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The Cypherpunk Program

Timothy C. May summarized the plan as

“Crypto Anarchy: encryption, digital money, anonymous networks, digital pseudonyms, zero knowledge, reputations, information markets, black markets, collapse of government. 

Which is intentionally obscure.  The plan is to strike at the state from the jungle of complexity, to strike at the state from beyond the state’s intellectual and temporal horizons.  The evil minions of the state will not be coming after cypherpunks, because they will not understand what cypherpunks are doing, and because when things start going bad for them the will not be able to link cause and effect. 

Cryptography alone is insufficient to implement crypto-anarchy.  Correct understanding and implementation of cryptography has proven to be hard, as numerous embarrassing failures have demonstrated, but correct understanding and implementation of cryptography turned out to be only the beginning of what was needed. 

Often secure cryptographic algorithms have been used to construct insecure cryptographic protocols, as for example the wifi protocol WPA personal, but worse than that, correct cryptographic protocols, such as SSL, have resulted in insecure behavior, because the protocol flow failed to fit the user’s task flow.

Successfully designing such systems requires a whole system viewpoint – cryptographic protocols and user interface and business models and accounting principles and economic understanding and understanding of computer mediated social networking. 

The cypherpunk movement collapsed in the realization that the problem was harder than it seemed, that mere cryptography was insufficient. 

The cypherpunk movement produced a lot of cryptographic tools, among them by own Crypto Kong, only to realize that no one wanted cryptographic tools.  To use a cryptographic tool, you have to understand and think about what it is doing, understand and think about the cryptographic primitives involved every time you use it.  Unfortunately, even committees of experts tend to screw up when they attempt to specify correct use of cryptographic primitives.  For example the Wifi consortium got it badly wrong, then having discovered their error as large numbers of people started freeloading on other people’s wifi, proceeded to get it wrong again.  Then they yet another try, and proceeded to get it wrong all over again.  The latest incarnation of Wifi, as I write this, is WPA personal which is vulnerable to offline dictionary attack, an attack that has been well known, well understood, and the solutions to it well known for a very long time.  Similarly for DNSSEC, and IPSEC, where time after time they got the cryptography correct, unlike Wifi, but managed every time to produce non solutions that no one could use or would use. 

No way can end users be expected to burden themselves with such a task, when the experts fail over and over.  Rather, cryptography needs to be embedded invisibly in tools that do user tasks, and make those tasks secure without the end user ever thinking about cryptography.  SSH is the best example of a tool that works like this. You never see a dialog box that relates to cryptographic matters.  It is just secure.  It acts the way people expect it to act, and they don’t need to think about the messy details of how it ensures that hostile adversaries cannot meddle and make things fail in unexpected ways.  Similarly, Skype’s encryption is invisibly embodied in a utility that people use to communicate with each other, and no one should ever be aware of it. 

If people use secure tools to mediate cooperation, and the storage and creation of value, to do business, then those tools will not only be secure against ordinary criminals, but against governments – whereupon it becomes hard for governments to collect taxes or regulate business, hard for governments to intrude themselves in honest peaceful activities. 

As soon as we produced the first not very satisfactory versions of such tools, and early adopters came to use them, we hit the second problem.  The cypherpunk program requires heavy reliance on value, exchange, and promises to pay and deliver being computer mediated.  But computers are extremely insecure.  One’s computer is apt to come under the control of hostile criminals.  The computer virus and Trojan problem makes it impractical to keep large amounts of value on a computer.  Similarly, the phishing problem makes it difficult to have internet mediate relationships of economic value.  The anonymity that gives protection against governments makes it alarmingly easy for people to pretend to be what they are not.  And then we discovered that net centric anonymous or weakly nymous money was violently unpopular because of criminals flocking to it, provoking governments to shut it down. 

And so, the cypherpunk movement collapsed.  The remaining cypherpunks patiently studied solutions to these problems, and, by and large, solutions have been discovered, though these solutions are not yet implemented, or the implementations are not yet widely adopted, perhaps not yet ready for wide adoption. 

The problems that shut down the cypherpunk movement are

  1. Cryptography is hard, cryptographic protocols that actually work are harder, and embedding those protocols invisibly in utilities that do useful things without the end user needing to know or think about cryptography considerably harder still: To solve this we need higher level tools which automatically apply known sound protocols to the particular case, so that good cryptography can be a routine and invisible part of good applications, without requiring as much thought as it now does.
  2. Computer insecurity, Trojans and malware: To solve this, we need to restrict programs using the powerbox software pattern
  3. Phishing
  4. Violently unpopular criminal misuse of net centered money

Few people use encryption technology today, because few people have real need of it.

Few people have real need of it, because there is no reasonably liquid net money. People are not making, spending, transferring, and promising, money through the net, so they have little need to encrypt their messages or care for the reputation of their nyms.

And that is the big remaining battle and design issue: net money though even if we designed and deployed a satisfactory net money, it would not come to be widely used for large value transactions until a secure operating system is created and deployed, it can still be created and deployed for low value transactions such as file sharing and spam control – one message client would charge a very small amount to accept messages from people not one one’s white list. The fee would be refunded if one does not classify the message as spam.