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…