India’s second crypto-war should begin now

I have frequently told enfant terrible Anand Venkatanarayanan that his ilk of tech activists would keep on skimming the surface until they fight a crypto-war. That they are not battle-hardened yet.

The time has now come for them to (wo)man up: Govt moves to access and trace all ‘unlawful’ content online.

But before I go on, the first question that you are meant to ask is: when did the first Indian crypto-war happen? Well, that was in 2008, when Blackberry gave in to government demands and handed over its encryption keys. To quote TS Eliot, it ended “not with a bang but a whimper.” The activist/cyberpunk scene was non-existent. I guess, Anand was still wooing his wife-to-be back then and I just had my first existential crisis.

You know, what’s the peak of a nation state’s strategic capability, even above nuclear? It’s fucking crypto…as in cryptography and cryptanalysis. I’m serious enough to use the f-word.

Go, read how the NSA zealously protects its cryptanalytic capabilities, even from its allies.

When your nuclear submarine can’t confirm its launch authorisation with the commander-in-chief — or it is not relayed in the first place — deterrence goes down the drain. When the NSA cracks the cipher of Indian nuclear command-and-control, it means that all the tiers of your strategic capability break. They come down like a house of cards.

And mathematics is equitable…egalitarian. You can’t import it, you can’t buy it — there’s no Augusta scam in the making. You just have to nurture it within your ecosystem. Mind you, backdoors and vulnerabilities are equitable, too. If the NSA can crack it, so would the others.

Most of India’s ciphers are vetted by a little known body called the Scientific Analysis Group (SAG) under the DRDO. It’s completely insulated from the public discourse, which is unlike how solid cryptography got fostered in the US. Who knows what SAG is up to? (Now is a good time for you to read Phil Zimmerman’s Beware of Snake Oil. Zimmerman is to cryptography what Prometheus is to fire.)

Anyhow, when the activists fight a crypto-war, it does our nation good. It raises the level of public discourse and creates a competitive streak between government and private research.

I am not even sure if India has a crypto scene (it does host Indocrypt every year). I approached a top-tier Indian academician once who had written a book on advanced crypto, seeking some help on breaking testing a signalling platform — he simply gave up even without trying.

Here’s a beautiful piece on the first American crypto-war: