Encryption and Technologies of Power in a (Cyber-)War Torn World

By Ksenia Ermoshina and Francesca Musiani

19th April 2022

After three years of fieldwork and three years of writing, re-writing and polishing with the patient and kind help of Mattering Press editors, our book Concealing for Freedom: The Making of Encryption, Secure Messaging, and Digital Liberties has today been published. As we finished writing and revising the book in 2020 and 2021, and as the waves of the Covid-19 pandemic deeply affected our personal and professional lives and those of our colleagues at the Press, slowing down, inter alia, the production of the book, we were looking forward to the Covid-19-free world which would see its release, a time when we’d be able to reflect back on pandemic times and think, “glad we’re out of trouble!” 

Little did we know. Our book has been released at a time of exceptional trouble for Europe and the world, a situation that is deeply entwined with the book’s narrative. On February 24, 2022, the armed forces of the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine, and war has been raging on Ukrainian territory ever since. A Ukrainian activist we cite in the book commented that “Predicting the future is not wise”. How right they were. Despite the book discussing the politics of Russia and Ukraine – and other countries – the current situation is one we could not have predicted.  

Amid deep concerns for the safety of family members, loved ones and colleagues directly affected by the events, as well as more broadly for the future of the peoples of Ukraine, Russia, Europe and the world, our “academic minds” were still at work. As the war unfolds, we have come to appreciate how timely the release of the book is, as a means to question the multiple “battlefields” around online disinformation, cybersecurity and communication infrastructures that are a crucial part of the conflict. We do wish that it were otherwise.

In our book, we examine the long-standing debate about the right to privacy in connection with our ever-increasing dependence on digital technologies, which became especially politicized following the Snowden revelations. A particular focus is on technologies of encryption. These technologies encode information by converting original representations into alternative forms that modern computers are inefficient at cracking, ensuring the security of communications.

They are technologies that are also at the heart of a public controversy, in which privacy defenders are opposed to those who claim that encryption is a threat to general security as it enables terrorism and other forms of subversive action. The war in Ukraine makes even more pressing the need to answer questions that the book begins to open up: In times of war, what is the role of encryption and privacy enhancing technologies? How does the armed conflict challenge existing threat models, what are the new risks for the civil society? And can encryption really save lives?

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine is also a “cyberwar”. It has heavily impacted Russian and Ukrainian cyberspace on many levels, from drastic changes in Internet law and international sanctions, to physical infrastructures heavily damaged by military operations; from massive cyberattacks on governmental services to state-driven disinformation campaigns taking over Russian social networks. The infamous new Deep Packet Inspection systems installed on the majority of Russian networks are being used to slow down and/or block Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as well as independent media, in order to gain control over the narrative about the ongoing conflict which the state refuses to call a war.

Despite its ambiguous reputation and doubtful encryption procedures, the Telegram messaging platform has become the primary communication tool for both Russians and Ukrainians. It is a technology the book discusses extensively, as does a recent paper we have published. Sometimes referred to as “unblockable”, Telegram is being used not only to disseminate more or less independent news and first-hand video and photo documentation of war, but also serves as the main tool for Ukrainians to coordinate in emergency situations, and for Russians to organize anti-war actions and coordinate support to arrested activists.

The dynamics of war introduce new risks that affect users’ choice of communication tools. Ukrainian citizens and Russian anti-war activists, despite their obvious differences, share the same “threat-model”, a term which refers to the identification of potential adversaries or hostilities, and of possible mitigation strategies. This shared threat model is one very specific to the situation of war: partial or total Internet shutdown. In Ukraine, these disruptions of connectivity are mainly caused by physical damage from military operations to optic cables or cell towers. In Russia these shutdowns are orchestrated from the top down. In fact, in a recently implemented law aimed at further entrenching a ‘sovereign Internet’ in Russia, the Russian Internet watchdog Roscomnadzor now has a trigger in its hands that makes it possible to considerably slow down and partially block Twitter, Youtube and Facebook (this is the so-called “TSPU” system: Tehnicheskiye Sredstva Protivostoyaniya Ugrozam, or “technical means to counter threats”). Because of this system, Russian residents have been officially cut from major foreign news sources and services.

This new context has led people in both Russia and Ukraine to search for alternative tools which can be reliable even when the “normal Internet” is down. The prospect of being either totally or partially offline has meant that users are turning to older protocols and tools, such as SMS and regular phone calls, as well as email. Ukrainians call and text their relatives who sit in bomb shelters for many days without Internet, while Ukrainian ISPs courageously work to bring Internet even to the bunkers. Opposition media in Russia revert to the “good old” mailing lists to share news about the war, as their websites are being officially blocked. For the majority of people living in the context of war, connectivity often becomes more of a priority than security (better unprotected communication than no communication at all). More technically proficient users have, however, initiated a digital exodus, advocating for some of the range of different decentralized encrypted messaging systems discussed in the book – Briar, Matrix or Delta Chat, for example.

The book features some symmetries that, when read in light of the war, may seem surprising. Interviews with Russian opposition journalists and activists, as well as with Ukrainian digital security trainers, reveal very similar worldviews, with these groups often each using the same technologies to protect them from very similar adversaries. They also share a vision: of a world where the independence of countries is respected, where freedom of information is guaranteed, and where the right to privacy is protected.

When writing the book, we could never have anticipated that it would resonate with the surrounding world as it now does. While – and this is worth a reminder – the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has already been ongoing for eight years, the open and yet more violent phase that it has now entered raises new challenges for the society and for technologists who work to defend our digital rights and freedoms. Concealing people online (and offline…) has now become not only a matter of freedom, but a matter of saving human lives.