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Outwitting government and tech company surveillance through "crypto parties"

Not your average cocktail party, this one teaches people to avoid online surveillance.

Privacy advocates and political activists in the US have been organizing crypto parties to foil efforts by corporations and governments to collect data. More of a teach-in than a party, the events started in Australia back in 2012 and have since spread around the world.

At a typical crypto party, people learn to use what are known as "circumvention technologies." These may include apps like Signal, which allow users to make encrypted voice calls and send encrypted text messages.

Matt Mitchell, security researcher and "crypto super hero"
Matt Mitchell is a security researcher who has been called a "crypto superhero". He runs a crypto party in Harlem every month.

"There's no erase on the internet," says Matt. "But if you were to, let's say, use a secure browser to access Facebook, Twitter...and you were creating an account and there were no links, you weren't using your home wifi... your regular browser…[or]...your phone number, no personal identifiable information, there are ways you can set it up and no one knows that that's your account".

My ethnic group is going to be targeted and so any email that I send just with the name of that group is vulnerable information.- anonymous crypto party goer

The interest in crypto parties is partly fueled by a distrust of the big tech companies, and the personal data they may be capturing. But in the US, concerns are compounded by worries about the new Trump administration.

The scene at a 2014 "Crypto Party"

One woman attending a crypto party, who didn't want to be identified, said "my ethnic group is going to be targeted, and so any email that I send just with the name of that group is vulnerable information, so, I don't know what to do about it".

Of course, the tools that ordinary citizens concerned about privacy and security use can also be used by others. According to the New York Times, ISIS has been using encrypted messaging apps to communicate with recruits in other countries.

The Tor browser, which is supposed to allow for anonymous web surfing, was initially designed by the US Navy to protect government communication.

It's been employed by human rights activists, journalists, and people who want to blog anonymously, just to name a few important uses. However, it has also been used for criminal activities.

Hear the full story from contributor Jon Kalish:

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