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The revolution began in the late 1970’s but the first shot was fired in 1992 when a group of civil libertarian cryptologists, known as the Cypherpunks, started a mailing list. By 1997, there were thousands of subscribers who discussed politics, privacy, cryptography, philosophy, and wrote code. While the net was still in its infancy, these were the men and women who foresaw what was to come. They understood the battle about to be waged between privacy and secrecy. A manifesto was written in which the opening line reads:

Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy… An anonymous system empowers individuals to reveal their identity when desired and only when desired; this is the essence of privacy.

What the Cypherpunks saw was a world in which the technology would soon exist where every transaction, every email, every purchase could, and therefore would, be tracked by governments and corporations against the public’s will. What made the Cypherpunks so unique is that rather than resist and rebel against this technology, they openly embraced it and transformed it in a way that protected privacy and attacked government secrecy.

We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. We must come together and create systems which allow anonymous transactions to take place. People have been defending their own privacy for centuries with whispers, darkness, envelopes, closed doors, secret handshakes, and couriers. The technologies of the past did not allow for strong privacy, but electronic technologies do. We the Cypherpunks are dedicated to building anonymous systems. We are defending our privacy with cryptography, with anonymous mail forwarding systems, with digital signatures, and with electronic money.

Up until the 1970’s, cryptology had been something only governments were involved with. But in 1975, a computer hacker named Whitfield Diffie [pictured left] came up with a new system called “public-key” cryptography. What was so revolutionary about this was that it used an asymmetric key algorithm so that the key used to encrypt a file was not the same used to decrypt it. Traditionally, if you wanted to send an encrypted text, known as “cyphertext”, you also had to send the recipient the key to decrypt it into “plaintext”. The problem was that the information would need to be sent over insecure channels and was, therefore, susceptible to interception. But public-key cryptology changed that by using two separate keys, one for encrypting and one for decrypting, one public and one private. The publicly available encrypting key is widely distributed, while the private decrypting key is known only to the recipient. Messages can be encrypted with the recipient’s public key but can only be decrypted with the corresponding private key. To put it in laymen’s terms, the strength of the key is determined by its size. The bigger the key, the harder it is to hack. While the government’s data encryption standard (DES) at the time used a symmetrical key, it was limited to only 56-bits. But Diffie’s public-key allowed for a key to be used with an unlimited size which made it nearly impossible to crack.

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