Long before debates about privacy and surveillance pierced public consciousness, the cypherpunks—a loose coalition of hackers and technologists—obsessed over these matters. In one respect, this group was light years ahead of their time: they sounded the alarm over the grave harms of surveillance as they laid the philosophical and technical foundation upon which future hackers would build the privacy tools of the present. But they also had blind spots when it came to methods for achieving the anonymity they so prized.
The cypherpunks first gathered on a mailing list in 1992, preaching a gospel of cryptographically-protected privacy and anonymity to anybody willing to listen. “Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world, … Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age,” declared Eric Hughes in A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto.
The cypherpunks developed a philosophical perspective which co-founder Timothy May described as a vision of ‘crypto-anarchy’–positing that cryptography could enable new kinds of power relationships that could level the playing field between states and individuals. “Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure, so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions,” he wrote in The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto.
Though they spent much of their time developing a political vision for encryption, the cypherpunks also practiced what they preached: “cypherpunks write code,” as their manifesto insisted. Or at least, some of them did—others discussed the importance of code for society at large. They tested out anonymous remailers, systems designed to mask the sender of messages by bouncing those messages across a network of servers; schemed up systems for digital cash, and played games designed to mimic cryptographic theorems. Years later, cypherpunk Julian Assange put these ideas into practice when he founded the whistleblowing clearinghouse Wikileaks, as did Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous inventor of a cryptocurrency: Bitcoin.
As the mailing list grew, it became, as Hughes describes in this clip, “filled with kooks and wackos and good stuff.” It also became notorious for flaming (90s netspeak for online trolling), incivility and harassment. Hughes perhaps minimizes such social dynamics in the interview by saying “there’s a lot of male posturing, it’s not for everybody.”
Here we can see: though radical in many ways, the cypherpunk perspective on privacy and anonymity was remarkably narrow. Their understanding of the harms of surveillance reflected the limits of their personal experiences as mostly male, mostly white, and mostly Western libertarians, liberals, and socialists. Their articulation of civil liberties failed to recognize how certain kinds of bodies—such as black, brown, queer, trans and disabled bodies—are policed differently than others; both surveillance and the ability to speak are not evenly distributed and their vision failed to account for these differences. Ultimately, both the successes and failures of the cypherpunks serve as a rich historical case study. Those learning from it today represent a more diverse community of cryptography enthusiasts, who aim to achieve the radically inclusive project that cryptography makes possible.