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The spooky Internet story that no journalist will touch
I spent a big chunk of my book Surveillance Valley looking at how various spy adjacent parts of the U.S. empire have underwritten the international Internet privacy movement — funding popular privacy technologies like Tor and Signal and even bankrolling the activists themselves.
Aside from the Internet’s forgotten counterinsurgency history, this spooky privacy plot was to me the most interesting and shocking part of the story. And judging by the feedback, I know it shocked and surprised a lot of readers, too.
Famous anarchist privacy activists being bankrolled by the very same spy apparatus they claimed to fighting against? I was sure that some other journalist would pick up where I had left off — that maybe someone armed with more resources than I had would keep digging into this classic spy story. Why wouldn’t they?
Well, they didn’t. No one followed up on the story.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Most of the journalists covering the intersecting areas of Internet privacy and national security were already embedded within this spooky privacy world. They were friends with the biggest players, attended the same conferences and parties, and — most important — were professionally responsible for helping spin this movement’s radical public image.
What’s interesting is that many of the journalists and activists from that world have been very good at changing their tune to fit the demands of the market. In the age of Russiagate and the collapse of the privacy movement, many of them dropped their radical image and their anti-government focus and went to work for the state…doing their part to help protect the free world from the twin Asiastic Cyber Menace of Russia and China.
Exhibit A: Wired mag’s Andy Greenberg went from boosting anti-government crypto rebels like Tor and Jacob Appelbaum and Ross Ulbricht to spinning out U.S. state security propaganda about the evil Russians and the threat they pose to global cyber security — narratives that were first created and out pumped by NATO affiliated outfits like CrowdStrike and the Atlantic Council.
And it wasn’t just the journalists. Activists from this anti-government privacy movement also dropped their radical postures and went to work the people they had been supposedly fighting.
Exhibit B: Runa Sandvik, an early Tor developer and booster who had suspiciously met Edward Snowden in Hawaii as he was preparing to leak his NSA files. She went to work for the New York Times a short time later as the paper’s resident privacy specialist, pushing reporters to use government-funded privacy solutions like Tor and Signal. Most recently, she fully completed her anti-spy to pro-spy metamorphosis by going to work for the Norwegian military — specifically the Norwegian Armed Forces Cyber Defense. (And if there’s one thing that Norwegians are totally insane about is the Russian Threat. Check out their paranoid and unintentionally funny show about Russia’s military occupation of Norway that’s set in contemporary times — Occupied. Or consider that for years the best military minds of Norway thought that swimming minks and mass herring flatulence were actually secret Soviet and Russian subs right off their coast.)
I’d say that’s one very interesting career arc for Runa Sanvik. But journalists covering the Internet beat were never interesting in any of this, and they never dug deeper into this spooky story.
But some have tried to scratched the surface of this giant opaque thing. Just the other day Alan Macleod of Mint Press News wrote a profile of the Open Technology Fund, one of the main spy-adjacent funders of grassroots Internet freedom tech — an outfit deeply enmeshed with America’s propaganda and soft-power infrastructure. Alan leaned on a lot of my reporting for his story and expanded it with updated information about what the outfit has been up to.
Since my book came out, the Open Technology Fund has left the protective umbrella of CIA spinoff Radio Free Asia and is now a standalone unit within the larger U.S. Global Media Media propaganda network. Judging by Alan’s reporting, it has been expanding its base of operations since I first looked into them and is now bankrolling “Internet Freedom” projects all across the globe — from Hong Kong to Cuba.
Anyway, I’m glad Alan followed up and expanded my reporting. Check out his story:
The OTF has played a key role in U.S.-backed protest movements around the world. During the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests, it was quietly channeling millions of dollars to protest leaders in an attempt to keep them going. It was also carrying out large-scale data-gathering operations on Chinese social media platforms Weibo and Wechat. CIA cutout organization the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was engaged in similar activities.
For months, the Hong Kong protests dominated Western news media, with wall-to-wall positive coverage of the events. Yet locals themselves appeared to be far more split on the action. A poll conducted by Reuters showed that, by August 2020, only 44% of Hong Kongers supported the protest movement.
The Open Technology Fund has also been crucial to Washington’s activities in Cuba. There, it sponsored the development of Psiphon, an open-source tool that allows users to hide their identity and bypass government restrictions.
The NED had, for years, been spending big to build and train a network of activists across the island. When the time came, they were ready. “During the protest in July, Psiphon enabled over 2.8 million users to connect to the uncensored internet, allowing them to share their stories on social media and messaging apps,” boasted the company’s CEO, Michael Hull. “Giving [Cubans] those tools so they can talk to each other is the most important thing that we can do,” a senior Biden administration official told McClatchy’s D.C. Bureau. “We’re looking to further expand our support for the Open Technology Fund and those sorts of [operations],” they added. As with Hong Kong, worldwide media coverage of the Cuban protests was intense. Yet the demonstrations fell apart even quicker, as few Cubans had an appetite for regime change.
A map from a 2018 OTF report shows regions where so-called “Internet freedom communities” have applied for OTF assistance
The OTF is also known to have supported similar recent actions in Belarus, Iran and Venezuela. In Belarus, it trained the opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko, its agents carrying out ten separate tours of the country, holding meetings with representatives of what it deemed “independent mass media, human rights defenders and civil activists.” In total, it conducted at least 225 consultations with Belarussian groups in 16 months during 2017 and 2018 alone. They also provided training sessions for these activists. Sure enough, widespread demonstrations followed, with the goal of removing Lukashenko. The leaders of the movement were “installed and maintained” by the OTF, according to The Guardian.
Read the rest here.
Want to know more? Read: “Signal is a government op: It was created and funded by a CIA spinoff. It is not your friend.”