Cryptopolitics – an update by Jaya Klara Brekke for ŠUM, Journal for contemporary art criticism št. #15: Infrastructure as Critique

Cryptopolitics – an update

Cryptopolitics – an update

Cryptography becomes effective and operational at the exact mathematical limits of machine learning algorithms.[1]

Even if you know nothing about maths, just take that in for a moment.

  • there are actual, mathematical limits to what machine learning algorithms can ‘learn’!
  • those mathematical limits can be used for the development of secure cryptographic techniques!

Perhaps neither of those exclamations particularly whet you appetite to read on so let me try and explain with a few metaphors…  

Imagine machine learning algorithms trawling vast data-scapes of information scraped from phones, laptops, Amazon echo devices or whatever other gadgetry. Algorithms informed by knowledge constructs such as correlations, drawing together ever-shifting streams of data points into something that might be made sensible to a human.  In this mathematical universe, the human eye cannot see much of anything without the help of these reasoning agents, throwing up relevant numbers that in turn might be visualised on a dashboard to compute “what is the norm here”, “where is the anomaly”, “what is likely to happen next?” [2]

These shifting data-scapes also have mathematical limits called ‘impossibility results’ that are blind spots, areas that cannot be calculated, sensed and made sense of by these algorithmic agents. And such blind spots, it turns out, comprises the numbers-putty from which to sculpt secret hide-outs, extend underground mycelial networks and plan out and defend ‘data territories’. In short, cryptography.

Cryptography consists of a set of techniques that can be used for planning and organising our collective data-scapes: mathematical doors that can only be opened with the right keys, shaded areas revealing only partial attributes, and secure records that can only be altered after solving a puzzle. And what is more, because cryptographic techniques are fairly low cost, such defences can, in theory, be designed and determined by individuals, groups and nation states alike. As a result, a ‘cryptopolitics’ that has been emerging around different and contingent understandings of security.[3] Ad-hoc cryptopolitical alliances gathered around different understandings of who embodies a potential adversary and what ‘security’ means for individuals, ‘citizens’ or outlaws, nation states, communities and corporations:
a tech giant like Apple, for a moment, defending the privacy rights of individuals against a snooping state; in another moment, the European Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is intended to defend the privacy rights of individuals against platform surveillance; meanwhile hackers of different shades, defending or attacking communities, corporations and states alike.

The questions I am curious to explore with you, and for you, friends, is the scope of cryptopolitics today given some major technological and geo-political shifts. What will unfold over the next ten pages comprises three short discussions:


Surveillance – an update. Cryptopolitics first originated around the ‘cypherpunks’, a network of people concerned with protecting privacy in the face of the mass-surveillance capacities of the internet. Where nefarious security agencies might try and shine a light on you, cryptography can secure your safety in the dark. But surveillance is beginning to look radically different, and privacy as the core of cryptopolitics today is not enough.


Cryptography – tools of war, pillars of democracy and rites of initiation. Cryptography can do much more than protect privacy and determine the conditions of light and dark. It comprises the art of secrets. Part two comprises three little stories about the three main societal functions of such art of secrets, with the hope that it might open up some fresh perspectives for a broader cryptopolitics.


Sovereignty – an update. It is no coincidence that cryptographic techniques are becoming more prevalent at the same time as this idea of ‘digital sovereignty’ has made its appearance in headlines, reports and in whitepapers. In this final discussion I want to emphasise what is currently at stake in cryptopolitics. And what is at stake is nothing less than a global redefinition of the relationship between territory and networks.I want to share some of these unresolved questions, current state of affairs, and considerable work happening right now across the disparate fields of computer science and policy, critical theory and the more obscure practices of conspiracy. It is my humble intention to leave you entertained with glimmers of curiosity and some leads to follow in your own quest.

Illustration II in Goethe’s Farbenlehre

1 Surveillance – an update

In a series of lectures at Bern University last year, distinguished cryptographer Shafi Goldwasser began to lay out the technical case for why cryptography has much to offer in the design of more ‘safe’ uses of machine learning.[1] At the crux of her argument is the possibility of ensuring privacy while nevertheless allowing for computation to take place. Cryptography of the 80’s employed mathematical ‘impossibility results’ that would also delineate absolute limits to machine learning (‘bliss for crypto is nightmare for machine learning’). But today, she argues, there is scope for an alliance: impossibility results, rather than being a nightmare for Machine Learning, are going to propel it forward. How? By solving one of the impending problems for curious algorithms in our mistrustful times – the continued availability of data in the face of growing awareness and regulations protecting privacy rights.

Privacy is the core of the cryptopolitics of ‘cypherpunk’. The cypherpunks, a name coined by Jude Milhon,[4] formed around a mailing list and the ‘crypto-anarchist’ and ‘cypherpunk’ manifestos. A relatively politically heterogeneous bunch of people, their politics developed around the ability of cryptography to protect individuals from surveillance and attacks by even the most powerful adversary, whether states and corporations. As the internet became an established and essential infrastructure through which more and more social, economic and political activities would take place, a bunch of cryptographers, activists, entrepreneurs and engineers realised that these networks would likely become nightmarish tentacles of surveillance and control. They were prophetic in this awareness and critique, and the importance of their efforts and the continued work of privacy rights activists towards making cryptography broadly available and fighting for privacy cannot be overstated.[5][6] Here, at very little cost, mathematical properties makes it possible for an ordinary person to keep communications private and untampered.[7]

Is ‘darkness’ a precondition for freedom? For the cypherpunks the answer is yes.[8] The cryptopolitics of the cypherpunks intends to throw some digital shade and shelter for the powerless while turning a light of scrutiny upon the powerful. And cryptography is what creates the dark in digital space, meaning it can determine networks, relations and information that are partially or fully concealed.

The dark is needed in order for the as-of-yet-unformed to emerge and take shape safely and in its own time. Not just for individuals, darkness is important for collectives too, tentative, heaving and experimental, feeling into a new a sense of what it means to move together and to be together, before these crystallize into articulated structures, laws, roads and code, well known pathways that can be depended upon, a ‘way’ of life. And, more politically, for such ways to coalesce into an organised force for self-determination and change. The dark is necessary for the possibility for things to be different.

But surveillance, in the age of Machine Learning algorithms and neural networks, has changed. The conditions of ‘light’ and ‘dark’, visibility and invisibility is shifting. This, friends, has recently been reported from some of the forefronts of research,[2] and I would like to pass on the message, because it suggests that cryptopolitics needs an update.

Since the enlightenment, knowledge and power has been overwhelmingly associated with seeing. To shine a light on something makes it visible and knowable. The ‘light’ in European enlightenment brought the eye in the sky down to the individual on earth, promising liberation from the gods through the measured and measuring eyes of (those-included-in-the-category-of)humans, now able to see, to learn and know, and to shape their own fate. Perspective frescos centring the spectator’s point of view, a viewpoint for considered reflection by the now free and informed individual.

The gods in the meantime shape-shifted, the eye in the sky manifested as the eye of the sovereign, first as kings, then state authority. To see is to know, and knowledge is power. And the lone hero’s battle against the gods continued on earth against the all seeing eye of the state. The most famous dispositif of surveillance is Bentham’s panopticon prison designs, and it is the shape of an iris.

Against power, there are now generalised digital ‘dark’-obsessions, extending into alt-right distortions of the ‘dark ages’ that oversubscribe to a caricature version of darkness as, simply, the absence of power[9]: here, it is assumed, lies complete freedom for the individual. It is the rookie anarchists’ wet dream, a post-apocalyptic terra-nullius liberated from all strictures where heroes can posture and a free world can be born. Needless to say, ‘terra-nullius’ is a colonial myth invented to invalidate life in other forms and prepare a lone stage for the hero versus the sovereign.

What I mean is give a bunch of guys ‘freedom’ in a dark room to do whatever they want, and surprise, many of the well-worn problems will be reproduced. The swirling dark does not automatically deliver final liberation. For example, the many protocol governance crises of the crypto-world showed that it was not enough to escape to the internet and turn off the lights.[10] ‘The dark’ beyond the purview of the sovereign demanded new ways of dealing with old problems, lest it merely provide a vacuum to be forcefully occupied by whoever throws the most violence, lies or money at it. ‘The dark’ began to take shape around campfires, some more blazing or clumsy than others, but a plethora of experimentation with governance, economics and collective organising,[11] and how to deal with that which is all too familiar to those with two names: the fact that the structural and historical ripple through minds and bodies, as much as disciplines, institutions and infrastructures.[12]

This is all just to say that the ‘dark’ and ‘light’ of early cypherpunk does not fully amount to a politics. What matters is not whether one is seen or not, but who determines the conditions of visibility/ invisibility and towards what end. What matters is not anonymous, pseudonymous, nym networks per se[13][14], but who is able to strategically deploy these and for what purpose. The attraction of cryptography, for the cypherpunks and others, was, after all, that it comprised of mathematics – cheap and potentially accessible for ordinary people.[15] Design and engineering decisions, far from being neutral, will indeed tend to serve some uses and users better than others. Another example, recently, O’Leary called for the world of crypto to return to its subversive roots in cypherpunk – what she refers to as a ‘dark enlightenment’[8]. And these, to be sure, are fertile beginnings, a reminder of the early political ambitions – decentralised, cryptographic networks as a strategy against power. But there is an important link that O’Leary perhaps prematurely assumes from her readers, namely the connection between building anonymous networks and her experiences in Kurdistan and readings of Ocalan’s political ideas. What matters is not a generalised dark enlightenment that seeks to ‘extend the space of illegality outward: to increase the remit and power of unauthorized black market activity and strip resources away from the nation-state’ [8] but rather the specifics of which resources of the state and who might benefit from the illegality of black markets. That is where the politics lie – if by stripping resources, we perhaps mean tasers, guns and tanks of police forces, great. Public health facilities, less so. If black markets can be deployed by non-aligned states to protect Indigenous resources and circumvent exploitative WTO trade regulations, great. For the secret export of extreme surveillance gadgetry to oppressive regimes, less so. The specifics of the given (crypto)political project matter.

In the meantime, the engineering of optics, visibility and invisibility are becoming ever more sophisticated. Yet the skills required to fully understand and navigate what is a broad spectrum of modes of seeing, being and becoming remain somewhat crude. Friends, ‘surveillance’ no longer means the same thing. And an insistence on ‘privacy’ is not enough. The centralised authoritarianism of Orwell’s 1984 has morphed into more distributed and contingent processes. The iris of Bentham’s prison has been replaced with multiple devices and sensors producing dynamic data-scapes, where freedom or incarceration is relative, relational and finegrained.[16]

Louise Amoore describes the new state of affairs: your individual attributes form part of cloud computing data-scapes, training and informing algorithms, the consequences of which might nicely serve your immediate convenience while striking down elsewhere, elsewhile on another with violent force [2]. Disparate attributes of a myriad of people, beings and things flow through and are processed by algorithmic sensibilities informing some credit rating agency, some border agency, some security agency for setting thresholds for access or targeting, what Benjamin describes as an extension of carceral politics.[17] This is a novel mathematical universe. Novel, because this work to make the world calculable implies an incursion, selection and digital representation as data of an otherwise much larger universe.[18] It is not a neutral representation of the world, there is no such thing as ‘raw data’ [4] – my digital data attributes is not me, so to speak, but an often a racially and gendered skewed measure of me,[19] and a quite particular kind of optics opening on to an ever-shifting collection of digital information that is calculable in unique ways. A subject might fall above of below the threshold, a threat, not a threat; a scenario will be likely or unlikely. The surveillance of machine learning algorithms does not exactly entail the veillance[watching]sur[over] of a subject, but rather a form of ‘governance through the partial attributes of unknown others’[2].

Going back to where we started, this somewhat distorts Goldwasser’s promise of the best of both worlds – privacy while nevertheless being able to compute the invisible data. The safe machine learning made possible through Goldwasser’s cryptography might be adequate for securing privacy rights of a liberal individual by limiting what might be immediately ‘seen’. But in the meantime it radically extends the scope and reach for ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ because the unseen-yet-knowable can now stretch deep into the most intimate and most vast collections of data-traces. This complex cryptopolitics criss-crosses the cracked Doric columns separating the now dusty ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres. Through cryptographic techniques – such as zero-knowledge proofs using probabilities in nifty ways – certain types of knowledge about a thing, or an aggregate of many things, can be known without revealing that actual thing. These are mathematical possibilities that begin to stretch at what privacy and surveillance actually entails today and why, importantly, ‘privacy’ as the crux of cryptopolitics is simply not enough. The optics are different, these are not cameras, but algorithms and what they are sensing and computing are not individuals, but partial attributes arrived at through probabilities. This allows for a radical extension of what can be known and done, by a sovereign or otherwise, while nevertheless limiting what can be immediately seen.

Illustration III in Goethe’s Farbenlehre

2 Cryptography – A tool of war, pillar of democracy, rite of initiation

Let us now enter a broader spectrum. There is more to cryptography than encryption techniques, revealing and concealing, the ‘light’ and ‘dark’. In its most general sense, cryptography is an ancient art of secrets. It entails the creation of puzzles and codes in order to pass on secret information and to make sure that information has not been tampered with. And secrets have several societal functions. In part one, I discussed cryptopolitics as having emerged out of a concern for privacy, how the conditions of surveillance are radically changing, and why cryptopolitics needs an update. Here, in part two, I will present to you a few anecdotes intended as illustration of broader contexts and techniques, for your inspiration. What follows are three little stories about cryptography as a tool of war, a pillar of democracy and as a rite of initiation.

Cryptography as tools of war. ‘The Colossus’ is a machine that was invented in order to break the encryption of the ‘Lorenz’ used to encrypt German messages during world war two. It was also the first semi-programmable electronic computer, invented by the engineer Tommy Flowers. The Colossus was built, had operated and still resides in Bletchley Park, a leafy location with a quaint scattering of buildings an hours train ride outside London, to which I was headed one sunny day in the spring of 2019.

I had recently submitted my PhD thesis on the politics of blockchain technology and I had been invited on this little excursion to one of the historical birthplaces of modern cryptography and computing by a friend – a computer engineer – who had (in)famously just jumped ship from working on DECODE, a flagship, early European challenge to US Big Tech, to instead work on the Facebook Libra project, EvilCorp’s own cryptocurrency.

That is to say, curiosity spurred my visit that day. Unresolved questions from my thesis and surprise at my friends recent decision had me wondering, what might be meaningfully said about the politics of information security engineers? And would the history of cryptography as a tool of war have any clues to offer?

Standing in front of the Enigma machine, something clicked, on the machine and in my mind. Here was an encryption machine that had been considered unbreakable. It would change its encryption cypher regularly, meaning there were gazillion (meaning ‘shit ton’, more precisely 103 sextillion) potential encryption settings. It was unbreakable. Until it wasn’t. In fact, it was broken twice, first by Polish code breakers just after the first world war, and then again by UK codebreakers at Bletchley park (including the now-famous Alan Turing) during the second world war.

Cryptography emerged as a strategic tool of war, a context that continues to shape practices of information security engineering and the social, political and economic ideas in the world of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. In part because of this history, cryptographic techniques necessarily present an impression of being unbreakable. For the excellent engineer, exquisite engineering, bolstered by the eminently powerful mathematical war tool of cryptography, might determine the course of history and turn a whole geopolitical situation. And this, it seemed to me, was perhaps one of the reasons for that hop and a skip of my excellent-engineer friend over to EvilCorp – the temptation of making unbreakable tweaks to a system from the inside and thereby determining the conditions of 2 billion people.

Such cryptowar histories are also reflected in contemporary decentralised systems where interactions are thought through in terms of attack vectors, adversaries, honest and dishonest behaviour. A perspective which starts from the premise that people should not be trusted, in fact cannot be trusted and therefore require a ‘trustless’ system to govern them. At the core of such ‘trustless’ systems would be cryptography, providing a mathematical certainty that even the most powerful of authorities would not be able to break. And curiously, or perhaps unsurprisingly, this means that interactions between people as well as with the protocol are understood through the terms of war and war games, inviting, in fact encouraging, attacks. The very same compulsion to present encryption techniques as ‘unbreakable’ will also spur the very efforts to break it. For the mathematical mind, it is an irresistible game, a puzzle that begs solving.

If there are things to be learnt from Bletchley park it is that cryptography can grant some strategic advantage at a key moment in time, but it is not unbreakable. I was standing in front of the very evidence of this. The historical and contextual are two aspects that are not captured by information security models. Cryptography is only ever one strategic part of the operations of empire, and unless clearly articulated, engineers will be at its service.

Cryptography as pillars of democracy.  Personally, I am interested in how cryptographic techniques might emerge from such shady dealings and decentralised cold wars, to more explicitly and deliberately help people and communities navigate the politics of contemporary digital life. And in fact, infosec engineers did get politically organised. When I said earlier that the ‘cypherpunks’ were the beginning of cryptopolitics I meant it literally – bringing encryption from the service of warfare into the service of democracy. Before a number engineer-activists, hackers and entrepreneurs consistently made the case that these mathematical tools be free and open to all, cryptography was considered as ammunitions. In what became known as the ‘crypto wars’, a now well worn story that has become legend in crypto history more generally; strategies included printing encryption functions out as a paper book to circumvent US ammunitions regulation. These campaigners argued (and digital rights activists still to this day continue to argue) that encryption is a pillar of democracy in the digital age. Without digital communications being both private and secure, democracy is impossible: information will be manipulated, knowledge will be censored and people will be oppressed.

Such well-worn legends aside, what, more specifically, can cryptographic techniques achieve then in terms of democracy in the digital age? I will whip through a few, just to give you an impression:

They can help ensure that you are getting the correct version of a file, website or data without it having been manipulated. For example, cryptographic ‘proofs’ are techniques, which amongst other things prove whether some information has been tampered with by running what is called a hash function. ‘Hashing’ takes some digital information and spits out a string of characters that are unique to the input. This means that if someone changes the data the output will also change, a mathematical proof that the data has been tampered with.

Cryptographic hashing, keys and signatures are all widely used. You will for example recognise that little ‘s’ that has appeared in the familiar ‘https://’, securing the transmission of information across the internet. Actually, cryptography is used to create entirely new kinds of networks. There is now also ipfs:// and dat:// that make it possible to serve content directly from your device to someone rather than routing it through a third party’s server. Plenty of possibilities for new kinds of direct control over your digital residue.

These techniques can also enable forms of decision making in and about the digital. Cryptographic keys for example can allow a person to decide who gets to see a message or not. They can also be used as digital pseudonyms, a key granting specific credentials, voting and decision-making powers in various online communities and organisations.  In general, cryptography can address the question of who has control in the digital sphere, and with the right design, can ensure and secure digital spaces that are under democratic control.

Much of these musings on the need for encryption and other cryptographic techniques for democracy in the digital age still rely on social and political ideas of democracy from the past however. More specifically, they rely on the democratic subject as a liberal individual who can makes meaningful decisions. The European General Data Protection Regulation for example has granted us all that luxuriously advanced democratic experience of clicking yay or nay to abstract cookies questions for every single website we visit. Frustrating because really, individual decisions on privacy and data sharing bears little actual weight in a world, which as we now know, is governed through the partial attributes of unknown others. So for example, in a curious cryptopolitical plot-twist, where we might have fought for untraceability as essential to privacy, now our allies and friends are developing refined cryptographic techniques to trace our partial data attributes to be able to see whether they are used for nefarious profiling purposes.[20] There is plenty work to be done here. And nothing obvious about the more specific role of cryptography as a pillar of democracy in the age of Machine Learning and AI.

Cryptography as rites of initiation. Rarely is this more esoteric function of cryptographic techniques explicitly acknowledged by cryptographers. But it is one of its most powerful and subtle aspects.

The mysterious game Cicada 3301 involved a meandering maze of cryptographic puzzles, spanning a message hidden in a digital image, a website on the dark web with a two day count down, at the end of which revealed specific geo-locations in cities across the world where a QR code was hidden, self-destructing files and finally a 54-page runic book comprising different encryption techniques for every page or section. These clues, each signed by the creators using the same GPG key, would send puzzle-solvers deeper and deeper into a world of hidden secrets and messages and, essentially, a search for some meaning to it all. What did the messages signify? What was the broader reason for this elaborate Alternate Reality Game? And who had created Cicada 3301, the name of which matched the mail server of the cypherpunks?

The questions themselves turn out to be more powerful than their answers. They spurred a continued quest for several years, a quest so hard and difficult that it forged big communities of people all on the hunt for clues gaining significant cryptographic skills in the process. Solving each puzzle a rite of initiation into the company of a select few who had made it so far.

Cryptography is the art of secrets. And as such, there is something that runs so fundamentally against the grain of a form of knowledge that seeks articulations aimed at the most immediate form of transmission, laying bare the full facts in the light of day. To simply reveal something is to break the magic. This is a refined art of shadows, an art that easily lost in the clumsy floodlight of enlightenment-informed data accumulation and information processing. The immediate return of a google search somehow does not deliver on a deeper sense of meaning. The difference between knowledge as information or realisation is how the body is transformed in the process.

Last year, I had a conversation with the artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan. He was seeking some advice on potentially using blockchain for a work on reincarnation (yes, you read that correctly), and I, on the other hand, was seeking insights into this idea that cryptography somehow serves as rite of initiation. He told me about the Druze people who’s sacred books are not in one location but spread across several households. In my minds eye I saw myself knocking on doors introducing myself first to a family, then a lone old woman, a young couple, speaking, eating, learning of their ways, building trust without which access to these pieces of holy knowledge would be impossible. The hidden books demanded a sacrifice of time, an effort, only partially and slowly revealing themselves. The sacrifice in the meantime would prove transformative, a rite of initiation into a new way of being.

The elaborate Cicadia game started with a post on the now infamous 4chan online messaging board. Another branch to this story leads to different path of initiation. Encrypted clues by the anonymous “Q” are sent out to followers to go and solve, bringing them deeper into a maze of conspiracies that seems to have taken on a life of its own and became a major force in the recent 2020 US elections.[21] Conspiracy in the meantime means to conspire, to breathe together, and while facts and truths might help disband some of the more harmful tangles, there remain a dearth of inspiration, new ways to conspire.[22] (Let’s not kid ourselves – it is obvious that we are in the midst of a profound famine of meaning and community. Loneliness is the spiritual pandemic, and it has been raging for a lot longer).

The artist Hamdan also suggested that calligraphy can be understood as a form of cryptography. The aim of which is to partially conceal the word and its literal meaning in order for a more embodied experience to take hold: an impression and a gesture. The sacred in this encounter with the page is a form moving beyond interpretation – that clouded first layer of the mind – into an immediacy of presence with the meaning. We can pretend that cryptography pertains to the cool rationality of cold war strategy. A functional pragmatics. But there is a lot more to this art of secrets, a much more refined practice of shaping quests that become a rite of initiation into the presence of meaning and community, some of which are weird and wonderful, others truly disturbing.

Illustration I in Goethe’s Farbenlehre

3 Sovereignty – an update

Earlier, I mentioned that what is currently at stake is nothing less than a redefinition of the relationship between territory and networks. There are major geo-political rearrangements taking place right now across the entire stack, from physical infrastructure, to information, financial and monetary networks. These are attempts at determining ‘digital territories’ and grappling with how to define and assert some sort of ‘digital sovereignty’ in network space.[23] And cryptographic techniques are at the core of such emerging arrangements. But sovereignty in the digital means very different things to different people.

If we look back, for a moment, in the optimistic 90s/early 00s glow of globalization (shared even by alter-globalizations of the time), networks were thought to be untethered/ing from territory, connections criss-crossing borders and boundaries facilitating dreams of a digital commons where the people of the world might meet, frolic, share knowledge and organise. Then platforms and apps took over from websites and blogs, mass-mergers and acquisitions, centralised decentralisation. A sharp inhale, a pause, and giant tech appeared, silicon software sovereignty, bigger than anything the world had seen in terms of wealth and reach.

Networks are radically deterritorialising in their effects. Those coloured maps of the world, recognizable shapes of pinks, orange, greens and blues, drawn up by public officials delineating territories under the sovereign control of nation states [in a British BBC accent], replaced by zooming in and out from a street view to a continent, a unified map ambitiously assembled by private mega corp. google, with only a hint of an outline of nation states[in the voice of Siri].[24] Initially, the dissolution of national borders was hopeful, then sudden horror at the simultaneous dissolution of democratic institutions towards a platform-feudalism.[25] To be explicit: ‘Microsoft’s anti-piracy technology could also, in theory, remotely revoke its licenses and thereby incapacitate the entire German administration at the push of a button’.[23]

On top of that, it turned out that those untethered networks and clouds serving up a global cyber-communion-turned-platform-feudalism were mostly the very-tethered-indeed infrastructures of neoliberal globalisation under US geopolitical rule. (With Trump in the Whitehouse, the European political classes began to envy the Chinese political classes for their keen awareness of this all along).[26] As these arrangements revealed themselves and came undone, the wheels of history have begun to churn again in an awkward flip-flop of a punctured tyre. Geopolitics is back. So, ehm, what should sovereignty mean now?

This is the picture, a freeze frame attempted resurgence of somewhat familiar maps now operating through new mediums of statecraft ‘shifting tasks of government into the domain of computer scientists and network engineers’.[23] But there is more going on in the actual territory so to speak. Like an elastic band that has snapped, the crumbling of the US empire is also unravelling more of the threads of a frayed European post/colonialism. Sovereignty is and always was contested, and its meanings in terms of digital networks no less so. ‘Digital Sovereignty’. Here is a concept that curiously is now being mobilised by hacker communities, nation states, Indigenous groups, city governments, European policy makers and digital rights activists alike. All very unlike types of people indeed. And so the meaning of these two words are still being defined (and/or co-opted), so far functioning as a mixed bag broad rallying cry to address anxieties over a loss of control over the digital.

While the general problem is agreed upon, the more precise ways that it should be achieved is entirely unresolved. Sometimes it implies extending existing forms of territorial and regulatory control into networked infrastructures and digital spaces – new borders and boundaries, ‘techno-nationalisms’ where governments seek to garner national sentiments about digital infrastructures. Other times it implies further escape from territory, where hacker communities seek to create online networks, organisations and apps beyond anyone’s control. Cryptography is playing a key part in these contemporary contestations around ‘digital sovereignty’. These span techniques for territorialising data and computation in specific locations and devices, to instead radically deterritorialising across distributed networks – both in response to large corporate owned data-centres. They also span techniques for intervening in conditions of visibility and agency, determining who can do what using cryptographic keys and proofs. And not least, cryptography has also become an intervention into sovereignty over value in the digital space – and here I mean cryptocurrencies as well as FinTech more generally and not least, centrally banked digital currencies.[27]

There are, indeed many versions of ‘sovereignty’ being worked on at the moment with quite different significance for our digital futures. ‘Self-sovereignty’ is an idea that has been developed amongst the cryptopolitics of distributed network cultures beyond state contexts.[28] The idea is nifty and nice, namely to grant people full insight and control over what is known about them online. Imagine being able to immediately see whether an online action will negatively impact your credit rating, or how much a given company is making from harvesting your data and what precisely they are using it for. Your cookie settings will take on a whole new meaning. But for that meaning to not simply result in generalised anxiety at the weight of your every online decision, some of this needs to simply be taken care of collectively. In the meantime, ‘digital sovereignty’ is also invoked at sub-state level by communities and municipalities that are, for good reasons, keen to carve out some data-scapes that would not fall under immediate state control.[29] Here, a ‘digital commons’ is taking shape, one such promising potential collective framework. Digital sovereignty is also being worked on by Indigenous communities. Indigenous ‘sovereignty’ is contrasted to ‘settler colonial sovereignty’, [30][31] the former emphasising primarily relationships between beings and land, while the latter primarily emphasises ownership over a delineated body – whether land, resources or otherwise. And there is also ‘data-sovereignty’, worked on with and by communities who are keenly aware of how their information and knowledge otherwise gets captured into private ownership and property regimes. Others seek to move beyond the bloody histories of ‘sovereignty’ altogether, a ‘web of commons’, so to speak, where organised communities might have control over information infrastructures and the data and intelligence enabled by these.[32]

There is a real risk that ‘digital sovereignty’ will fall back on familiar patterns of sovereignty, something along the lines of a digital ‘colonial sovereignty’ – meaning a sovereignty primarily based on delineating territory, ownership, private property rights and the protection of markets. But this is where the machine might strangely save us. And here, I want to pick up on some threads from part one. Machine learning operates on partial data attributes and their relations. The operations as well as the value derived from these are intensively collective and relational. A trivial example: your age is not particularly significant or interesting on its own. But pair that with your frequency of visits to a particular park at certain hours, and compare it with other age attributes visiting that park and a story begins to appear. ‘…value comes from the patterns that can be derived by making connections between pieces of data, about an individual, about individuals in relation to others, about groups of people, or simply about the structure of information itself’. [33] This is why some of the more woke policy people are now arguing that individual rights and ownership over data is limited and that there is instead a need for collective approaches to managing data in ‘data trusts’[34] or ‘data unions’ as well as entirely new value systems around data and their derived intelligences. These problems force collective and relational approaches (and I mean ‘collective’ and ‘relational’ in a precise manner, not as an appeal to some vague sentiment of ‘good’) because the individual and the propertied simply hold little immediate relevance in the operations of big data, machine learning and AI.

Lets wrap up here friends. Cryptopolitics is at the core of major contemporary developments, but it needs an update. I leave you to imagine the further details.


[1] Universität Bern. Einstein Lectures 2019, Shafi Goldwasser, Safe Machine Learning. Bern, 2019.

[2] Amoore, Louise. Cloud Ethics, Algorithms and Attributes of Ourselves and Others. Duke University Press, 2020. https://www.dukeupress.edu/cloud-ethics.

[3] Monsees, Linda. Crypto-Politics: Encryption and Democratic Practices in the Digital Era. New Security Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 2019.

[4] Cross, Rosie. ‘Modem Grrrl’. Wired, 1 February 1995.

[5] Swartz, Lana. ‘What Was Bitcoin, What Will It Be? The Techno-Economic Imaginaries of a New Money Technology’. Cultural Studies 32, no. 4 (4 July 2018): 623–50.

[6] Weiner, Anna. ‘Taking Back Our Privacy’. The New York Times, 19 October 2020.

[7] Lewis, Sarah Jamie, ed. Queer Privacy, Essays From The Margins Of Society. Leanpub, 2017.

[8] Rachel O’Leary https://www.coindesk.com/bitcoin-lost-way-subversive-roots

[9] Kaufman, Amy. ‘A Brief History of a Terrible Idea: The “Dark Enlightenment”’. The Public Medievalist, 9 February 2017.

[10] Azouvi, Sarah, Mary Maller, and Sarah Meiklejohn. ‘Egalitarian Society or Benevolent Dictatorship: The State of Cryptocurrency Governance’. The Fifth Workshop on Bitcoin and Blockchain Research, 2018.

[11] Catlow, Ruth. ‘Decentralization and Commoning the Arts’. In Free/Libre, Technologies, Arts and the Commons. Nicosia, Cyprus: University of Nicosia Research Foundation, 2019.

[12] Browne, Simone. Dark Matters, On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2015.

[13] DappCon, Berlin. DAPPCON 2019: Network-Layer Anonymity for Privacy-Enhanced Dapps – Claudia Diaz (Nym), 2019.

[14] Gurses, Seda, Carmela Troncoso, and Claudia Diaz. ‘Engineering Privacy by Design’, 2011, 25.

[15] Swartz, Lana. ‘What Was Bitcoin, What Will It Be? The Techno-Economic Imaginaries of a New Money Technology’. Cultural Studies 32, no. 4 (4 July 2018): 623–50.

[16]  Benjamin, Ruha. ‘Catching Our Breath: Critical Race STS and the Carceral Imagination’. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 2 (1 July 2016): 145.

[17]  Halpern, Orit. ‘Beautiful Data, a History of Vision and Reason since 1945.’ Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014

[18] Gitelman, Lisa. ‘Raw Data’ Is an Oxymoron. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.

[19] Crawford, Kate. ‘Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem’. New York Times, 25 June 2016, sec. Opinions.

[20] Jarmul, Katharine, mail-list archive: Probably Private: Episode 2 – GDPR, SurveillanceTech, Browser Tracking

[21] Kamiska, Isabella. ‘The game theory in the Qanon conspiracy theory’. Financial Times, Alphaville.

[22] Lagalisse, Erica. Occult Features of Anarchism, With Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples. Oakland: PM Press, 2019.

[23] Möllers, Norma. ‘Making Digital Territory: Cybersecurity, Techno-Nationalism, and the Moral Boundaries of the State’. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 31 January 2020, 016224392090443.

[24] Leszczynski, Agnieszka. ‘Situating the Geoweb in Political Economy’. Progress in Human Geography 36, no. 1 (February 2012): 72–89.

[25] Bria, Francesca. ‘Our Data Is Valuable. Here’s How We Can Take That Value Back’. The Guardian. 5 April 2018.

[26] Zhao, Yuezhi. ‘China’s Pursuits of Indigenous Innovations in Information Technology Developments: Hopes, Follies and Uncertainties’. Chinese Journal of Communication 3, no. 3 (September 2010): 266–89.

[27] Brekke, J. K. (forthcoming) Contested Cryptographic Geographies.

[28] Faria, Inês. ‘Trust, Reputation and Ambiguous Freedoms: Financial Institutions and Subversive Libertarians Navigating Blockchain, Markets, and Regulation’. Journal of Cultural Economy 12, no. 2 (4 March 2019): 119–32.

[29] Bria, Francesca. ‘Barcelona Digital City: Putting Technology at the Service of People’. Barcelona: Ajuntament de Barcelona, 2019.

[30] Kukutai, Tahu, and John Taylor, eds. ‘Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an Agenda’. Australian National University Press, 2016.

[31] Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. The White Possessive Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2015.

[32] McKelvey, Karissa. ‘The Web of Commons: Rethinking the Status Quo from the Data Up’. NESTA (blog), 14 September 2020.

[33] Crawford, Kate, and Danah Boyd. ‘Six Provocations for Big Data’, 2011.

[34] Pogrebna, Ganna. Machine Ethics & Bottom-Up Data Trusts: Solving Imbalances in Data-Driven Systems Sylvie Delacroix, 2020.