Cipher + cyber + punk = cypherpunk = a social and political movement.

Edward Snowden said in 2014: “Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are less free.” Some people thought he was a traitor, some thought he was an American hero. I knew him to be a cypherpunk.

A cypherpunk is an advocate for the general use of cryptography (such as digital encryption) as a means of protecting an individual’s privacy. Several manifestos have been published online summarizing the cypherpunk ideology, and many prominent cypherpunks have recently been in the news, including Tor developer Jacob Applebaum and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Originally, cryptography was a strategic practice mainly enforced by spy agencies and the military. In the seventies, however, two major publications introduced cryptography to the computer-interested masses. These were (1) Data Encryption Standard, and (2) an article by two cryptographers, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman.

Diffie and Hellman solved one of the most fundamental problems of cryptography—secure key distribution—and ended the monopoly that surveillance institutions, like the National Security Agency (NSA), had on crypto technology. Any citizen or company was now able to access and implement powerful encryption—the sort that had once been ranked alongside the atom bomb in importance to the US government. This generated new fears that emerging methods of encryption would be impossible to decipher, which could potentially serve to fortify the activities of national security threats. (For those interested, YouTube hosts a useful history and explanation of the Diffie-Hellman key exchange dating back to the 1950s.)

By 1992, the cypherpunk movement had fleshed out more, gained its name, and started a mailing list. Subscribers of the early mailing list debated public policy, philosophy, mathematics, technology, and economics. The ideals of personal liberty and the right to privacy were at the core of their discussions. For example, until the start of the June 2013 NSA scandal, few U.S. citizens knew that almost all public communications were being logged by government agencies. However, to cypherpunk-mailing-list subscribers, this fact was as obvious as it was concerning even in the early days.

Cypherpunks encourage civil disobedience as a means of reacting against institutional oppression, and many work on projects that promote anonymity online and over the telephone. Cypherpunks argue that anonymous speech and publication are essential to an open society and to free speech. They often cite the Federalist Papers, which were originally published under pseudonyms, as important examples. Cypherpunk is ever evolving, but has consistently been involved in the creation of anonymous peer-to-peer communication services, secure network tunnels, mobile voice encryption, untraceable electronic currency (e.g., Bitcoin), and secure operating environments.

The 1990s were a pivotal time for cypherpunks. They fought for legislation that protected the right of an individual to encrypt his or her personal data. This struggle marked the beginning of “The Crypto Wars.” During this time, mathematicians and cryptographers argued against the Clinton Administration and NSA over encryption. The government sought to maintain—and even increase—its control over cryptographic practices in the post-Cold War era. In 1996, crypto code was de-classified as a munition, and, in 2000, its export no longer required a permit. There were also battles over whether or not there should be a legal requirement that NSA-friendly chips be installed in communications hardware. In the end, tech privacy advocates prevailed, freeing up digital crypto for public use.

The laws passed in the 90s seemed to mark the end of the crypto wars. They were a victory for cypherpunks. There was certainly progress in this period, but the last few years have brought the struggle back into public awareness and sparked outrage. Another wave of crypto controversy emerged as backlash caused by NSA whistleblowers such as Thomas Drake, William Binney, and most prominently, Edward Snowden. In June 2013, Snowden, a member of the U.S. government intelligence community, released documents that described the constitutionally questionable domestic and international activities of the NSA.

Since then, corporations like Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Apple have admitted that they allowed the NSA to access their users’ data. Apple reacted to public criticism by offering its users stronger privacy options. In response, FBI director James Comey issued statements that accused Apple of creating unfair and unsafe obstacles for the intelligence community.

The debate between freedom-and-privacy advocates and government officials in intelligence communities rages on—centering mostly around fears that the U.S. and its intelligence allies are enabling a military-industrial empire, one that risks being oppressive and undemocratic. Government officials involved in national security may have power to ensure perpetual war, and their agencies can provide an ideal machine for surveillance and propaganda.

These are the concerns of the cypherpunks. In the words of Edward Snowden to journalist Laura Poitras: “Know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit, and subject line you type, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not.” (From Poitras’ documentary on Snowden, CITIZENFOUR.)

Cypherpunks are involved in a socio-technological race. How fast can they build and deploy public counterintelligence technologies, raise public awareness, and advocate for government reform? How fast can the government decrypt, dissociate from scandal, and pass legislation that justifies mass surveillance? The Crypto Wars, in short, are far from over.

Further Reading: