Much of the intellectual fuel behind cryptography has been dedicated to the matter of privacy and anonymity. What it is and how much of it we are entitled to, and more pointedly, how the blockchain enables that. One single researcher has contributed so much original cryptographic research to this over the past 40 years, that many have whispered that he is the most likely candidate for the persona of Satoshi Nakamoto.
Immutable ownership is at the core of blockchains, and privacy is its close cousin. You may own an expensive NFT and choose to do it publicly. But if you have a secret that you do not wish to share, then we are in the territory of privacy, which is really just another form of ownership. And I am not talking here about simply your password or private key. Any secret — which charity you contributed to, which websites you chose to visit, who you choose to call, when you choose to call them.
As much as we are defined by what we own publicly , we are similarly defined by what we keep secret and privately.
David Chaum received his Phd at Berkeley at a time when cryptography was in full blossom in the early 1980. In an interview with him that I listened to on called bankless, he talked about having been obsessed with secrets from an early age (one does casually wonder why), and how this naturally led him into cryptography, the science of secrets.
This brought him in close contact with some of the early crypto luminaries whose names are now engraved in crypto history — Diffie, Hellman, Merkle. And others who went on to their big achievements — Bill Joy who started Sun Microsystems (where the programming language Java was nurtured, as was the early version of the operating system Unix) and Eric Schmidt who went on to run Google from 2001 to 2010 .
David Chaum has become somewhat of an icon in the last ten years within the crypto community, largely because of his 1982 dissertation, where he essentially described the technology of the blockchain. It was mysteriously titled ‘Computer Systems Established, Maintained, and Trusted by Mutually Suspicious Group’. And then a later paper titled ‘Blind Signatures for Untraceable Payments’which described another core piece of the modern blockchain, digital signatures.
His icon status has been further burnished, I assume, because everyone seems to love him; He is smiling, talkative and generous with his knowledge, looking every bit the portly bearded uncle who is always laden with gifts and laughter when he comes over to visit.
There are many more quivers to Chaum’s bow; His research output is a marvel — so many major innovations in the field have his imprimatur on them. Which has of course left a lot of people making a credible case that he is in fact Satoshi Nakamoto, which he does not confirm or deny.
He has an important case to make about the centrality of privacy (and anonymity) to blockchain and its spawn, and to the general lack of understanding of the difference between what we think is private (‘oh, it’s cool, it’s encrypted’) and real privacy. This is an obsession of his, he constantly hammers this home in his blog and public appearances.
Privacy does not only relate to something being hidden and accessible to only an
authorized party. Like a Telegram or Whatsapp message, which indeed encrypts your message, the actual content. He is rather energetic about the fact that It is as important to also hide the ‘metadata’ — like who sent the message, who it was sent to, when it was sent. This metadata is easily available to third parties who eavesdrop, it is a trivial matter, no great skill is required.
Chaum, in support of his ‘shred the metadata’ clarion call, tells a fascinating story about the CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically elected president of Chile in 1970, Salvador Allende. It turns out that one of the most important tools that they had at their disposal was ‘trafficking data’, which was a daily report of who called who and at what time in their 1970’s style telephone network. This allowed them to piece people and events together in space and time. They could get the actual conversations but the ‘metadata’ was enough for them to help overthrow a foreign government. (This is all in the public record now, acknowledged by the CIA in 2000).
Chaum has written extensively on the metadata vulnerability in modern messaging systems, disingenuously obfuscated with the words like ‘end-end encryption’ which seems to satisfy most of us. Yes, our data may be encrypted, but our metadata isn’t, and that is a treasure trove of information for anyone seeking to find out about you without you knowing.
It turns out that Chaum has solved this and other problems and has numerous products and initiatives just now stepping out into the sunshine, all bundled into his company called xx.networks, including a quantum-resistant high-speed blockchain with integrated cryptographic payments and metadata ‘shredded’ messaging. All based on immutable ownership (Chaum prefers the word ‘control’) and privacy. It is making waves in the deep technosphere with whispers of ‘this is actually the real Web 3’ beginning to circulate.
The tagline in the middle of the xx.network home website page says:
WE ARE BUILDING A WORLD WHERE YOUR LIFE BELONGS TO YOU.
Yup, that about says it all.
Steven Boykey Sidley is Professor of Practice at JBS, University of Johannesburg. This article was first printed in Daily Maverick
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