographer Vision For Protecting Freedom In The Cyberwar Era

Bruce Schneier at a conference in Stockholm
Bruce Schneier at a conference in Stockholm
Yves Eudes

As an internationally renowned cryptography expert, American Bruce Schneier used to be a welcome visitor everywhere. But that's no longer the case. "I used to be popular with the National Security Agency," he says. "They used to invite me to their seminars, they listened to my advice. But it's over. I was very critical after Edward Snowden's revelations on their mass surveillance programs. My ratings fell."

In English-speaking media and on his blog Schneier on Security, he lashed out against one particular program called Bullrun. The NSA allegedly internationally promoted a weakened encryption algorithm that it could break. For a researcher like Schneier, such perversion of the integrity of the scientific process is unforgivable.

In the United States, "independent" cryptography — developed outside the reach of the state — is a politically engaged science, a rebellious subject. For supporters of a free Internet, data encryption is the one and only means to protect user privacy against government intrusion. There's a ongoing sort of war between libertarian encoders and government decoders, even though they sometimes work together.

Schneier has been involved in this fight in his own way for 25 years. Born in 1963, the son of a New York judge, he studied physics and computer science before specializing in cryptography, the art of encrypting messages to make them impregnable. He soon discovered that, paradoxically, the most difficult task was not to develop efficient algorithms, but rather to integrate them in easy-to-use, reliable software for non-specialists. If a piece of software is flawed, the key's impregnability is useless. Tirelessly, Schneier exhorted theorists to focus too on less noble but essential tasks, such as programming.

Now 52, Schneier leads the same hectic life as other charismatic and mediatized scientists. On top of his job as cryptography teacher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, he is also a successful writer of cryptography-popularization books and a board member for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an association that defends Internet freedom.

Monetizing expertise

But Schneier is also a businessman. Last year, he joined *Resilient Systems, serving as Chief Technology Officer for the Boston-based technology security company founded in 2010 under the name Co3 Systems.

In that field too, his ideas proved to be original. "We offer a unique service, a full and coordinated response to a cyberattack at all possible levels: technical, legal, commercial, media," he explains. "It's the way of the future. Twenty years ago, experts were focusing on prevention with firewalls, anti-viruses, etc. Ten years ago, the trend was to detect. Now, we've understood that we couldn't prevent attacks, so we need to know how to respond to it quickly, globally."

The concept seems popular enough with companies. Resilient Systems will double its 40-person workforce in the coming months and open a new office in London. That said, Schneier insists logistics isn't part of his job. "I'm the technical director but not the CEO. I have a problem with authority. I can't obey, and I can't give orders either."

Increasingly, he writes less about computers and more about politics, philosophy, social psychology and geostrategy. More precisely, he has come to focus on the difficulty of protecting individual freedom in a context of "war on terrorism," in which government priorities are surveillance and repression.

In his next book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World (W.W. Norton & Company), due out in March, he addresses the reality brought to light by Edward Snowden"s revelations but that the public hasn't yet fully grasped. "U.S. government intelligence agencies work hand in hand with American Internet giants," he says. "The NSA takes advantage of the system established by Google, Facebook, Microsoft and the rest. When Gmail reads your emails, the NSA does too. It's that simple."


More generally, he questions the entire American intelligence philosophy of the past decade. "During the Cold War, the NSA's role was clearly established. They were there to protect our communications systems and spy on that of the Soviets." But everything is more blurry nowadays because the U.S. and the rest of the world use the same hardware and the same software, which are mostly American.

"The NSA is faced with a dilemma," he explains. "When it leaves a security backdoor open in a smartphone to spy on other countries, or when it decides not to fix a flaw it found, it also jeopardizes the security of Americans because other countries can also find and exploit this vulnerability." He says this is the wrong approach. "We should rather try to bolster security, even if it makes spying more difficult. In that field, open and democratic societies have more to lose than authoritarian countries."

Schneier is already working on a new book about the concept of catastrophic risk. "We have just entered a historic period that's unseen before. Two kids in a garage can inflict massive damages to a whole community, by provoking industrial accidents via digital networks, by creating a deadly bacteria with a bio-printer, etc. If a single one of us can kill us all, how will humanity survive? How can we create tools that will protect us against these new decentralized hazards?" he asks. But he doesn't have an answer, yet. "For me, writing a book is a quest. I don't have the answers to the questions I'm asking myself when I start it."

In the meantime, he continues his mission as a committed intellectual reacting to world developments. On Jan. 23, from Harvard University, he hosted a live video chat with Snowden. Of course, they talked about the virtues of cryptography, and Snowden was unequivocal. "Encryption really is the only thing we can rely on, provided that the math is correctly applied," he said. "In general, softwares aren't reliable, but math is."

As a matter of fact, he just repeated what Schneier has been saying for 25 years.

*Correction: Due to an error in the original version, an earlier version of this article misidentified Schneier as the founder of the company he currently works for. He joined in 2014 as CTO of Resilient Systems, which was founded in 2010.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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