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Cypherpunks

El Inca is a prison that contains all kinds of people. People who didn’t pay alimony, people who committed fraud, recreational drug users, drug traffickers, murderers – and me - .

One thing that surprised me a lot when I came here was how important religion seems to be. During the days and evenings, you often hear loud group prayer or Christian hymns and these are the same people that might have been screaming their allegiance to Vatos Locos an hour earlier. The same people that regularly get into violent fights. This contrast is perplexing and interesting.

I have been asked quite often here if I’m religious. Although the question is more commonly stated as: “do you have faith?”. In my cell block, several people read the Bible constantly and I know prayer is something lots of people rely on to get through their days.

So, what do I answer? Most often I have to respond that in Sweden faith is not so common and I’m a fairly typical Swede in that respect. Sometimes I respond: “science”. Other times: “knowledge” and sometimes: “ethic and morals” and all those things are true, just as they are not actually the full story. And from the technical perspective, my belief system corresponds quite closely with what’s been called Cypherpunk. I personally identify as one, although it’s not necessarily something I’ve mentioned a lot.

Ok, so let’s take a step back. What is the whole Cypherpunk thing? Like anything with the word punk in the name, there’s an element of anarchism in it and that means that providing an authoritative explanation is simply not possible. There are at least as many perspectives on cypherpunk as there are cypherpunks. So, this is my own perspective and view.

Cypherpunks are not really a group. It’s moral perspective, a way of looking at the world. It started becoming prevalent in the 80s, when cryptography did its transition from governments to civil society. Although there were certainly people with a cypherpunk perspective long before. Whitfield Diffie is one clear example.

When cryptography became more common, the counter-reaction started. Governments started trying to control this knowledge.

This conflict led to what’s been called the first Crypto War (many people, me included, observe that we are currently living through the Second). During this time period, several people came together. First physically, and then digitally, discussing how cryptography could be a tool for liberation, something that could be used for many important functions in society. But, in order for crypto to flourish, you first needed governments and authorities to back-off and stop trying to restrict it, and then people would have to actually build these tools.

Many important ideas came from these early discussion and people: digital currency (precursor of Bitcoin), mix networks (which led to onion routing and Tor), PGP, electronic voting systems (not like the ones we have today though, no. Those systems provided significantly stronger security guarantees) and many more things.

So, what are the beliefs, the moral framework? For one, code and architecture are more important than laws. Laws can be broken, but if we build our systems correctly, we can provide real guarantees. The right to privacy, security and anonymity is also a strong belief and the idea that these rights belong to everyone, not just those that can pay for it.

Related to this, is the mistrust of authority, not just governments, but any kind of authority. That means those rights can’t be provided just as legal rights by fiat. Instead, these rights have to be provided by something stronger: by cryptographic systems, implemented and run in the open. This is the only real way you can ultimately provide real self-determination to everyone in the world.

A final belief: cypherpunks write code. This means just what it says. If we want a better world, we have to take the responsibility. We have to build it ourselves.

/Ola Bini