A brief history of the…cypherpunks - Mine Digital
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A brief history of the…cypherpunks

May 18, 2020 • 
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The now legendary cypherpunks were a group of cryptographers, and privacy focused individuals that foresaw the threat to individual privacy in the age of the internet, and also gave birth to the rise of cryptocurrencies.

The guardians of the internet, and how they gave rise to the birth cryptocurrency.

“Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. … We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy … We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. … Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and … we’re going to write it.”

A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto (Eric Hughes, 1993)

Sometime in late 1992 in the San Francisco Bay Area, a motley crew of programmers, cryptographers, and privacy-focused individuals got together to share their concerns about the future of the internet. Many of these conversations had been started years earlier after reading David Chaum’s 1985 paper ‘Security without Identification: Transaction Systems to Make Big Brother Obsolete.’

This group of outsiders, with a niche shared interest, got together in a small unassuming office away from the unimpressed glare of the San Francisco party metropolis & started building a community. The focus was a topic almost no-one at the time cared about — but is now one of the most relevant topics across the geo-political landscape, online digital privacy.

Around this time, the nascent community would as a form of self-deprecating endearment call themselves the cypherpunks.

Cypherpunks believed that the great question of politics, in the age of the internet, was whether the state would erode individual freedoms and privacy through its newfound and unfettered powers for electronic surveillance.

From these humble beginnings, an organised movement evolved both offline and online and by 2006, the word (Cypherpunk) had been added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

This article will aim to give a cursory overview of the role this group played and continues to play in not only the formation of the internet but also their involvement in the rise of cryptocurrencies.

The Cypherpunks Mailing List

The community naturally progressed online in the form of the now legendary community mailing list. The online community grew in popularity and attracted privacy advocates such as Julian Assange, Wei Dai, Hal Finney, Nick Szabo, Adam Back, and the controversial Craig Wright.

Wei Dai, Nick Szabo, and Hal Finney are, of course, three of the most famous Cypherpunks with their work almost certainly contributing (directly or indirectly) to the creation of Bitcoin.

Years later, in 2012, Julian Assange would write a book on the topic ( ironically while having his privacy taken away from him living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London) titled ‘Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet.’

The cypherpunks and associated mailing list were co-founded by Eric Hughes, John Gilmore, and the late Timothy May. The privacy-focused community was able to talk freely about ideas and projects due to the fact that they used different forms of early encryption such as the Cypherpunk created (Phil Zimmerman) email encryption program known as PGP, ‘Pretty Good Privacy.’

As an extension of this, many of the members of the list were directly involved in bitter legal battles with the NSA on the availability of encryption tools to the public. This included an investigation into PGP founder Phillip Zimmerman which was dropped without indictment in 1996.

The mailing list remained the center of the crypto universe until its decline in 1997 due to the possibility of moderating the mailing list. Censorship is a topic taken very seriously in privacy circles. However, a mostly complete archive of the list remains here: http://mailing-list-archive.cryptoanarchy.wiki/.

The holy grail of online privacy for communities such as the Cypherpunks was an untraceable, digital currency. As the doctrine goes, “privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age.”

Many Cypherpunk experiments into e-cash were exchanged on the message board over the decade, with partial solutions put forward by Szabo, Wei Dai, Adam Back, and Hal Finney among others. After the completion of the mailing list, many other similar communities popped up. One of which was the cryptography mailing list at Metzdowd.com, the now legendary location where, in November 2008, Satoshi Nakomoto published the Bitcoin paper.

It’s pretty clear the mailing list is not just a tombed thought chamber for the ethos of cryptocurrency — but a logical blueprint to the Bitcoin solution itself.

How Bitcoin Revived the Cypherpunks

One of the youngest cypherpunks at the time of the mailing list was Zooko Wilcox-O’Hearn. Zooko joined the cypherpunks mailing list in his late teens and would later become the CEO of Zcash. Zcash is a truly private alternative to Bitcoin that also has a finite supply of 21,000,000 digital units.

The need for a truly private digital currency was one of the core wishes of the Cypherpunk community dating back to Chaum’s attempts and earlier in conception. Bitcoin is not private (by design) as the ledger of transactions is public. ZCash achieves this by using a strong form of encryption called zkSnarks, which can essentially verify information without giving away the identity of the parties involved in the transaction.

The Cypherpunk mailing list would shape Zooko’s beliefs of the internet and ultimately his career arc, but he explains that the cypherpunk landscape was becoming a lonely place until Bitcoin breathed new life into the community;

“There was a widespread narrative that privacy is dead and no one cares. That’s what was, from my perspective, completely upended by the Bitcoin phenomenon.”

If there was one constant thought beyond privacy among the cypherpunks, it was the continued proposals and revisions of a system of digital money. No matter how close each of these proposals got, no-one could seemingly crack the network design. Bitcoin achieved what others couldn’t by solving the Byzantine Generals Problem and developing the blockchain itself.

“The development of Bitcoin was a breakthrough that a lot of the cypherpunks, including me, had dreamed of from the beginning ‒ where the beginning is like 1993 or so ‒ and couldn’t figure out how to make that dream real until Satoshi [Nakamoto] came up with it.”

The impact of the Bitcoin whitepaper solution effectively reimagined what was possible for cryptographers, and communities that were running low on inspiration were suddenly reinvigorated to build and test privacy applications.

“[Satoshi’s] breakthrough about what’s technically possible combined with the community of Bitcoiners who were motivated emotionally, politically and morally to invest in it and make it important to their lives ‒ that is what sort of revived the whole cypherpunk revolution in my experience.”

Further Iterations to Bitcoin Whitepaper

From looking at the original ideas put forward on the mailing list, it has been said many times over that Monero is most aligned with the original Cypherpunk and crypto-anarchist ideals that cryptocurrency was born from. That is, a stateless currency which is private and untraceable as described in ‘A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto.’

Much like Bitcoin’s elusive creator, we still do not know who originally posited Monero’s first iteration — Bitmonero — in 2014.

Similar to Zooko’s project, Zcash, Monero is one of the leading privacy projects in the cryptocurrency space.

However, the mechanism for privacy is different. Instead of zk-SNARKS, Monero uses public signatures and private addresses to obfuscate identities. Although this is a different discussion entirely if you are not aware but interested check out this article here.

Privacy aside, Monero also provided an early case study for one of the Cypherpunks guiding thoughts — decentralised governance, which is a community acting in a democratic way without a central point such as a leader or government.

Monero’s anonymous founder wanted to merge mining with Bytecoin — but the community did not agree, nor did the miners (those that are incentivised to protect the validity of the information of the blockchain).

Early contributor and co-founder Riccardo ‘Fluffypony’ Spagni explains that they were very quickly in uncharted waters as far as decentralised governance decisions go.

“This is the first time anyone like this, in any [crypto] community, sort of ignored what the community wants and decided to do their own thing. So myself and six others decided we were going to fork the project from him. And the community followed us…the seven of us ended up as stewards of an altcoin.”

The accidental coup

So Spagni went from Bitcoin kid to interested community member of Monero, to forking the project and becoming co-founder within the space of a few short months.

While this is crazy enough (Spagni is still driving Monero), this adjunct would play a much larger role in the shaping of crypto lore and core principal of the Cypherpunks — communities are more important than leaders.

The Monero project and story are rich in detail, and can’t be condensed here (we will do it another time), but as has been said many times, Monero and Bitcoin could easily be thought of as different faces of the same coin.

Vitalik the Cypherpunk fan-boy

Ethereum is the second-largest blockchain network and currency and was the project that really broke up the possibilities of blockchain technologies to thousands of other projects by providing the tools to build apps in a decentralised way.

The solution also made use of ‘smart-contracts’ (legal contracts which execute using code), which were until that point only an idea thought up in 1993 by Nick Szabo.

The Ethereum whitepaper was written by a shy 19-year-old boy named Vitalik Buterin.

Years before Vitalik penned his legendary paper, he was an avid obsessive of Bitcoin. His articles for Bitcoin Magazine are still some of the best introductory materials on BTC available.

Vitalik was introduced to the ideas of digital currency and Bitcoin by his father Dmitry, he himself also a computer scientist.

If you have read the Ethereum whitepaper and paid attention to the denominations of Ether (the cents to Ether’s dollar) you will have noticed that Vitalik has placed an eternal plaque to the Cypherpunk’s within his project.

Without going into too much verbosity about this, I think this is an elegant and somewhat overlooked wink from Vitalik to those that have obviously inspired him, but more importantly, led him toward his life’s work.

Cypherpunks write code

The two most famous cypherpunk doctrines are, of course, A Cypherpunks Manifesto, and The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, the latter which was written by the late Tim May. The outpouring of adoration for him from both those in the community and outside of it was underscored by excerpts from this document.

One of the defining thoughts from the respective call to arms is the statement, “cypherpunks write code.” It was coined by Eric Hughes to outline the actionable skillset of the community, cyberpunks don’t just posture — they do, and that’s why the community created so much value.

He wrote on the mailing list;

Cypherpunks write code. They know that someone has to write code to defend privacy, and since it’s their privacy they’re going to write it…

Cypherpunks don’t care if you don’t like the software they write.

Cypherpunks know that software can’t be destroyed.

Cypherpunks know that a widely dispersed system can’t be shut down.

Cypherpunks will make the networks safe for privacy.

Julian Assange

Julian Assange, the creator of Wikileaks, is perhaps the most famous Cypherpunk of all and curiously not directly involved in any cryptocurrency projects that we know of. Wikileaks did, however, accept Bitcoin and received over $46 Million US in Bitcoin donations over the years based on the price of BTC at the time an article was posted on the subject.

Assange was an integral if outspoken member of the Cypherpunks who was often at odds with the community and did not suffer fools gladly.

Shortly before his travels in 1998, Assange asked for a complete archive of the mailing list between 1992 and the present date. He would later use the archive to write his book on the subject.

While commentators have consistently failed to see the significance of the cypherpunks in shaping the thought of Julian Assange, it is abundantly clear to anyone who has followed the movement or read his archived and publicly available posts from the mailing list.

In August 2010, Jeanne Whalen from the Wall Street Journal approached John Young of Cryptome and he recommended to her that she read Assange’s Cypherpunk postings, and also Tim May’s “Cyphernomicon.”

“This background has not been explored in the WikiLeaks saga. And WikiLeaks cannot be understood without it.”

The long and short of it

The original Cypherpunks were trying so hard to impress upon us, long before we had even thought about it, our fundamental right to privacy.

Data wars will continue on as one of the primary currencies of the internet, and most people will be largely oblivious to the discussion (and so is their right). But if you ever do pause to think about privacy, spare a moment to think about that motley crew of coders and outsiders who huddled together in a small basement office and hashed out ideas about how to protect the public from digital invasion. Then remember they had the foresight to conceptualise this situation years before many of us had a home dial-up connection, and many years before Facebook & Cambridge Analytica changed how we will forever understand the internet.

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