History of Cryptography and the Cypherpunks

Above is my latest sketch of ‘The Bitcoin Man’ in a dance club, with his artificial intelligence robots by his side.

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Cryptocurrency came into existence because of a very strange set of circumstances. The technology that gave rise to cryptocurrency; public-key cryptography, was created because two very different groups of people in separate eras of history were faced with the same problem.

The problem was sending information securely, covertly, seamlessly, and quickly to large numbers of people. It came about because a new technology greatly increased both the capacity for communications and the danger from information theft.

Small groups of hackers, mathematicians and cryptographers began working to make public-key encryption a reality. The idea had been publicized in the 1970s, and largely picked up by few intellectuals including David Chaum.

Chaum began worrying about he called “the dossier society” and “invisible mass surveillance;” in which computers would tell the government and big business everything about everybody. Looking for a means of preserving privacy Chuam turned to cryptography, and proposed a number of solutions far ahead of their time. Chaum’s ideas included untraceable electronic mail, digital signatures, and digital secret identities.

It was Chaum who first proposed cryptocurrency in 1983, in a paper called Numbers Can Be a Better Form of Cash than Paper. Chaum predicted that electronic cryptocurrency might be as anonymous as paper money, but as convenient as a credit card. The technology to create cryptocurrency did not exist in 1983, but the idea stock around.

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In the illustration, ‘Cypherpunk Girl‘ who from behind looks obviously like a robot, but while she looks into the mirror, she looks like a beautiful blonde human woman.

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Enter the Cypherpunks

By the 1990s a movement of “Cypherpunks” had emerged and was hard at work trying to make Chaum’s ideas reality. Various public-key encryption solutions such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) were released. The Cypherpunks were an offshoot of the cyberpunk movement; which combined fascination with the internet and computers with a love of 1980s and 1990s counterculture.

The goal of the Cypherpunks was to use the tools of encryption; invented by the military-industrial complex, to protect individual freedom. A major fear of the Cypherpunks was that government would takeover or subvert their playground in cyberspace.

Cryptography would become the shield that would protect their liberty from big government. They laid their basic ideas out in “A Cypherpunks Manifesto” :

Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.

Many of the Cypherpunks were ideologically opposed to the very idea of government. American Cypherpunks tended to be Libertarians; who view all government as evil. European Cypherpunks were usually Anarchists who viewed both government and big business as evil. The most utopian of the Cypherpunks believed that could use cryptography to create a digital utopia.

This ideology helped fuel the low-intensity warfare between Cypherpunks and the intelligence community that has been waging since the early 1990s. The two groups use the same tools but are at odds because of greatly disparate notions of patriotism and the common good. The warfare heats up every time agencies deploy new surveillance tools, or the Cypherunks unleash new encryption methods.

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In my final completed illustration, I enhanced the mirror to a tablet instead, using the front camera as a mirror.

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The Cypherpunks may have created Bitcoin

By applying cryptography to personal computers and the internet, Cypherpunks launched a widespread movement of open-sourced cryptography research. This research took nearly 20 years but in 2009 it gave rise to the first public cryptocurrency; Bitcoin and introduced the concept of blockchain to a wider audience.

The true identity of the creator of Bitcoin Satoshi Nakamoto, is still unknown but it is obvious that he or she came out of the Cypherpunk movement. That gives rise to all sorts of speculation; including the idea that Nakamoto might be an employee or former employee of NSA, or The Oligarchs aka The Illuminati. Either way, Nakamoto’s creation has made the dreams of the Cypherpunks part of the wider culture and society.