Report — From the May 2016 issue

Unhackable

The quest for an email the government can’t read

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Over the course of three balmy days in July 2014, hundreds of black-clad, multi-pierced computer geeks swarmed Manhattan’s Hotel Pennsylvania for the biennial Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference. That year’s theme was “dissent,” and attendees shuttled among conference rooms that had been renamed in a scattershot homage to famous whistle-blowers. On a Saturday afternoon, Daniel Ellsberg took the stage in the Manning Room, a nod to Chelsea Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who passed hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks and is now serving a thirty-five-year sentence in Fort Leavenworth prison. Ellsberg told the audience about the tense days surrounding his release of the Pentagon Papers, leavening his delivery with borscht-belt asides: “My wife used to hate it when I was called a ‘leaker’ because it made me sound incontinent.”

Illustration by Taylor Callery

Illustration by Taylor Callery

Ellsberg was identified on the HOPE program as the keynote speaker, but in truth he was merely the warm-up act for Edward Snowden, who appeared on a screen behind him via video link from Russia. Snowden wore a black shirt that accentuated the pallor of his face, but he seemed in good spirits, smiling bashfully as the overflow crowd greeted him with a prolonged standing ovation. It is because of Snowden’s disclosures to several media outlets that the world has learned about the global system of mass surveillance run by the U.S. National Security Agency, abetted by rubber-stamp secret tribunals and the obeisance of the nation’s largest tech companies. Snowden told the hacker community (as well as the NSA moles he said were surely in the audience) that technology itself was not the enemy. He urged his listeners to use their skills to fight back against prying entities.

When he talks about privacy, he explained, “I say, ‘Encryption, encryption, encryption,’ because it’s an important first step.” But most encryption standards for email don’t cloak a message’s metadata — the header that contains the identification of the sender and receiver, as well as the subject line and time stamp. He saw this as increasingly insufficient in a world where association is often what really matters. When a whistle-blower sends someone an encrypted email, he said, “the government can’t read the content of the communication, but they go, ‘Why is an employee of the government, who was at work on Thursday at the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency or the FBI [and] who works on programs that would be deeply embarrassing to the government — why are they contacting someone at the Freedom of the Press Foundation or the Washington Post or the New York Times?’ ”

Snowden outlined the sorry state of online privacy. Of course, encryption standards had always been relatively lax at major tech firms such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, whose business models depend on mining user information for targeted advertising. But Snowden’s disclosures had revealed the more troubling fact that these companies — along with Microsoft, Apple, and AOL — all cooperated with Prism, the top-secret NSA program that mined private data directly from the companies’ servers.

As Snowden spoke, I received a text message from an audience member who had given an address in the same room the night before about his new encrypted-email project. “It’s uncanny how much Snowden sounds like me,” Ladar Levison wrote. “He’s parroting what I said.”

Levison is not a modest man, but he has some grounds for speaking with authority. After all, Snowden was the most famous user of Lavabit, Levison’s first encrypted-email service.

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’s article “The Super Bowl! (Of Fishing)” appeared in the April 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine. He lives in Visalia, California.

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