Spreading Cryptography for the Common Good

When the Bitcoin whitepaper first made its rounds in an electronic mailing list, a citation in it stirred interest among the cypherpunk community that was probably never as alive in its three decades of existence.

Finally, with Bitcoin, some 25 years after A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto, which called for the creation of systems “which allow anonymous transactions to take place” and “empowers individuals to reveal their identity when desired and only when desired”, was there an actual code that was ready to be run by anyone, that allowed for such an implementation.

Privacy not merely a right, but a duty

Those who know me know me as a Bitcoin advocate. And within that advocacy, I believe strongly in privacy, so much so that I view it not only as a right, but a duty.

Yes, the libertarian associations come from the concept of sovereign money, and from the divorcing of personal finance from corporate and centralized banks, and from the recognition that money must be free from manipulation for it to work. But in the muddled waters of Bitcoin advocacy, it can be easy to forget as well that privacy through cryptography is a necessary part of the equation.

In a world of extreme connectivity and increased surveillance, many people view the desire for privacy in different lights. For some governments, not without justification, sacrifices have been made to restrict privacy in the name of national security and justice.

Understandable necessities, for sure, but I still believe that within the nuances of safety, the oft-drawn argument of “if you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to hide” breeds a dangerous ignorance.

Without privacy, we are unable to create boundaries to protect ourselves from unwarranted interference in our personal lives. Without privacy, we cannot determine who we are and what defines us, or dictate how we want to interact with our world. Without privacy, states, corporations and other parties need not justify exerting their powers over us arbitrarily — and the fact that more and more discoveries are emerging of these crimes against us (Facebook – Cambridge AnalyticaClearviewNSA, etc.) is proof that they certainly are doing all of this.

And so the central question in privacy that we must ask is also one of ethics: do we have a moral, or indeed ethical, obligation to withhold information or protect information from unwarranted disclosure? Is the safeguarding of the privacy of other people no longer the responsibility only of the state or the business, but of each other?

These questions weren’t unlike those that the cypherpunks asked and provoked. In the Manifesto, they remind us:

“We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. We must come together and create systems which allow anonymous transactions to take place. People have been defending their own privacy for centuries with whispers, darkness, envelopes, closed doors, secret handshakes, and couriers. The technologies of the past did not allow for strong privacy, but electronic technologies do.”

The Cypherpunk movement

But this isn’t to say that cypherpunks weren’t doing anything prior to Bitcoin! Far from it. Before magic internet money, and before Bitcoiners sought to down the banks and disrupt money, cypherpunks had long been fighting the good fight, warning us of the dangers of online communications and how we’d one day be struggling to preserve one of our basic human rights.

Some, like Julian Assange, are well-known, for their direct and unrelenting efforts to draw attention to what goes on away from our eyes. But there are many others whose involvements and contributions to the cypherpunk movement have helped our awareness today of our rights to privacy through cryptography.

The literature that talks about this movement, from its early beginnings in the 1980s to its formal formation in the early 1990s, can be somewhat difficult to obtain and consume. But lately, there have been decent efforts in bringing some of these developments to light, like this new documentary series by Reason.com producer Jim Epstein, “Cypherpunks Write Code”.

Itself an eponymous title from the Manifesto, it looks at the people behind the various pieces of software that specifically seeks to defend our privacy, who publish the code openly that the public can use it, promoting the act of encryption.

I highly recommend you watch Part 1, Before the Web: The 1980s Dream of a Free and Borderless Virtual World. Delve into the minds of crypto-anarchist Tim May, AMIX creator Dean Tribble, computer scientist Mark S Miller and many others who laid the groundwork for a borderless virtual world.

Write code. Spread code. Onward.