Polarizing Technology: Encryption and Crypto

The fury and vitriol towards crypto is strong. People use words like “hate” and you can feel the emotion in their voice. I’ve had friends suggest that I must hate the environment if I support crypto. Or even that they thought I was “too smart” for crypto. Many suggest that blockchains are “just a database”, but I’ve never seen people yelling at each other, dismissing opinions, and ultimately even losing friends because they liked a database!

This made me wonder, is this unique to crypto? What else in technology might be so polarizing and carry so much emotional energy with it?

Then I realized that crypto isn’t alone. Encryption has a similar polarizing affect. And as I explored that hypothesis, I clearly also saw that the entities that find these technologies threatening use very similar tactics to attack them.

Encryption

Ways to encrypt data have been around for as long as we’ve written things down. Famous hardware devices like the Enigma machine were key tools to successful war operations. Modern technology has made encryption more sophisticated and even more difficult to defeat.

In 1991 Phil Zimmerman wrote Pretty Good Privacy or PGP. PGP was the first widely available implementation of the incredibly secure public-key cryptography. After Zimmerman created PGP he shared the source code online, triggering the US Government to open an investigation into Zimmerman and PGP for potential violations of the Arms Export Control Act. For obvious reasons, the US Government doesn’t want encryption technology that it cannot defeat to be in the hands of other entities. Five years later the US Government dropped its investigation into Zimmerman with no indictment.

The early history of the Electronic Frontier Foundation also involved encryption. In 1995 they represented the defendant in Bernstein v. United States. Similar to Zimmerman, Bernstein wanted to publish the source code of his encryption software. After four years we had a landmark ruling that determined that software source code was speech, and is thus protected by the First Amendment.

It is worth noting that the Bernstein v. United States ruling was one of the cases referenced by Apple when it refused to hack the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone.

Encryption is now used widely, and necessary to provide hundreds of secure services. Every modern phone has dozens of encryption routines in it, many that just operate in the background so that if someone stole your device, your private information would be protected.

But should private citizens be able to use encryption that is so secure that nobody else access it? Even law enforcement? Even the US Government? Even after 30 years public opinion on this is still not settled. It absolutely makes law enforcement harder when all communication between parties is encrypted, but it has immense benefit to the privacy of those individuals.

I firmly believe that we have a right to encrypt data in a way that no other entity can ever access it. The same way that I cannot be compelled to share a secret I have memorized, I have the right to have digital information that is completely secure and private to me.

However, there are many people who disagree completely. Many feel strongly that law enforcement particularly should have a backdoor to get into encrypted data. Many believe that Apple should have hacked those terrorist phones and retrieved information for the FBI. The government itself continues to fight for this with. In 1993 we had the Clipper Chip, but the battle continues.

Encryption itself challenges power. It allows normal people to do something that beforehand only governments or corporations could. The power to access secret information is a big one. Those that previously held that capability exclusively are not going to let it go easily. And that is why the FBI steps in to sue Apple when the time is right.

There are two wedges that are used to argue why encryption should not be allowed for regular individuals: terrorism and protecting children. Horrible topics to be sure, but they are the most effective at swaying public opinion against encryption. The next time an established entity with power makes a legal claim that encryption must have a backdoor, look for those two topics.

If we had a Digital Bill of Rights, I would include encryption as one of the first.

Crypto

Crypto, blockchain, cryptocurrencies — this technology has many similarities to encryption. First, let me clarify that while encryption and cryptography play a key role in crypto, it is a completely different solution and set of use cases. There could be no crypto without cryptography, but the application of crypto is not about protecting secrets.

Very similar to encryption though, crypto takes an activity that was previously the exclusive domain of powerful entities and makes it accessible to many. You could not have created a currency that could be trusted by millions without crypto. I can assert ownership of many digital assets without the benefit of any company or government entity, thanks to crypto.

Crypto allows individuals to store and exchange things of value completely on their own, common digital ownership.

The Bitcoin Whitepaper written in 2008, and then launched in 2009 was in many ways like Zimmerman’s publishing of PGP in 1991. The technology was furthered significantly when Ethereum launched in 2015, allowing completely new use cases to be created. Similar to encryption, in the crypto world we now have dozens of technology solutions and thousands of applications built on top of that. But the fundamental ethos is about storing and transferring value between people, directly without a company or government in the middle.

The efficiency benefits of blockchain are incredibly enticing, and like encryption it is possible for existing entities that control power to use these technologies internally to get benefit. The crypto version of a government backdoor is a US Digital Currency, run on a private and controlled blockchain.

Imagine if the FBI published an encryption tool. Would you use it?

Depending on when you start the clock with crypto we are between 7 and 14 years into the same kind of debate that we have been having with encryption. Should groups of people on their own be able to store and transfer value without any tools from the Government? Many smart, educated, and well-meaning people will have different views on this. It is important that a government can control their own currency. It is also important that a government have legal domain over certain forms of ownership. But personally I don’t believe those are blanket needs, and I see a great opportunity for technology to enable new capabilities here.

To fight off crypto there are two narratives that have developed. The first is that crypto supports fraud & crime. The second is environmental destruction. It is true that almost all Ransomware takes payment in Bitcoin, and the energy footprint of a proof-of-work blockchain is enormous. However, Bitcoin has also enabled people with no access to banking systems to store and transmit value. And while the energy footprint for Bitcoin is high, the gold industry certainly has a large energy footprint too. What amount of energy is acceptable for a digital reserve currency of the world to use?

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This thought exercise was helpful for me to add some context and perspective to these two debates. I hadn’t previously connected the encryption debate that I’ve observed and supported for years with what I was seeing in crypto. Connecting them in this way draws a couple of conclusions:

  1. Encryption has been an open debate for 30 years and is still unsettled. I suspect that crypto will have a similar path. I don’t think we will gain a consensus as a society soon.
  2. Existing entities with power that is threatened by encryption and crypto will not give it up easily. Progress will be slow and begrudgingly.
  3. Unfortunately these technologies do get used for nefarious activities. Terrorists do use encryption to protect terrible things, and bad actors do use Bitcoin to get payments.
Jamie Thingelstad @jthingelstad

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