Well, 2023 is more than half over, and I'm finally sending a second newsletter out. But it comes with good news: I successfully defended my PhD dissertation last Wednesday! Pending whatever bureaucratic nonsense I'm sure I'm overlooking, that makes me officially Jillian Foley, PhD. Hopefully this means more regular writing here for the rest of the year.
Now that it's done, here's my official dissertation abstract: Proponents of ubiquitous encryption take as self-evident the idea that encryption is naturally protective of privacy and freedom of speech. They see protection of the individual from institutional surveillance as a natural consequence of advancing encryption technology, hindered only by government intervention. On the opposite side, proponents of strong government power see as equally self-evident the idea that cryptography is a Pandora’s box that will unleash chaos, allowing criminals to run amok in cyberspace. I argue instead that the connection between encryption and privacy that most people take for granted needed to be consciously created and reinforced. Cryptography, like other technologies, can be used in any number of ways, limited only by human ingenuity. That connection was built up over decades, starting with a group of academics publicizing a new and obscure field of mathematical engineering as an academic freedom issue, which helped spread the idea that cryptography could protect more than just government secrets and corporate data banks. Computer security companies and amateur enthusiasts alike embraced a revolutionary view of the possibilities of public-key encryption, building further ties between the idea of individual privacy and cryptography—despite the lack of affordable, user-friendly consumer technology. Clashes over government regulation, access to technology, and licensing fees widened the gap between the corporate vision of cryptography-as-profit-center and the hacker vision of cryptography-as-freedom. The cypherpunks, a niche group of hackers, activists, and crypto enthusiasts, grabbed the crypto-as-freedom baton and ran with it, creating elaborate speculative visions of cryptography that expanded the technopolitical bounds of what the technology could be.
The connections between encryption, privacy, and freedom were built up during the period when encryption technology was making leaps and bounds, but before it became widely usable, especially to individual consumers. That disconnect between rhetoric and reality created friction as companies developed encryption products and government officials sought to regulate them. That disconnect also opened up space for speculative technopolitics that have remained attached to cryptographic ideas through to the present.