Freedom and Privacy

Two Sides of the Same Coin

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We take many things for granted: running water, electricity, washing machines, the internet, our mobile phones, and a myriad of other technologies. But it’s not only tangible things that we don’t think twice about. In free and open societies, we take intangible things for granted as well: language, writing, property rights, free speech, the privacy of our homes—the list goes on. None of these things came about easily. None of these things just sprang into being or were inevitable. We had to plan them, build them, and fight for them, and we have to diligently defend and maintain them. But first and foremost, we had to envision them. We had to make a conscious decision that, for example, a society that values freedom, property rights, and privacy is a society worth building.

Both tangible and intangible inventions have societal implications. The internal combustion engine allows for individual autonomy; the printing press for a more decentralized dissemination of information. No invention is perfect from the get-go. First, we have to figure out what this new thing truly is. Then, a while later, we have to come to grips with the higher-order effects of said invention. We shape the things that we bring into being, and in turn, the things we bring into being shape us.

Take the internet, for example. A profoundly transformative technology that changed the world as we know it. Similar to roads, running water, and electricity before it. However, the internet did not appear fully formed. It evolved over time. It changed and grew, and as it did, our understanding of it evolved with it.

It is remarkable how much time and effort went into planning, engineering, and improving the internet as we know it today. Today, it just works—most of the time. Wireless connectivity, end-to-end encryption, streaming video, e-commerce; the accumulated knowledge of humanity at your fingertips. What used to be science fiction is now science fact, thanks to countless incremental improvements that were and still are being made along the way.

It is instructive to look at and study the history of the internet. Not only to understand where the “world wide web” came from and where it might go but also to understand how other networked technologies might improve and evolve over time. One such technology, of course, is the internet of money: Bitcoin.

The history of the internet is as fascinating as it is extensive. Thus we will have to narrow our scope to one—okay, two—things. 

It is no accident that the Lightning Network Protocol (LNP) and the Bitcoin Protocol (BP) are often compared to TCP/IP. While the comparison is apt, with LNP/BP laying the foundation of open, global, and permissionless value transfer, I would like to focus on a different layer of the internet’s protocol stack. The layer that was—and still is—responsible for standardized text transfer on top of TCP/IP: HTTP.

The Transfer of (Hyper)Text

In the beginning, there was plaintext.

A little over 30 years ago, a humble draft was published by a rather unknown computer scientist at the time. The 660-word document was part of a larger collection of ideas—ideas that we now know as “the internet,” or, more accurately, “the world wide web.” Written up and proposed in March 1989, the documents that started it all didn’t reach too many people at first. After all, it was just a draft for a couple of computer scientists interested in networked computing. The name of the draft? Hypertext Transfer Protocol, better known today as HTTP.

It took five years more until Tim Berners-Lee, Roy Fielding, and Henrik Frystyk Nielsen managed to formalize said draft and publish it as a “request for comments” to the Network Working Group. After lots of thought, debate, and contemplation, ​​RFC 1945 was published in May 1996: HTTP version 1.0.

The story of HTTP shows one thing rather clearly: what we know today as the internet is not a single thing. It is a suite of protocols and ideas that work together to facilitate the exchange of information, a suite of protocols that evolve and improve, often subtly and gradually.

Similarly, Bitcoin is a suite of protocols and ideas that work together to facilitate the exchange of value. And, just like the internet before it, some parts of this novel technology will have to evolve and improve as we learn more about its properties and the wider implications that come with the technical choices of the past.

The similarities between the Hypertext Transfer Protocol and the Bitcoin Protocol are almost too perfect. In the beginning, the only thing that the Hypertext Transfer Protocol understood was plaintext. Everything was out in the open, for everyone to see, always. If you knew where to look and if you were curious enough to do the looking, you could easily figure out who was talking to whom and what was being sent over the wires.

While some members of the technical community undoubtedly understood the societal implications of unencrypted communication protocols early on, it took a little longer until this understanding was shared by the wider public. Arguably, a lot of people still fail to appreciate the implications of full transparency today.

One of the figures who understood the importance of privacy early on was Eric Hughes, who published an appeal to move towards more private forms of communications in 1993. The appeal opened with these lines:

Privacy is neces­sary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selec­tively reveal oneself to the world.

Eric Hughes

Almost 30 years later, Hughes’ words keep echoing in the heads of those who appreciate the importance of privacy in the electronic age. For many, the digital nature of the modern world makes privacy a necessity, not a luxury.

Soon after the publication of Hughes’ manifesto, the first efforts to change the transparent nature of HTTP were being made. With the introduction of HTTP over SSL in 1994, the company Netscape was the first to champion these efforts. Again, it took another five years until this idea was formally specified in another “request for comments”—RFC 2818, better known today as HTTPS.

However, all the technical developments were only one side of the issue. The other side was political and social, and it might be best summed up by the following question: “Why should I care?”

The Implications of Transparency

Allow me to repeat the words of Eric Hughes: “Privacy is neces­sary for an open society in the electronic age.” Why is that?

Let’s have a thought experiment to understand the issue at hand. Imagine a world in which every word you say, every thought you have, and every move you make is surveilled, analyzed, judged, and potentially prosecuted. Think the wrong thought, and the police will come knocking at your door to arrest you for wrongthink. Tweet the wrong thing, and your access to banking, healthcare, and insurance will be revoked—or worse. This is the world portrayed by George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984: a world of a sociopathic totalitarian state, a state of total surveillance and, consequently, total control. If freedom is something you value, this is not a world you would want to live in.

Unfortunately, encryption was not the default when the internet first came about. This is why we are partly living in Orwell’s nightmare—at least some of us, some of the time. The lack of strong encryption made it possible to easily and cheaply spy on everyone and anyone. As the global mass surveillance disclosures of Edward Snowden have shown, this spying did—and still does—happen on an unprecedented scale. Consequently, efforts have been made to make online communication more private in order to protect the liberties of netizens all across the world.

Science-fiction authors envisioned the internet. Engineers built it. Eventually, everyone used it, and we had to learn—slowly and painfully—that sending and storing information in plaintext is not beneficial to a free society.

We had to re-envision some parts of the World Wide Web to truly make it work for all, not only for those in power. We had to embed strong privacy and security guarantees into base protocols and applications alike, to protect the most vulnerable from malicious actors and government overreach. Without HTTPS, SSL, PGP, and similar protections, standing up to or escaping from authoritarian regimes is virtually impossible—as is investigative journalism, protest, and dissent.

However, as recent events have shown, this is not only true for regular communications. It is also true for financial communications.

As is often the case, history rhymes: Cypherpunks and economists envisioned what we now know as Bitcoin. Engineers built it, and, eventually, everyone will use it, not only those who need it most right now. And because history rhymes, we will probably have to learn, again—slowly and painfully—that sending and storing financial information in ways that can be analyzed by everyone and anyone is not beneficial to a free society. In fact, it precludes it. Consequently, we will also have to move from HTTP to HTTPS in the Bitcoin world unless we want to suffer the societal consequences of complete and utter transparency.

From HTTP to HTTPS

The lack of strong encryption made it easy—and, more importantly, cheap—to build PRISM, ECHELON, and similar dragnet surveillance systems. It is hard to get rid of these systems by political means once they are put in place. The power of squashing dissent with the push of a button is too sweet to give up. The solution has to be found in cryptography, not policy.

In the digital realm, cryptography is what enables privacy. It should go without saying that privacy isn’t about having something to hide. Privacy is about the freedom to reveal yourself, your thoughts, and your preferences selectively. It is about freedom and the protection of freedom, not secrecy. The S in HTTPS derives from security, not from surreptitiousness.

History is a great teacher when it comes to the importance of privacy, which is why, today, your right to privacy is enshrined as a basic human right in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

We build walls, doors, locks, curtains, drapes, shades, and tinted windows to ensure certain privacy guarantees in the physical world. Similarly, we’ve built digital encryption and signature schemes to ensure privacy and authenticity in the digital world.

Consequently, in the digital world we all live in, “encryption is a human rights imperative,” as Grant Gilliam has so succinctly put it. It is a requirement for a free and functioning society, just like the privacy and security of your own home.

Nothing shows this more clearly than a glance at those parts of the globe where the freedoms we take for granted are under attack (or don’t exist in the first place). The list of countries and regions where this is the case is almost as long as the list of journalists, dissidents, activists, and human rights advocates that have been deplatformed and imprisoned in the last six months—just for voicing their opinion. It doesn’t matter if it’s CubaChinaAfghanistanPalestineHong Kong, or Canada: if your behavior can be surveilled and analyzed, it will be surveilled and analyzed. And on a long enough time scale, you might say or do something that is deemed offensive by someone, and, consequently, your bank account will be frozen—or worse. In the words of Cardinal Richelieu: “Give me six lines written by the most honest man, and I will find something there to hang him.”

There is no better way to check your financial privilege than to listen to the stories of those who are less fortunate, those who aren’t born into liberal democracies that guarantee certain freedoms, that hold certain truths to be self-evident. Whether it’s Ire Aderinokun in Nigeria, Mo in Sudan, or Kal Kassa in Ethiopia—walking a mile in their respective shoes will show you in an instant that secure communication and financial privacy are not optional.

A state of total surveillance is a state of coercion and tyranny, not a state of safety and freedom, as it sometimes is sold. It is also not a state of innovation since surveillance stifles the development and discussion of new ideas. 

More often than not, new ideas happen to go against the status quo; without privacy, these ideas can’t be developed. Anything that challenges the current thinking will be squashed by the powers that be—whether it is the church, a large corporation, an authoritarian regime, a state, or society in general.

A free society must allow for the free and private flow of information, or it can hardly be called a free society. Without privacy, freedom is hollow. Without freedom, a society will ossify and self-destruct.

Conclusion

Privacy is not optional. The freedom to say and to think what you want, to speak and to think freely, requires privacy. We must have the freedom to think and speak in private, to communicate without fear of immediate retribution, and to express ourselves fully—foolish and mistaken as we might be. It is this freedom that allows us to test out and discuss ideas.

It took the Snowden revelations to show the world how disastrous the consequences of non-private communications truly are. The full extent of the global dragnet surveillance machinery had to be exposed for things to change. But change they did, and today, we take the secure connections of HTTPS for granted, as we do end-to-end encrypted chats.

As we shall see in the next part of this series, the current state of the Bitcoin Protocol is reminiscent of the early days of the world wide web. When it comes to value transfer, unfortunately, HTTP is the default. The security and privacy guarantees of HTTPS aren’t the default just yet, but with enough will, vision, and engineering, they soon will be.


Cover image (cc-by-nc-nd) David Melchor Diaz.

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