Bill Budington

Bill Budington

Bill Budington

Whispers, Conspiracy, and Revolt:
How encoded communications shape radical social movements

Radical movements have long used encoded channels and ciphers as a means of communication and planning for revolt. From slave uprisings to resistance against state surveillance in the anti-colonial period, specially crafting the literal content of a communication in a way that hides its true meaning provides a method for those “in the know” to organize and agitate right under the noses of their oppressors.

Today, the widespread use of rigorously formulated end-to-end encryption algorithms in communication apps has rendered mass surveillance prohibitively expensive—rather than attempting to break encryption, states have stockpiled vulnerabilities to compromise the devices of specific targets. It also relocates the burden of encoding and decoding messages from the communicating parties (no longer needing to know a set of codes and what they mean) to the underlying technology, making that encryption easier to use and also easier to forget.  Signal is understood as “just a messaging app” to many who use it: its pseudo-magical properties are relegated to some area of the subconscious.

We know that observation of our behavior changes it, that surveillance suppresses our expressive instinct, that we exert self-censorship when we know we are being watched. This session asks the question: does the existence of encryption platforms, its knowledge and use, substantively shape our social movements?

The age-old debate on clandestine tactics is present here. In the fight against capitalism, is it of more utility to build strong, above-ground social movements or to instigate radical change by working in secret with a small group of comrades to apply pressure to specific points of capitalist infrastructure via direct action? This session does not weigh in on this question but asks whether the mere presence of encrypted apps tilts the scales, makes one tactic more or less prevalent, or opens avenues for completely different tactics to emerge?

Outside of oppressive gaze, our creative impulses are encouraged to grow. We can think clearly, and co-develop new avenues for radical thought and action. In a classic ironic twist, our collective knowledge of our clandestinity produces a more open and fruitful area for us to discuss openly, at least within the confines of a specific trust-group.

In the future, how can we ensure that legislation that attempts to suppress these communications methods does not eliminate the (secretive) open spaces that we’ve created within them? How can we avoid the return to code-books and the labor manual encoding/decoding? Is this even desirable?

Though this session may open more questions than it answers, it aims to spark discussions around form and content, secrecy and openness, and the best path to a better future.


Bill Budington is a long-time activist, cryptography enthusiast, and a Senior Staff Technologist on EFF’s Public Interest Technology team. His research has been featured in the The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and cited by the US Congress. He is the lead developer of Cover Your Tracks, led HTTPS Everywhere from 2015-2018, and has contributed to projects like Let’s Encrypt and SecureDrop. Bill has spoken at USENIX Enigma (2016), HOPE (2014, 2016, 2018, 2020, 2022), CCC (2017), InfoSec Southwest (2017), ShmooCon (2019, 2020), and other infosec conferences. Bill’s primary interest lies in dismantling systems of oppression, building up collaborative alternatives and, to borrow a phrase from Zapatismo, fighting for a ‘world in which many worlds fit.’ He loves hacker spaces and getting together with other techies to tinker, code, share, and build the technological commons.