How Understanding Hackers Changed This Entrepreneur’s Life
An early developer of the cryptocurrency Zcash on how Steven Levy’s ‘Crypto’ inspired her interest in privacy
This is part of the Marker series “Read Like a Boss,” where founders, CEOs, and leaders in business reflect on books that revolutionized their thinking, framed their career, or aided them in a crucial business decision.
Crypto starts with the story of how Whit Diffie invented public-key cryptography. He became fixated on cryptography as a means to preserve privacy in the digital age. Diffie worked for years as a solo researcher, driving back and forth across the country, finding people who could help him understand the hidden science of cryptography. His goal was to come up with a way to encrypt secrets between two parties without a third party knowing the key. This put him at odds with the NSA and institutions that worked hard to keep cryptographic knowledge hidden from the public. They preferred methods of encryption that required central key servers that could grant access to a government middleman. Diffie worked for years to find a trustless solution without significant funding or results:
Was all his work at learning crypto against terrific odds going to lead to nothing? … Mary Fischer recalls the lowest point. One day she walked into the McCarthy’s bedroom and found Diffie with his head in his hands, weeping. “I asked him what was wrong,” she says, “and he told me he was never going to amount to anything, that I should find someone else, that he was — and I remember this exact term — a broken-down old researcher.”
Diffie was in his thirties when he finally had a breakthrough insight into how to accomplish asymmetric cryptography. He would split the key, creating a public and a private key. The public key could be shared while the private key had to be kept secret. Asymmetric public key cryptography laid the basis for new applications, including commerce on the internet.
In the years that followed, the government tried to restrict access. They attempted to weaken cryptographic algorithms and proposed a hardware device called the Clipper Chip that would allow them to backdoor the encryption on all secure communications. A political battle was waged that pitted hackers and entrepreneurs against the government. The hackers who fought for access to strong encryption because they believed in the liberatory potential of cryptography started calling themselves cypherpunks. A cypherpunk manifesto written by Eric Hughes stated, “Cypherpunks write code. They know that someone has to write to defend privacy, and since it’s their privacy, they’re going to write it.” The best example at the time was software called PGP, short for Pretty Good Privacy. It was an open encryption program created and released for free by Phil Zimmermann.
The Clipper Chip was fatally flawed and insecure, and the widespread availability of free encryption through PGP helped ensure that new developments could not be rolled back. Cypherpunks tried to make cryptography more widely adopted by inventing and distributing new applications like digital cash and private communications. In 1990, David Chaum started a company called DigiCash to make anonymous digital cash. These dreams appeared to have failed at the time, but cryptography eventually found mainstream applications in e-commerce. Years later, the creation of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies fulfilled the original dream of using cryptography to secure a form of digitally native money.
For moonshot ideas, it’s often hard to tell whether you are right until you achieve success, but if you’re absorbed in the journey, it may be worth it either way.
I read Crypto when I was first learning to code and was convinced of the importance of cryptography and cryptocurrency, things I’d had some interest in previously but had not known the history of. Cryptography is a tool that can shape the flow of information, and the world is increasingly defined by flows of information.
Later on, I joined the team that launched Zcash, an open-source cryptocurrency that uses a novel application of cryptography for privacy, partly because I was enamored with the original cypherpunk culture of Zooko, the founder, and his team. Zooko had worked with Chaum on DigiCash when he was young and was trying to make a digital form of cash again years later. I admired this kind of stubborn perseverance based on deeply held convictions that allowed people to pursue a goal for years despite the lack of external validation.
If Diffie had not had his breakthrough, the world would consider those years he spent wandering and researching as idle, wasted time. For moonshot ideas, it’s often hard to tell whether you were right until success is achieved, but if you’re absorbed in the journey, it may be worth it either way.
In my own career, following my intuitions has led me to interesting places and allowed me to meet some of the people who I once read about. In 2018, I had the chance to interview Diffie at the Decentralized Web Summit. One of my last questions was, “What do you think is the most underappreciated but high-impact thing that young people could be focusing on today?” His answer was biology.
Read an excerpt from Crypto, which describes how Whitfield Diffie invented public key cryptography, here: