Cypherpunk ideas, principles, and influence on digital society

Anton P. | June 18, 2021

The word cypherpunk refers to visionary individuals standing for technological innovation. These individuals would champion the use of cryptography and other privacy-focused technologies. For them, the application of the two meant the course society and political setting needed to take. Thus, cypherpunks became the bold voices in history advocating for privacy and security online.

Cypherpunk meaning and origin

A cypherpunk is a person actively supporting the widespread application of cryptography and privacy-preserving tech. These activists originally conversed through the impressive mailing list or face-to-face meetings when possible. However, the rise of cypherpunks relates to some earlier works in the field.

The earliest examples of cypherpunks date back to the 1970s. At that time, cryptography was a practice used exclusively by the US military and special agents. The general public had very little knowledge of cryptography and its potential. However, that all changed with the publication of Data Encryption Standard (DES), a block cipher that later skyrocketed to popularity.

Also, a study on public-key cryptography propelled the public’s interest in the technique. Later on, David Chaum, the pioneer in cryptography and privacy-preserving technologies, released “Security without Identification: Transaction Systems to Make Big Brother Obsolete” (1985). His visionary approach related to the eventual birth of digital cash and proposed other changes and improvements necessary.

While David Chaum might have been the original cypherpunk, the quirky name did not exist until 1992. The word was first muttered during the very first meeting of technologists, including Timothy C. May, John Gilmore, and Eric Hughes. The trio gathered a group of people interested in technology, cryptography, computer science, etc. Then, the circle would meet monthly to discuss various topics, ranging from mathematics to philosophy.

The gatherings would take place in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the founders gradually extended their reach. That is when the mailing list entered the picture.

How did the mailing list work?

The mailing list became a famous tool that the cypherpunks used to exchange information. Introduced in 1992, the movement quickly grabbed the attention of hundreds of subscribers. By 1994, the list contained 700 subscribers. In 1997, the list allegedly grew to reach over 2000 subscribers.

Currently, you can find archives containing letters from different periods. Another innovation involved with these emails is the fact that they used PGP to ensure their integrity.

At some point, mail bombers exploited the cypherpunks’ mailing list. The pranksters would subscribe their victims to the list. As a result, the unaware subscribers would receive piles of letters. While the prank might seem harmless, there were days when the subscribers would receive hundreds of messages. Thus, it was an inconvenience for the mail bombers’ victims. Overall, the exchanges between like-minded cypherpunks typically involved the following topics:

  • Privacy
  • Pseudonyms
  • Government monitoring
  • Corporate control of data
  • Reputation
  • Philosophy
  • Cryptography
  • Anonymity

Some noteworthy cypherpunks

Over the years, we have seen many outstanding figures nurturing the values of the cypherpunk movement. In their different approaches, they all contributed to leading the digital space in the right direction.

  • Founders of Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF): John Gilmore, John Perry Barlow, and Mitch Kapor.
  • The developer of PGP: Phil Zimmermann.
  • The founder of Bitcoin: Satoshi Nakamoto.
  • The developer of Tor software: Jacob Appelbaum.
  • The creator of BitTorrent: Bram Cohen.
  • The founder of WikiLeaks: Julian Assange.
  • The co-founder of Netscape, which invented SSL: Marc Andreessen.

All these cypherpunks have chipped in to lead the digital revolution. While we still have many battlefields to conquer, the path to success is much more realistic now. Public opinion has also significantly shifted thanks to these people. Thus, with the netizens becoming more aware, it is easier to achieve great things.

Cypherpunk manifesto

In 1993, Eric Hughes released A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto, discussing the principles and main ideas of the cypherpunk movement. Here is a summary of the suggestions and aims presented:

  • The very first sentence emphasizes the need of privacy for an open society in this digital age. Thus, the paper highlights the values of anonymity and the users’ right to remain private.
  • It criticizes the opponents of cryptography and instead presents it as a widespread security technique. The unrest against cryptography and modern encryption techniques remains relevant to this day. For instance, many oppose the use of end-to-end encryption, as it allegedly amplifies the opportunities for illegal behavior.
  • The cypherpunk’s manifesto also mentions that privacy is not about secrecy. Instead, it describes privacy as the right to keep some things to oneself. The paper elaborates that many online mechanisms reveal users’ information by default. In many cases, this dilemma remains prevalent to this day.
  • The manifesto also urges the introduction of anonymous transactions. Years later, these ideas would manifest into cryptocurrencies. Many researchers claim that the ideas of the manifesto sparked interest in the potential of digital money.

Cypherpunks today

The questions netizens have on crucial topics like privacy, data protection, and government monitoring all float on the surface. The increased interest in digital privacy, anonymity, and encryption seems to work as wake-up calls for many organizations. With many people starting to ask the right questions, companies must provide answers. Thus, at this time, anyone can be a cypherpunk in their own way.

You might be a person interested in technology and how it compromises our privacy overall. By fighting for your rights and, let’s say, using end-to-end encryption, you participate in the cypherpunk movement. It might be subtle, but you support all the ideas presented in its manifesto by defending your privacy online.

At Atlas VPN, we also consider ourselves as cypherpunks. Our subtle contribution means opening the doors to a more open and safe digital space. We offer services to anyone interested, regardless of their financial status or tech-savviness. These are the values we uphold and will continue pursuing in the future.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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