Back in the early 1990s, a rag-tag group of legendary cryptographers battled Big Government's attempts to cripple strong cryptography with everything from key escrow to the infamous clipper chip, which would have given law enforcement a back door to decrypt voice and text messages. The cypherpunks fought back against weak encryption and the U.S. government hijacking everyone's public keys so it could spy on people with ease. The rebels won, beating back the clipper chip and crushing attempts to subvert major encryption standards.
They won the battle but they lost the war.
Dan Jeffries is an author, futurist, systems architect and thinker. This article is part of CoinDesk’s Privacy Week series.
They had a much grander vision that never came to pass. They wanted to make the entire internet private, free from the prying eyes of governments and spy agencies. They wanted a world where we ruled our own personal information and shared it only when we wanted to.
In a famous article in Wired from 1993, Stephen Levy wrote that the cypherpunks dreamed of a world "where an individual's informational footprints – everything from an opinion on abortion to the medical record of an actual abortion – can be traced only if the individual involved chooses to reveal them; a world where coherent messages shoot around the globe by network and microwave, but intruders and feds trying to pluck them out of the vapor find only gibberish; a world where the tools of prying are transformed into the instruments of privacy."
Today we have exactly the opposite.
Surveillance economies power our biggest tech companies. Facebook and Google track our every step to deliver surgical ad strikes that make us hungry to buy more stuff we don't need, with money we don't have, to impress people we don't even know. They track where we go, what we like, who we know and love, and with whom we're sleeping.
Even though the Congress smashed the Defense Department’s Total Information Awareness initiative, a program to soak up all the world's data in a massive Orwellian dragnet, U.S. spy agencies built it anyway with “black budgets,” as Edward Snowden’s revelations demonstrated a decade ago. The National Security Agency (NSA) programs Edward Snowden leaked line up perfectly with every single original proposal from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Of course, the U.S. isn't alone in spying on its citizens and the world. Every major spy agency on the planet now has similar capabilities to gobble up private data.
In the hands of authoritarian regimes, such power is devastating, creating a panopticon where the government can peer into every aspect of its citizens' lives. In China, artist and humanist Ai WeiWei managed to blog freely in the early 2000s, but it didn't take long for the Chinese government to get its boot back on the neck of the internet. U.S. companies such as Cisco helped China build the Great Firewall, even creating a custom Falun Gong module to help track down and torture dissidents who belonged to the religious movement.
Everywhere you go, and everyone you meet, and all that you love and hate are sitting in databases waiting for prying private eyes to dissect your life in exquisite detail.
If it sounds like a dystopian sci-fi novel, that's because it is dystopian sci-fi brought to life. But even worse, the scale of it is so large that the average person doesn't even comprehend it. They can't imagine that the people who lead them would do something on such a massive scale.
The rebels of crypto lost their bid to build a privacy-protecting internet. But there's new hope for tomorrow.
Now, a new band of renegades wants to deliver on the promise of the original cypherpunks.
The private world of tomorrow
The biggest technological hope to deliver on those promises are zk-SNARKs.
That’s short for zero-knowledge succinct non-interactive arguments of knowledge. Basically they allow someone to prove they know something without ever revealing that information to the other person. They have the strange and spooky magic of letting two people store information on a public blockchain so the blockchain can prove the transaction happened, and yet all the information about it, everything from the sender's address to the amount of money sent to the receiver's address, can stay completely private. It's like a ninja hiding in plain sight.
Zero-knowledge proofs came to the mainstream of crypto with privacy coins like zcash. They let us fully replicate the anonymous nature of cash in the digital world. We'll need that because governments already have physical cash in their sights. In a few decades or sooner, they'll make cash illegal and all we'll have is central bank digital surveillance coins that track every single aspect of our lives.
Privacy coins give us a parallel economic operating system that lets us transact freely without worrying about the prying eyes of the panopticon.
But zk-SNARKs go way beyond money. The technologist Vinay Gupta called them “the equivalent of spaceships compared to cave technology” on my podcast. They can revolutionize privacy in thousands of different ways.
Take internet security. Snarks let me prove I know my password without sending it over the wire. That will mean a big uptick in security in apps and on websites. Most people's passwords get hacked not because the hacker attacks their computer directly, but because they attack a big, central database that stores everyone's passwords. If we never have to send or store that password centrally then hackers have to go back to the low-reward grind of hitting each person's computer or phone directly.
Early on, the tech had some downsides. It required a "trusted setup" where the founders of a zk-based system would do a big creation ceremony to get it set up and to convince people they didn't add a sneaky backdoor to the system by keeping the one private key to rule them all. But since the early days of zk-SNARKs, researchers all over the world have figured out ways to get the system started without needing a trusted setup.
Now mega-blockchains like Ethereum are going all-in on zk-SNARKS, building in zk-Rollups that allow most transactions to happen off-chain and that will help Ethereum to scale to millions of simultaneous distributed app (dapp) users. Zk-Rollups form the backbone of Ethereum layer 2 solutions.
Zk-SNARKs can do exactly what the cypherpunks dreamed of in those early days of the Internet. They can deliver one-time, untraceable messaging. They can hide everything from monetary transactions to information shared between you and your lover. They can make medical records truly secure. Take something like a visit to your psychiatrist. Your records with your mental health-care provider could contain everything from notes to prescriptions, all of it encrypted. You would be able to share proof that you got a prescription so your health insurance provider can pay for it, but not share your doctor's notes or anything else that was between you and your doctor alone. (Whether the insurance company demands such information is a separate, non-technological question.)
That's true privacy where we're in control of our data and we share what we want to share, when we want to share it. It won't just be zk-SNARKs either. As crypto gets more and more widespread, brilliant cryptographers will continue to deliver new innovations, mathematical flourishes that can keep all our data safe.
Of course, governments will fight privacy at every step. They'll tell us that criminals will use it for bad things. Of course, they will. But so what? They already do bad things with the system we have now. Don't let people fool you that crime suddenly starts with crypto. Crime is as old as civilization. Criminals use cash, the banking system and everything in between. Nobody demands we stop using the U.S. dollar or the euro or your international bank because criminals use it, too. It's a nonsense argument and they know it. What they really don't want is to lose their ability to look into every aspect of our lives.
You don’t have to be a criminal to want privacy. Everyone deserves privacy.
Just as you don’t want someone looking in your window while you change, or looking over your shoulder and reading the emails you send to your best friend, you don’t want a big company watching everything you spend your hard-earned money on so they can advertise more things you don't need or so governments can catch two more bad guys while keeping everything you ever wrote to your lover on file.
Crypto offers a way out of the maze of endless surveillance and an economy where you're the product.
There's only one problem.
Practically nobody cares.
Privacy is not a value proposition
If you're in crypto, you probably think everyone cares about privacy. Most folks in the crypto space feel like the value of privacy is obvious and that nobody in their right mind would choose a state-backed surveillance coin or ubiquitous government watchdogs over a borderless, decentralized, privacy-protecting system. That’s just selection bias at work. They’re in the community because they believe in decentralization and privacy, but in the scheme of things it’s a tiny community.
The average person doesn’t care about privacy in the least. They don’t know what it means. They certainly won't pay for it at the moment. How many people pay for encrypted email versus just using Gmail? A tiny fraction of a percentage, even though Google's AI algorithms are reading everything they write. It's free. That's what matters to people even if they watch scary documentaries on Big Tech spying on them. They watch the horror story like any other Saturday entertainment, get mad about it over dinner and then change absolutely nothing.
Remember this interview with Snowden about government surveillance on John Oliver’s show? Oliver went to interview Snowden in Russia, where he's in exile.
Watch the look on Snowden’s face when he realizes the average man on the street doesn’t know a damn thing about privacy and doesn’t care about it in the least! The only time they care is when the government has their dick pic on file.
Most folks who grew up in an open, democratic society and never experienced anything different in their entire life don't think it matters because it didn't matter all that much. I’ve got nothing to hide, they think. They never lived in East Berlin where the Stasi could show up at your house and take you away for any reason, at any time. When soldiers arrest you on made-up charges for anything, the value of privacy gets very real. They'd pay for it then, but by then it's too late.
There's only one way to give people privacy.
A Trojan horse.
The gift of privacy
For the dream of Web 3 and the new crypto renegades to work we have to think differently. We need to think of apps first and privacy second. We need to make privacy the foundation of the app but keep it cleverly disguised in a beautiful wrapper that works flawlessly and easily.
For privacy to really take off, privacy needs to stop being the value proposition. It's got to be a gift that people don't even notice.
When people are downloading apps that work as easily as Instagram but have privacy baked right in, that's how we get our privacy back. We get it when nobody has to think about it, when it's just background noise in a new app explosion. Make privacy the plumbing, not the marketing tagline.
But it's bigger than that. too. In my post “The Five Keys to Crypto Evolution,” I wrote that for decentralized, nationless, privacy-preserving systems to take off they need to be more than just money. They need to be a complete and total self-contained economy. The system needs to distribute the money, offer privacy at every level, exchange the money automatically, and offer amazing goods and services denominated in that money all without ever needing a change back to traditional, nation-state fiat currency.
Decentralized stacks need to gamify the delivery of money, remove any and all centralized choke points like exchanges, and create a super-compelling ecosystem of goods and services that nobody can resist.
In other words, there aren't really five keys. There's one big key.
We need a complete alternative to the surveillance economy.
If the only way developers and Big Tech companies can make money is by spying on you, that's exactly what they'll do. No amount of evangelizing privacy or creating awesome new cryptographic tricks like zk-SNARKS will change that hard economic reality. That's the most essential step. Change the economics. If you're working in blockchain and decentralization and privacy, first come up with the economic model.
How will people make money? How easy is it? How can you make it even easier? Then make it even easier than that.
Humans are very simple creatures. If we can do the right thing but we'll starve, we'll take the food every time.
If you're a new-wave cypherpunk and you want to succeed where the original cypherpunks failed then you've got to see the bigger picture of human nature and economic reality.
Give developers a new way to feed themselves and give everyone else privacy as a bonus.
Get that right and you'll give us a world where we can draw the curtains instead of a world where every window is open and private eyes are always watching you.