CYPHERPUNK WAS BOTH AN EXCITING NEW VISION FOR SOCIAL CHANGE AND A FUN SUBCULTURE DEDICATED TO MAKING IT HAPPEN
Flashback: Berkeley, California 1992. I pick up the ringing phone. My writing partner, St. Jude Milhon, is shouting down the line: “I’ve got it! Cypherpunk!”
Jude was an excitable girl and she was particularly excitable when there was a new boyfriend involved. She’d been raving about Eric Hughes for days. I paid no attention.
At the time, Jude and I were contracted to write a novel titled How to Mutate and Take Over the World. I wanted the fiction to contain the truth. I wanted to tell people how creative hackers could do it — mutate and take over the world — by the end of the decade. Not knowing many of those details ourselves, we threw down a challenge on various hacker boards and in the places where extropians gathered to share their superhuman fantasies. “Take on a character,” we said, “and let that character mutate and/or take over.” The results were vague and unsatisfying. These early transhumanists didn’t actually know how to mutate, and the hackers couldn’t actually take over the world. It seemed that we were asking for too much too soon.
And so I wound up there, holding the phone away from my ear as Jude shouted out the solution, at least to the “taking over” part of our problem. Strong encryption, she explained, will sever all the ties binding us to hostile states and other institutions. Encryption will level the playing field, protecting even the least of us from government interference. It will liberate pretty much everything, toute de suite. The cypherpunks would make this happen.
For Jude, cypherpunk was both an exciting new vision for social change and a fun subculture dedicated to making it happen. Sure, I was skeptical. But I was also desperate for something to hang the plot of our book on. A few days later I found myself at the feet of Eric Hughes — who, along with John Gilmore and Tim May, is considered one of the founders of the cypherpunk movement — getting the total download.
This was my first exposure to “The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto.” Written by Tim May, it opens by mimicking The Communist Manifesto: “A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy.” In a fit of hyperbole that perfectly foreshadowed the mood of tech culture in the 1990s — from my own Mondo 2000 to the “long boom” of digital capitalism — May declared that encrypted communication and anonymity online would “alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret.” The result would be nothing less than “both a social and economic revolution.”
Just as a seemingly minor invention like barbed wire made possible the fencing-off of vast ranches and farms, thus altering forever the concepts of land and property rights in the frontier West, so too will the seemingly minor discovery out of an arcane branch of mathematics come to be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property.
Those words were written way back in 1988. By 1993, a bunch of crypto freaks were gathering fairly regularly in the San Francisco Bay Area. In his lengthy Wired cover story, Steven Levy would describe them as mostly “having beards and long hair — like Smith Brothers [cough drops] gone digital.” Their antics would become legendary.
John Gilmore set off a firestorm by sharing classified documents on cryptography that a friend of his had found in public libraries (they had previously been declassified). The NSA threatened Gilmore with a charge of violating the Espionage Act, but after he responded with publicity and his own legal threats, the NSA — probably recognizing in Gilmore a well-connected dissident who they couldn’t intimidate — backed down and once again declassified the documents.
Phil Zimmermann’s PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) software was being circulated largely thanks to cypherpunk enthusiasts. According to Tim May’s Cyphernomicon, PGP was “the most important crypto tool” available at the time, “having single-handedly spread public key methods around the world.” It was available free of charge for non-commercial users, and complete source code was included with all copies. Most importantly, May wrote, “almost no understanding of how PGP works in detail is needed,” so anyone could use its encryption to securely send data over the net.
In April 1993, the Clinton administration announced its encryption policy initiative. TheClipper Chip was an NSA-developed encryption chipset for “secure” voice communication (the government would have a key for every chip manufactured). “Not to worry,” Phil Zimmermann cuttingly wrote in an essay about PGP. “The government promises that they will use these keys to read your traffic only ‘when duly authorized by law.” Not that anyone believed the promises. “To make Clipper completely effective,” Zimmermann continued, “the next logical step would be to outlaw other forms of cryptography.” This threat brought cypherpunks to the oppositional front lines in one of the early struggles over Internet rights, eventually defeating government plans.
John Gilmore summed up the accomplishments of the cypherpunks in a recent email: “We did reshape the world,” he wrote. “We broke encryption loose from government control in the commercial and free software world, in a big way. We built solid encryption and both circumvented and changed the corrupt US legal regime so that strong encryption could be developed by anyone worldwide and deployed by anyone worldwide,” including WikiLeaks.
As the 1990s rolled forward, many cypherpunks went to work for the man, bringing strong crypto to financial services and banks (on the whole, probably better than the alternative). Still, crypto-activism continued and the cypherpunk mailing list blossomed as an exchange for both practical encryption data and spirited, sometimes-gleeful argumentation, before finally peaking in 1997. This was when cypherpunk’s mindshare seemed to recede, possibly in proportion to the utopian effervescence of the early cyberculture. But the cypherpunk meme may now be finding a sort of rebirth in one of the biggest and most important stories in the fledgeling 21st century.