The team at A Cryptic World attend a CryptoParty. But what did they find out? And what exactly is a CryptoParty?
A CryptoParty is an event where people gather to learn the tricks of the cryptography trade, clandestinely hidden behind closed doors. They are ostensibly populated by encryption experts and novices alike, bound by a common interest in online security. Anyone can host a CryptoParty as long as they follow the handbook, leading to parties hosted by likes of Australian senator Scott Ludlam this year.
The official CryptoParty website advocates partying like it’s December 31st 1983, implying the presence of a neon, cyberpunk atmosphere reminiscent of Blade Runner, and intense sessions of coding accompanied by the music of New Order or Nine Inch Nails. As suggested by the constantly updated list of where CryptoParties are being held, it seems such events are becoming a global phenomenon, especially in places like Berlin, Leipzig and other regions in the former Eastern Bloc, having recently undergone the trauma of omnipresent surveillance. The ABC even described CryptoParties as a “craze,” where paid events have been rapidly sold out.
On Thursday October 1st 2015, a couple of us here at A Cryptic World attended a CryptoParty, a free event held at an art gallery in Woolloomooloo, Sydney. In the eyes of writer Jonathon Parker, who was accompanied by fellow site producer Maani Truu, this is what happened.
Maani and I arrived at the Firstdraft gallery in Woolloomooloo. The entrance was hidden around the side of the brick edifice, nestled under the shadows of Sydney Tower, and seeing no-one had gathered yet, we waited on the street corner.
Slightly intimidated by the surreptitious nature of the whole affair – Maani’s question as to whether we would receive consent to photograph and interview people was met with a terse reception – we eventually made our way into the CryptoParty venue.
We met Jasmine, an organiser of this particular CryptoParty, who told us no-one else had yet arrived for the CryptoParty. Confused by the fact there were other people milling around the entrance, particularly the makeshift bar selling wine and beer for four dollars a pop, we realised the CryptoParty itself was part of a larger festival called Liquid Architecture 2015, consisting of talks and artistic exhibitions focusing on issues of surveillance.
Jasmine directed us up a narrow, claustrophobic flight of stairs to a room with walls ensconced in white and lit in darkness. We sat, unsure of whether whatever we were about to see was related, even tangentially, to the ensuing CryptoParty (was it still even ensuing if we seemed to be the only people here who didn’t organise the party?).
A screen with a squarish aspect ratio projected surveillance footage, soundless, of people in some party-esque scenario. We had no indication as to who these filmed people were, where they were, or when they were where they were, except for the impression that they seemed to be having a good time, perhaps unaware of the presence of the ‘security’ camera.
The room was now filling with people, many of whom began sitting on the floor. Two artists, sitting on fold-up chairs in the front of the room, almost suddenly began chatting into microphones. It felt like we were sitting in on the recording of a podcast, only unlike most podcasts, we never got a clear indication of the hosts’ names.
The duo spoke about the moral panic of sexting and the ubiquity of security cameras. Following that, we descended the narrow staircase and into the courtyard area.
Next to the makeshift bar was a desk, which, after loitering in the courtyard, Maani and I were told would be the site of the CryptoParty. Another CryptoParty aficionado, Matt, had arrived, meaning the show could go on.
The first thing you need to understand about CryptoParties is that they don’t resemble stereotypical parties much at all. Apart from Jasmine and Matt, the organisers, and Maani and me, there were only two other people at the Liquid Architecture festival for the CryptoParty. Neither was the person dissenting Maani’s Facebook inquiry, and both left soon after the party began. Perhaps because of the limited attendees, there was neither dance music nor party pies; just a desk and a handful of laptops.
The first thing Jasmine and Matt discussed was Tor, an encrypted search engine, showing us how your online ‘location’ when using the software can constantly shift between any Tor-compatible nation on Earth: from the United States to Lithuania. We also learned that Tor was once funded by the US Navy, and is still funded by the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; it seems the government wants to use the software too. Maani was able to easily download the program and use it just like any other search engine.
Following this, most of the evening was comprised of learning titbits of anecdotal information – Jasmine said it’s impossible to encrypt Facebook messaging, and Matt told us encryption is considered a weapon in the US, and hence must be declared at airports. We also went through the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s list of encryption apps to see which secure messaging services are considered the strongest, safest and most reliable; some of which we went on to review. The vociferous bells from St. Mary’s Cathedral almost overwhelmed the conversation.
This was an educational and esoteric experience, made especially intimate, and rather bizarre, by the minute attendance. Such a poor attendance is perhaps an anomaly in the CryptoParty community, perhaps an indication of the lack of publicity these events receive, or the indifference held by Australians to encroaching issues of privacy despite recent changes in the law. As attested by the sheer frequency of events, CryptoParties are much more popular in Europe; a continent in political crisis.
But with more support, and more attendance, perhaps there lies the possibility of this experience spreading, gaining momentum and affecting social change. They can become a real litmus test of the zeitgeist, of social concerns, and develop into a meaningful form of inadvertent activism.
Thumbnail Photo Source: A Cryptic World