Cypherpunks: History Of The Silent Crypto-War For Your Privacy
Written by Matt Wolfe on Sep. 9th 2017
“I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy, and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.” -Edward Snowden
A Cypherpunk is a privacy advocate that believes the mass adoption and use of strong cryptography should be used to effect REAL social and political change. The movement got it's name in the early 90's, during a time we commonly refer to as the "Crypto-Wars", when surveillance agencies and the Clinton administration were fighting for restrictions on cryptography use while privacy advocates fought legislation to preserve online privacy and freedom.
The movement has evolved over time and several manifestos have been written expressing the group's higher calling. You may have even recognize a few notable Cypherpunks in the media over the last several years. Names like Julian Assange (Founder of WikiLeaks), Jacob Applebaum (Tor developer), Edward Snowden (NSA whistleblower), and Aaron Swartz (leaked thousands of academic papers and organized a movement that stopped SOPA in it's tracks) are just a few to come to mind right off hand.
Before the Cypherpunks, cryptography was strictly reserved for spy agencies and military. All of this changed when a couple of academics decided to do something about it. Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman teamed up to solve one of the most fundamental problems with cryptography.
Diffie and Hellman where among the first people outside of government spy agencies and military, to dive into cryptography research. They uncovered the largest library of cryptography text books held at IBM Headquarters and got to work solving the Secure Key Distribution problem.
In 1976 the Diffie-Hellman key exchange was published addressing the key exchange problem by creating an asymmetric system that generates key pairs, eliminating the need to exchange keys in the first place.
In 1974 an IBM employee released a new crypto-algorithm called Lucifer....but only after the NSA made some modifications to the internal functions and a shortened the code key size from 112 bits to 56 bits was it officially published in the Federal Register in 1975 as the new Data Encryption Standard (DES).
These two major developments ended the monopoly that surveillance institutions like the NSA have had on cryptography tools from their inception. Now, anyone around the world is empowered with the choice of keeping communications private.
Cryptography is seen and even classified by our governments alongside nuclear weapons in importance to national security, and now, with strong encryption widely available to everyone, some opponents of cryptography argue that it weakens national security and creates an unsafe environment for citizens.
By the early 90's the Cypherpunk movement had evolved and gained its name and started a mailing list to debate public policy and to discuss topics from economics, crypto-codes, philosophy, mathematics to ideas of personal liberty.
Prior to the Snowden leaks, few people knew that the NSA was spying on EVERYONE, but the Cypherpunks knew this was coming from day one.
Many Cypherpunks work on projects that promote anonymity and privacy online arguing that anonymous, free speech is essential to a open and free society. As Edward Snoden said "When we don't have privacy, we behave less free and are therefore less free."
The Cypherpunks really emerged and took on their ethos during the 90's as they fought legislation to protect the right of individuates to encrypt their data. Government worked to maintain and increase their control over this technology until the Cypherpunks came on the scene. Then in 1996, crypto code was declassified as a munition and wasn't legal to export all the way up until 2000. There has also been a long standing battle over whether or not it should be a legal requirement an NSA friendly chip be installed on all communication devices and hardware.
So far, the Cypherpunks are winning the war for privacy. They have succeeded in releasing strong encryption to the world. But this war for privacy is far from over. Government surveillance is stronger and more widespread than ever, and a whole new breed of Cypherpunk is emerging in the wake of these discoveries.
Since then, corporations like Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Apple have admitted that they have been paid by the NSA to access their users’ data. Consumer backlash has forced many tech companies to take privacy more seriously.
There is a real debate to be had over the role cryptography plays in national security and the ability of government agencies to protect us from the boogie man. The other side of that argument recognizes the very real threat of allowing our government to have unchecked power and authority to spy on everyone under the guise of national security.
So I leave you with that final question....which side of the debate do you fall under?