Meet the Two Organizers Behind Cryptographies of Resistance

Cryptography has often been used for imperial gain. Z and Crys are highlighting its revolutionary potential.

When you hear the word “cryptography”, revoultion is probably one of the last things that comes to mind. Defined as a process of securing communication through code, cryptography, to many, is often associated with surveillance and government agencies. But to Z and Crys, two Black leftists from the southern region of the United States, cryptography is so much more than what it has been made by the state. Together, the two are behind Cryptographies of Resistance, a “digital archive documenting ways that marginalized folks use cryptography [and] cryptologic for liberation and revoultion.”

With their project, Z and Crys’ are making a case not only for the revolutionary potential of cryptography in the present and future, but also pointing out that its whole history isn’t limited to its use for imperial gain. Rather than limiting themselves to examining digital communication alone, the two started off their project with stepping, whose roots can be tracked back to the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina.

You might be thinking okay, pause. How is stepping “cryptography”? Well, the Stono Rebellion began when twenty enslaved Africans met near the Stono River and used drums to call others to join as they marched towards St. Augustine, then controlled by the Spanish, who promised freedom to destabilize British control. The revolt resulted in The Negro Act of 1740 which banned enslaved people from a number of activities, like playing drums. The legislation aimed to stifle communication between enslaved Africans but, instead, they began using their bodies for percussion, giving us the stepping we know today.

I wanted to know more about Cryptographies of Resistance and future plans for this project. So, I chatted with Z and Crys via email. (This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

Let's get some background on Cryptographies of Resistance. When did it begin? What inspired you to launch this project? 

Cryptographies of Resistance is a dual effort by Z and Crys, two community organizers from the south. We started the project around January of 2021 but the idea was conceived in late 2020. The inspiration behind Cryptographies of Resistance came from a want to challenge present ideas within the cyber security world about what cryptography is used for and what it can look like. Cryptography, encryption/decryption — all of these things are so intertwined in state violence because of the present politics behind cyber security. 

“We wanted to create a space where we are outwardly criticizing the use of cryptography for imperial gain.”

Cyber security has been used to destabilize countries, spread violence, or forward right wing and even apolitical agendas by people and countries in the West. This is generally applauded and not criticized within the industry. We wanted to create a space where we are outwardly criticizing the use of cryptography for imperial gain. In addition, we wanted to show how cryptography has been — and can continue to be — used for actual resistance against the state, rather than for the state. We want this project to allow marginalized people to know that cryptography can be used as a tool for liberation and create ideas of how we can do this today.  

Most people think of cryptography in terms of digital communication. Your project includes other forms of communication like song and dance. Why?

We wanted to focus on communication outside of tech to highlight that cryptography doesn’t look one way. To think that the things that are deeply part of many marginalized peoples’ cultures, like singing and dancing, can be used as a form of cryptography shows the importance that a lot of our traditional practices have in sustaining us.

That is not to say that we will not include digital communication but it is important to highlight things outside of what is usually considered cryptography. You don’t have to be super technical or know a lot about technology to engage in a form of cryptography. That is something that must be emphasized when we talk about using cryptography for our movements. 

Your assertion of cryptography as always Black, and stemming from resistance,  reminded me of Simone Brown's dark sousveillance, which "charts possibilities and coordinates modes of responding to, challenging, and confronting a surveillance that was almost all-encompassing." Can you talk more about cryptography and surveillance?

Getting into a brief history of cryptography, it has been a tool of the state because of its use in war. Cryptography and its exportation has been strictly controlled by the United States in the past (and even present) because of its status as a war technology (it was added on the Munitions List around the time of the Cold War). This explains crypto wars and the U.S.’ attempts to control cryptography by limiting its use to the public. To be clear, the U.S. isn’t the only country doing this.

Surveillance and cryptography go hand in hand when we think about ways that the U.S., Israel, the United Kingdom, and other imperial countries have destabilized regions that they do not want exercising autonomy. They have used cryptography and surveillance to continue colonization, imperialism, and violence against groups of people. Technologies like cryptography have made it easier for them to continue this exploitation. That’s why this project is so important to us. It’s a way to subvert cryptography. Instead of it being a tool for state violence, we want it to be a tool for marginalized people.

What are your future plans for Cryptographies of Resistance? How can people follow along or potentially get involved with this work?

We plan to create a video series that will also be available on our Instagram. A video series gives us a chance to be more accessible. If you have issues reading the graphics, having an audio version of each to accompany them could be an alternative, and vice versa if you have issues with audio or are hard of hearing. It also gives us a chance to bring in our friends because we want filming and production to be a group effort with people we trust. It would be a really nice way to get friends that aren’t necessarily tech “experts” to get involved. The way technology is, the only opinions that are valued are supposed experts. We want to subvert that.

We also plan on creating a website because we understand that not everyone has social media or likes to use social media. We will be doing a few more introductions to this project because we launched it in a really obscure way. We’re working on more posts and reworking how we want things to look. It’s been a lot of work since the creation of Cryptographies of Resistance was just the two of us.

For now, people can follow Cryptographies of Resistance on Instagram. We also created a ProtonMail so we could get feedback from people or even suggestions on what they would like to see discussed:

Z (they/them): A recent cyber security graduate and community organizer. Z’s research includes focusing on the relationship between marginalized people and technology, the intersection of computers, cyber, and politics, and abolitionist tech. They are a co-founder of the Assata Collective.

Crys (she/her): Crys is a recent college graduate in nursing.  She aspires to merge her passions of community organizing and health care in order to abolish inequities that black and brown folks face in the medical industry.  She has been a member of the Assata Collective since its inception, a radical creative punk organizing collective in the south.