CRF Blog

Meet Moxie Marlinspike, the Anarchist Bringing Encryption to All of Us

by David De La Torre

In Meet Moxie Marlinspike, the Anarchist Bringing Encryption to All of Us for Wired magazine, Andy Greenberg profiles the creator of the encrypted messaging app Signal.

A few days after Snowden’s first leaks, Marlin-spike posted an essay to his blog titled “We Should All Have Something to Hide,” emphasizing that privacy allows people to experiment with lawbreaking as a precursor for social progress. “Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100 percent effective, such that any potential offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed,” he wrote. “How could people have decided that marijuana should be legal, if nobody had ever used it? How could states decide that same-sex marriage should be permitted?”

He admits that dangerous criminals and terrorists may use apps like Signal and WhatsApp. (ISIS has even circulated a manual recommending Signal.) But he argues that those elements have always had the incentive and ability to encrypt their communications with tougher-to-use tools like the encryption software PGP. His work, he says, is to make those protections possible for the average person without much tech savvy.

To some, Marlinspike’s logic isn’t quite as airtight as his code. Not all criminals are tech masterminds — the San Bernardino killers, for example. Former NSA attorney and Brookings Institution fellow Susan Hennessey wonders who determines which lawbreakers deserve to be wiretapped, if not a democratically elected government? Americans have long agreed, she argues, to enable a certain degree of police surveillance to prevent truly abhorrent crimes like child pornography, human trafficking, and terrorism. “We could set up our laws to reject surveillance outright, but we haven’t,” she says. “We’ve made a collective agreement that we derive value from some degree of government intrusion.” A spokesman for the FBI, when asked to comment on Marlinspike’s law-breaking philosophy, replied, “The First Amendment protects people who hold whatever view they want. Some people are members of the KKK. I’m not going to engage in a debate with him.”

Marlinspike isn’t particularly interested in a debate, either; his mind was made up long ago, during years as an anarchist living on the fringes of society. “From very early in my life I’ve had this idea that the cops can do whatever they want, that they’re not on your team,” Marlinspike told me. “That they’re an armed, racist gang.”

Marlinspike views encryption as a preventative measure against a slide toward Orwellian fascism that makes protest and civil disobedience impossible, a threat he traces as far back as J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI wiretapping and blackmailing of Martin Luther King Jr. “Moxie is compelled by the troublemakers of history and their stories,” says Tyler Rein-hard, a designer who worked on Signal. “He sees encryption tools not as taking on the state directly but making sure that there’s still room for people to have those stories.” [more]