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Lilia Kai. Foto: Christian Zierleyn

Open Whisper Systems at the Dutch Big Brother Awards

Open Whisper Systems was awarded the Felipe Rodriguez award at the twelfth edition of Dutch Big Brother Awards. This award, given to people and organisations who have been invaluable for protecting and advancing privacy, was given to Open Whisper Systems for their work on Signal and the Signal protocol. They have managed to secure the communications of more than a billion people. Lilia Kai was in Amsterdam to accept the award. Watch the video of her awards and read her rousing acceptance speech here.

On behalf of Open Whisper Systems, thank you to Bits of Freedom, for this award. It’s truly a pleasure to be here with all of you tonight.

Felipe Rodriguez, for whom this award is named, made the following observation, circa 1995:

Today people can talk over the Internet, play games together, send pictures, send video transmissions, radio et cetera. Never before have people been communicating so massively, on an international scale. Every person is a medium that generates network traffic.

Now here we are in 2016, and these words have only become more true. The internet, computers, and cell phones, are making our world more connected than ever before. Unfortunately, that also leaves our communications more vulnerable than ever before. Our telephone companies, online service providers, and social media sites all occupy positions of great privilege in this network, privilege that is all too easily abused, either by these corporations themselves, or by the governments that might compel them to compromise their own users.

Sometimes I almost wish I’d been born before the internet, or even before radios or phone lines. Back then, intercepting another person’s messages was actually quite challenging. You at least had to shoot a small bird out of the air or overtake a galloping horse.

Of course, sending messages in the first place was also more difficult back then. First you had to train the bird or hire the horseman, and overall I’d have to admit I do prefer modern times. Bird trainers have been largely replaced by software developers like myself, for whom message transmission is a small matter of programming, but for big brother, message interception is a small matter of paperwork. Mass communication comes hand in hand with mass surveillance.

Given the reality of this situation, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Most of us are utterly dependant on email, chat, search engines, websites, online maps, menus, markets and more, simply to navigate our daily lives, and all too often, we convince ourselves that there’s nothing we can do to protect our own network traffic from interception, so we may as well just give up, accept the bad with the good and just go about our business as usual.

But when Edward Snowden revealed to the world just how deep the scope of government surveillance has become, he also gave us a message of hope. He said:

Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on.

At Open Whisper Systems, our goal is to make mass surveillance impossible. Our strategy is the combination of privacy-preserving technology with familiar, frictionless, user experience.

At the beginning of 2013 we had what amounted to a simple clone of the default SMS app for Android phones, with a layer of opportunistic end-to-end encryption built in.

That was nearly four years ago now, and since then we’ve evolved into a fully fledged multi-device encrypted messaging service, spanning the Android, iOS, and Desktop ecosystems, with millions of registered users and counting.

To the average user, our app, Signal, doesn’t look much different from any other messaging app, (which was, after all, the point).

But the most important difference is that when big brother does come knocking, we have practically no information to give.

Signal messages are protected by the Signal Protocol, which is fast becoming the de-facto standard for end-to-end encryption of large-scale messaging services. It has now been implemented in multiple third-party platforms including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Google Allo.

There was never any question of whether these kinds of integrations were in line with our goal of eliminating mass surveillance. We built Signal to prove that end-to-end encryption can work for anyone, and at scale. We gave it away for free to ensure that there were no barriers to entry. We open sourced it so that it could be seen and used and improved. And we partner with other organizations to help them protect their own users, because when it comes to mass surveillance, we’re not safe until we’re all safe.

I first became involved with Open Whisper Systems in the spring of 2013. I didn’t know that much about cryptography at the time. I didn’t know much about mobile app development specifically. But I knew how to code, I knew how to learn, and I knew that I wanted to contribute to the privacy movement. And when I looked around at all my friends who were interested in those topics, there was one messaging app that they seemed to have in common…

Today I’m the maintainer of Signal Desktop, a companion app to Signal on your Android or iOS device, which allows you to send and receive secure messages from the comfort of your keyboard. It’s been a long journey to get here, easily the greatest challenge of my professional life so far, but also the most rewarding.

We haven’t solved all the problems. Metadata hiding, or in other words, concealing each user’s social graph even from ourselves, is still a challenge, but one that we’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

Of course, there are some problems in the world that Open Whisper Systems can’t solve. Crypto won’t fix economic inequality, irresponsible corporate policies or unjust legislation. Crypto won’t eliminate racism, sexism, or fascism. For those kinds of problems we still need organizers and activist groups like Bits of Freedom, taking action on a human level to effect social change. But those groups in turn need us, to give them the means to speak freely. In short, encryption won’t save the world, but neither will the world be saved without encryption.

So to those of you with the skills to help us build better tools: come, join us. We still have plenty of work to do. And to those of you on the frontlines, protesting, campaigning and organizing and doing the really hard work, on problems which have no technical solutions, to you I say thank you, we’re with you, and we’re counting on you, now more than ever.

To anyone and everyone else, you take the first step to support and protect others, simply by protecting yourself. Use encrypted messaging by default and reclaim your right to privacy. But above all, don’t give up. Don’t succumb to privacy nihilism. Because we can’t win a war against surveillance if we’re losing a battle against ourselves.

Again, on behalf of Whisper Systems, dank je wel and good night.

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