GPG Encrypted Communication and its Literary Possibilities
In this text, I will describe very briefly some aspects of the process of encrypted communication, specifically the GPG protocol which is used worldwide by people who need to protect the content of their emails . I propose that a holistic understanding of this cryptographic process permits the construction of parallels between the act of decrypting and the construction of reading subjectivities. Then, this analysis could contribute to extended interdisciplinary possibilities for the scholarly analysis of literary texts.
When an email is sent through a commercial platform such as Google or Yahoo, the messages are protected by a basic protocol called TLS, in addition, they are also safeguarded by the user’s password. According to the scholar and cryptographer Bruce Schneier, these mechanisms only partially protect the content of a message and some parts of the traffic from the sender to the recipient are left unsecured, also the password is vulnerable to cracks . An email sent through Gmail, for example, is reviewed and analyzed by the Google infrastructure, then the corporation is able to map the messages so they can target users for advertising campaigns, which is their main source of revenue, this is why a friendly email conversation about let’s say, chairs, leads to ads of chair sellers at the different partner platforms with whom Google shares their users’ data. Also, if one of the individuals involved in a Gmail conversation is considered a suspect of a crime by some government, Google is able to provide this person’s data, a practice that has become more and more questionable because of the many cases in which those requiring this information are censoring authoritarian regimes. Schneier claims that “Google is willing to give you security, as long as it can surveil you and use the information it collects to sell ads” .
The GPG protocol was created more than twenty years ago and despite of its antiquity it is still used by activists around the globe and also by people who simply do not want to be profiled by these internet giants. The system is based in simple cryptography: every user has two keys, a public and a private one. The public one is shared with contacts and eventually uploaded to a public key server, any person who wants to send an encrypted email should know the public key of the recipient. The private key is more like a physical key since the user keeps it to herself and shouldn’t be shared with anyone else since this is the element that allows the user to decrypt the message that was sent.
If a GPG encrypted email falls into the wrong hands it will look like nonsense to them and it will be impossible to decipher unless the intercepter has the private key of the recipient.
When analyzing complex labyrinth-like pieces of literature such as Finnegans Wake by James Joyce or the works by Jorge Luis Borges, scholars tend to approach them from a detectivesque perspective, trying to find an absolute meaning on the writings like they were going to finally find an univocal interpretation of the piece, ignoring that in the hermeneutical voyage different individuals reach different conclusions. A detailed description of this journey of subjectivities is proposed by philosopher Susan Sontag, whom in her book Against Interpretation, claimed that as readers we need an erotics of art rather than hermeneutics that search for a “true meaning” .
The GPG cryptographic universe is divided into thousands of individual universes, there is no such thing as a master key that will decrypt every message, actually the opposite is true: only the personal key is going to transform the chaotic mess of characters into something that makes sense.
The Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, also addressed this issue in his master work Poetics of the Cinema , in his book he questions the totalitarian aim of American cinema which, in his opinion, presents the same story over and over rather than embracing the fact that “every person watches her own film when she goes to the cinema”. If we start thinking of us individuals as the bearers of a unique deciphering key, this would facilitate new experimental instances for the artistic practice since content would not need to be interpreted as productions that have an unambiguous meaning.
Friedrich Kittler, in his writings about code explains how codification can be traced to the Roman Empire, how it has been used throughout human history to facilitate communication (Morse code) or to preserve and decipher secrets (the Enigma machine built by Alan Turing). All these practices lead us to our current times in which computer code is omnipresent and how, according to Kittler, it is even encoding the world . Programming languages are praised because of their univocality, “code is law” some people dare to say in order to describe the objectivity of code as if it was a neutral tool. They ignore that this law of code, its structure and its current applications in a system of surveillance capitalism, at many times promotes values that do not necessarily foster personal creativity or individual sanctuary since every development goes in the same capitalistic direction: speed, efficiency, data collection, etc  . The existence of this scenario is why the example of GPG becomes so relevant today. True, the whole building of the GPG protocol has been done inside the current logics of programming too. Still, it has been developed within an open software environment, then the code has been perfected across the years and it is susceptible of adaptations. Moreover, the aim of this code advances in a way more interesting direction than the mandate of accumulation proper of companies engaged in the data hoarding business because it ontologically suggests that every user is deciphering their own content without the interruption of external actors, this is possible because they are using their secret keys.
Is it possible to think of an internet in which every user is deciphering something different? Not different because of the profiling made by the giant internet corporations but because of a personal codification that would allow interfaces to look different depending on our private keys? Isn’t that exactly what happens when we read a book or watch a film? Can we incorporate this approach towards subjectivities into the technological realm? Certainly we could, however it is not allowed nor promoted in our controlled and surveilled cyberspace. For now.
- Project, T.G. The GNU Privacy Guard. 2021 January 29th 2021 [cited 2021; Available from: https://gnupg.org/.
- Schneier, B., Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World. 2015, New York City: W. W. Norton & Company.
- Schneier, B., Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World. 2018, New York City: W. W. Norton & Company.
- Sontag, S., Against Interpretation. 1966, New York City: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Ruiz, R., Poéticas del Cine. 2013, Santiago: Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales.
- Kittler, F., Code (or, How You Can Write Something Differently), in Software Studies: A Lexicon, M. Fuller, Editor. 2008, MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
- Costanza-Chock, S., Design Justice, A.I., and Escape from the Matrix of Domination. Journal of Design and Science – MIT Media Lab, 2018. 3(Resisting Reduction Competition Winners).
- Zuboff, S., The Age of Surveillance Capitalism : the Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. 2019, New York City: Public Affairs.
Danae is a writer, multimedia artist and technologist born in the Chilean working class. She is a lecturer of Hacking at the Willem de Kooning Academy and the founder of The Digital Witchcraft Institute, an arts organization dedicated to collect and showcase advanced non-conforming approaches to the use of technology. Her practice reflects on posthuman technology, deep migrations and climate justice.