The Best Defense Against Rubber-Hose Cryptanalysis
The cypherpunks were wrong (but also right)
Listen to those who extol the virtues of blockchain and cryptocurrency and pretty soon, you’ll hear about the power of cryptocurrency to resist tyranny.
This isn’t a novel claim: the cypherpunk movement of the early 1990s (widely acknowledged as the intellectual and technological forerunners of the cryptocurrency movement) made strong claims about the political power of cryptography: namely, that unbreakable codes could transform the relationship of people to the state.
They weren’t alone in making that claim. Indeed, cypherpunk ideology was a counter to the ideology of the US spy apparatus, primarily the NSA, who claimed that cryptography would enable a quartet of socially corrosive evils: child pornographers, mafiosi, terrorists and copyright scofflaws (these were invoked so often that they came to be known as “the four horsemen of the infocalypse”).
American spies — and their colleagues in other “free” nations — were adamant that social stability required the power to spy on any electronic communications, at will. Later, after the Snowden revelations, it became clear that their real agenda was spying on all electronic communications, and retaining them indefinitely.
The strongest version of the cypherpunks’ claim was that unbreakable ciphers could make the state both obsolete and largely harmless: self-organizing, cryptographically protected communities would be immune from state spying, and thus state control.
The state, for its part, seemed to concur. The NSA fomented drastic anti-cryptography regulation, classing mathematics itself as a munition that civilians could neither possess nor “export,” a verb that took on a new expansiveness…