You’ve probably heard the slogan, “information wants to be free.” It’s credited to Stewart Brand, the visionary instigator behind The Whole Earth Catalog.
When the phrase became commonly known in 1984, Brand was referring specifically to the cost of information, but hackers and cyberpunks soon adopted the phrase as justification for their often-illegal activities in “unlocking” access to restricted materials.
Free software activist Richard Stallman elaborated on the idea in a 1990 article titled Concerning Hackers Who Break into Computer Systems.
“I believe that all generally useful information should be free,” Stallman said. “By ‘free’ I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one’s own uses.”
In 1996, New York City architects John Young and Deborah Natsios created Cryptome, a private website and foundation dedicated to publishing banned and restricted documents in the name of making information freely available. According to the website’s mission statement, “Cryptome welcomes documents for publication that are prohibited by governments worldwide, in particular material on freedom of expression, privacy, cryptology, dual-use technologies, national security, intelligence, and secret governance — open, secret and classified documents — but not limited to those.”
The site is supported through sales of the Cryptome archive of over 44 gigabytes and 102,000 documents.
A quick scan of the minimalist web site reveals documents like Bilderberg Conference Reports 1954-2002, POTUS Guidance for Drone Killings, Captures, DNI Covert HUMINT Inside the US, Rudesill: Coming to Terms with Secret Law, and LinkNYC Spy Kiosks Installation Videos. The site’s Courier typeface and simple layout hearken back to the early pre-browser Internet of forums, Gopher, and chat rooms.
In addition to issues like censorship and free access to information, Natsios and Young take on subjects such as government surveillance. The massive “smart city” project, LinkNYC, for example, aims to install 10,000 public Wi-Fi kiosks around New York City. So far, approximately 200 have been installed, according to Natsios and Young, who undertook a critical assessment of the project.
In a letter to The New York Times, published on Cryptome, the pair stated that they had visited, photographed, and analysed each installed kiosk.
“We assess the system appears to be the largest urban spying system in the United States”, Natsios and Young stated.
In addition, the two contend that the public is unaware of the surveillance potential of the kiosks, which contain high-definition cameras, Wi-Fi access points, and “sophisticated sensors developed by Argonne National Laboratory for military and intelligence application” designed to gather information from nearby computers and smartphones.
Young and Natsios both trained as architects and began collaborating sometime in 1993. Young earned his graduate degree in architecture from Columbia University, while Natsios earned hers from Princeton University.
In an article for Archinect, Natsios described their motivation for the site, linking Founding Father Thomas Jefferson to the project.
“Cryptome takes a pretty firm stand as a public domain library focused on debating the category ‘banned information,'” Natsios said. “As mentioned earlier, this approach is consistent with Jefferson’s declaration that free access to knowledge is fundamental to democratic self-rule, and critical to transforming the subjects of kings into citizens of a republic.”
Over two decades of publishing banned information, Young and Natsios have attracted plenty of attention, including attacks by hackers, visits from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and both praise and criticism from news organisations. Reader’s Digest claimed in 2005 that Cryptome, in publishing maps of vulnerable infrastructure, offered an ““invitation to terrorists” that “may well have put lives at risk.”
In 2013, the legal director of the information-freedom group Electronic Frontier Foundation praised the Cryptome approach, saying the site is “”a really important safety valve for the rest of us, as to what our government is up to.”