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3. Cypherpunks -- History, Organization, Agenda

THE CYPHERNOMICON: Cypherpunks FAQ and More, Version 0.666, 1994-09-10, Copyright Timothy C. May. All rights reserved. See the detailed disclaimer. Use short sections under "fair use" provisions, with appropriate credit, but don't put your name on my words.

3.2. SUMMARY: Cypherpunks -- History, Organization, Agenda

3.2.1. Main Points

  • Cypherpunks formed in September, 1992
  • formed at an opportune time, with PGP 2.0, Clipper, etc. hitting
    • early successes: Cypherpunks remailers, publicity

3.2.2. Connections to Other Sections

3.2.3. Where to Find Additional Information

  • "Wired," issue 1.2, had a cover story on Cypherpunks.
  • "Whole Earth Review," Summer 1993, had a long article on crypto and Cypherpunks (included in the book "Out of Control," by Kevin Kelly.
  • "Village Voice," August 6th (?). 1993, had cover story on "Crypto Rebels" (also reprinted in local weeklies)
    • and numerous articles in various magazines

3.2.4. Miscellaneous Comments

  • the best way to get a feel for the List is to simply read it for a while; a few months should do.

3.3. The Cypherpunks Group and List

3.3.1. What is it?

  • Formal Rules, Charter, etc.?
    • no formal rules or charter
    • no agreed-upon mission

3.3.2. "Who are the Cypherpunks?"

  • A mix of about 500-700
  • Can find out who by sending message to with the message body text "who cypherpunks" (no quotes, of course).
    • Is this a privacy flaw? Maybe.
  • Lots of students (they have the time, the Internet accounts). Lots of computer science/programming folks. Lots of libertarians.
    • quote from Wired article, and from "Whole Earth Review"

3.3.3. "How did the Cypherpunks group get started?"

  • History?
  • Discussions between Eric Hughes and me, led to Eric's decision to host a gathering
  • First meeting was, by coincidence, the same week that PGP 2.0 was released...we all got copies that day - morning session on basics - sitting on the floor + afternoon we played the "Crypto Game"
  • remailers, digital money, information for sale, etc.
  • John Gilmore offered his site to host a mailing list, and his company's offices to hold monthly meetings
    • The mailing list began almost immediately
    • The Name "Cypherpunks"?

3.3.4. "Should I join the Cypherpunks mailing list?"

  • If you are reading this, of course, you are most likely on the Cypherpunks list already and this point is moot--you may instead be asking if you should_leave_ the List!
  • Only if you are prepared to handle 30-60 messages a day, with volumes fluctuating wildly

3.3.5. "How can I join the Cypherpunk mailing list?"

  • send message to "" with a body text of "subscribe cypherpunks" (no quote marks in either, of course).

3.3.6. "Membership?"

  • about 500-700 at any given time
  • many folks join, are overwhelmed, and quit
  • other groups: Austin, Colorado, Boston, U.K.

3.3.7. "Why are there so many libertarians on the Cypherpunks list?" + The same question is often asked about the Net in general.

  Lots of suggested reasons:
  • A list like Cypherpunks is going to have privacy and freedom advocates. Not all privacy advocates are libertarians (e.g., they may want laws restricting data collection), but many are. And libertarians naturally gravitate to causes like ours.
  • Net grew anarchically, with little control. This appeals to free-wheeling types, used to making their own choices and building their own worlds.
  • Libertarians are skeptical of central control structures, as are most computer programming types. They are skeptical that a centrally-run control system can coordinate the needs and desires of people. (They are of course more than just "skeptical" about this.)
  • In any case, there's not much of a coherent "opposition camp" to the anarcho-capitalist, libertarian ideology. Forgive me for saying this, my non-libertarian friends on the list, but most non-libertarian ideologies I've seen expressed on the list have been fragmentary, isolated, and not coherent...comments about "how do we take care of the poor?" and Christian fundamentalism, for example. If there is a coherent alternative to a basically libertarian viewpoint, we haven't seen it on the list.
  • (Of course, some might say that the libertarians outshout the alternatives...I don't think this is really so.)

3.3.8. "How did the mailing list get started?"

  • Hugh Daniel, Eric Hughes, and I discussed this the day after the first meeting
    • mailing list brought together diverse interests
    • How to hoin?

3.3.9. "How did Cypherpunks get so much early publicity?"

  • started at the right time, just as PGP was gaining popularity, as plans for key escrow were being laid (I sounded an alarm in October, 1992, six months before the Clipper announcement), and just as "Wired" was preparing its first issue
  • Kevin Kelly and Steven Levy attended some of our early meetings, setting the stage for very favorable major stories in "Wired" (issue 1.2, the cover story), and "Whole Earth Review" (Summer, 1993)
  • a niche for a "renegade" and "monkey-wrenching" group, with less of a Washington focus
  • publicity in "Wired," "The Whole Earth Review," "The Village Voice"
  • Clipper bombshell occupied much of our time, with some effect on policy
    • climate of repudiation
    • links to EFF, CPSR, etc.

3.3.10. "Why the name?"

  • Jude Milhon nicknames us
  • cypherpunkts? (by analogy with Mikropunkts, microdots)

3.3.11. "What were the early meetings like?"

  • cypherspiel, Crypto Anarchy Game

3.3.12. "Where are places that I can meet other Cypherpunks?"

  • physical meetings
  • start your place, classroom
  • other organizations
  • "These kind of meetings (DC 2600 meeting at Pentagon City Mall, 1st Fri. of
  • every month in the food court, about 5-7pm or so) might be good places for
  • local cypherpunks gatherings as well. I'm sure there are a lot of other
  • such meetings, but the DC and Baltimore ones are the ones I know of. <Stanton McCandlish, 7 April 1994> - (note that the DC area already meets...)
    • Hackers, raves
    • regional meetings

3.3.13. "Is the Cypherpunks list monitored? Has it been infiltrated?"

  • Unknown. It wouldn't be hard for anyone to be monitoring the list.
  • As to infiltration, no evidence for this. No suspicious folks showing up at the physical meetings, at least so far as I can see. (Not a very reliable indication.)

3.3.14. "Why isn't there a recruiting program to increase the number of Cypherpunks?"

  • Good question. The mailing list reached about 500 subscribers a year or so ago and has remained relatively constant since then; many subscribers learned of the list and its address in the various articles that appeared.
  • Informal organizations often level out in membership because no staff exists to publicize, recruit, etc. And size is limited because a larger group loses focus. So, some stasis is achieved. For us, it may be at the 400-700 level. It seems unlikely that list membership would ever get into the tens of thousands.

3.3.15. "Why have there been few real achievements in crypto recently?"

  • Despite the crush of crypto releases--the WinPGPs, SecureDrives, and dozen other such programs--the fact is that most of these are straightforward variants on what I think have been the two major product classes to be introduced in the last several years"
    • PGP, and variants.
    • Remailers, and variants.
  • These two main classes account for about 98% of all productor version-oriented debate on the Net, epitomized by the zillions of "Where can I find PGP2.6ui for the Amiga?" sorts of posts.
  • Why is this so? Why have these dominated? What else is needed?
  • First, PGP gave an incredible impetus to the whole issue of public use of crypto. It brought crypto to the masses, or at least to the Net-aware masses. Second, the nearly simultaneous appearance of remailers (the Kleinpaste/Julf- style and the Cypherpunks "mix"-style) fit in well with the sudden awareness about PGP and crypto issues. And other simultaneous factors appeared:
  • the appearance of "Wired" and its spectacular success, in early 1993
  • the Clipper chip firestorm, beginning in April 1993
  • the Cypherpunks group got rolling in late 1992, reaching public visibility in several articles in 1993. (By the end of '93, we seemed to be a noun, as Bucky might've said.)
    • But why so little progress in other important areas?
  • digital money, despite at least a dozen reported projects, programs (only a few of which are really anything like Chaum's "digital cash") - data havens, information markets, etc. - money-laundering schemes, etc.
    • What could change this?
      • Mosaic, WWW, Web
      • A successful digital cash effort

3.4. Beliefs, Goals, Agenda

3.4.1. "Is there a set of beliefs that most Cypherpunks support?" + There is nothing official (not much is), but there is an emergent, coherent set of beliefs which most list members seem to hold:

  • that the government should not be able to snoop into our affairs
  • that protection of conversations and exchanges is a basic right
  • that these rights may need to be secured through technology rather than through law
  • that the power of technology often creates new political realities (hence the list mantra: "Cypherpunks write code")
    • Range of Beliefs
  • Many are libertarian, most support rights of privacy, some are more radical in apppoach

3.4.2. "What are Cypherpunks interested in?"

  • privacy
  • technology
  • encryition
  • politics
  • crypto anarchy
  • digital money
  • protocols

3.4.3. Personal Privacy and Collapse of Governments

  • There seem to be two main reasons people are drawn to Cypherpunks, besides the general attractiveness of a "cool" group such as ours. The first reason is personal privacy. That is, tools for ensuring privacy, protection from a surveillance society, and individual choice. This reason is widely popular, but is not always compelling (after all, why worry about personal privacy and then join a list that has been identified as a "subversive" group by the Feds? Something to think about.)
  • The second major is personal liberty through reducing the power of governments to coerce and tax. Sort of a digital Galt's Gulch, as it were. Libertarians and anarchocapitalists are especially drawn to this vision, a vision which may bother conventional liberals (when they realize strong crypto means things counter to welfare, AFDC, antidiscrimination laws...).
  • This second view is more controversial, but is, in my opinion, what really powers the list. While others may phrase it differently, most of us realize we are on to something that will change--and already is changing--the nature of the balance of power between individuals and larger entities.

3.4.4. Why is Cypherpunks called an "anarchy"?

  • Anarchy means "without a leader" (head). Much more common than people may think.
  • The association with bomb-throwing "anarchists" is misleading.

3.4.5. Why is there no formal agenda, organization, etc.?

  • no voting, no organization to administer such things
  • "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"
  • and it's how it all got started and evolved
  • also, nobody to arrest and hassle, no nonsense about filling out forms and getting tax exemptions, no laws about campaign law violations (if we were a formal group and lobbied against Senator Foo, could be hit with the law limiting "special interests," conceivably)

3.4.6. How are projects proposed and completed?

  • If an anarchy, how do things get done?
  • The way most things get done: individual actions and market decisions.

3.4.7. Future Needs for Cyberspace

  • Mark Pesci's ideas for VR and simulations
    • distributed, high bandwidth
    • a billion users
    • spatial ideas...coordinates...servers...holographic models
  • WWW plus rendering engine = spatial VR (Library of Congress)
    • "The Labyrinth"
  • says to avoid head-mounted displays and gloves (bad for you) + instead, "perceptual cybernetics".
  • phi--fecks--psi (phi is external world,Fx = fects are effectuators and sensors, psi is your internal state)

3.4.8. Privacy, Credentials without identity

3.4.9. "Cypherpunks write code"

  • "Cypherpunks break the laws they don't like"
  • "Don't get mad, get even. Write code."

3.4.10. Digital Free Markets

  • strong crypto changes the nature and visibility of many economic transactionst, making it very difficult for governments to interfere or even to enforce laws, contracts, etc.
    • thus, changes in the nature of contract enforcement
  • (Evidence that this is not hopeless can be found in several places:
  • criminal markets, where governments obviously cannot be used - international markets, a la "Law Merchant"
    • "uttering a check"
  • shopping malls in identifiable national or regional jurisdiction...overlapping many borders...
  • caveat emptor (though rating agencies, and other filter agents, may be used by wary customers...ironically, reputation will matter even more than it now does)
    • no ability to repudiate a sale, to be an Indian giver
    • in all kinds of information...

3.4.11. The Role of

  • in monetarizing postage

3.4.12. Reductions on taxation

  • offshore entities already exempt
  • tax havens
  • cyberspace localization is problematic

3.4.13. Transnationalism

  • rules of nations are ignored

3.4.14. Data Havens

  • credit, medical, legal, renter, etc.

3.4.15. MOOs, MUDs, SVRs, Habitat cyberspaces

  • "True Names" and "Snow Crash"
  • What are
  • Habitat...Chip and Randy
    • Lucasfilm, Fujitsu
    • started as game environment...
    • many-user environments
    • communications bandwidth is a scarce resource
    • object-oriented data representation
  • implementation platform unimportant...range of capabilities - pure text to Real ity Engines
    • never got as far as fully populating the reality
    • "detailed central planning is impossible; don't even try"
    • 2-D grammar for layouts
    • "can't trust anyone"
  • someone disassembled the code and found a way to make themselves invisible - ways to break the system (extra money)
    • future improvements
  • multimedia objects, customizable objects, local turfs, mulitple interfaces
  • "Global Cyberspace Infrastructure" (Fujitsu, FINE) + more bandwidth means more things can be done
  • B-ISDN will allow video on demand, VR, etc.
  • protocol specs, Joule (secure concurrent operating system)
    • intereaction spaces, topological (not spatial)
    • Xerox, Pavel Curtis
      • LambdaMOO
  • 1200 different users per day, 200 at a time, 5000 total users
    • "social virtual realities"--virtual communities
    • how emergent properties emerge
    • pseudo-spatial
    • rooms, audio, video, multiple screens
    • policing, wizards, mediation
    • effective telecommuting
  • need the richness of real world markets...people can sell to others
  • Is there a set of rules or basic ideas which can form the basis of a powerfully replicable system?
  • this would allow franchises to be disctrubed around the world
  • networks of servers? distinction between server and client fades...
    • money, commercialization?
    • Joule language

3.4.16. "Is personal privacy the main interest of Cypherpunks?" - Ensuring the right and the technological feasibility is more of the focus. This often comes up in two contexts:

    1. Charges of hypocrisy because people either use pseudonyms or, paradoxically, that they don't use pseudonyms, digital signatures

3.4.17. "Shouldn't crypto be regulated?"

  • Many people make comparisons to the regulation of automobiles, of the radio spectrum, and even of guns. The comparison of crypto to guns is especially easy to make, and especially dangerous.
  • A better comparison is "use of crypto = right to speak as you wish."
  • That is, we cannot demand that people speak in a language or form that is easily understandable by eavesdroppers, wiretappers, and spies.
  • If I choose to speak to my friends in Latvian, or in Elihiuish, or in
  • triple DES, that's my business. (Times of true war, as in World War
  • II, may be slightly different. As a libertarian, I'm not advocating
  • that, but I understand the idea that in times of war speaking in code
  • is suspect. We are not in a time of war, and haven't been.)
  • Should we have "speech permits"? After all, isn't the regulation of + speech consistent with the regulation of automobiles?
  • I did a satirical essay along these lines a while back. I won't
  • included it here, though. (My speech permit for satire expired and I + haven't had time to get it renewed.)
  • In closing, the whole comparison of cryptography to armaments is
  • misleading. Speaking or writing in forms not readily understandable to
  • your enemies, your neighbors, your spouse, the cops, or your local - eavesdropper is as old as humanity.

3.4.18. Emphasize the "voluntary" nature of crypto

  • those that don't want privacy, can choose not to use crypto
  • just as they can take the locks of their doors, install wiretaps on their phones, remove their curtains so as not to interfere with peeping toms and police surveillance teams, etc.
  • as PRZ puts it, they can write all their letters on postcards, because they have "nothing to hide"
  • what we want to make sure doesn't happen is others insisting that we cannot use crypto to maintain our own privacy
  • "But what if criminals have access to crypto and can keep secrets?"
    • this comes up over and over again
    • does this mean locks should not exist, or...?

3.4.19. "Are most Cypherpunks anarchists?"

  • Many are, but probably not most. The term "anarchy" is often misunderstood.
  • As Perry Metzger puts it "Now, it happpens that I am an anarchist, but that isn't what most people associated with the term "cypherpunk" believe in, and it isn't fair to paint them that way -- hell, many people on this mailing list are overtly hostile to anarchism." [P.M., 1994-07-01]
    • comments of Sherry Mayo, others
  • But the libertarian streak is undeniably strong. And libertarians who think about the failure of politics and the implications of cryptgraphy generally come to the anarcho-capitalist or crypto-anarchist point of view.
  • In any case, the "other side" has not been very vocal in espousing a consistent ideology that combines strong crypto and things like welfare, entitlements, and high tax rates. (I am not condemning them. Most of my leftist friends turn out to believe in roughly the same things I believe in...they just attach different labels and have negative reactions to words like "capitalist.")

3.4.20. "Why is there so much ranting on the list?"

  • Arguments go on and on, points get made dozens of times, flaming escalates. This has gotten to be more of a problem in recent months. (Not counting the spikes when Detweiler was around.)
    • Several reasons:
      • the arguments are often matters of opinion, not fact, and hence people just keep repeating their arguments
  • made worse by the fact that many people are too lazy to do off-line reading, to learn about what they are expressing an opinion on
  • since nothing ever gets resolved, decided, vote upon, etc., the debates continue
  • since anyone is free to speak up at any time, some people will keep making the same points over and over again, hoping to win through repetition (I guess)
  • since people usually don't personally know the other members of the list, this promotes ranting (I've noticed that the people who know each other, such as the Bay Area folks, tend not to be as rude to each other...any sociologist or psychologist would know why this is so immediately).
  • the worst ranters tend to be the people who are most isolated from the other members of the list community; this is generally a well-known phenomenon of the Net
  • and is yet more reason for regional Cypherpunks groups to occasionally meet, to at least make some social and conversational connections with folks in their region.
  • on the other hand, rudeness is often warranted; people who assault me and otherwise plan to deprive me of my property of deserving of death, not just insults [Don't be worried, there are only a handful of people on this list I would be happy to see dead, and on none of them would I expend the $5000 it might take to buy a contract. Of course, rates could drop.]

3.4.21. The "rejectionist" stance so many Cypherpunks have

  • that compromise rarely helps when very basic issues are involved
  • the experience with the NRA trying compromise, only to find ever-more-repressive laws passed
  • the debacle with the EFF and their "EFF Digital Telephony Bill" ("We couldn't have put this bill together without your help") shows the corruption of power; I'm ashamed to have ever been a member of the EFF, and will of course not be renewing my membership.
  • I have jokingly suggested we need a "Popular Front for the Liberation of Crypto," by analogy with the PFLP.

3.4.22. "Is the Cypherpunks group an illegal or seditious organization?"

  • Well, there are those "Cypherpunk Criminal" t-shirts a lot of us have...
    • Depends on what country you're in.
  • Probably in a couple of dozen countries, membership would be frowned on
    • the material may be illegal in other countries
  • and many of us advocate things like using strong crypto to avoid and evade tzxes, to bypass laws we dislike, etc.

3.5. Self-organizing Nature of Cypherpunks

3.5.1. Contrary to what people sometimes claim,

there is no ruling clique of Cypherpunks. Anybody is free to do nearly anything, just not free to commit others to course of action, or control the machine resources the list now runs on, or claim to speak for the "Cypherpunks" as a group (and this last point is unenforceable except through reptutation and social repercussions).

3.5.2. Another reason to be glad there is no formal Cypherpunks structure,

ruling body, etc., is that there is then no direct target for lawsuits, ITAR vioalation charges, defamation or copyright infringement claims, etc.

3.6. Mechanics of the List

3.6.1. Archives of the Cyperpunks List

  • Karl Barrus has a selection of posts at the site, available via gopher. Look in the "Cypherpunks gopher site" directory.

3.6.2. "Why isn't the list sent out in encrypted form?"

  • Too much hassle, no additional security, would only make people jump through extra hoops (which might be useful, but probably not worth the extra hassle and ill feelings).
  • "We did this about 8 years ago at E&S using DEC VMS NOTES. We used a plain vanilla secret key algorithm and a key shared by all legitimate members of the group. We could do it today -- but why bother? If you have a key that widespread, it's effectively certain that a "wrong person" (however you define him/her) will have a copy of the key." [Carl Ellison, Encrypted BBS?, 1993-08-02]

3.6.3. "Why isn't the list moderated?"

  • This usually comes up during severe flaming episodes, notably when Detweiler is on the list in one of his various personnas. Recently, it has not come up, as things have been relatively quiet.
    • Moderation will not happen
      • nobody has the time it takes
      • nobody wants the onus
  • hardly consistent with many of our anarchist leanings, is it?
  • (Technically, moderation can be viewed as "my house, my rules, and hence OK, but I think you get my point.)
  • "No, please let's not become a 'moderated' newsgroup. This would be the end of freedom! This is similar to giving the police more powers because crime is up. While it is a tactic to fight off the invaders, a better tactic is knowledge." [, alt.gathering.rainbow, 199407-06]"

3.6.4. "Why isn't the list split into smaller lists?"

  • What do you call the list outages?
  • Seriously, several proposals to split the list into pieces have resulted in not much
    • a hardware group...never seen again, that I know of
    • a "moderated cryptography" group, ditto
    • a DC-Net group...ditto
  • several regional groups and meeting planning groups, which are apparently moribund
    • a "Dig Lib" group...ditto
    • use Rishab's comment:
  • Reasons are clear: one large group is more successful in traffic than smaller, low-volume groups...out of sight, out of mind
  • and topics change anyway, so the need for a "steganography" mailing list (argued vehemently for by one person, not Romana M., by the way) fades away when the debate shifts. And so on.

3.6.5. Critical Addresses, Numbers, etc.

  • Cypherpunks archives sites
    • soda
    • mirror sites
  • ftp sites
  • PGP locations
  • Infobot at Wired
  •; "help" as message body 3.6.6. "How did the Cypherpunk remailers appear so quickly?"
  • remailers were the first big win...a weekend of Perl hacking

3.7. Publicity

3.7.1. "What kind of press coverage have the Cypherpunks gotten?"

  • " I concur with those who suggest that the solution to the ignorance manifested in many of the articles concerning the Net is education. The coverage of the Cypherpunks of late (at least in the Times) shows me that reasonable accuracy is possible." [Chris Walsh, news.admin.policy, 1994-07-04]

3.8. Loose Ends

3.8.1. On extending the scope of Cypherpunks to other countres

  • a kind of crypto underground, to spread crypto tools, to help sow discord, to undermine corrupt governments (to my mind, all governments now on the planet are intrinsically corrupt and need to be undermined)
  • links to the criminal underworlds of these countries is one gutsy thing to consider...fraught with dangers, but ultimately destabilizing of governments