PART 2: Cryptoheaven, Almost
For someone who wanted to build a new world functioning privately and honestly, protected by cryptography, our base in San Jose, Costa Rica, was almost a dream… and more than any of us dreamed, probably.
The investment tour was in early 1996, by my best guess. And it was a couple of years before the base was really set up; physical infrastructure takes time, after all.
My involvement began in late 1997, when I found myself stranded for a day and a half at an airport hotel in San Francisco. I was conducting seminars for the National Electrical Contractors Association in those days, and a slip-up in the scheduling left me there.
After considering my options (it was winter and flight schedules were a mess), I decided to stay put and make use of the time. Fortuitously, I had with me a recently released book called The Sovereign Individual.
My time at the hotel was well spent. I had been thinking about encrypted commerce for a couple of years, but reading Sovereign Individual stimulated my thoughts and helped me make some important connections. By the time I finished the book, I had pages of notes, particularly on how to resolve disputes in anonymous (actually, pseudonymous) cyberspace. I knew what I had was important, but I couldn’t see anything to do with it.
A year and a half later, however, I ran into Orlin and a member of the inner circle (plus another of the former spooks) at the wonderful Eris Society meetings in Aspen. I quickly cleaned up a few pages of notes and emailed them to the group. They were building the system we all wanted, and I had a necessary piece they hadn’t yet considered.
Shortly thereafter, I flew to San Jose and walked into what I can only call “cryptoheaven.”
Armed with a set of directions in Spanish, I made my way to a rather high-end neighborhood of San Jose and then to what my cab driver told me had been the “Canadian school.” I rang the bell and met “Alex,” a defrocked CIA agent. Alex and I got along nicely and he showed me around. He and his wife (a very pleasant woman) lived there, as did a cast of characters, mostly slightly paranoid programmers… all of them sci-fi fans as well.
There were full time housekeepers who also cooked and two large Rottweilers named Charlie and Parker. There was a garage area and lots of garden space.
There were many rooms in the place, including a small gym. After I was shown to my bedroom and had settled in, I was taken to a back room in which I could work. It was a large, clean room, with desks running the length of two walls. Upon the desks were perhaps half a dozen new Mac desktops, all connected to a network and then to the Internet. The other two walls were nearly all window from about three feet up, making the room bright, functional, and all but ideal for my work. And I was often alone in the room for days at a time, interrupted only by Alex’s wife offering me plates of food and encouraging me to eat something.
And it didn’t stop there. Directly across the street from what we called the “programmer house” (instead of the “Canadian school”) was an excellent restaurant called City Club. It was there that I met Orlin and had dinner with him a time or two. City Club served other customers, but it was more or less “our restaurant,” complete with Ethernet ports every four or five feet across the front of the bar. (This was 1999; there wasn’t a lot of Wi-Fi in those days.) And it was a fair bet that one of the people working on their laptop at the bar was someone who wrote something you’d read and appreciated.
Can you see why “cryptoheaven” wasn’t a bad description of this place? And don’t forget that San Jose is a very pleasant place to live: naturally beautiful with modern conveniences. And it definitely fit the programmer lifestyle, as there were not only decent pizza joints to order from, but even McDonald’s delivered. And for those who were interested, there were bars, a casino, and everything that went along with a casino.
About a mile down the road from the programmer house was the “consulado”… the consulate. This place was an authentic embassy. It was a large house surrounded by a high wall, with a large metal gate in front, complete with full time guards. You couldn’t see the house from the street.
What it was, really, was the Nicaraguan embassy. But the Nicaraguans were having hard times through those years and couldn’t afford to maintain the place (nor, especially, I think, an ambassador), and so our guys rented it from them. That gave us a physically protected space. For US government agents to raid the consulado, they’d be committing an act of war against the sovereign state of Nicaragua!
The fear in those days was that the US would send thugs to shut us down. And it wasn’t a crazy fear. Phil Zimmerman had barely avoided prison for releasing PGP just a few years prior, and we were building some fairly advanced cryptographic applications. Crypto advocates were on edge about such things then, and so all the servers that mattered were kept in the consulado. All the most crucial work was done there as well.
To be Continued…