It has been said many times: the decentralized cryptocurrency bitcoin was born from the libertarian ideals of the cypherpunk movement. Just recently Bitcoin.com chatted with cypherpunk Steve Schear, interim Chief Operating Officer at Stash Crypto, to discuss the history of this movement and the emerging technologies pushing it forward.
Cypherpunks are activists who advocate the use of cryptographic technology to promote freedom and uproot social and political change. The movement began in the late 1980s as many activists communicated through the cypherpunks’ electronic mailing list. Schear gives our readers a glimpse into the early days of the cypherpunks, the birth of Bitcoin, and how he sees the cypherpunk movement evolving today.
‘Privacy is Necessary for an Open Society in the Electronic Age’ — The Cypherpunk Manifesto, Eric Hughes, 1993
Bitcoin.com (BC): How did you first get involved with the cypherpunk movement?
Steve Schear (SS): In the early 1990s a workmate showed me an issue of Mondo 2000, the precursor of Wired magazine, edited by Jude Milhon (who coined the term “cypherpunk”). It opened up my world to cyber- and cypherpunk. A few years passed, and through a variety of coincidences, I found the cypherpunks list. My first physical meeting was at Eric Hughes’ home in Berkeley where I met some of the key Bay Area cypherpunks, including Jude and Tim May.
BC: When did you first discover Bitcoin?
SS: While in aerospace and later at Cylink, I became familiar with data security and cryptography. It was then, in the mid-1990s, I started thinking about commercializing some declassified military tech for secure communications and cash-like digital money.
Around the same time I connected up with the cypherpunks, I was introduced to Jon Matonis. We stayed in regular touch discussing political and tech topics. I knew of Bitcoin from lurking on Perry Metzger’s cryptography list, but had not heard it progressed from Satoshi’s specification to working code. Jon said he was moving his focus to Bitcoin and suggested I do likewise. I wish I had immediately followed his advice, but I was busy with a new job. It wasn’t until more than a year later I got serious about Bitcoin.
BC: After thirty years how do you see the cypherpunk movement today?
SS: I think it’s matured and much of it has become mainstream wisdom. Our early rants about government false-flags and intel agency monitoring are no longer considered tin-foil-hat delusions. Wikileaks, the alt-media and Snowden’s cache of documents have seen to that.
BC: There seems to be more people just coding rather than being very vocal, like cypherpunks such as Eric Hughes and Timothy C. May. Why do you think cypherpunks today are less vocal?
SS: Many early cypherpunks focused on identifying and understanding the social nature of privacy problems. They’ve already spent enough energy pontificating and now focus on implementing.
BC: Do you think some of the original cypherpunks have gone into hiding due to threats from government?
SS: Very few. If you look at the noteworthy cypherpunks, it’s clear many are still heavily involved in this tech.
BC: Do you think Bitcoin is the counter-economic digital currency that will help promote economic freedom in the future?
SS: Bitcoin is already a viable alternative to national money and regulated banking in countries with weak central banks, abusive monetary policies or poor economic conditions.
It is serving as the inspiration or lynchpin for all manner of off-chain systems, digital currencies, financial services and innovative market experiments. I would not rule out it becoming at least a part of currency baskets some nations use for trade in the next ten years.
BC: What other types of technologies do you see advancing to improve people’s freedoms?
SS: Covert communications:
- Wired – Although most privacy-oriented technologies are focused on protecting content to intel agencies, the biggest prize is the metadata (e.g., who are communicating, with whom and when) because it enables them to build connection graphs to uncover social structures and infer intents. Despite recent and planned fixes, Tor still seems a mess in this regard. It was never intended to thwart nation-state adversaries. There are other security (e.g., cjdns) and anonymizing networks (e.g., i2p) and they could use some serious financial and developer support, but there is also a keen need to explore new obfuscation techniques and networking security architectures (e.g., Alpenhorn, and Dissent) for the internet.
- Wireless – With the advent of software-defined radio (SDR) there is now the possibility to bring covert, military-type, tactical wireless communication to the masses. SDR is in most smartphones, but it’s limited in scope, based on proprietary technology and closed to all but hackers. Open SDR is now widespread. It’s my guess that, despite regulatory hurdles, affordable, open and powerful SDR-based radio devices capable of covert communications will soon find their way into non-governmental hands and eventually consumers.
- DIY Biology – Besides providing better food sources, safe, bio-engineered, organisms that express currently controlled substances that are easily cultured and extracted in your home could end the war on drugs by ending the need for distribution.
- Advanced A.I., Robotics and DIY Nanotech – The 20th and 21st centuries have seen a massive increase of economic complexity and city versus rural populations. The result has been increased economic and survival dependence on government and infrastructure. The independent and capable people who built the U.S. largely disappeared with the closing of and fencing off of the West. To be independent, on the most basic level, you need adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, etc. Today, almost everyone acquires these things through traditional economic mechanisms. What might the developed world look like if A.I., and mechanical dexterity on a level with Sonny, in the movie I Robot, were available for no more than the cost of an economy automobile?
Building on the ideas of Richard Feynman and Eric Drexler, Neil Stephenson’s prescient Diamond Age presents a future in which almost any inert item can be manufactured in the home using “matter compilers,” a super-empowered form of 3D-printing and precursor to Star Trek replicators.
Between covert communications for networking, DIY biology, Sonny and matter, an agoric reversal of dependence could very well occur and with it a decline of nationalism and a resurgence of individualism.
BC: Do you think the original goals (privacy, freedom of speech, economic sovereignty) of the cypherpunk movement will be achieved?
SS: I am hopeful, at least for those that care enough to fight for it and change their behaviors. ‘Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one,’ as Ben Franklin said.
Images courtesy of Bitcoin.com, Mondo 2000, Cassandra28 DeviantArt