The problem with CryptoParty

Over the past two years, I have been part of the CryptoParty movement. I have learnt and shared knowledge at at least hundred CryptoParties, and I have organized dozens of sessions all over Europe. I have done my share of nights thinking and discussing how to get more people engaged, how to spread the movement in new places and simply how to be better in general.

Today, I am leaving CryptoParty.

CryptoParty helped me when I needed it. I am thankful for everything I learnt at CryptoParty Berlin, for every conversation that helped me understand surveillance and how to act against it, for every moment people spent with me, explaining over and over again what I didn’t unsterstand.

Spending more and more time with CryptoParty Berlin, I met amazing, generous, open-minded, welcoming people who were willing to give their time and energy in order to help others. When they asked me if I would consider joining the movement and organizing events myself, I didn’t hesitate for a long time. I happily joined CryptoParty Berlin.

From there, everything went pretty crazy. In a few months, I went from ‘newbie’ to organizer, started traveling around Europe to cryptoparty wherever people wanted me to do so. I travelled in Germany, to the UK, the Netherlands, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria. The first time I was on stage at a conference, of course, I talked about CryptoParty. CryptoParty ended up being my almost full-time occupation.

Quite quickly, I understood that not only learning, teaching and organizing skills were needed at CryptoParty. We needed to learn how to communitcate better, how to present ourselves in order to be as inviting as possible in order to get more and more people to learn how to encrypt. Being a journalist and having worked in communication for events, I decided to help on these aspects. I made new posters, flyer, stickers. I produced a video that could be shown at the beginning of a CryptoParty or shared online to encourage people to protect their privacy. I tried to help people find allies so they could start running their own CryptoParties wherever they were. This summer, I was working on reorganizig and rewriting the CryptoParty Wiki.

Lately I gave up on these tasks. The only thing I did, except for a few trips to Eastern Europe and the Netherlands, was dealing with internal issues, which made me more and more angry over the weeks.

I feel like trying to solve problems at CryptoParty didn’t help. It made everything worse, at least for me, because it made me understand that most of the active people at CryptoParty had no interest in solving these problems. For most of us, it was much easier to pretend that everything is allright.

I cannot deal with a movement that does not even try to solve their internal problems. I refuse to be part of a group that doesn’t try to get better.

CryptoParty has repeatedly failed to deal with problematic people who destroy the group. There are two particularly bad cases of this I have been dealing with.

Many people left CryptoParty Berlin in the last months. A person who was really active in the community in Berlin acted in a manner that many of us consider as totally inappropriate in the context of a CryptoParty meeting. I didn’t feel like I could work together with this person anymore – and I know I am not the only one.
We asked for this person to talk with us several times, but they kept acting like everything was normal. After more than a month of tensions, they agreed on meetings with several people. They listened to what we have to say, and once more, didn’t say anything to help unblock the situation. After having emailed many of us with contradictory messages, they asked us to decide whether we still wanted to work with them or not. We met, decided that it would be better for everyone to not be around this person for a while, and asked them to take a break from CryptoParty. Butt the next CryptoParty, they showed up again, as if everything was normal. They announced that they would go “on the barricades” for their right to CryptoParty. As a consequence, many people left. We had failed at finding a solution, everything was blocked.

It is not the first time that CryptoParty doesn’t manage to deal with people who destroy the group. This reminds me of the story of a person who is known for being one of the reasons why Asher Wolf, the ‘founder’ of CryptoParty, left the movement.
This second person I want to talk about is known for messing up with groups in many places. They have been excluded from several spaces already. I have to admit that this person being extremely manipulative and it took me (and also several persons from CryptoParty Berlin) a few months until I understood why this person was unwanted in so many places. Being unable to respect any rules, trying to split groups they are pretending to work with in order to serve their own interests, manipulating, they were eventually banned from CryptoParty Berlin. From what I know, this person is a reason for many people to not attend CryptoParties anymore, but he is still welcome at CryptoParty events all around the world.

(When I addressed some of these issues on mailinglists or on social media, I have been accused of not providing enough details about some of the issues I was describing. I will not provide these details here either: even if I am horrified about these behaviors, they are private information to some people involved and I will not publish this information where everyone can read it.)

Both stories show us that we are stuck with the idea that CryptoParty must be open to everyone to the point where we put this ideal above everyting. These stories show that we are not able to take rational decisions to make CryptoParty work better, or to protect the movement when it is needed.

These stories, and the way most people on the CryptoParty mailinglist reacted, show really well how most people at CryptoParty think: we are volunteers, we are having fun, and let’s not put too much effort in trying to change things in the group. CryptoParty is perfect as it is, we are as fun and cool as our pink logo looks like, let’s keep thinks how they are.

CryptoParty needs to learn to give up their idealistic guiding principles, or at least to adapt them when they prevent the group from solving problems. When someone’s presence is a threat to a group, saying that everyone should be welcome doesn’t solve anything.
When the quality of some people’s teaching is so bad that anyone who had a basic understanding of crypto tools wants to cry, replying that we should be thankful for these people to volunteer doesn’t make their teaching less bad.

CryptoParty needs to wake up.

I am aware that CryptoParty is a movement where people volunteer their time to teach other people how to protect themselves. I have much respect for everyone who is ready to do so.
I am also aware that some people at CryptoParty have been struggling with the same problems I had. I know some people shared my ideas, and I am thankful for their support.

But I am tired of seeing people advertising tools that have been proven insecure, or outdated. I want to cry every time I see people trying to teach too complicated ways to encrypt to beginners, because they can’t even think of who is sitting in fromt of them, and cause many people to give up on encryption. I am sick of hearing CryptoParty introductions saying that “we are just playing around”.

I agree, most people who attend CryptoParties are probably not in danger. For most of them, playing around might be more than ok. They can have a nice evening and learn something that will slightly improve their privacy, if they really end up using what they learned.
But what about the others? What about those who attend CryptoParties because they had bad experiences, or because they are in danger, because they have some special need we don’t even know about?

CryptoParty needs to accept to give up on this dream where it would be possible to teach crypto with no teacher and no pupil.

Not considering yourself as a teacher doesn’t make the person who learns something from you consider you less as a teacher. The person who teaches has power – even if this dynamic is unwanted.

And with great power comes great responsibility.

When you decide to volunteer for something as serious as CryptoParty, you accept this responsibility.
You accept that you might have to deal with situations that are probably too complicated for you or for pretty much everyone in the world, and that when that moment comes, you will have to do your best.
You accept that you have to commit to a certain level of quality in what you do, because if you you don’t care enough, someone else who trusted you might suffer from your way of cryptopartying.
And you accept that whether you want it or not, you have to embrace the role and the responsibilities of a teacher, and that in the context of CryptoParty, you have to act accordingly.

I am not expecting people who join the CryptoParty movement to do anything crazy, or dangerous. I am not expecting them to change everything in their life because they volunteer.
But when these people are at a CryptoParty, or when they are acting as part of the CryptoParty movement, I expect quality, and I expect responible behaviour. And when it is the case that this is not respected, I expect the group to acknowledge the problem and deal with it.

Both issues that I pointed out come from the same idea: that CryptoParty is a nice game, where we can do something good while having fun.
This idea is naively beautiful, and dangerous.

When not treated carefully, it fails.

We have failed at dealing with the problems that CryptoParty encountered.
And in general, we have failed at reaching a certain level of quality in teaching.

If CryptoParty doesn’t rethink the core of its non-structure, the movement will keep failing without even noticing it.
I am done failing with CryptoParty. It is time to build up something new.

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