Cypherpunks and the Battle For Privacy

A brief history of the cypherpunks and the key role cryptography plays in maintaining our privacy.

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When someone says “crypto,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably “cryptocurrencies.” Not too long ago though, this term actually stood for cryptography, a field of techniques used to communicate securely with another party. While methods to communicate securely have been developed for centuries, the need for cryptography was emphasized by the emergence of the internet. With more people communicating online, the government could surveil its citizens much more easily. Cypherpunks recognized this and advocated for the use of cryptography to maintain privacy over the internet.

Modern cryptography makes use of keys, a string of characters, to encrypt and decrypt messages. There are two main branches: symmetric-key cryptography and asymmetric-key cryptography (also known as public-key cryptography). Initially, there was only the former, which is when the same key is used to encrypt and decrypt a message, meaning that both parties sending messages back and forth must have the same key. But how do both parties communicate the key that they want to use for encryption and decryption while making sure that eavesdroppers can’t intercept it? Anyone with access to this key could use it to decrypt all encrypted messages.

Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman wrote a paper in 1976 titled New Directions in Cryptography that outlined the idea of public-key cryptography, where one party generates a private key which they keep secret, and then from that private key generates a mathematically related public key, which can be distributed to anyone. One can encrypt with a public key but must have the private key to decrypt it. Therefore, even if an eavesdropper knew the public key and could encrypt messages, they could not decrypt them without the private key. Additionally, it would be extremely difficult to derive the private key from the public key. So far, the only method one has to find a private key, from the public key, is randomly guessing until they get the right one. Computers could spend a hundred years guessing a private key, yet yield no result. This discovery changed cryptography as people no longer needed to share the same key.

So who are cypherpunks? The cypherpunks first started out as a group founded by Eric Hughes, Timothy May, and John Gilmore. They started a popular mailing list, which was commonly used at the time as a place to host discussions on a variety of topics like cryptography, mathematics, philosophy, and economics. Ideas were generated, discussed, and implemented, such as SSL connection to web servers and secure remote access using the SSH protocol.

While cypherpunks held many diverse opinions, they shared a few core beliefs that brought them together. In 1993, Eric Hughes wrote A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto, which laid out some core beliefs as well as the overarching goals of the cypherpunks. Among these is the belief that privacy requires anonymity and that software can’t be destroyed if it is widespread enough. One noteworthy section from it is: “Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and since we can’t get privacy unless we all do, we’re going to write it.” Cypherpunks knew governments and large corporations were unlikely to create tools to maintain the privacy of citizens and customers, so they decided to take it into their own hands. The majority of code written by the cypherpunks is open-source, meaning that anyone can use it for free and can modify the code to make improvements to ensure that those who want privacy are able to get it.

Often, the implication with one’s desire for privacy is that they have something to hide. To show carelessness regarding privacy is seen as a statement implying that you have nothing to hide. In Permanent Record, Edward Snowden strongly refuted this notion, writing, “Ultimately, saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say.” Cypherpunks believe that privacy is a basic human right.

Cypherpunks had been trying to figure out how to make a currency native to the internet, seeing it as a prerequisite to having a truly liberated internet free from censorship or surveillance. Bitcoin, a digital currency, was born from this cypherpunk movement. In fact, the Bitcoin Whitepaper, a paper outlining how Bitcoin works, was first published on the Cypherpunk mailing list. Bitcoin embodies the ethos of cypherpunks. Firstly, it allows for pseudo-anonymous transactions, since Bitcoin only reveals a person’s payment address without other personal information. Additionally, Bitcoin’s code is also open-source, allowing anyone to download it off the internet. Its code is so widespread that shutting it down would almost be akin to shutting down the internet.

While the Cypherpunk mailing list is no longer active, the spirit of the cypherpunks still lives on in the Bitcoin community. Bitcoiners believe in uncensorable transactions that aren’t controlled by the government, a large corporation, or other third parties. They see Bitcoin as a method of reclaiming financial freedom.

While many people believe cryptography’s permission-less and uncensorable nature can be used by criminals to commit crimes, it can also be used by people trying to overthrow oppressive governments, people trying to save their wealth in countries where inflation is off the charts and assets are hard to find, and people who want to maintain sovereignty over their own information and wealth. While some commit crimes in our current system, we should not be denying access to technologies where its benefits outweigh the harms.