SATYAKAM GOSWAMI SAT IN A CONFERENCE HALL in the Institute of Informatics & Communication in Delhi University’s South Campus, furiously typing code into his laptop. He typed the string “/var/log/tor#”, into a Linux terminal, then turned to me and said, “I am one step away, man.” It was around midnight on a muggy July Saturday, and Goswami had been here for six hours. He resumed typing—and cursing under his breath in Telugu as he realised that the online instructions he was following weren’t helping.
Around him, the room bustled with the activity of around 25 other people, all participants at a Cryptoparty, a cryptography event at which programmers and non-programmers meet to share information and expertise on tools that can help thwart government spying.
Goswami was one of the organisers of the event, which was led by Bernadette Längle, a German ‘hacktivist’ who is a member of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC), Europe’s largest association of hackers. Längle was one of the organisers of the CCC’s Chaos Communication Congress in 2012, an international hackers’ meet held in Hamburg that year. While processing participant applications for the Congress, she came across a group that wanted to organise what they called a “Cryptoparty” at the meet. “I thought Cryptoparty would be a bunch of guys coming together, learning crypto and having a party,” she told me. Only at the event did she realise that Cryptoparties are rather more political affairs, at which participants experiment with ways of combating governmental intrusions into privacy and freedom.
After she graduated, Längle decided she wanted to travel. “I hadn’t been to America or Asia, and I don’t think I want to enter America,” she said. “I thought India might be a good point to start.” While she was exploring her options, she met Goswami online. “I first met Bernadette on an IRC channel, ‘hasgeek’, where she expressed her interest to come to India,” Goswami said. “I suggested that she write a proposal to CIS [the Centre for Internet and Society, in Bangalore].” Längle applied, and was accepted to work with the organisation for six months.
When Längle was teaching a one-week course on email cryptography at a CIS event, a participant suggested to her that she organise a Cryptoparty in the city. “I thought I was travelling anyway, and I can make a Cryptoparty everywhere I go,” Längle said. This led to the Bangalore Cryptoparty on 30 June, followed by the Delhi edition on 6 July. Längle then held a Cryptoparty in Dharamsala in the second week of July, and plans to hold another in Mumbai in October. At each of these, she gave tutorials on specific aspects of cryptography, such as the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption and decryption program, which Edward Snowden used to communicate with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald during their now-famous collaboration. Participants would then experiment with these tools, sending emails and messages to each other using secure channels. The Delhi edition, which saw around 70 participants, continued late into the night, with the last exhausted stragglers shutting off their gadgets and heading home at 4 am.
I met Längle again the day after the Delhi event; with her was Pranesh Prakash, policy director at CIS, who is a commentator on issues related to surveillance and privacy. Both agreed that the Indian government’s Central Monitoring System programme, as well as Edward Snowden’s recent leaks, had resulted in a greater interest in cryptography in the country in recent months. “Without the PRISM stuff, there wouldn’t have been so many people attending,” Längle said. “People are concerned about that.” Prakash believes that the NSA leaks have served as a loud wake-up call about a longstanding state of affairs. “It’s this I-told-you-so moment for lots of people right now,” he said. “This isn’t the first time there have been revelations about the NSA spying beyond their authority. These revelations have been happening at least since 2006.”