Peter Sunde, smiling because he loves encryption. Image via WikiCommons
A lopsided chunk of the talk pinging back and forth around the interwebs in the ongoing Snowden coverage has been largely focused on the spy-drama of the man himself, rather than the implications of what he revealed. Because of that, information on how to avoid having the NSA poke its creepy little head into your virtual living room window has been hard to come by.
One way that you can protect yourself from programs like PRISM is through encryption. While many would argue there isn’t a lock on the planet that can’t be broken, encryption adds another barrier of security (at the very least) that will make your communications harder to monitor. Given that much of the world is up in arms about the reality of online surveillance, it's hardly surprising many companies who traffic in encrypted communication services are seeing a boom in their usage. The encrypted search engine, DuckDuckGo has been seeing record numbers of users post-NSA leaks. Then there’s Seecrypt, an encrypted messaging and voice-call app for iOS and Android, whose own chairperson says that their usage “just exploded” after the world discovered what the NSA was up to. The creator of PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) has even launched his own start-up encrypted messaging service called Silent Circle.
And then there’s Peter Sunde, one of the founders of the Pirate Bay. Along with a software designer and coder, Peter is working on developing Heml.is (hemlis means "secret" in Swedish), a “beautiful and secure” encryption-based messenger that aims to put the power of encryption into a user-friendly package. After news broke that Microsoft has been cooperating with the NSA, over $137,000 USD was raised for Heml.is – 150 percent of their target. I emailed Peter to discuss the Heml.is project, why encryption is necessary in today’s world, and what the future of secure communications holds.
VICE: When did you decide to go full steam ahead with Heml.is?
Peter Sunde: After the NSA leaks from Edward Snowden. We've been talking about doing something new and had different ideas – one of them doing some sort of messaging system. When the NSA leaks came out, we just felt it was exactly what was needed – and we want it ourselves!
How did Edward Snowden's revelations change your understanding of government surveillance in 2013?
It didn't change them – that's the problem. It cemented the estimation we all had, which was much worse than positive people want it to be.
Do you think there is any benefit to the government being able to wiretap digital communications?
No. Our governments are doing it all wrong. They need to make sure that people don't want to commit crimes, rather than wiretapping the people in order to find those who committed them. Putting the same effort into more sane things, like better education, better healthcare, better welfare, better way of life for all, would be cheaper and produce greater results against criminals. Terrorism has turned into an excuse for the government to do whatever it wants, but that really doesn't affect the extremists. They're already avoiding the wiretapping using simple tools. The only people who get caught in the web of wiretapping are the regular people.
As someone who has already gone through the rigors of the justice system, how long has surveillance been a concern of yours?
It's always been a concern! When someone watches what you do, you change your behaviour because of that knowledge. In school I hated when teachers watched what I was doing over my shoulder, and I think it's part of the same thing. I want my privacy.
How do you see encryption becoming a bigger part of day-to-day online usage in the near future?
Encryption needs to be there, but it is in itself not the solution for anything. The solution would be to make sure we don't need encryption. I see the encryption as some sort of defensive move against a very aggressive behavior that we should not tolerate. But in the meantime, it's like using a condom – we haven't found the cure for certain diseases yet, so we have to protect ourselves best we can.
What encryption based online services do you think are already successful?
The official infomercial for Heml.is.
What are the major hurdles in turning the average web user on to encryption?
Getting the user base, due to both marketing competence and having a good enough user experience and interface.
Is that why Heml.is is being marketed as “beautiful”?
Yes. That's the main issue with tech solutions! If the everyday user who doesn't understand (or doesn’t care, or want to care) about encryption doesn't start using the service, the people who want to use it can't talk to them and it will ultimately fail. To get people to use important technology, you simply have to make it more attractive than anything else to get them to care enough to move over. Few people would buy a really ugly car – even if it were super fast. They'd rather buy the car that looks fast and is slow as hell.
Why should the average person, who has nothing to hide, want to use Heml.is?
It's not about having something to hide or not, it's about having the right to privacy. Today’s wiretapping means that the government knows everything about you. Who you vote for, your religious beliefs, who you flirt with, what sexual preferences you have, and so on. It's none of their business. And learning from history, we see that future governments might be more interested in that data than the current ones.
Take Europe for instance, where more and more extreme right-wing parties are getting into power. In Norway, the anti-immigration party is now the second biggest one and will probably be part of the government in the next election. I am pretty sure they're interested in who's helping illegal immigrants and so on. We need to think long-term. The data is stored once, and could potentially be kept forever.
Given the revelations that Microsoft has been cooperating with the NSA, do you think the public opinion of the world's most popular software is going to change?
You mean Microsoft makes popular software? It's more forced-upon-you software. But yes, it gives a great opportunity to make sure that people use the better solutions out there. Microsoft, Apple, and the other software manufacturers have way too much power over your everyday life and freedoms – so it's important that we break their oligopoly. If that could be done, it would also be much harder to monitor people, as the better solutions would all be open/free software right now, which we as people can understand much more about.
Are we seeing a tipping point in software development right now? It seems like there is a rush to get open, encryption-based products onto the market.
I am afraid that it's going to stall. People are already giving up… they don't feel they can fight the government. In the USA, you have a two-party system, where both parties are actually quite close to each other – especially when it comes to digital issues. The software development going on outside of the big corporations almost always uses encryption and more privacy-aware solutions than the corporate versions. So most of the tech solutions are already there, but we have an issue on getting them to the everyday desktop user.
What will it take for services like Heml.is to become the common means of communication?
I'm not sure we want it to be "the common means" of communication. We need to have many solutions, and not just a few instances that we trust immensely. Take the Pirate Bay. The worst thing that the Pirate Bay did was becoming as powerful and dominant as it is today. Because of that, no one creates a high-functioning competitor and we lose out on both better technology as well as putting all of our eggs in one basket.
What else needs to change online for the internet to be a more open, free medium?
There's a lot! I think it's a big issue in and of itself. With the way the internet is growing right now – with cloud services, and very few global internet operators – we're definitely seeing that we're moving the wrong way in terms of free and open services.
Well, thanks for doing your part.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire More on surveillance and encryption: