Privacy Matters: Cypherpunks, Crypto-Anarchists And Their Enemies
The terms “cypherpunk” and “crypto-anarchism” do not feature often in mainstream media. In recent years, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange helped popularize these terms to a degree but it is still unclear to most what these terms stand for. Knowing about these movements has now become imperative to raise awareness about early signs of the coming to life of a dystopian surveillance apparatus.
The cypherpunk and crypto-anarchist movements have been fierce privacy and freedom activists since the 1980s who predicted exactly what our society would come to be if the spread of technology was not accompanied by privacy enhancing technologies and regulations. Forty years later, we find ourselves in a world where corporations and governments can have access to our personal information without us even knowing. The same technology that was supposed to give us more abilities to associate freely and express ourselves is turning into a cage.
Cypherpunks & Crypto-anarchists: Who Are They?
The cypherpunk movement was born at the end of the 80s and was initiated by Eric Hughes, Timothy C. May, and John Gilmore. Inaugurated by Timothy May’s CryptoAnarchist’s Manifesto, the cypherpunk movement focuses on privacy issues on the open web, defining privacy as: “the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world” (Hughes, ed. Ludlaw, 2001, p. 81). Their main goal is then to prevent the revealing of unnecessary information that is commonly required by transactions. As Hughes writes:
“We the Cypherpunks are dedicated to building anonymous systems. We are defending our privacy with cryptography, with anonymous mail forwarding systems, with digital signatures, and with electronic money. 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. We publish our code so that our fellow Cypherpunks may practice and play with it […]. Cypherpunks deplore regulations on cryptography, for encryption is fundamentally a private act. The act of encryption, in fact, removes information from the public realm. Even laws against cryptography reach only so far as a nation’s border and the arm of its violence. Cryptography will ineluctably spread over the whole globe and with it the anonymous transactions systems that it makes possible” (May, ed. Ludlaw, 2001, p. 83).
The cypherpunk movement originated as a reaction to growing State interference on the private life of citizens facilitated by digitalisation. The control of sensitive information by the government is seen as a dangerous liability for citizens and as a significant breach of their right to freedom. The cypherpunk movement wants to reverse this state of affairs by creating the means to retain control of personal information at all times. They are firm supporters of the freedom of speech which they protect through anonymity and pseudonyms. They stand in opposition to any governmental policy that attempts to control and limit the use of cryptography.
Cypherpunks have fought several battles against the U.S government, namely by filing lawsuits against it for its attempts to limit cryptography and also by inciting civil unrest. While many of their achievements continued to be hampered by the government, some of their accomplishments such as MintChip, Canadian e-wallet, and Bitcoin, could not be restrained — and continue to not only exist — but thrive.
Crypto-anarchism is another important movement developed by the early cypherpunks. While retaining the same principles of the cypherpunk movement, crypto-anarchism frames itself as a more encompassing political movement. As the name suggests, crypto-anarchism proposes to overcome the purview of traditional nation states and found a society based on freedom of association, cooperation, egalitarianism, economic libertarianism, and decentralization.
According to crypto-anarchism, cryptographic methods will alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic and social transactions. As May puts it: “Combined with emerging information markets, crypto anarchy will create a liquid market for any and all material which can be put into words and pictures’’ (May, ed. Ludlaw, 2001).
Crypto-anarchists are not only committed to building software that can provide protection against State abuses: They also strive to build new socioeconomic structures through computer code. In this context, it is possible to understand how crypto-anarchist ideas and values are reflected in the architecture of blockchain technology. Blockchain allows a collective of people to formulate, disseminate, maintain and verify an institutional system while recording the interactions within it (MacDonald, Allen and Potts, 2016). It allows us to change the very ways we govern ourselves as collectives and provides the basis for a non-coercive, consensus based society.
Surveillance, Money and the State
Today we are forced to deal with economic and political institutions that are expensive and exclusionary: They have a high potential for error and they intrude into users’ personal privacy without oversight or accountability. In many ways, such institutions are the key stakeholders of a dystopian world of oppression, in which technology is exclusively managed by the state and massive corporations. Yet, the most problematic part is that we are not fully aware of the fact that mass surveillance has become increasingly cheap, invisible, and pervasive. The most popular argument that pops up when someone hears about a loss of privacy is: “But I have nothing to hide, so I don’t care”. However, privacy is not about hiding the wrong, but rather about having control over one’s own communication. In the “nothing to hide” logic, the choice comes down to a passive acceptance of mass surveillance instead of an active defense of one’s own rights.
Companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon have succeeded in making users’ online life more and more comfortable by allowing them to purchase an item within a few minutes, receive relevant information based upon earlier internet surfing, by automatically finding a recognized friend’s face on the picture. The downside of such “convenience” is that big corporations and government agencies exploit and often misuse user’s private data for personal returns (see Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism).
“Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.”
While technology has undoubtedly become a great asset for boosting our efficiency, we cannot ignore the fact that the power asymmetries that result from the current state of affairs increases users’ vulnerability. Hence, the goal is to find an optimal way to deploy technology to serve users’ best interests while also ensuring the integrity of the process from start to finish.
Crytography’s Role in Securing the Information Society, edited by Kenneth W. Dam and Herbert S. Lin (1996)
A seminal work in the field, Diffie and Hellman’s “New Directions in Cryptography” (1976)
Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, Julian Assange (2012)
“Battle of the Clipper Chip” in The New York Times (1994)
About Cypherpunk Guild
The Cypherpunk Guild is a group of privacy-minded developers, marketers, and entrepreneurs, jointly collaborating to pioneer a future built around private transactions on NEAR Protocol and the larger crypto-verse. Led by two second-generation Cypherpunks, the Cypherpunk Guild supports the development of private applications on the Open Web, as a means of safeguarding user privacy and freedom.