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Ecology of Ideas: Cypherpunks

Daniel Rosa 1 November, 2017 (5 min read)

A Brief History of Cypherpunks.

In late 1992, Eric Hughes, Timothy C. May and John Gilmore founded a core group that met monthly at Cygnus Solutions in the San Francisco Bay Area, and was termed cypherpunks by Jude Milhon at one of the first meetings — derived from cipher and cyberpunk. This was crypto with an edge. At stake: whether privacy will exist in the 21st century. There has always been a war going on between those who would liberate crypto and those who would suppress it. The out come of this struggle will determine the amount of freedom our digital society will grant us in the 21st century. To the Cypherpunks, freedom comes with a price.

Now that we are 16 years into the 21st century, this war still rages on. We stand on shoulders of giants. Let’s take a look back into the root of this very important issue.

The Cypherpunks envisioned a world where an individual’s informational footprints can be traced only if the individual involved chooses to reveal them. A world where coherent messages get sent around the globe via networks, that intruders and feed trying to tap into find only gibberish. A world where the tools of spying are transformed into the instruments of privacy.

There are two very important pieces of literature: one is the “Cypherpunk Manifesto” by Eric Hughes, and the second, the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace” by John Perry Barlow.

In the opening of Cypherpunk’s Manifesto by Eric Hughes it states; “Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy……Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.”

Privacy was a core value in the Cypherpunk culture, and its something we need now more then ever. In a Digital Age: Social Media, where we freely give up our privacy, turning Descartes famous “I think therefore I am” into “I post therefore I am”. Where there is secrecy between governments and top internet companies, but not public privacy. “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.”

Ethos of the Cypherpunks was privacy not secrecy. They had a bold vision of internet freedom. There is only one way this vision will materialize, and that is by widespread use of cryptography. The obstacles where political — some of the most powerful forces in government are devoted to the control of these tools.

The Pioneer Wizard of Crypto

More then three decades ago, no one outside the government’s control, performed any serious work in cryptography. That ended abruptly in 1975 when a 31-year-old computer wizard named Whitfield Diffie came up with a new system, called “public-key” cryptography, that rocked the world of cyphers.

When he was at MIT using a complicated multi-user computer system, he became troubled with the problem of how to make the system, which held a person’s work and sometimes intimate secrets, truly secure. The traditional, top-down approach to the problem — protecting the files by user passwords, which were stored in the electronic equivalent of vaults tended by trusted system administrators — was not satisfying. The user’s privacy depended on the degree to which the administrators were willing to protect it.

Diffie recognized that the solution rested in a decentralized system in which each person held the literal key to his or her own privacy. The problem with the existing system of cryptography was that secure information traveled over insecure channels. The traditional methods for securing information involved encoding an original message — known as a “plaintext,” by use of a “key.” The key would change all the letters of the message so anyone who tried to read it would see only an impenetrable “cyphertext.” When the cyphertext message arrived at its destination, the recipient would use the same key to unlock the code, rendering it once again to plaintext. The difficulty with this scheme was if you sent it over an insecure channel, what’s to stop someone from intercepting it and using it to decode all messages?

Diffie foresaw the day when people would be not only communicating electronically, but conducting business that way as well. This made the problem complex when one tried to imagine encryption employed on a massive scale. The only way to do it, was to have digital repositories, where keys would be stored. This system was flawed— you wound up having to trust the people in charge of the repository. It went against the essence of cryptography: to maintain total privacy over your own communications.

They would need the digital equivalent of contracts and notarized statements. But how could this “digital signature,” written not in paper but in easily duplicated blocks of 1s and 0s, work?

In a genius breakthrough; Martin Hellman and Diffie cracked both problems. Every user in the system has two keys — a public key and a private key. The public key can be widely distributed without compromising security; the private key, however, you don’t let nobody get at it. This principle can also be used for authentication. This scheme is what now called public-key cryptography.

Public-key cryptography, was not only “the most revolutionary new concept in the field since. . .the Renaissance,”in the words of David Kahn, but it was generated totally outside of the government’s domain. They had won the first battle in the war between privacy and secrecy.

“Privacy in an open society also requires cryptography….To encrypt is to indicate the desire for privacy, and to encrypt with weak cryptography is to indicate not too much desire for privacy. Furthermore, to reveal one’s identity with assurance when the default is anonymity requires the cryptographic signature.” Cypherpunk’s Manifesto by Eric Hughes

This breakthrough along with others, help lay down the foundation to internet security and bitcoin and blockchain we have now today.

“We are embedded beings who create work in a social context, toiling shared soil in the hopes that our labor bears fruit. It is up to all of us whether this soil is enriched or depleted, whether it nurtures diverse and vital produce or allows predictable crops to take root and run rampant.” — Astra Taylor But the war continues on…

Originally published on medium.com