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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Cypherpunk - Not to be confused with Cyberpunk


I remember when I first Discovered PGP Keys and Software to Send your e-mails in an encrypted format. It was back in about 1999. I even downloaded and tried out some of the software. But it was hard to learn how to use. And both the sender and receiver of the e-mail, had to have the software, in order to Un-Encrypt the e-mail so that the could read it. I could never get my friends to do all of that. So, I had to give up my lofty ideas of having any Privacy when sending e-mails. But I never knew about this movement...


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A cypherpunk is an activist advocating widespread use of strong cryptography as a route to social and political change.

Originally communicating through the Cypherpunks electronic mailing list, informal groups aimed to achieve privacy and security through proactive use of cryptography. Cypherpunks have been engaged in an active movement since the late 1980s.



[edit] Origins of the term

The term cypherpunk, derived from cipher and punk, was coined by Jude Milhon as a pun to describe cyberpunks who used cryptography.[1] In November 2006, the word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.[2] The Cypherpunks included several notable computer industry figures, for example Ian Goldberg, Bram Cohen and Nikita Borisov.

[edit] History

[edit] Before the mailing list

Until about the 1970s, cryptography was mainly done in secret by military or spy agencies. However, in the '70s, there were two publications that brought it out of the closet, into public awareness. One was the US government publication of the Data Encryption Standard (DES), a block cipher which became very widely used. The other was the publication by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman of the first publicly available work on public-key cryptography.

From that time on, people began to discuss cryptography openly and to examine its political and social consequences. Some of the substantial issues involved in these discussions had to do with the potential uses for and dangers of cryptography. Could it be used by criminals to hide their schemes or their profits, in addition to protecting personal privacy or government and corporate secrets? Should strong cryptography be widely used or strictly limited? Some of the speculations and arguments of these early debates fell along lines now referred to as cypherpunk.

In the late '80s, these ideas coalesced into something like a movement.

[edit] Cypherpunk mailing list

Cypherpunks originated as an informal group of people interested in privacy and cryptography who originally communicated through the cypherpunks mailing list, although there were also cypherpunk physical meetings and parties.

The list was started in 1992, peaked around 1997, and has one remaining node as of August 2010: "". At its peak, "cypherpunks" was a very active list with technical discussion ranging over mathematics, cryptography, computer science, political and philosophical discussion, personal arguments and attacks, etc., with some spam thrown in. An email from John Gilmore shows an average of 30 messages a day from December 1, 1996 to March 1, 1999, and suggests that the number was probably higher earlier.[3] There were well over a thousand subscribers at the peak.

For a time, the cypherpunks mailing list was a popular tool with mailbombers,[4] who would subscribe a victim to the mailing list in order to cause a deluge of messages to be sent to him or her. (This was usually done as a prank, in contrast to the style of terrorist referred to as a mailbomber.) This precipitated the mailing list sysop(s) to institute a reply-to-subscribe system. Approximately two hundred messages a day was typical for the mailing list, divided between personal arguments and attacks, political discussion, technical discussion, and early spam.[5][6]

The cypherpunks mailing list had extensive discussions of the public policy issues related to cryptography and on the politics and philosophy of concepts such as anonymity, pseudonyms, reputation, and privacy. These discussions continue both on the remaining node and elsewhere as the list has become increasingly moribund.

Events such as the GURPS Cyberpunk raid lent weight to the idea that private individuals needed to take steps to protect their privacy. In its heyday, the list discussed public policy issues related to cryptography, as well as more practical nuts-and-bolts mathematical, computational, technological, and cryptographic matters. The list had a range of viewpoints and there was probably no completely unanimous agreement on anything. The general attitude, though, definitely put personal privacy and personal liberty above all other considerations.

[edit] Early discussion of online privacy

In at least two senses, people on the list were ahead of more-or-less everyone else. For one thing, the list was discussing questions about privacy, government monitoring, corporate control of information, and related issues in the early 90s that did not become major topics for broader discussion until ten years or so later. For another, at least some list participants were more radical on these issues than almost anyone else.

Those wishing to understand the context of the list might refer to the history of cryptography; in the early 90s, the US government considered crypto software a "munition" for export purposes, which hampered commercial deployment with no gain in "national security", as knowledge and skill was not limited to US citizens. (
 source code was published as a paper book to bypass these regulations and demonstrate their futility.) The US government had tried to subvert cryptography (e.g. by requiring SkipJack and key-escrow). It was also not widely known among that all communications were logged by government agencies (which would later be revealed during the NSA and AT&T scandals) though this was taken as an obvious axiom by listmembers.

The original cypherpunk mailing list, and the first list spin-off, "coderpunks", were originally hosted on John Gilmore's, but after a falling out with the sysop over moderation, the list was migrated to several cross-linked mail-servers in what was called the "distributed mailing list".[7][8] The coderpunks list, open by invitation only, existed for a time. Coderpunks took up more technical matters and had less discussion of public policy implications. There are several lists today that can trace their lineage directly to the original Cypherpunks list: the "Cryptography" list (, the "Financial Cryptography" list (, and a small group of closed (invitation-only) lists as well. continued to run with the existing subscriber list, those that didn't unsubscribe, and was mirrored on the new distributed mailing list, but messages from the distributed list didn't appear on[9] As the list faded in popularity, so too did it fade in the number of cross-linked subscription nodes.

To some extent, the cryptography list acts as a successor to cypherpunks; it has many of the people and continues some of the same discussions. However, it is a moderated list, considerably less zany and somewhat more technical. A number of current systems in use trace to the mailing list, including Pretty Good Privacy, /dev/random in the Linux kernel (the actual code has been completely reimplemented several times since then) and today's anonymous remailers.

[edit] Main principles

The basic ideas are in this quote from "A Cypherpunk's Manifesto" (Eric Hughes, 1993):

Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. ... We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy ... We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. ... Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and ... we're going to write it. ...[10]

Some are or were quite senior people at major hi-tech companies and others are well-known researchers (see list with affiliations below). However, the "punk" part of the name indicates an attitude:

We don't much care if you don't approve of the software we write. We know that software can't be destroyed and that a widely dispersed system can't be shut down.[10]

This is crypto with an attitude, best embodied by the group's moniker: Cypherpunks.[11]

The first mass media discussion of cypherpunks was in a 1993 Wired article by Steven Levy titled "Code Rebels":

The people in this room hope for a world where an individual's informational footprints -- everything from an opinion on abortion to the medical record of an actual abortion -- can be traced only if the individual involved chooses to reveal them; a world where coherent messages shoot around the globe by network and microwave, but intruders and feds trying to pluck them out of the vapor find only gibberish; a world where the tools of prying are transformed into the instruments of privacy.

There is only one way this vision will materialize, and that is by widespread use of cryptography. Is this technologically possible? Definitely. The obstacles are political -- some of the most powerful forces in government are devoted to the control of these tools. In short, there is a war going on between those who would liberate crypto and those who would suppress it. The seemingly innocuous bunch strewn around this conference room represents the vanguard of the pro-crypto forces. Though the battleground seems remote, the stakes are not: The outcome of this struggle may determine the amount of freedom our society will grant us in the 21st century. To the Cypherpunks, freedom is an issue worth some risk.[11]

The three masked men on the cover of that edition of Wired were prominent cypherpunks Tim May, Eric Hughes and John Gilmore.

Later, Levy wrote a book, Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government – Saving Privacy in the Digital Age,[12] covering the "crypto wars" of the 90s in detail. "Code Rebels" in the title is almost synonymous with "cypherpunks".

The term "cypherpunk" is mildly ambiguous. In most contexts it means anyone advocating cryptography as a tool for social change. However, it can also be used to mean a participant in the Cypherpunks electronic mailing list described below. The two meanings obviously overlap, but they are by no means synonymous.

Documents exemplifying cypherpunk ideas include Timothy C. May's "The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto" (1992)[13] and "The Cyphernomicon" (1994),[14]"A Cypherpunk's Manifesto".[10]

[edit] Privacy of communications

A very basic cypherpunk issue is privacy in communications. John Gilmore said:

That's the kind of society I want to build. I want a guarantee -- with physics and mathematics, not with laws -- that we can give ourselves real privacy of personal communications.[15]

Such guarantees require strong cryptography, so cypherpunks are fundamentally opposed to government policies attempting to control the usage or export of cryptography. See politics of cryptography for discussion.

Cypherpunks deplore regulations on cryptography, for encryption is fundamentally a private act.[10]

This was a central issue for many cypherpunks. Most were passionately opposed to various government attempts to limit cryptography — export laws, promotion of limited key length ciphers, and especially escrowed encryption.

[edit] Anonymity and pseudonyms

The questions of anonymity, pseudonymity and reputation were also extensively discussed.

Arguably, the possibility of anonymous speech and publication is vital for an open society, an essential requirement for genuine freedom of speech — this was the position of most cypherpunks. A frequently cited example is that some of the leaders of the American Revolution published anonymously. On the other hand, the possibility of anonymity may facilitate various forms of criminal activity, notably conspiracy and libel.

On the net, one can use a pseudonym, often shortened to just nym. This has some of the advantages and problems of anonymity, but adds its own complications. A pseudonym can be tied to a public key so that only an authorised person can use it. Several people might share a pseudonym, as for the mathematician Nicolas Bourbaki who published a number of papers but never actually existed. One person might have multiple pseudonyms. A pseudonym can acquire a reputation — if clever things often appear under the pseudonym, then a new message using that name will be taken seriously. On the other hand, if many messages from a nym are idiotic, a new one may not even be read and will certainly not be accepted without caution.

[edit] Censorship and monitoring

Questions of censorship and government or police monitoring of various things were also much discussed. Generally, cypherpunks opposed both.

In particular, the US government's Clipper chip scheme for escrowed encryption of telephone conversations (encryption secure against most attackers, but breakable at need by government) was seen as anathema by many on the list. This was an issue that provoked strong opposition and brought many new recruits to the cypherpunk ranks. List participant Matt Blaze found a serious flaw[16] in the scheme, helping to hasten its demise.

[edit] Hiding the act of hiding

Another important set of discussions continues to be the use of crypto itself as a flag to oppressive authorities. As a result, Cypherpunks have discussed (and even developed) several approaches to crypto that hides even the use of crypto itself or that allows interrogators to believe that they have forcibly extracted hidden information from an interogee. For instance, "Rubberhose" was a tool (developed by Julian Assange) that partitioned and intermixed secret data on a drive with "fake secret data", each of which accessed via a different password. Interrogators, receiving extracting a password, will be lead to believe that they have indeed extracted the desired secrets, whereas in reality the actual data is still hidden. In other words, even its presence is hidden. Likewise, Cypherpunks have also discussed under what conditions messages could be encrypted without becoming noticed or flagged as special by network monitoring systems installed by oppressive regimes.

[edit] Software projects

As the Manifesto says "Cypherpunks write code";[10] the notion that good ideas need to be implemented, not just discussed, is very much part of the culture.

John Gilmore, whose site hosted the original cypherpunks mailing list, wrote:

We are literally in a race between our ability to build and deploy technology, and their ability to build and deploy laws and treaties. Neither side is likely to back down or wise up until it has definitively lost the race.

Anonymous remailers such as the Mixmaster Remailer were almost entirely a cypherpunk development. Among the other projects they have been involved in were PGP for email privacy, FreeS/WAN for opportunistic encryption of the whole net, Off-the-record messaging for privacy in Internet chat, and the Tor project for anonymous web surfing.

[edit] Hardware

In 1998, the Electronic Frontier Foundation built a $200,000 machine that finds a Data Encryption Standard key in a few days; details are in Cracking DES.[17] See DES for background.

The project leader was John Gilmore, and the goal of the project was to demonstrate beyond question that DES was insecure. As many cypherpunks saw it, this was necessary because the US government had been telling deliberate lies about the security of DES for some time.

[edit] Expert panels

Cypherpunks also participated, along with other experts, in several reports on cryptographic matters.

One such paper was Minimal Key Lengths for Symmetric Ciphers to Provide Adequate Commercial Security.[18] It suggested 75 bits was the minimum key size to allow an existing cipher to be considered secure and kept in service. At the time, the Data Encryption Standard with 56-bit keys was still a US government standard, mandatory for some applications.

Other papers were critical analysis of government schemes. The Risks of Key Recovery, Key Escrow, and Trusted Third-Party Encryption,[19] evaluated escrowed encryption proposals. Comments on the Carnivore System Technical Review.[20] looked at an FBI scheme for monitoring email.

Cypherpunks provided significant input to the 1996 National Research Council report on encryption policy, Cryptography's Role In Securing the Information Society (CRISIS)[21] This report, commissioned by the U.S. Congress in 1993, was developed via extensive hearings across the nation from all interested stakeholders, by a committee of talented people. It recommended a gradual relaxation of the existing U.S. government restrictions on encryption. Like many such study reports, its conclusions were largely ignored by policy-makers. Later events such as the final rulings in the cypherpunks lawsuits forced a more complete relaxation of the unconstitutional controls on encryption software.

[edit] Lawsuits

Cypherpunks have filed a number of lawsuits, mostly suits against the US government alleging that some government action is unconstitutional.

Phil Karn sued the State Department in 1994 over cryptography export controls [22] after they ruled that, while the book Applied Cryptography[23] could legally be exported, a floppy disk containing a verbatim copy of code printed in the book was legally a munition and required an export permit, which they refused to grant. Karn also appeared before both House and Senate committees looking at cryptography issues.

Daniel Bernstein, supported by the EFF, also sued over the export restrictions, arguing that preventing publication of cryptographic source code is an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech. He won, effectively overturning the export law. See Bernstein v. United States for details.

Peter Junger also sued on similar grounds, and won.

John Gilmore has sued two US Attorneys General (Ashcroft and Gonzales), arguing that the requirement to present identification documents before boarding a plane is unconstitutional.[24] These suits have not been successful to date.

[edit] Civil disobedience

Cypherpunks encouraged civil disobedience, in particular US law on the export of cryptography. Until 1996, cryptographic code was legally a munition, and until 2000 export required a permit.

In 1995 Adam Back wrote a version of the RSA algorithm for public-key cryptography in three lines of Perl[25][26] and suggested people use it as an email signature file:

#!/bin/perl -sp0777i<X+d*lMLa^*lN%0]dsXx++lMlN/dsM0<j]dsj $/=unpack('H*',$_);$_=`echo 16dio\U$k"SK$/SM$n\EsN0p[lN*1 lK[d2%Sa2/d0$^Ixp"|dc`;s/\W//g;$_=pack('H*',/((..)*)$/)   

Vince Cate put up a web page that invited anyone to become an international arms trafficker; every time someone clicked on the form, an export-restricted item — originally PGP, later a copy of Back's program — would be mailed from a US server to one in Anguilla.[27] There were options to add your name to a list of such traffickers and to send email to the president registering your protest.

[edit] Cypherpunk fiction

In Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon many characters are on the "Secret Admirers" mailing list. This is fairly obviously based on the cypherpunks list, and several well-known cypherpunks are mentioned in the acknowledgements. Much of the plot revolves around cypherpunk ideas; the leading characters are building a data haven which will allow anonymous financial transactions, and the book is full of cryptography. But, according to the author[28] the book's title is — in spite of its similarity — not based on the Cyphernomicon,[14] an online cypherpunk FAQ document.

There was a pornographic cypherpunk movie called Cryptic Seduction, produced by someone using the pseudonym Randy French. It caused great amusement in cypherpunk circles, with references to and cameos by several prominent cypherpunks, but did not make money. At one point the copyright for it was up for auction.[29]

[edit] Jim Bell and "Assassination Politics"

Jim Bell took the general cypherpunk tendencies toward further in an essay titled "Assassination Politics":[30]

Imagine for a moment that as ordinary citizens ... see an act by a government employee or officeholder that they feel violates their rights ... If only 0.1% of the population, or one person in a thousand, was willing to pay $1 to see some government slimeball dead, that would be, in effect, a $250,000 bounty on his head. Further, imagine that anyone considering collecting that bounty could do so with the mathematical certainty that he could not be identified, ... Perfect anonymity, perfect secrecy, and perfect security.

He worked out the mechanisms for this in considerable detail, and speculated extensively on the political consequences. Naturally, the discussion on the list was intense. Later, Bell was arrested and convicted[31] for tax evasion, with accusations of attempts to intimidate IRS agents. Still later, another case was brought against him, alleging "stalking and intimidating local agents of the IRS, Treasury Department and BATF".[32] Another list subscriber, Carl Johnson, was also convicted[33] of sending threatening emails. Discussion of Bell's essay played a prominent part in all three trials.

[edit] Noteworthy cypherpunks

Cypherpunks list participants included many notable computer industry figures. Most were list regulars, although not all would call themselves "cypherpunks"[2].

John Gilmore is one of the founders of the Cypherpunks mailing list, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Cygnus Solutions. He created the alt.* hierarchy in Usenet and is a major contributor to the GNU Project.

* indicates someone mentioned in the acknowledgements of Stephenson's Cryptonomicon

[edit] References

This article incorporates material from the Citizendium article "Cypherpunk", which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License but not under the GFDL.
  1. ^ Re: Jude Milhon in WIRED
  2. ^ ResourceShelf » Oxford English Dictionary Updates Some Entries & Adds New Words; Bada-Bing, Cypherpunk, and Wi-Fi Now in the OED
  3. ^
  4. ^ Re: POST: The Frightening Dangers of Moderation
  5. ^ Re: Re: Add To Your Monthly Income!!
  6. ^ Cypherpunks Date Index for 1997 04
  7. ^ Re: Sandy and the Doc
  8. ^ Newgroup - distributed mailing list on the way?
  9. ^ Switching to full traffic mode
  10. ^ a b c d e Hughes, Eric (1993 url=,&#32;A Cypherpunk's Manifesto 
  11. ^ a b Levy, Steven (May 1993). "Code Rebels". Wired. 
  12. ^ Levy, Steven (2001). Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government – Saving Privacy in the Digital Age. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-024432-8. 
  13. ^ Timothy C. May (1992), The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, 
  14. ^ a b May, Timothy C. (September 10, 1994). "The Cyphernomicon: Cypherpunks FAQ and More, Version 0.666". Retrieved February 28, 2011.  as well as Hughes's
  15. ^ John Gilmore, home page, 
  16. ^ Matt Blaze (1994), Protocol failure in the escrowed encryption standard, 
  17. ^ Electronic Frontier Foundation (1998), Cracking DES: Secrets of Encryption Research, Wiretap Politics, and Chip Design, Electronic Frontier Foundation, ISBN 1-56592-520-3, 
  18. ^ Blaze, Diffie, Rivest, Schneier, Shimomura, Thompson & Wiener (1996). Minimal Key Lengths for Symmetric Ciphers to Provide Adequate Commercial Security. 
  19. ^ Hal Abelson, Ross Anderson, Steven M. Bellovin, Josh Benaloh, Matt Blaze, Whitfield Diffie, John Gilmore, Peter G. Neumann, Ronald L. Rivest, Jeffrey I. Schiller & Bruce Schneier (1998), The Risks of Key Recovery, Key Escrow, and Trusted Third-Party Encryption, 
  20. ^ Steven Bellovin, Matt Blaze, David Farber, Peter Neumann & Eugene Spafford, Comments on the Carnivore System Technical Review, 
  21. ^ Kenneth W. Dam and Herbert S. Lin, Editors (1996). Cryptography's Role In Securing the Information Society. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council. pp. 688. ISBN 0-309-05475-3. LCCN 96-68943. 
  22. ^ "The Applied Cryptography Case: Only Americans Can Type!". 
  23. ^ Schneier, Bruce (2nd edition, 1996,), Applied Cryptography, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0-471-11709-9 
  24. ^ Gilmore v. Gonzales, 
  25. ^ Adam Back, export-a-crypto-system sig, web page, 
  26. ^ Adam Back, post to cypherpunks list, RSA in six lines of Perl, 
  27. ^ Vince Cate, ITAR Civil Disobedience (International Arms Trafficker Training Page), 
  28. ^ Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon cypher-FAQ, 
  29. ^ Andrew Orlowski (March 2002), "Alice, Bob and Eve too: Crypto porno movie goes up for auction", The Register, 
  30. ^ Jim Bell (1997) Assassination Politics
  31. ^ Associated Press (December 1999), Jim Bell sentenced, 
  32. ^ Deborah Natsios (June 2001), Homeland Defense and the Prosecution of Jim Bell, 
  33. ^ Carl Johnson files, 
  34. ^ Officers | Open Source Club at Ohio State University
  35. ^ [1]

[edit] External links

Go there...

From Cypherpunk to Cyberpunk to Steampunk
Steampunk - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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Cyberpunk - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
File:Gibson sprawl.jpg - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
File:Steampunk-falksen.jpg - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
File:Telectroscope aperture at London City Hall showing Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf.jpg - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
File:Clockwork universe by Tim Wetherell.jpg - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
File:Steampunk magazine Issue3.gif - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Steampunk Search on DonsDeals Blog
Cypherpunk - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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