Concealing for Freedom

Concealing for Freedom: The Making of Encryption, Secure Messaging and Digital Liberties sets out to explore one of the core battlegrounds of Internet governance: the encryption of online communications. Current debates around encryption have fundamental implications for our individual liberties and collective presence on the Internet. Encryption of communications at scale and in increasingly usable ways has become a matter of public concern, especially since Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations. A new cryptographic imaginary is taking hold, which sees encryption as a necessary precondition for the formation of networked publics. At the same time, there have been major evolutions and accelerations in the field of secure communications, prompted in part by the cryptography community’s renewed efforts to create next-generation secure messaging protocols and applications.

It is vital that we unveil the very recent, and sometimes less recent history of these protocols and their key applications. The book takes on this task, in order to show how the opportunities and constraints they provide to Internet users came about, and how both developer communities and institutions are working towards making them available for the largest possible audience. It explores how efforts towards this goal are built upon interwoven stories about technical development and architectural choices, about community-building – and about Internet governance and politics. In doing so, the book focuses on the experience of encryption in a wide variety of contemporary secure messaging protocols and tools, and looks at the implications of these endeavors for the “making of” digital liberties on the Internet.

Concealing for Freedom provides two key empirical and theoretical contributions. Firstly, it enriches a social sciences-informed understanding of encryption. It does so by examining how different solutions of cryptography for secure communications are created, developed, enacted and governed, and what this diverse experience of encryption, operating across many different sites, means for online civil liberties. Secondly, it contributes to understanding the social and political implications of particular design choices when it comes to the technical architecture of digital networks, in particular their degree of (de-)centralization. The book explores developers’ actions and their interactions with other stakeholders, for instance users, security trainers, standardising bodies, and funding organizations. It also examines their interactions with the technical artifacts they develop, in which a core common objective is to create tools that “conceal for freedom” even as how this objective is met differs according to technical architectures, the user publics being targeted and the tools’ underlying values and business models.

About the authors

Ksenia Ermoshina and Francesca Musiani are tenured researchers at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). They are based at the Centre for Internet and Society, which Francesca co-founded and co-directs. From 2016 to 2018, Ksenia and Francesca worked within the H2020 project NEXTLEAP (NEXT-generation techno-social and Legal Encryption, Access and Privacy). Their research explores Internet infrastructures and architectures as tools of governance (and resistance) in today’s digital world.

Laura DeNardis, author of the book’s foreword, is a globally recognised Internet governance scholar and Professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, DC, where she also serves as Faculty Director of the Internet Governance Lab. With a background in information engineering and a doctorate in science and technology studies, she has published seven books and numerous articles on the political implications of Internet architecture and governance.


0. Introduction
1. Concealing from whom? Threat modelling and risk as a relational concept
2. Centralised architectures as informal standards for ‘control by design’
3. Peer-to-peer encryption and decentralised governance: A not-so-obvious pair
4. Federation: Treading the line between technical compromise and ideological choice
5. What is ‘good’ security? Categorising and evaluating encrypted messaging tools
6. Conclusions: Encrypted communications as a site of social, political and technical controversy


In the context of the recent more open and violent phase of the war in Ukraine, the authors have written an update on the unexpected resonance the book now has with the onging geopolitical situation. It highlights what the book reveals about the politics of technologies of encryption that, for more people than ever before, has become a matter of not just freedom, but also life and death.

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