Privacy is a civil right worth the fight. It’s a right we’re in danger of losing – that we were always in danger of losing – as life continues to move online. Technology, we’ve found, can be a tool for freedom as well as repression, or at least cheaper and more precise forms of mass surveillance.
These are the battle lines the early cypherpunks, the progenitors of cryptocurrencies, drew. Back when crypto referred to cryptography, the art of secreting information, rather than cryptocurrency, these people dreamt up and developed ways to ensure a modicum of online privacy.
“Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age,” programmer Eric Hughes wrote in the “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto.” The document was published during the height of the Crypto Wars, a period when the U.S. government attempted to stifle development of commercial encryption.
For most of modern history, encryption was a military technology, a way for states to conceal their secrets during times of war and peace. Computers weakened the governmental monopoly on encryption and made it public. This is how the world got PGP, or pretty good privacy. And, ultimately, Bitcoin.
Today’s Crypto Wars have new players on the battlefield: corporate power. The U.S. National Security Agency, FBI and Department of Homeland Security routinely demand “backdoors” into encrypted apps, but private companies made a business out of snooping.
We’re accustomed to speaking about web giants like Facebook and Google breaking consumer trust, but Marta Belcher, a lawyer with Protocol Labs and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, thinks financial surveillance is a bigger issue for the future. Most forms of money exist in private ledgers: credit cards, online payment processors and banks.
Essentially, before crypto, every transaction that was not conducted with cash or barter was at the mercy of private money-transmitting businesses. They have a record of all transactions and the ability to determine who can transact with whom.
“A cashless society is a surveillance society,” Belcher told CoinDesk.
This trend will only accelerate as the online economy grows. Central banks the world over are developing digital currencies that could one day largely replace physical cash. The growth of legacy finance-dependent fintechs and banks shows little sign of slowing.
To some extent, crypto is the only exit. Owned by everyone, cryptocurrencies are the latest frontier in the fight for privacy.
“Cryptocurrency is important for civil liberties precisely because it imports the anonymity of cash into the online world. That is a feature, not a bug,” Belcher said.