Cryptography vs. Big Brother: How Math Became a Weapon Against Tyranny
“Large bureaucracies, with the power that the computer gives them, become more powerful,” said New York Times reporter David Burnham in a 1983 C-Span interview about his book The Rise of the Computer State. “They are escaping the checks and balances of representative democracy.”
Burnham warned that the integration of computers into every aspect of daily life could lead to a “level of automated surveillance unknown in any previous age.” For society to change course, Burham argued, citizens would need to rise up through the democratic process and demand new legal protections to safeguard their privacy.
“There are ways to deal with it,” Burnham told C-SPAN. “We have done it. And all I hope is that we’re on our toes enough and alert enough to see them and go after them.”
“This is just political jawboning,” retorted Timothy C. May to the idea that politics could keep the computer state in check.
May, a former Intel physicist, believed that putting faith in representative democracy was naive and that only technology could save us from the Orwellian state. He became a co-founder of the cypherpunk movement, which came together in the early 1990s around the idea that a recent breakthrough in the field of cryptography was the key innovation for combatting tyranny.
The second part in Reason’s four-part documentary series on this movement, “Cypherpunks Write Code,” looks at the political implications of this breakthrough in cryptography. (Part one is here.)
The cypherpunks saw cryptography as comparable to the crossbow, which had enabled individuals to go up against medieval armies, as mathemetician Chuck Hammill argued in a 1987 paper presented to the Future of Freedom Conference.
“I certainly do not disparage the concept of political action,” Hammill wrote, but “for
a fraction of the investment in time, money and effort I might expend in trying to convince the state to abolish wiretapping and all forms of censorship—I can teach every libertarian who’s interested how to use cryptography to abolish them unilaterally.”
Hammil’s paper, “From Crossbows To Cryptography: Techno-Thwarting The State,” was the first item posted to the cypherpunks’ widely read email list.
“The mathematics which makes this principle possible,” as Hammill put it, was public-key
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