Dissertation: “The Cultural Contradictions of Cryptography” (PhD, Columbia University, 2019)

Ph.D. in Communication, Columbia University, 2019.

This dissertation examines the origins of political and scientific commitments that currently frame cryptography, the study of secret codes, arguing that these commitments took shape over the course of the twentieth century. Looking back to the nineteenth century, cryptography was rarely practiced systematically, let alone scientifically, nor was it the contentious political subject it has become in the digital age. Beginning with the rise of computational cryptography in the first half of the twentieth century, this history identifies a quarter-century gap beginning in the late 1940s, when cryptography research was classified and tightly controlled in the US. Observing the reemergence of open research in cryptography in the early 1970s, a course of events that was directly opposed by many members of the US intelligence community, a wave of political scandals unrelated to cryptography during the Nixon years also made the secrecy surrounding cryptography appear untenable, weakening the official capacity to enforce this classification. Today, the subject of cryptography remains highly political and adversarial, with many proponents gripped by the conviction that widespread access to strong cryptography is necessary for a free society in the digital age, while opponents contend that strong cryptography in fact presents a danger to society and the rule of law. I argue that cryptography would not have become invested with these deep political commitments if it had not been suppressed in research and the media during the postwar years. The greater the force exerted to dissuade writers and scientists from studying cryptography, the more the subject became wrapped in an aura of civil disobedience and public need. These positive political investments in cryptography have since become widely accepted among many civil libertarians, transparency activists, journalists, and computer scientists who treat cryptography as an essential instrument for maintaining a free and open society in the digital age. Likewise, even as opponents of widespread access to strong cryptography have conceded considerable ground in recent decades, their opposition is grounded in many of the same principles that defined their stance during cryptography’s public reemergence in the 1970s. Studying this critical historical moment reveals not only the origins of cryptography’s current politics, but also the political origins of modern cryptography.

Critical Visualization for Humanities Research: Designing for People, Context and Politics

March 4th, 2020

Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Study
University of British Columbia

Catherine D’Ignazio (MIT Media Lab)
Ben Shneiderman (Peter Wall Institute)
Charles Berret (UBC Journalism)
Tara Zepel (UBC Chemistry)
Sheelagh Carpendale (SFU), and more.

Organizers: Charles Berret and Tara Zepel.

Visualization is a powerful tool for communicating and gaining insight into complex subjects. Maps, graphs, and diagrams can help us see patterns and connections that might otherwise remain hidden in data. Once uncovered, the visual means of presenting these insights can easily seem neutral and objective. And yet, every visualization promotes a certain perspective of the world, often concealing its own assumptions, gaps, and biases. The choices made in creating a visualization, who or what is represented, and the context in which it is perceived — all influence what we see and do not see. The emerging field of data feminism navigates between these two poles, both acknowledging the power of visualization techniques and also urging critical attention to the forms of power that these techniques implicitly support. 


Sneakercon: A Forum to Reexamine Offline Networks

August 25-26, 2017

Charles Berret (organizer)

The Internet has grown so omnipresent today that it’s easy to overlook the continuing role of “offline networks,” systems for exchanging digital information that bypass the Internet. “Sneakernets” (by which we mean any kind of offline networking, a slight abuse of the terminology) take many forms, whether it’s a thumb drive passed between friends or a semi-trailer truck full of hard drives delivered to a server farm, or games played over a private network. Sneakernets form countless links in our digital infrastructure, but nevertheless tend to pass unnoticed in favor of a totalized, global Internet. The purpose of Sneakercon is to reexamine the offline side of the digital age by foregrounding the prevalence, variety, and uses of offline networks during two days of talks, discussion panels, and workshops.

Nathan Freitas, The Guardian Project
Hans-Christoph Steiner, The Guardian Project
Eileen Guo, Journalist
Charles Berret, Columbia Journalism School
Pablo Arcuri, Internews
Gal Beckerman, New York Times Book Review
Greta Byrum & Raul Enriquez, New America Foundation
Felix Candelario, Amazon
Juanita Ceballos, Jika Gonzalez & Dave Mayers, VICE
Jason Griffey, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society
Harlo Holmes, Freedom of the Press Foundation
Ellie Irons, Artist & Educator
Simin Kargar & Mehdi Yahyanejad, NetFreedom Pioneers
Dia Kayyali, WITNESS
Josh King, Commotion Wireless
Zach Mandeville & Dominic Tarr, Scuttlebutt
Susan McGregor, Columbia Journalism School
Deji Olukotun, Access Now
Dan Phiffer, Mapzen
Edwin Reed-Sanchez, SayCel
Soudeh Rad, Spectrum
Afsaneh Rigot, Article 19
Eleanor Saitta, dymaxion.org
James Warnock, Human Rights Foundation
Carrie Winfrey, Okthanks


Article: SecureDrop and Whistleblowing Tools in CJR

As a break from dissertation writing, I accepted an invitation from the editors of the Columbia Journalism Review to write an article revisiting last year’s Tow Center report on the use of SecureDrop in newsrooms. Here in the early months of the Trump presidency, all indications point to an incredible surge in the use of secure whistleblowing tools among Washington insiders hoping to contact journalists anonymously. A handful of my sources not only confirmed that this is the case, but also offered some sense of how they’ve coordinated this growing stream of information. Find the article here.

Interview: Talking SecureDrop with the “It’s All Journalism” Podcast

Posting this a bit late, but I was invited to speak on the podcast “It’s All Journalism” back in June. They were curious about my research on SecureDrop and I think we covered the subject pretty well in just under thirty minutes.

You can tune in here:

And my report on SecureDrop is available here: