And Then They Came For My Blackberry

Why does the federal government want the ability to know that I’ll be five minutes late to my pooch’s vet appointment? Or that my girlfriend, a refined literary type, would rather perish than text “gr8” or “c u.” Her missives are syntactically impeccable—she once texted the word “incongruous.” Naturally, I was smitten.

Articles in the New York Times and Washington Post yesterday morning make it clear—as if last Friday morning’s raids on social justice activists’ homes were not evidence enough—that the Obama administration is swiping a page from the Bush playbook when it comes to the national security apparatus. Glenn Greenwald’s excellent analysis piece on this is a must-read.

Like the obscurantist regimes in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the U.S. government aims to monitor every means of communication among its citizens. This is very bad news.

The pretext, of course, is that the feds must be able to read our currently encrypted Blackberry and Skype communications to fight “terrorism.” Is there any word in the English languish today more hollowed of meaning and less descriptive than the word “terrorism?” This once potent-sounding word has become a catch-all for anything the government wants to suppress.

Horrified by the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and want to bring aid to suffering people? You’re a terrorist. Gripped with fear for the world’s future because the planet is getting warmer and governmental inaction has driven you to protest? You’re a terrorist.

Everything of course is terrorism to the American state except what they do with their stealth drones over Pakistan or with their hundreds of thousands of mercenaries—unaccountable and unknown in places unspoken. Don’t even ask about Guantánamo. Really. Don’t. Nobody’s saying.

Do they really aim to convince the American public that Jewish lesbian socialists like me pal around with Al Qaeda? Are they familiar with our slightly differing zeitgeists? Of course they are. The aim here in targeting all dissenters is to stifle all dissent. It’s an old game—throw enough shit at the wall and see what sticks.

This is a volatile moment in our history. With the economy in shambles and the globe at war—of the “soft” trade type or the hot bomb type—we on the broad left have a responsibility to pose a collective alternative to state-sponsored madness. War abroad has always been accompanied by intensified repression at home. In the face of the state’s attempts to frighten and divide, it really is going to come down to our solidarity versus theirs.

So in the interest of making it simple for those interested, here are the highlights of what’s in my Blackberry for the week: At 4:30PM today, I’ll be outside the Federal Building in downtown Manhattan, 26 Federal Plaza, protesting their raids on solidarity activists. Afterwards, at 7PM, I’ll try and encourage others to join me at the book launch for Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict, Tuesday, Sept. 28, click for details.

Wednesday at 6:30 I’ll be at the LGBT Center on 13th St. in Manhattan for a meeting of activists working to raise funds for a US boat to Gaza, come join us! And this Saturday, October 2, I’ll join the socialist contingent at the One Nation March in Washington. D.C., a rally for jobs, peace and justice called by the labor movement and NAACP and joined by hundreds of progressive groups. Thankfully, many different socialist groups are coming together at that rally to pose an alternative pole to the left of the “vote Dems” mantra that will dominate from the stage. Find out more about it here.

Where I’m taking my gal for her birthday dinner, however, is our secret.

Sherry Wolf  is a public speaker, writer and activist who is available to speak on Sexuality and Socialism, How Can We Unite and Fight the Right and other topics at your campus, community center or union hall for a moderate fee. Wolf is the associate editor of the International Socialist Review and author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Haymarket Books, named one of theProgressive’s “Favorite Books of 2009”). Contact Sherry at: sherrywolf2000 at or find her on Facebook. Check out the video of Sherry speaking with Cleve Jones and the cast of Hair at the National Equality March.


One response to “And Then They Came For My Blackberry

  1. The actual technical content of the proposal, from what I’ve read in the NYT article and elsewhere, contains two main points, both bad ideas:

    1. Creating a standard wiretapping interface / backdoor, much like the CALEA requirements (passed under Clinton) which laid the technical foundation for the massive NSA wiretapping.

    2. Requiring access to plain text of encrypted messages. There are a few different ways to do this, but the most likely one would be requiring “key escrow.” As the name implies, it involves some “trusted third party” holding a copy of your cryptographic keys, so that they can be used if needed to decrypt your data. The current plan seems to involve the service provider keeping the keys, and allowing government access if subpoenaed. (As we’ve learned in recent years, “third parties” such as AT&T are not willing to tell the government ‘no’, even to clearly illegal requests, so it’s not clear that a non-governmental third party is really of much benefit.) Several variants of these systems have been proposed before (most notably in the late 90’s) and everyone aside from law enforcement thought it was a pretty bad idea, including businesses and academics as well as privacy advocates. Here is one far-from-radical discussion of these systems from last time, showing how opposition was pretty universal:

    The bottom line (from a political rather than a technical angle) is that the government should not be given additional access to private information, since we’ve seen several times how that will end up. Giving them these additional capabilities would make the problem significantly worse.

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