In a recent article, I talked about the Cypherpunks, a movement dedicated to protecting and enhancing privacy through the use of cryptography. I touched upon its history, its objectives and the relevance of the work that cypherpunks are doing today. In this piece, I will expand on the relevance of the Cypherpunk movement and the problems that they are trying to address. And if I will do that correctly, by the end of the article, you would want to become one too!
1) Shape The Future of Technology Before It Shapes Us
Technology is a fundamental economic and cultural force that has permeated all aspects of human existence. It has changed the way we work, the way we communicate with one another, how we learn, and has generally allowed us to increase our living standards to an incredible degree. It provides endless possibilities for human development and is indeed the key to tackling many financial, social, and environmental challenges.
However, what is becoming evident is that technology is not only a tool to improve life, but also a tool to control it. And while the economic benefits of technological development have mostly benefited a few, its burdens are shared by the masses. Although nobody nowadays can do away with technology, we have very little influence over technological developments. Technology has been the domain of computer programmers and experts — alone — and that has reduced its users to become passive consumers of technology, unaware and unable to critically assess its influences. As a result, average people have suffered from a loss of agency while also becoming more vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation from technology providers.
In the past twenty years, it has become increasingly evident the extent technology is used as a means to manipulate behaviour, control and limit people’s freedom. This is something that the early Cypherpunks were already warning about in the 80s, and since that time, things have only gotten worse. Between 2013 and 2021, 15 data breaches occurred on major platforms like Yahoo, MySpace, LinkedIn and Facebook, which left millions of users highly exposed and vulnerable. Laws have shown to be inefficacious to address this issue and there is little hope that companies that profit from the selling of user’s data will do anything significant to improve privacy.
The Cypherpunk movement goes against the current and tries to approach these issues from within– that is, by actively shaping technological development and creating better alternatives for users. Alternatives that enhance people’s freedom and privacy and that provide tools to stand against the rise of a surveilling state. Among the most telling examples are WikiLeaks, Signal, Tor, and Bitcoin.
2) Escape Psychological Control
The terms Surveillance Capitalism and Psychopolitics were introduced by philosophers Shoshana Zuboff and Byung-Chul Han, respectively, to describe the processes of control and manipulation implemented by the society of information. These terms are particularly useful for understanding the dynamics that are taking place in societies where technology is used (or rather misused) for the fulfilment of economic and political objectives that disregard people’s rights.
Surveillance capitalism is a more efficient evolution of capitalism that allows the economic system to thrive thanks to the exploitation of consumers’ behavioural data. Companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook rely on people’s use of digital connection to gather data that can help them and other companies to improve their products and to anticipate future needs. Not only does this result in a disproportionate amount of power and profits concentrated within these companies, but it also affects the freedom and privacy of individuals as they unknowingly utilize such platforms.
The most troubling aspect of this way of conducting business is that users are not aware that the data and content they freely share on platforms such as Facebook is sold to other companies for huge sums of money to produce targeted advertising. What the analysis of these data allows, however, goes beyond marketing. As these companies have access to very private information about our preferences, and behaviour, they are able to derive information about our psychology, our weaknesses, future behaviour and use them to fulfil different objectives e.g. political control.
What this scheme gives rise to is an incredible asymmetry between provider and user: “Surveillance capitalism knows everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us” (Shoshana Zuboff). Needless to say, the user finds himself at loss in this kind of relationship.
In Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, Byung-Chul Han warns about the psychological control that surveillance capitalism makes possible. In fact, the access that companies and governments alike have over people’s sensitive information is unheard of even for the most authoritarian governments of today. Users are not coerced to share their information; they are rather lured into that and are kept unaware of the consequences that this bears.
By willingly sharing our information, we make surveillance easier. Big data allows us to get insights into dynamics of social communication and patterns of human behaviour, and consequently the development of techniques of control and manipulation. For instance, by having access to our online thoughts, habits, and desires, the technologies of control have the ability to study our emotional responses and exploit them.
Triggering emotional responses becomes very easy when you have intimate knowledge of someone’s psychological makeup:
“Emotions are performative in the sense that they evoke certain actions: Like inclinations, they represent the energetic and sensory foundation to action… They constitute the pre-reflexive, semi-conscious, bodily-instinctive place of action, of which one is often not properly aware.” -Byung-Chul Han
Reclaiming data ownership becomes crucial if we want to avoid manipulation, and for this reason we urgently need to look for digital alternatives that enable users to retain control over their data.Technology should lead to more freedom and not to more efficient control and exploitation of the population. We need technologies that represent these values and that prioritise freedom and agency over profits, and that is exactly what Cypherpunks are working on.
3) Fight For a Healthier Political System
The primary objective of the Cypherpunks is to use encryption as a means to prevent state surveillance and soft coercion on its citizens. David Chaum, one of the pioneers of cryptography, warned about the rising interference of the state made possible by technological advancements. The dossier society, a society that knows everything about its citizens, would end up having the same effect of a panopticon, a surveillance’s device that exposes those inside of it to a state of continuous and hidden surveillance. The Cypherpunks’ fight against surveillance is then also a political fight against state coercion and censorship.
With its hands-on approach to problems, the Cypherpunk movement has, since the 80s, been working on concrete solutions to prevent our society from falling into an Orwellian future, the most remarkable being cryptocurrencies:
“Crypto currencies appealed to the cypherpunks as their operating models were decentralised, relying on no intermediaries such as banks. In combination with encryption and the anonymity infrastructure, crypto currencies would allow transactions to occur between two parties without the state’s knowledge. If the state could not see transactions, it could not levy taxes, nor build a dossier society. Therefore, the cypherpunks believed crypto currencies could clog the arteries fueling the body politic.”
4) A Leak a Day Keeps The Tyrant Away
Journalism plays a critical role in democratic societies as it helps keep in check political processes and ensures that governments and individuals do not abuse their power. It also supplies citizens with the necessary information to orient themselves and take political as well as life decisions. When trust between media and citizens is eroded, society falls into a state of uncertainty, mistrust towards institutions, and lower political engagement.
A 2020 study conducted by Gallup, Inc. and Knight Foundation on the perception of media in the United States found that 73% of the 20,000 Americans interviewed do not believe in mainstream media. The reasons behind this mistrust are largely due to the increased perception of biased reporting, lack of diversification and affiliations between news outlets and private companies of governments.
In this climate, WikiLeaks, the multi-media organisation founded by Julian Assange, a long-dated cypherpunk, helps in re-establishing true reporting by distributing information that informants are afraid to publish due to potential repercussions. The topics of interest are those of public interest such as materials involving war, spying, and corruption and that is usually kept away from the citizens.
WikiLeaks challenges the assumption that secrecy is a critical component of governance as well as the governments’ abused claim to restrict freedom of speech to protect national interests. In doing so it serves citizens by exposing government abuses and protecting them from future tyrants.
5) Cypherpunks Create a Lot of Cool Stuff
Cypherpunks have given birth to some of the most revolutionary inventions of the past twenty years.
How Can You Become A Cypherpunk?
If you have reached this point of the article, you now might be convinced about the relevance of the Cypherpunk movement and might even feel drawn to that. So the final questions that remain to address are: How do I become a cypherpunk? What does it take to be one?
The founder of the crypto-anarchist movement, Timothy C.May defined a cypherpunk as one that aspires to, “technology and concrete solutions over bickering and chatter”(May). Although in the famous cypherpunk manifesto he wrote that cypherpunks wrote code, this expression should not be taken in the literal sense. A cypherpunk is a privacy advocate that understands the dangers of an increasingly surveilling state and that actively seeks to develop concrete solutions to counter this rising danger. If you relate to this description, you should get involved with the movement!
One of the easiest ways to get involved with the work of the cypherpunk movement is to get in contact with the cypherpunk guild on NEAR. This is one of the best entry points for newcomers and dated cypherpunks that are looking for funding opportunities and a community of like-minded people. For more information check out their Twitter: @CypherpunkGuild and website: cypherpunkguild.org and join the revolution!