Are we all a little bit cypherpunk?

For many it is now customary to exchange documents via WhatsApp, enter their personal data on a website to register for an online service, or even store their photos online in the so-called “cloud”. We often assume that our personal data is safe. A current theme highlighted by the world of cypherpunk.

Perhaps the term is not clear cypherpunkbut we may have already heard of cyberpunk. The expression was coined by Bruce Bethke, who in 1983 published a short story entitled, precisely, “Cyberpunk”. The protagonists of this type of narrative are often individuals with a rebellious and critical attitude towards society, dressed in style punk characterized by particular hairstyles and robotic extensions of his body to the limit of humanoids, or men with mechanical and computerized components. Cyberpunk is a genre that is more current than ever, so much so that it is revived by Netflix and its animated series “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners“.

Nevertheless cyberpunk it does not refer only to a sci-fi conception of a TV series or video game. The cyberpunk in fact it initially developed as a literary genre incorporating within itself the critique of the limitless development of technology and its oppressive use by futuristic governments. Starting in the 1980s, William Gibson and Michael Sterling, among the best known authors of cyberpunk, they wrote more than twenty stories on this subject. Sterling himself describes in “Mirrorshades“The central themes of the cyberpunk related to the reality of post-industrial society: virtual reality, biotechnology, cybernetics, electronic circuits implanted in the characters. New technologies are therefore used as a means of expressing oneself – hence the word cyber – against an oppressive and consumerist society – hence the attitude punk.

From a vision not too distant from the ideals described above, the cypherpunk in the 90’s. Although similar in name, i cypherpunk they are not part of a science fiction literary sphere, but theorize and develop solutions anchored to the problems of today’s society. Furthermore, i cypher they do not have a common aesthetic, as happens in the world cyberpunk
with punk-style machine men. THE cypherpunk
they are individuals from the most varied professions. Among them we can identify activists, hackers, researchers, computer scientists, entrepreneurs of the most advanced computer technologies, but also politicians committed to protecting the privacy of online users through the use of encryption. If the concept of rebellion “punk“Remains unchanged, the change is described by the word”cypher”, Which in Italian refers to the verb cipher, that is to encode.

This goal is made clear by Eric Hughes, mathematician and key figure of the movement, who in his Manifesto cypherpunk 1993 writes: “When I ask my provider e-mail to send and receive messages, mine provider he doesn’t need to know who I’m talking to or what I’m saying or what others are saying to me. […] When my identity is revealed by the mechanism underlying the transaction, I no longer have privacy. ” However for Hughes privacy it is not synonymous with secrecy, which assumes the meaning of hiding information, but the power of the user to selectively choose when and to whom to reveal himself. It was always Hughes who coined the expression that he would have defined them “cypherpunks write code “or “i cypherpunk they write code “. Where the code to be written in question was a system to maintain secrecy and at the same time the autonomy in revealing information to whoever you want. In the world cypherpunk, encryption is therefore the system with which to protect one’s own privacy by actors such as providers acting as online intermediaries.

In this context we see a link with the movements of the free software emerged in the early 1990s. As highlighted by prof. Gabriele Balbi of USI and prof. Paolo Magaudda in their book “Digital media. The history, the social contexts, the narratives”In the nineties an operating system became available, which was called Linux, free and constantly improved by users. As reported in the book by Balbi and Magaudda, although the diffusion of Linux in personal computers has never reached significant market percentages “Linux over the years has assumed an important symbolic role, able to make the movement ofopen software and linking the computer and the use of the network to more directly political issues, laying the foundations for the affirmation of a wider sensitivity towards a culture open in different fields of society “.

An example of protection of the privacy of online users through the use of cryptography in everyday life is that of messaging applications. WhatsApp users may have already seen the wording “end-to-end encryption”That appears on the screen of your device accompanied by a lock icon when starting a new conversation. In fact, WhatsApp has been using this solution since 2016 to protect user conversations on the platform. As we add a new contact, the application creates a key pair between the two users. These keys are private and remain within only the two devices. Even if our messages go through the server of the owner of WhatsApp, the company – that is Meta, which also includes Facebook – should not be able to decode our messages.

The goal of these cryptographic solutions is to guarantee an encrypted connection, i.e. to ensure that information, such as passwords or credit card numbers, remain private in the digital world. These systems protect the privacy
of users when interacting with applications or platforms that rely on the use of the Internet for their own functioning. However, it should be considered that some platforms allow access to content for police investigations, a sort of access to our messages from a “back door” called “backdoor“. This is not the case, for example, with the Telegram service, similar to WhatsApp but which does not allow any access solution “backdoor”Fully supporting the concept of the exchange of encrypted communications.

The world cypherpunk finds as an engine for its development not only the themes of decentralization but therefore considers cryptography as central to a free web.

30 years have passed since the first reflections cypherpunk, which have remained in the background to the explosion and spread of the Internet world. However, these are far-sighted reflections that are today more relevant than ever and linked to the contemporary perception of problems such as privacy or security. On the other hand, when today we question the secrecy of our personal data while registering on a website, or when we send documents using a chatwe can say that we are a little cypherpunk we too.

Article written by: Maria Luisa Giannetta and Mjriam Prudente

Are we all a little bit cypherpunk?