The Discovery of Terra Nova by the Cypherpunks

CypherpunksFifteen years ago the cypherpunks were almost entirely forgotten. But now – and quite shockingly to those of us who were involved – cypherpunks are cool again. More than that, the discoveries of the cypherpunks are starting to change the world in a serious way.

That being so, I’d like to briefly recap what the cypherpunks discovered, because what these people found was a new world… a terra nova.

Land Ho

Our new territory was created by a combination of the internet and encryption. The internet gave us unlimited community, and encryption became our “city walls,” allowing us to separate ourselves from the rest of the world.

The first cypherpunks, being clever lads, began using the internet and encryption because they were interesting and fun. Shortly, however, they realized that they were actually building a terra nova and were instantly confronted with a huge question: How should we arrange our new world? That cranked everything into high gear.

I didn’t know this passage from Tom Paine’s Common Sense (1776) at the time, but it captures the astonishing thought that sprang from the discovery of terra nova:

We have it in our power to begin the world over again.

The First Crypto War

Not all was sweetness and light, however. Encryption was considered a munition, and exporting it was highly illegal. But it was easy to see that public key encryption (actually key exchange, published by Diffie and Hellman in 1976) was the perfect technology for the internet… and the internet was not limited to the USA.

So, a group of the clever lads hatched a plan in 1991: They’d write a nice little encryption program and send it around the world. An anti-nuke advocate named Philip Zimmerman drove the project but everyone involved wanted to avoid the jail sentence that would come from exporting their new program. They did have one trick available to them, however: the First Amendment.

So, they took the program, called Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP, and printed it as a book. Then, since books are protected speech, they pushed copies of the book into envelopes and mailed them to friends in Europe. Once on the far side of the Atlantic, the books were keyed back into computers and turned back into a program… and then distributed everywhere.

Zimmerman very nearly went to jail (based upon an upload to a BBS system), but the world received strong encryption.

Encryption Plus Commerce = “Oh My…”

Once you begin exchanging encrypted messages with friends, one of the next ideas to cross your mind is, Gee, some kind of electronic currency would be really nice to go along with this. And once you start imagining encrypted commerce, you quickly realize just how radical this technology can be.

One by one this thought dawned upon us all. I wasn’t among the very first to grasp it, but by the mid-1990s I was struck by it as well. In a continuing education course I conducted for Iowa State University, I wrote this:

Another huge thing in years ahead will be electronic cash for Internet commerce. Electronic cash can be transferred on-line instantly, inexpensively (almost free), and, if encrypted, privately. Think about this for a minute – it will change the world.

“The Universe Favors Encryption”

The awesome power of encryption is not something that is instantly grasped.

The quote above is from Julian Assange (also a cypherpunk), and it’s quite true. Encryption, after all, is merely applied math, and math is built into the structure of the universe.

Now, to illustrate just how strongly the universe favors encryption, please consider this:

It is roughly 2100 (2 to the 100th power) times harder to decrypt a message than it is to encrypt it (unless you have the key).

Engineers debate this number of course, but it’s clearly in that range.  Here’s 2100 precisely:


So, when people like Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin, talk about an arms race between cypherpunks and old-world power, don’t simply assume that the old way will win.

Many Other Pieces

But while the cypherpunks dropped off the radar for a couple of decades, they still produced things like BitTorrent, The Onion Router network (aka Tor, or the darknet), I2P (another darknet), a variety of digital cash systems, privacy systems (including the first commercial VPNs), and even commercial tools like digital escrows and dispute resolution.

The two big cypherpunk creations, everyone knows: WikiLeaks and Bitcoin. I’ve explained WikiLeaks before and we have a report on Bitcoin, so I’ll leave those aside for today. But suffice it to say that a cypherpunk world has been building for some time and may form much further in the years ahead.

Is That a Good Thing?

A Planet Cypherpunk would be radically different from Planet Status Quo, and that scares some people very badly.

That fear isn’t rational of course. The ancient world is very happily long gone. We live better and behave better. The rational choice, then, is to keep that progress going, and that necessarily includes change, including radical new adaptations.

Status quo systems, however, major on fear. That’s the secret ingredient that keeps their game together. And so “right-thinking” moderns have been trained to fear anything new. That’s not rational, but it makes people feel safe.

But rather than conducting a further discourse on why Planet Cypherpunk would be better than Planet Status Quo, I’ll simply leave you with the conclusion of one of the very first cypherpunk documents: Timothy C. May’s Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, published in November 1992:

Arise, you have nothing to lose but your barbed wire fences!


Paul Rosenberg