In March, Brazilian police briefly jailed a Facebook exec after WhatsApp failed to comply with a surveillance order in a drug investigation. The same month, The New York Times revealed that WhatsApp had received a wiretap order from the US Justice Department. The company couldn’t have complied in either case, even if it wanted to. Marlinspike’s crypto is designed to scramble communications in such a way that no one but the people on either end of the conversation can decrypt them (see sidebar). “Moxie has brought us a world-class, state-of-the-art, end-to-end encryption system,” WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton says. “I want to emphasize: world-class.”
For Marlinspike, a failed wiretap can mean a small victory. A few days after Snowden’s first leaks, Marlinspike posted an essay to his blog titled “We Should All Have Something to Hide,” emphasizing that privacy allows people to experiment with lawbreaking as a precursor for social progress. “Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100 percent effective, such that any potential offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed,” he wrote. “How could people have decided that marijuana should be legal, if nobody had ever used it? How could states decide that same-sex marriage should be permitted?”
We live in a world where mass surveillance is a point of fact, not a fear linked with dystopic science fiction novels. Moxie’s work doesn’t blind the watchers but it has let massive portions of the world shield the content of their communications – if not the fact they are communicating in the first place – from third-parties seeking to access those communications. Now unauthorized parties such a government agencies are increasingly being forced to target specific devices, instead of the communications networks writ large, which may have the effects of shifting state surveillance from that which is mass to that which is targeted. Such a consequence would be a major victory for all persons, regardless of whether they live in a democratic state or not.