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[00:00:07] AG: Hello, everyone.
[00:00:09] CK: What’s up, Alex? How’s it going?
[00:00:11] AG: Going very well today. Very excited about this.
[00:00:15] CK: Me too. Let’s get Adam in here and I’ll go ping Aaron really quick. Rizzo is going to be a little bit late. He has a bit of a refrigerator emergency, it seems. Yeah. Can we get P up as a co-host, too, Eli? Thank you. Let me go ping Aaron really quick. Gladstein, if you don’t mind following up really – Oh, here’s Aaron. If you don’t mind following up really quickly with Adam, that’d be fantastic. P, I don’t know if you want to do some schilling for the conference while we try to get settled in here. Or not. I guess, I could do it. That’s fine, too.
[00:00:46] P: I was going to say, yeah, man, we talk about it a lot, but this conference is going to be the best Bitcoin experience you could possibly have. It’s going to be a combination of the best thing that’s ever happened in your life, and also Disneyland, and also Twitter Spaces/Clubhouse, all the best conversations. There’s going to be stuff everywhere. It’s going to be the thing where even over two full GA days, you’re not going to be able to see all of the amazing stuff that’s going on.
Lightning is going to be a major feature. Everything else that you’d expect is going to be there. Everyone you’d expect is going to be there. If you want to buy a ticket, if you haven’t already, first of all, shame on you. Then, second of all, you can use the conference code HFSP for have fun staying poor, and that will get you 10% off.
[00:01:27] AG: Okay. Adam’s coming in shortly. Aaron, I figure maybe we can steer this conversation together and maybe rotate questions. I think it’s important for people listening to know that Aaron is basically a historian of early Bitcoin technology. I’ve tried to do a little bit of that myself and we’re going to have here someone who is essentially, one of the founding fathers of Bitcoin. You could think of it that way. I think, we got to start at with the beginning. Adam’s here, so we’ll get him up and we’ll get going. Adam, welcome.
[00:02:00] AB: Hi. Hello, everyone.
[00:02:02] AG: Thank you so much for being here. We have Aaron from Bitcoin Magazine. I think, Aaron and I will just start to steer a conversation with you, Adam, that takes us from the beginning to today. It’s ambitious, but we really want to start at the beginning. Let’s go back to the late ’80s, early ’90s, to the beginnings of the crypto wars and the beginning days of the Cypherpunks.
Would love to hear Adam, if you could just give the audience today some color as to what that was like, and what was the big battle at the time and what intrigued you to start joining the list and contributing?
[00:02:36] AB: Yeah. What intrigued me to join the list, the Cypherpunks List and get interested was the release of PGP, email encryption program. You could use it to encrypt files as well. And the change in the balance of power that brought about that individuals could coordinate online and exchange messages that the establishment and the spy apparatus couldn’t decrypt. That caused quite a lot of discussion about the gradual change in the balance of power.
I happen to be aware of that RSE encryption algorithm that PGP is – That’s the main building block is this public key cryptography technology that had been invented in the late 70s. Because a friend of mine who’s doing a master’s degree while I was doing a PhD was trying to implement faster, because CPUs weren’t as fast back then. RSA was CPU-intensive. He was doing it on a distributed system, like a system with communication at work and many cause. We were both working in distributed systems. My PhD was in distributed systems.
Yeah, I thought that was a very interesting and intriguing combination of positive, societal value and mathematical cryptography, computer science. I went to see where people were talking about such things, and find out where people are talking about that and further things you could build on it. I found the Cypherpunks List and certainly, people were interested in a lot of related things, like disk encrypted, anonymity and privacy, so how Finney is well-known in Bitcoin circles, was already active.
At that time, there was a remailer technology that would provide you with anonymity to post, to send emails, or post on the discussion list, basically by sending your email through multiple hops. It didn’t have any encryptions. Somebody who had the ability to read everything on the Internet, or a lot of things on Internet, like the NSA and GCHQ. People like that were probably be able to do, would be able to tell where the message came from.
How Finney implemented P2P encryption into that remailer technology, so that it would be a lot harder. We’ll be looking at messages. They would be encrypted. Then there was a batching, so that each remailer would receive, let’s say, a batch of 20 or 50 mails, shuffle them and send them out again, so you wouldn’t be able to tell which email, in corresponds to which email. I don’t know, if you’re watching it as a black box. That technology improved over time to become Mixmaster, which was a way to standardize, to make a fixed size message chunks, so that you couldn’t tell which message was which based on the size, which was in case, the original one.
[00:05:24] AG: Adam, it’s interesting for us to reflect back on the fact that a lot of the contributors, to what would later become the Bitcoin Project started in the privacy space, and they were obsessed with privacy and intrigued by it. I guess, the background for the audience would be that cryptography used to be the domain of the military and of governments.
As you mentioned, that late ’70s, academics in various places, but especially at Stanford came up with this idea of public key cryptography, which about a decade later was actually implemented in a way that made it easy for PC users to exchange private messages beyond the control of spy agencies.
As you mentioned, Hal Finney, who was essentially, the first person to receive a Bitcoin transaction from Satoshi was an early, I think, the second PGP contributor technically. You have a lot of people like yourself working in this space before it became about money. I don’t know if Aaron wants to weigh in on that transition as well. Would love to just focus in on this a little bit, this provenance of the people who fought for digital cash and how meaningful it was that they started out as privacy advocates.
[00:06:29] AVW: One of the interesting tie-ins here is that Adam Back just met the remailer system. One of the problems that the remailers were facing was at that time, spam. Anyone who was operating a remailer was essentially doing it as a free service, but that free service was starting to be abused. That’s one of the reasons why the Cypherpunks started to look into, how do you make it, so that running such a system, running a remailer is actually incentivized. For that, you might need some digital cash system and a post-its scheme, right? You’re paying post-its to whoever – a form of post-its to whoever is running these servers.
That’s, at least, one of the reasons why the Cypherpunks started to think about that, including Adam, very specifically, of course, with Hashcash, which was meant to be an anti-spam system to counter exactly that spam that the remailers were facing. Maybe Adam wants to expand on that.
[00:07:27] AB: Yeah. As you said, the remailer’s were volunteer of things and it was not without legal risk. Sometimes people would send something threatening, or obnoxious to the remailers, and the authorities would come to the exit remailer. The last one in the hop that would actually send the email and try to push them to reveal the previous hop. Of course, they wouldn’t know because there’s no logs and it’s encrypted and stuff like that. Nevertheless, I think the EFF maybe ended up helping defend a couple of people in that position, but there were lots of them and when one failed, another one took over. There were 50 to a 100 of them at various times. I operated one for a while, which I rented a shell account from a one-man ISP, basically, that was in Switzerland at a time when I was living in the UK. I had some jurisdictional complexity to it, to make it more difficult to work your way back.
Just figured that I would operate it, until such time as there was a major issue. Then I would shut it down and that would be most likely the end of it. That’s actually how it progressed. It ran for a few years, some years. Then the Swiss Federal Police turned up at the fellow whose many ISP it was and demanded to know more. He told me and I switched the remailer off. I don’t think either of us heard any more about it. We don’t know what threatening email was sent, but it was shut down and it did its job for a number of years. That was the remailer.ch was the domain. I bought a Swiss domain for it as well.
[00:08:56] AG: I was just going to ask Adam, before we get into your practical implementation of — and thinking about how you would address this issue of spam with remailers and improving that, can you give us insight in just the cultural moment, like science fiction authors had started to write about e-cash. You had David Chaum and his team out in Amsterdam around 1990, starting to work on DigiCash. Was there an excitement among privacy advocates about the idea of government of cash beyond the control of governments? Was that something that immediately interested you, or was that only something that came later for you?
[00:09:29] AB: Yeah. That was a were different applied crypto and perhaps, enhancing technologies as they were called. There were a conference series on that. Of course, the Cypherpunks list itself, which was very applied. Now, that’d be more interested in writing code than writing papers.
Apart from disk encryption, email, encryption, anonymous…
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