Encryption, encryption everywhere

A guest post by jessysaurusrex on 20 Jan 2015

Winter Break Of Code Day 8

A few weeks ago, an email full of information to help prep for Winter Break of Code popped up in my inbox. Throughout my personal countdown to the day I got to leave San Francisco for Hawaii, one line from that email continuously resonated throughout my mind: “Have your development environment ready to go.”

For most of my fellow “lil’ Whispers” (read: fellow WBOC rookies), the standard development environment includes tools that send pull requests, merge code, and deploy that code into production. By contrast, my development environment is a little simpler – a legal pad, a pen, Pages, a few open browser tabs (tweeting is a very important part of the process), and a bundle of complicated, interconnected concepts and words that combine to form content and copy.

Content and Code

When it comes to building a product, solving a problem with code is only half of the battle. The other, more difficult half is cutting through the sheer amount of noise on the web to reach the people who are looking for the product you’re building to solve a specific problem in their lives. In marketing communications, I rarely get to use my powers for causes that hit so close to home for me or align so fully with my core values. In this specific case, building a successful content strategy does more than just contribute towards hitting a goal for downloads and app usage, it contributes to the efforts that many of us are taking to protect ourselves from the mass surveillance programs enacted by three- and four-letter agencies across the world. The work we’re doing this week requires a diverse set of skills and tools, but our goal is the same: to build and ship an entirely new Open Whisper Systems website of which we can all be proud. While I’d like to say that we’re not allowed to leave Hawaii without a new site (an empty threat, as staying longer wouldn’t exactly be torture!), there’s no way we’re going to leave without having made significant progress towards our end goal.

Privacy in a mobile world

It’s no secret that the adoption of mobile devices is one of the biggest paradigm shifts we’ve ever seen in technology. In an unbelievably short amount of time – less than a decade – we’ve embraced mobile technologies with incredible speed and integrated them into our daily lives in ways that just a few years ago were completely unthinkable. But the same devices we rely on to put the collective knowledge of our world at our fingertips do more than just serve us information whenever we want – without ever giving us any outward indication that they are doing so, they constantly leak sensitive information about our identities, our habits, our messaging patterns, our interests and our location at every moment of every day. Our devices shouldn’t work this way, but they do – and it’s not okay.

At the same time that we’re working to build secure, private communication tools for mobile in our little corner of Kauai, there are calls from some of the powers that be to outlaw, backdoor and regulate the code that comprises encryption protocols capable of protecting private communication. It’s unbelievable but true: there are people (even in this country) who right at this very moment are focusing their energy on trying to make a form of math illegal. When combined with other developments in cybersecurity this year – proposed legislation that threatens to criminalize vulnerability research, and laws that could make the simple act of accessing a single web page or sharing something as innocuous as an HBO GO password illegal – it feels like the internet, a mass conglomeration of protocols and code through which we’re able to reach more people more quickly than ever before is being conscripted for use against us. Instead of creating policies that would help protect companies from massive data breaches and still allow for the web to be a free and open place, the powers that be are moving towards monitoring and restricting the most important tools we have to maintain security, privacy and anonymity.

For the first time in history, the technologies we’re building can outstrip the surveillance capabilities of those who attempt to breach our privacy, whether they’re law enforcement, three-letter agencies, or malicious hackers. As a society, we’re at an inflection point where the stakes could not be higher – but we do not have to sit back and watch our privacy slip away in the face of invasive, ever-expanding mass surveillance and data collection programs. The personal is political: the smallest of choices we make about the technologies we use can have a massive, positive impact on our future – but only if we are mindful of how we use them, and to what end. One of the most important ways we can work together, not just for our own interests in privacy, but for our collective future, is to choose secure, encrypted tools to communicate and to encourage our friends and loved ones to adopt those tools as well. By working together against the threat of prying, spying eyes, we have the potential to make it technologically unfeasible and cost-ineffective for anyone, anywhere to conduct sweeping programs that violate our right to privacy.


If ever you find yourself tempted to leave quotidian life behind and collaborate with a group of hackers working on secure, private communications, Hawaii is definitely the place to do it. The dramatic, breathtaking, awe-inspiring Hawaiian scenery has served as the perfect backdrop for reflecting on the mission we share and the implications that the technologies eating the world have on our collective future. And escaping the house for a scenic hike, a quick walk along the shore, a swim in some of the most pristine water I’ve ever seen, or a paddle-boarding session (beware of turtles) is the perfect way to foster creativity when you’re facing a time crunch.

For me, Winter Break of Code has been a mix of unforgettable experiences, deep contemplation about using technology as a tool for change, and learning moments (you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced a Sunday evening elliptic curve cryptography talk) that give me hope for the future. While I sit here still struggling to find the right words to convey the incredible synergy emerging from this brilliant, talented, focused, diverse group of which I am part, I know that the work I’ve started here isn’t over once I return to San Francisco – it has only just begun.

Jessy Irwin, January 20th

Kauai, HI