Encryption

Cryptography vs. Big Brother: How Math Became a Weapon Against Tyranny

Part two of a four-part series on the history of the cypherpunk movement

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"Large bureaucracies, with the power that the computer gives them, become more powerful," said New York Times reporter David Burnham in a 1983 C-Span interview about his book The Rise of the Computer State. "They are escaping the checks and balances of representative democracy."

Burnham warned that the integration of computers into every aspect of daily life could lead to a "level of automated surveillance unknown in any previous age." For society to change course, Burham argued, citizens would need to rise up through the democratic process and demand new legal protections to safeguard their privacy.

"There are ways to deal with it," Burnham told C-SPAN. "We have done it. And all I hope is that we're on our toes enough and alert enough to see them and go after them."

"This is just political jawboning," retorted Timothy C. May to the idea that politics could keep the computer state in check.

May, a former Intel physicist, believed that putting faith in representative democracy was naive and that only technology could save us from the Orwellian state. He became a co-founder of the cypherpunk movement, which came together in the early 1990s around the idea that a recent breakthrough in the field of cryptography was the key innovation for combatting tyranny.

The second part in Reason's four-part documentary series on this movement, "Cypherpunks Write Code," looks at the political implications of this breakthrough in cryptography. (Part one is here and part three is here and part four is here.)

The cypherpunks saw cryptography as comparable to the crossbow, which had enabled individuals to go up against medieval armies, as mathemetician Chuck Hammill argued in a 1987 paper presented to the Future of Freedom Conference.

"I certainly do not disparage the concept of political action," Hammill wrote, but "for
a fraction of the investment in time, money and effort I might expend in trying to convince the state to abolish wiretapping and all forms of censorship—I can teach every libertarian who's interested how to use cryptography to abolish them unilaterally."

Hammil's paper, "From Crossbows To Cryptography: Techno-Thwarting The State," was the first item posted to the cypherpunks' widely read email list.

"The mathematics which makes this principle possible," as Hammill put it, was public-key cryptography, an astonishing breakthrough. It was developed by the Stanford cryptographers Whitfield Diffie and Martin E. Hellmann, who first explained the concept in a November 1976 paper published in IEEE Transactions on Information Theory. The following year, a team of researchers at MIT developed the first working public-key system, known as RSA.

Many cypherpunks first learned about this discovery from the August 1977 issue of Scientific American, in which the "Mathematical Games" columnist Martin Gardner described a "new kind of cipher that would take millions of years to break."

As Gardner told his readers, a discovery had been made that would "revolutionize the entire field of secret communication."

Another way of thinking about public-key cryptography is that it replicated the privacy protections of the analog world in cyberspace. "If you look at 1791, at the moment of the Bill of Rights," says Diffie, "impenetrably private conversations dominated." What the framers didn't foresee is that private communication would happen via computers sending messages across the world that could easily be intercepted. "Public-key cryptography gives you a mechanism whereby you can recover this ability to have an impenetrably private conversation between two people."

Sending a secret message used to involve translating words through a secret code that government agents or other spies could potentially crack. Anyone sending and receiving messages also had to have a copy of the secret key or translation device, just like the decipher rings that schoolchildren started collecting in the 1930s.

Public-key cryptography made decoding devices unnecessary and figuring out the pattern effectively impossible. The big breakthrough was an easy-to-solve mathematical formula that you could funnel words into just as easily as dropping them through a trapdoor. But if you flipped the problem around and tried to pull the message out the other side, the formula was almost impossible to solve, such that in 1977 a supercomputer trying random numbers would need 40 quadrillion years to surface the answer.

But the person who set up the mathematical formula, or trap door, held the answer to the problem, or secret code, making it possible for that person to retrieve the original message.

Diffie compares the whole system to the most ubiquitous trapdoor system for sending messages. "Anyone can throw a letter in a mailbox," he says, "but only the mailman, who has a key, can take it out.'

Anyone in the world could set up one of these equations, serving as the mailman of his or her very own impenetrable virtual letterbox. And because that individual could prove ownership of the mailbox by opening it with the only known key, public-key cryptography also made it possible to set up a provable identity on the internet completely disconnected from any real-world personal information.

In Future Imperfect (2008), economist David Friedman argued that "strong encryption functions as a virtual Second Amendment."

"One way of reading the Second Amendment was that it was a way of making sure that if the government tried to suppress the people, the people would win," Friedman says.

"In the modern world, the weapons that the army has differ by a lot more than they did in the 18th century. But I also think if you look at what politics are like nowadays, the real wars between the government and the population are information wars, not physical wars. Encryption means they can't arrest you. They can't blackmail your key people. They can't do anything of the things governments might do to make sure that public information is what they wanted."

Meanwhile, in the late 1970s, the U.S. intelligence community started doing everything in its power to keep this new tool out of the hands of the general public.

Part three in this series will look at the U.S. government's effort to halt the widespread use of public-key cryptography with threats of criminal prosecution, and the legal and public relations battle waged by John Gilmore, a founding member of the cypherpunk movement, for free speech rights in software.

Written, shot, edited, narrated, and graphics by Jim Epstein; opening and closing graphics by Lex Villena; audio production by Ian Keyser; archival research by Regan Taylor.

Music: "Sunset" by Kai Engel, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International; "Prelude in C" by Kevin MacLeod, Creative Commons Attribution license.

Photos: Whitfield Diffie, Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service; NSA headquarters, Dod/ZUMA Press/Newscom; The Land Of The Free by Coco Curranski, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Footage: "Panama Patrol," 1939, directed by Charles Lamont; "Superman: Showdown," Archive.org, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0; "Atom Bomb Effects" by U.S. Army, Prelinger Collection, Archive.org

NEXT: The Reawakening of the Black Gun-Rights Movement

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  2. How Math Became a Weapon

    *headdesk*

    The same math that prevents citizens from being spied upon by the government also prevents citizens from knowing their government is spying on them.

    1. for a fraction of the investment in time, money and effort I might expend in trying to convince the state to abolish wiretapping and all forms of censorship—I can teach every libertarian who’s interested how to use cryptography to abolish them unilaterally.

      “For a fraction of the time, money, and effort it would take to engineer spherical cows, I can teach a handful of interested libertarians to grind a few cows into spheres.”

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    2. How so? You mean in the sense that it prevents us from reading their communications, which they would never give us anyway?

      While I disagree with the utopian thinking that technology can solve tyranny, it’s still an important tool. Apps like signal have certainly helped the cause of privacy, and (maybe) privacy-preserving cryptocurrencies can help the cause of financial privacy. Of course, the government can always send armed agents after someone, but it does make the job a lot more costly and low-throughout.

      1. You refute your own argument; government regulators who refuse to give us their communications can always have armed agents sent after them, unless cryptography. If no amount of armed agents could retrieve the communications, ciphertext or plain doesn’t matter.

        Math and crypto is an important tool regardless of the political climate. Acting like math is only important or is chiefly important as a tool to fight tyranny politicizes a fundamentally apolitical discipline.

        1. My point was that the benefits of cryptography accrue asymmetrically. Many eyes are on regulators via, e.g. FOIA requests. Encrypted communications that the regulators refuse to decrypt may arouse suspicion.

          The set of people who are not in government is much larger; while as I said armed agents can come and try to beat you into giving up a private key, that is an expensive and low-throughput task as above, but with a much larger set of targets.

          In any case I agree that math, cryptography, computer science, etc. are fundamentally apolitical disciplines. I don’t think that means that the real-world impact of their application is necessarily symmetric. After all, machine learning is itself apolitical, but I think we can all agree that by now its impact is far more in favor of tyranny than liberty.

          1. My point was that the benefits of cryptography accrue asymmetrically.

            The set of people who are not in government is much larger; while as I said armed agents can come and try to beat you into giving up a private key, that is an expensive and low-throughput task as above, but with a much larger set of targets.

            See my subsequent comment above. They do not accrue assymetrically or the math inherent to cryptography does nothing to ensure they accrue asymmetrically or asymmetrically enough. The government doesn’t have to beat you into providing the key if they can beat the encryptors into weakening the encryption. Moreover, it’s not a simple 1:1 or 5:1 or even 10:1 ratio or calculation. The government has the means to send men to beat the key out of you, beat the encryptors into providing back doors, brute force any/all encryption they can’t beat out of people, lean on service providers, amass metadata to effectively circumvent encryption at the theoretical (ZKP) level, *and* still has resources left over to fund Lord-only-knows what research into quantum computing or whatever to bolster their brute force efforts.

            I’m not saying it’s not a good tool. I’m saying (once again, as I’ve said this in the past) the notion that “crypto will defeat tyranny” is scientism, a computational engineering ‘solution’ to a social engineering problem.

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        2. Actually, I wish I could edit, since I realized how to explain myself better. Cryptography does allow both governments and individuals to hide their information better. However, government already had a semi-effective way of doing this, through classification. Individuals never had that option, now they do. I believe that is an asymmetric benefit in the end.

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  5. I miss drinking bourbon at Tim’s place.

    *pours out a shot for my homie*

    1. I don’t drink, but I’ll join you. These two videos have made my month. I haven’t seen so many people I know in news videos ever in my life.

      I was bummed that he didn’t mention how AMIX was one of the first online services that was based on Ted Nelson’s hypertext. I seem to recall it was quite some time before Tim Berners-Lee did his thing with the World-Wide-Web.

      It’s good to see that Whit still has his inimitable style.
      I think I actually saw a tiny video clip of a recent, Eric Hughes, not just in a photo.

      I miss those guys. Dean Tribble was the person who showed me how reputation could be modeled as an iterative Prisoner’s Dilemma.

      –Strat

      1. As long as I’m drinking for two, I’ll pour us each one for Len, too. I still wonder if I could have done more, there. :-\

  6. I had to stop reading at “Public-key cryptography made decoding devices unnecessary and figuring out the pattern effectively impossible.” Leave it to journalism to get the names right but completely fumble the basic facts. (Asymmetric cryptography uses a decoding device–the PC–just as much as anything prior to it unless you plan on spending a week working out the math by hand, which you could have done for any prior encryption also.)

  7. at least until quantum computing allows anyone to crack the code in microseconds

  8. This is not history, it’s hagiography. Pure propaganda.

    1. Some of us were there. Let’s see how the other segments play out.
      I certainly didn’t agree with all of the premises of my fellow Cypherpunks, but it is not exaggeration to note that there were definitely people thinking about how to use the leverage of information technology in ways that really hadn’t been discussed.

      Trust me, I had to deal with the export nightmare that was cryptography in the U.S. back then.

      Oh and for the youngsters and blockchain fanciers: One of the people whose picture flashed up there briefly, did the math for a system that was functionally very similar to a blockchain’s journal, complete with global distributed replication, and intrinsic resistance to integrity threats. He had patents granted in the 1990s. I was helping him build a company around it in 1999.

      –Strat

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  11. professor rat
    The cypherpunks saw cryptography as comparable to the crossbow, which had enabled individuals to go up against medieval armies, as mathemetician Chuck Hammill argued in a 1987 paper …” – Bad faith and bullshit, Randite, Paultard, REASON moron, Jim Epstein

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cypherpunk#Origin_of_the_term,_and_the_Cypherpunks_mailing_list

    The Cypherpunks mailing list was started in 1992 – the year they were named. Did someone say JFC?

  12. I think of that “unprecedented automated surveillance” every time I Ctrl-Alt-Del > Start Task Manager on my Windows desktop, go to the “Processes” tab and count 7 intances of “chrome.exe” even when my Chrome browser’s not even open. Would even unplugging my wi-fI dongle keep Google from recording everything I’m doing if their keylogger is likely sending transcripts everytime I re-establish an internet connection? Now my kids even get issued Chromebooks at school. Where does it end? No wonder Google is facng massive antitrust scrutiny.

  13. This has the bots approval, so there is that. The assertion that a crossbow would allow an untrained peasant to take on an army is not something that Hammill claimed, from a quick read. If he did believe it, he failed to take into account the reload time, disregarding the potential for piercing armor, being over run by mounted or dismounted soldiers would happen quite quickly.

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