Jamie Bartlett: Encryption is for everyone, not just extremists
25 Aug 2017

Jamie Bartlett-Demos

I spend a lot of my time writing about encryption. Until recently I did this from a UK perspective. That is to say, in a country where there are pretty good citizen protections. Despite the occasional hysterical article, the police don’t snoop on you without having some probable cause and a legal warrant. UK citizens aren’t constantly under surveillance and don’t get rounded up for speaking their mind.   

From this vantage point, the public debate on encryption starts with its problems. Terrorists are using encrypted messaging apps. Drug dealers are using the Tor browser. End-to-end encryption used by the big tech firms is a headache for local police forces. All this is true. But any benefits are merely addendum, secondary points, “ands” or “buts”. Don’t forget, however, that encryption is also for activists and journalists, including those in less friendly parts of the world. Oh, and don’t forget ordinary citizens. Such benefits are mostly discussed abstractly, almost as an afterthought.

My view on encryption changed in 2016 when I was researching my book Radicals. This being a book about fringe political movements – often viewed with hostility by governments – I expected to use some degree of caution. But it was more than this. Over in Croatia, I was following Vit Jedlicka, the president of Liberland, a libertarian pseudo-nation on the Serb-Croat border. Jedlicka is trying to create a new nation on some unclaimed land that will run according to the principles of radical libertarianism, including voluntary taxation. The Croat authorities do not like him at all, even though he is non-violent and law abiding.

I arrived in Croatia, after an early Easy Jet flight, and was taken aside for questioning by the border police, who appeared to know I was coming. They told me not to attempt to visit Liberland. A little later, while I was away from my hotel, the police turned up and demanded a copy of my passport from the hotel manager. Jedlicka, meanwhile, was barred from entering Croatia, having been deemed a threat to national security.

I did not know a great deal about the Croatian police, but what little I did know made me doubt they cared too much about my right to privacy. I suddenly felt exposed. So Jedlicka and I communicated using an encrypted messaging app, Signal. I had considered Signal mostly a frustrating tool that helps violent Islamists avoid intelligence agencies. But suddenly this nuisance app was transformed. Thank God for Signal, I thought. Whoever invented Signal deserved a prize, I thought. Without Signal, Jedlicka couldn’t engage in activism. Without Signal, I couldn’t write about it.

This was in Croatia. Imagine what that might feel like as a democratic activist in Iran, Russia, Turkey or China. 

You see the debate about encryption differently once you’ve had cause to rely on it personally for morally sound purposes.  An abstract benefit to journalists or activists becomes a very tangible, almost emotional dependence. The simple existence of powerful, reliable encryption does more than just protect you from an overbearing state: it changes your mindset too. When it’s possible to communicate without your every move being traced, the citizen is emboldened. He or she is more likely to agitate, to protest and to question, rather than sullenly submit. If you believe the state is tracking you constantly, the only result is timid, self-censoring, frightened people. I felt it coming on in Croatia. Governments should be afraid of the people, not the other way around.

The debate on encryption, therefore, should change. The people who build this stuff – whether TorPGP or whatever else – are generally motivated by the desire to help people like Jedlicka, people like me. They don’t do it for the terrorists. Seen and understood in that light, the starting point for discussion is about the great benefits of encryption, followed by the frustrating and inevitable fact that bad guys will use the same networks, browsers and messaging apps.

Which is why any efforts to undermine encryption – through laws, endless criticism, weakening standards, bans, threats to ban, backdoors and international agreements – would hit someone like Jedlicka, or me, just as it would Isis. The questions then become: are we willing to prevent good guys having protection just because bad guys are using it? Once you’ve had cause to use it yourself, the answer is extremely clear.

A new chance to protect freedom of expression online

About Latest Posts Jamie BartlettJamie Bartlett is the director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos. In 2014 he published The Dark Net, a book about hidden internet subcultures. His second book, Radicals, released in 2017, is about how the world has changed in unexpected ways in recent […]

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2 responses to “Jamie Bartlett: Encryption is for everyone, not just extremists”

  1. Nick Selby says:

    There are several notable things about this article, which laudably advocates encryption for everyone, and which is written for the novice. The most notable is Bartlett’s apparent stunning naiveté, despite his experience writing about encryption issues from a UK perspective.

    “Despite the occasional hysterical article,” he says of the UK, “the police don’t snoop on you without having some probable cause and a legal warrant. UK citizens aren’t constantly under surveillance and don’t get rounded up for speaking their mind.”

    What I find so gobsmackingly amazing about this statement is that here is a privacy advocate and “tech expert” talking about what is literally in the top three most watched countries on earth. Somehow, Bartlett has come to terms with the fact that by some counts, London has more surveillance cameras than Beijing, and by any measure, the UK has a metric fecal-ton of cameras, and yet here’s Bartlett, describing the UK as a place in which its citizens are not under constant surveillance.


    The most rational argument is that he understands the difference between “collection” and “surveillance” – sure, they’re collecting video all the time, everywhere, but they generally don’t surveil (examine and analyze) it until they see an exception event, or need to find someone in particular, or backtrace movements.

    This is something that many seem to have not understood (and I’m skeptical that Bartlett does; I rather suspect that he just doesn’t understand the society in which he lives), which is understandable considering the misinformation emerging from compromised characters like Ed Snowden (who both lies and intentionally mischaracterizes so much of what he understands so well) or the aggressively hypocritical and financially driven (like Greenwald, whose funding is based on people not understanding the difference).

    In any event, the majority of people don’t see, and many more have chosen to ignore, this nuanced but crucial distinction.

    I’m NOT saying trust the government. I’m not saying no programs were not bad. I’m saying that most people haven’t really thought about or learned enough to know the difference, and they rely instead on proxies to explain it to them. When the proxies are more corrupt than the bad programs they excoriate, and I submit they are, we end up with a populace that is both poorly educated, and utterly certain of their flawed convictions.

    Meanwhile, Jamie Bartlett has learned that sometimes, encrypted communications can be useful for good. The irony of his utter cluelessness is incredibly inspirational to me.

    • Jason Brown says:

      On the one hand, Selby appears to smack the author for naivete.

      On the other hand, he also appears to be demanding that Selby stay naive, by pushing a “trust us, we’re the police” narrative.

      To be fair, it too struck me that someone can write about the Dark Net but seem ignorant about the fact that software like Signal was designed for general privacy use, not exclusively for terrorists. Or maybe that was just a turn of phrase aimed at the everyman market, even though this seems unlikely for a specialised site like this one.

      But then Selby goes on to also smack Snowden and Greenwald, offering no proof for his rather outsize criticisms. I mean, sure, doubt the source, trust no one. But what with Selby being a detective, I woulda thought that he would have a few more ducks in a row than just his own obviously fulsome opinions.

      Like, oh, say, actual evidence.