Privacy in an electronic age: The rise of the cypherpunks

As the digital age continues to introduce new, complex technologies that require more and more of our personal information to function, the need for a voice to champion our rights to data privacy has never been more important. But what if I told you that there was a group who identified this need almost 30 years ago, and have fought for it ever since? Enter the cypherpunks, and the quest for privacy in an electronic age.

Spies, secrecy and encryption

When you think of the word cryptography, your mind may conjure up images of spies and espionage. This isn’t actually far from the truth, as prior to the 1970s, this mathematics-based practice was primarily used by spies and the military to crack and decipher enemy communications. During times of conflict, communications were sent and received via radio transmissions, which could be listened to by anyone, provided they had the right frequency. 

As the technology spread and improved, so too did the rise in the use of encryption to keep sensitive information safe from prying eyes. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the practice of cryptography was born, with coordinated efforts from the US and UK toward not just creating unbreakable codes, but breaking seemingly unbreakable codes. What was once a part time hobby of mathematicians and scientists, had now risen to a level of utmost importance for national security.

Meanwhile, at Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), two such cryptographers, James Ellis and Clifford Cocks, worked together to create a concept that would later form the fundamentals of cryptocurrency in the early 1970s. This concept involved an open, public key encryption – an encrypted message that contained the key to unlocking the encryption. However at the time, the technology needed to enable it – a public computer-controlled communication network or as we know it, the internet – did not exist. 

Following Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the internet in 1989, and a number of early publications on cryptography and security, the stage was now set for a group of individuals passionate about cryptography and convinced that the Internet would soon become an important battleground for human freedom.

A new movement is born

Influenced by the work of cryptographers like David Chaum on topics such as anonymous digital cash, three US-based computer scientists: Eric Hughes, Timothy C. May and John Gilmore founded a small group that met monthly at Gilmore’s company Cygnus Solutions. 

The name cypherpunks was given to the group by Jude Milhon at one of their first meetings. It is a mishmash of cipher and cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction in a dystopian futuristic setting. In 1992, the group decided to launch a new mailing list for discussing their thoughts on cryptography, mathematics, politics and philosophy. One year on, Hughes published the now-famous Cypherpunk manifesto that outlined the key driver of the movement: privacy.

“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,” Hughes wrote in an email.

Unsurprisingly, the freedom to maintain anonymity and privacy struck a chord with the wider public and by 1994, the mailing list had 700 subscribers. Forum discussions would range from mathematics to philosophy and in 1993 the movement caught the imagination of journalists and the group’s founders landed themselves on the cover of Wire magazine under the title ‘Crypto Rebels’.

In many ways the group was ahead of its time, with questions raised focusing on privacy and government monitoring that would not become significant topics of discussion until almost a decade later with the arrival of a publication by the US government outlining a Data Encryption Standard, bringing the technology out into the open.

Hiding the act of hiding

As outlined in the Cypherpunk Manifesto, the key topics the movement focused on centred around privacy, anonymity and censorship, all of which required the use of cryptography to pull off. In a separate post, one of the founders John Gilmore said that he wanted a “guarantee – with physics and mathematics, not with laws – that we can give ourselves real privacy of personal communications”.

As a result, any government policies that attempted to curtail or control the usage and export of cryptography were vehemently opposed and ‘deplored’ by the Cypherpunks as stated in their manifesto. Similarly, the question of anonymity and pseudonymity was frequently discussed by the group as they argued it was a vital part of a healthy, open society. As stated in the manifesto: “to encrypt is to indicate the desire for privacy, while to encrypt with weak cryptography is to indicate not too much desire for privacy”.

Pushing this idea of anonymity further, the group considered any form of uniform identification a risk that was greater than any benefits. In one example to illustrate their point, the group discussed the use of drinking age laws and the need for a privacy-protecting form of ID to go with it. Otherwise, the group argued that simply showing this ID to someone else would reveal too much information about the individual that was open to manipulation. In countries with oppressive regimes, the group considered the question of hiding the activity of encryption or cryptography itself.

Ahead of its time

Looking back on the history of cryptography and the rise of the cypherpunk movement, the impact of the movement can’t be understated. From data privacy and the introduction of GDPR – the global framework for data protection in Europe – to cryptography and the rise in popularity of cryptocurrencies and their decentralised properties, these discussions that began in the humble surroundings of a mailing list and online messaging forums would go on to have consequences ranging far and wide.

While the cypherpunks were an eclectic group of people with many different viewpoints and goals, the general point that was agreed upon by all was the positioning of personal freedom and liberty above all else. And as governments today continue to flex their influence and control,  the work Eric Hughes and his colleagues did to share their knowledge and foresight around maintaining anonymity and privacy in an incredibly digital world is more relevant than ever before.

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