CryptoRave, the largest conference on cryptology and Internet privacy in Latin America, kicked off Friday in São Paulo, Brazil. Several thousand people - young programmers, activists, hackers and self-described “cyberpunks” - will attend the 24-hour marathon of workshops, lectures, roundtables and parties. Its all dedicated to cryptology: the practice of using encoded digital communication to stop unwanted snooping.
Lots has changed since the crypto movement took off in Brazil and South America two years ago. Activists are still concerned with the U.S. surveillance Snowden’s leaks revealed, but they’re also asking questions about issues closer to home.
“I think it started thanks to Edward Snowden uncovering what the U.S. is doing. And now everyone is turning to understand, ‘Oh, what is my government doing about my data in my country, where they actually have jurisdiction over me?” says Katitza Rodriguez, international director of rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, and one of the keynote speakers at CryptoRave. “It’s not that they don’t care about NSA spying — they care — but actually all the discussion and the debate in the U.S. have kind of informed the activists of the traditional human rights community to dig more into the surveillance infrastructure in their own countries.”
The movement around Internet privacy and security has grown dramatically in Brazil since 2013. It started after revelations of spying on Brazilian oil giant Petrobras and government officials, including Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.
The story reverberated in Brazilian media for months. Gustavo Gus, a 28-year-old organizer of the CryptoRave festival, credits the Snowden leaks with laying the foundation for the cryptology movement in Brazil.
“If a diplomatic agreement between Brazil and the United State didn’t stop the surveillance of these powerful figures, what would happen with a common citizen? That’s what really touched the people,” Gus says.
The digital rights groups quickly started turning their attention to their own government, looking to hold them accountable and avoid policies that the NSA and U.S. government use routinely. Activists were alarmed when the Brazilian Intelligence Agency announced it would monitor protesters on social networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as the World Cup approached in 2014.
With the Olympics in 2016 there is a widespread expectation that such domestic surveillance will intensify. For digital rights activists, the crypto message is more urgent than ever.
“There was a big police state so there wouldn’t be protests against the World Cup. And now the Olympics are coming and we’re already expecting that anyone who has anything to say against it will be under surveillance,” Gus says.
“It’s a very young audience. I get emails from parents asking if adolescent children need to be accompanied,” Gus explains. “When I was younger, I would have liked to go to events like this, but they didn’t exist.”
The objections around the Snowden revelations helped lay the groundwork for the passage in Brazil of an Internet Bill or Rights, or the “Marco Civil.” The bill has been hailed as internationally historic in terms of the protections it establishes for privacy and “net neutrality” in Brazil, though the regulatory framework that will determine how it is implemented is pending.
Sergio Amadeu, a political science professor at the Federal University of ABC and a leading digital rights advocate, believes the CryptoRave conference is important because of the “tense” moment in which it is happening as people debate Internet privacy and security in the country.
“The CryptoRave is a demonstration that the people believe in liberty and that privacy hasn’t died,” he says. “People don’t accept being watched all the time. It’s a message for the forces that want to control everything, be they in the United States or Brazil.”