Cryptocurrencies

Tim May, Father of 'Crypto Anarchy,' Is Dead at 66

The Cypherpunk co-founder was a major influence on both bitcoin and WikiLeaks.

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Tim May, 2017
Jim Epstein

Tim May, co-founder of the influential Cypherpunks mailing list and a significant influence on both bitcoin and WikiLeaks, passed away last week at his home in Corralitos, California. The news was announced Saturday on a Facebook post written by his friend Lucky Green.

In his influential 1988 essay, "The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto," May predicted that advances in computer technology would eventually allow "individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other" anonymously and without government intrusion. "These developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation [and] the ability to tax and control economic interactions," he wrote.

A deeply private person, May's aversion to outside intrusions defined his philosophical outlook. "'Leave me alone,'" he wrote, is "at the root of libertarianism more so than formal theories about the nature of man."

"My political philosophy is keep your hands off my stuff….Out of my files, out of my office, off what I eat, drink, and smoke," he once told journalist Andy Greenberg.

Born in 1951, May grew up in in a suburb of San Diego before his family moved to Washington, D.C., when his father, a naval officer, was transferred there. At the age of 12, he joined a local gun club at the urging of his father and would become a lifelong collector. May was a loner, a science prodigy, and a voracious consumer of science fiction. In the summer of 1967, when entering his junior year in high school, he picked up a copy of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. "It just spoke to me," he said in a 2017 unpublished video interview with Reason, which is being incorporated into a documentary. "I read it nonstop for three days, and to the disdain of my teachers in school, I would write articles about the Anti-Trust Act and the evils of the Sherman Act."

May went to college at U.C.–Santa Barbara, took graduate physics classes, and got a job at Intel. He solved a crucial issue plaguing the functioning of memory chips, publishing his findings in a 1979 paper, and then retired in 1986 at the age of 34, cashing in his stock options. He would never have to work again.

In 1987, May's friend Chip Morningstar introduced him to the economist and entrepreneur Phil Salin—a meeting that would lead May to formulate the concept of crypto anarchy.

Salin was building the American Information Exchange, or AMiX, the first online marketplace for buying and selling information. "It was clear he was a strong libertarian of the Hayek sort," May recalled. "We all shared the same views." But Salin's vision of an e-commerce platform that would reduce transaction costs, facilitate cross-border trade, and make localized expertise more widely available didn't resonate with May's anarchism.

"People aren't going to be selling meaningless stuff like surfboard recommendations," he told Salin. May recalled suggesting that instead it could serve as "a high-tech version of Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden," paraphrasing himself.* "Or someone who can exfiltrate bomber plans for that B-1 Bomber." May later fleshed out his idea, calling "BlackNet," where "nation-states, export laws, patent laws, national security considerations and the like [are considered] relics of the pre-cyberspace era."

Tim May, ca. 1994

He also perceived a crucial flaw: BlackNet couldn't function without a non-governmental digital currency. "I admitted to Phil the big problem was untraceable payments," he recalled. "They can be tracked when they send their Visa information." The next day, May dug up a copy of the October 1985 copy of Communications of the ACM featuring a cover story by cryptographer David Chaum, titled "Security Without Identification: Transaction Systems to Make Big Brother Obsolete."

"It was an epiphany," May recalled. "It was like standing on top of the mountain and seeing that this is out there."

Chaum's work applied the tools of cryptography—mathematical techniques for sending secret messages—to real-world problems. His 1985 article sketched out a new digital currency system that used cryptography to hide a purchaser's identity. May saw Chaum's scheme as deeply flawed, but came away convinced that a decentralized, non-governmental digital money system was possible. Chaum's work also led him to focus on the political implications of public-key cryptography, a system first described in a 1976 paper that allowed perfect strangers to exchange secret messages and establish provable, pseudonymous identities.

May became convinced that public-key cryptography combined with networked computing would break apart social power structures. It would create a virtual space that May compared to "Galt's Gulch," the fictional Colorado community in Atlas Shrugged where Rand's heroes go to escape government intrusion and establish a capitalist paradise.

In September of 1988, May sat down at his Macintosh Plus "for an hour and a half" to bang out an essay loosely patterned after The Communist Manifesto. He titled it "The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto." Running 497 words, it was his most influential piece of writing.

"Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure," he wrote, "so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions."

In September 1992, May and his friends Eric Hughes and Hugh Daniel came up with the idea of setting up an online mailing list to discuss their ideas. Within a few days of its launch, a hundred people had signed up for the Cypherpunks mailing list. (The group's name was coined by Hughes' girlfriend as a play on the "cyberpunk" genre of fiction.) By 1997, it averaged 30 messages daily with about 2,000 subscribers. May was its most prolific contributor.

May and Hughes, along with free speech activist John Gilmore, wore masks on the cover of the second issue of Wired magazine accompanying a profile by journalist Steven Levy, who described the Cypherpunks as "more a gathering of those who share a predilection for codes, a passion for privacy, and the gumption to do something about it."

Wired, May/June 1993
Wired

The Cypherpunks list, which died down* shortly after September 11, 2001 ("a lot of people got cold feet about talking about this stuff"), was deeply influential at a time when the U.S. government was fighting to keep public-key cryptography out of the hands of the public. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was an active reader and participant on the list, contributing his first posts in 1995 under the name "Proff."

Assange's 2012 book Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet restated May's theory in grandiose terms, describing how "a strange property of the physical universe that we live in" (cryptography) made it possible to create "new lands barred to those who control physical reality."

Did bitcoin's pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, contribute to the Cypherpunks list under a different name? There's no way of knowing, but the core components of his invention incubated in its voluminous, technical correspondence. From the outset of their project, May and his fellow travelers were focused on creating an internet-based cryptographic currency shielded from government interference—completing the technical challenge Chaum had only begun to solve.

The British cryptographer Adam Back first proposed HashCash on the list, a system for creating digital scarcity (known as "proof of work") that was later cited in Nakamoto's white paper. Nick Szabo—the creator of "Bit Gold," who coined the phrase "smart contracts"—discussed his ideas on the list. Wei Dai, who Nakamoto contacted while formulating bitcoin, proposed his digital cash system, "b-money," on the list, citing May as a major influence.

Another major contributor was computer scientist Hal Finney, who died in 2014. Finney came up with the idea of using Back's technology to create an e-money; along with, Nakamoto he was the most important figure in bitcoin's early days.

May himself brought the attention of his fellow cypherpunks to a digital timestamping system developed by Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta, a primitive version of what would become known as a blockchain. "I can see these connections that are not fully formed," May recalled. "I can just tell something is going to be important."

After the Cypherpunks list died down,* May's influence faded—until Nakamoto's 2008 bombshell. Bitcoin and cryptocurrency spawned a new generation of techno-libertarians self-identifying as Cypherpunks. May's writings started recirculating, and the movement found a new home: Parallel Polis, a three-story building in Prague, home to the Institute of Cryptoanarchy, which puts on an annual Hacker's Conference to advance the ideas of May and his fellow travelers.

May recently expressed disgust with the current state of the cryptocurrency community, citing its overpriced conferences and the advent of "bitcoin exchanges that have draconian rules about KYC, AML, passports, freezes on accounts and laws about reporting 'suspicious activity' to the local secret police."

"I think Satoshi would barf," he told CoinDesk in his last published interview. In my last exchange with May in November, he told me that he was done granting interviews with reporters, feeling burned out on the space. He preferred to spend his time playing with his new MIDI keyboard.

Did May's prediction of crypto anarchy turn out wrong, or is it too early to tell? In 2017, he was optimistic that many of the changes he foresaw in the late 1980s were beginning to take shape, speaking of a fork in the road—the world was moving toward either Leviathan or an "anarchic-type system." There would be no in-between.

More recently, he quoted the epitaph found on Ancient Roman gravestones: "I was not. I was. I am not. I don't care."

Rest in peace, Tim May.

[*] This post has been altered to clarify that May was paraphrasing his 1987 conversation with Phil Salin, as Manning and Snowden were not yet on the scene. It was also corrected to reflect that the Cypherpunks list wasn't dissolved after 9/11—it lost readers and influence. And it was corrected to indicate May's correct age at the time of death. He was born on December 21, 1951, making him 66 at time of death, not 67, as originally written.