The Satoshi Revolution: A Revolution of Rising Expectations.
Section 2 : The Moral Imperative of Privacy
Chapter 5: Implementing Crypto Privacy
by Wendy McElroy
Privacy, Anonymity, and Pseudonymity (Chapter 5, Part 2)
It is often said that there is a tradeoff between privacy and security…. Security is defined as the state of being free from danger or threat. One threat is assault. How is one made free from assault by being assaulted at an airport?…. How is one made free from the threat of being harassed or charged with a crime by the State by the State’s knowing every move you make, every statement you make, and every financial transaction you make? I say that your security is going DOWN, not up. The State can fend off terrorists by the ordinary methods of policing if it had a mind to. It doesn’t. It prefers to expand into a totalitarian monster.
— Mike Rozeff
Privacy will determine the future of cryptocurrencies. Will they continue to enhance individual freedom, or will they become a government tool of social control?
Privacy is a human need, which is why the battle over its control is so intense. Constant surveillance makes it difficult or impossible for individuals to forge intimate family and romantic bonds, to create, to vote their conscience, to sexually explore, to discover who they are politically and religiously, to experiment with drugs, or to dissent without danger. Personal privacy is also the greatest barrier to government power, which rests on government knowledge.
“Only criminals need to fear government surveillance” is a common response to the defense of privacy. But every peaceful person is a criminal with something to hide. Why? They have exceeded the speed limit, taken an illegal drug, smuggled cheap booze or cigarettes across a border, made “unauthorized” additions to a house, fibbed to a customs official, understated their income on a tax form, or violated one of the tens of thousands of other laws that criminalize harmless behavior. Government makes criminals of us all. As Ayn Rand explained, “The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.” Thus, all individuals are under control.
The assault on privacy also harms society as a whole. Consider freedom of speech. I remember being in a restaurant when a relative went on a post-9/11 rant about how the U.S. was beginning to feel like Cuba, from which he escaped. His wife tried to silence him, declaring in an adamant whisper, “You can’t say those things in public.” She was nervous as she glanced around to see who could have heard. Surveillance and informants make people reluctant to express opinions that could be used against them in a legal or political manner. Property can be seized, families destroyed, and prison ensue. Why would anyone speak out if his children could lose a parent as a result?
The killing of free speech is one of many political repercussions of destroying privacy. Privacy is a key characteristic that distinguishes a totalitarian, Kafka-esque society from a free one. Can you shut your front door and be safe from invasion? Everyone agrees that criminals should not break through your locks and treat your body and possessions as their own. Why are government agents entitled to do the same thing? They are nothing more than the for-hire workers of an employer whose authority comes because enough people give the employer a thumbs up to invade and steal. They are criminals sanctioned by consensus.
Until recently, many incursions on privacy have been prevented for no other reason than they were difficult to enforce. And, then, technology arrived. Even with its notorious incompetence, government is now able to surveil as never before, and many people have grown afraid or complacent, as the mass frisking at airports proves.
The government assault on privacy benefits from a Big Lie: namely, privacy is now impossible because government surveillance is omnipotent, omniscient. Resistance is futile. Privacy is so last century. Balderdash. First of all, technology has always empowered the individual more than it has the government. Second, there is a world of difference between “difficult” and “impossible.” Privacy is certainly more difficult in the 21st century, which only means it takes work. Individuals need to assert actively what they once could take for granted in order to end the ongoing rape of their data.
What Should You Do?
No one answer exists. How to handle personal information is up to the lifestyle and goals of each individual.
Before answering, however, some distinctions are useful: privacy versus anonymity, for example. Privacy is the ability to keep personal data or activities to yourself; you close the door while using the washroom, for example; the activity is not shameful but neither is it for the world to see. Anonymity is when your activities are transparent to the world but the fact that you are the one acting is not. Rick Falkvinge, founder of the first Pirate Party, elaborated, “The typical example would be if you want to blow the whistle on abuse of power or other forms of crime in your organization without risking career and social standing in that group, which is why we typically have strong laws that protect sources of the free press. You could also post such data anonymously online through a VPN, the TOR anonymizing network, or both. This is the analog equivalent of the anonymous tip-off letter, which has been seen as a staple diet in our checks and balances.”
Another distinction: there are two types of data — private and public. If data is private – for example, if it is kept behind closed doors or within a limited circle of personal transmissions–then it can remain private. If data is publicly displayed, however, the practical ability to control it is lost. If I discuss my sex life on a public bus, for example, I have no business denouncing a blabby eavesdropper who passes on my experiences. Unfortunately, a great deal of personal data becomes public through no fault of the person it describes. Government vigorously mines information on everyone from birth, and well-meaning parents register children for everything from medical care to government entitlements.
Happily, cryptocurrency transfers are the data under discussion; they combine the best aspects of private and public data. They are protected by encryption and anonymity or pseudonymity, while remaining transparent. This is a new expression of data that needs to be protected in new ways, both from government and from malicious hackers.
The most effective tactics may well be technological, but this article does not address them. The tactics change constantly and quickly in response to government or hacking threats. And, frankly, although some tactics are simple, like spreading assets over a number of wallets, understanding other tactics requires a technological sophistication that I do not possess.
Instead, the article points to variations on privacy strategies that have been used for decades, if not for centuries. Pick and choose, but it may be best to use them all because the regulatory wolves are circling. Here is a sampling:
Obfuscate or “hide in plain sight.” One way for a person to preserve privacy is to be so inconspicuous or subtle that he is almost unnoticeable. Blend in, or become invisible. Sometimes obfuscation involves participating in so much noise that an eavesdropper cannot distinguish your signal from any other. An example might be sending only modest payments across the blockchain so the transactions join with hundreds of thousands of similar others, all of which are of scant interest because of the small amounts. Other times, obfuscation means masking activity through mixers or tumblers that further anonymize transactions. The anonymization carries a risk, however. It can constitute a red flag to eavesdroppers.
Avoid Centralized Exchanges and Other Data Sharing Centers. If a person wants government to have his financial data, then he should just mail it in an envelope to the government. Of course, signing up with an exchange, like Coinbase, saves a stamp. Centralized exchanges are now an arm of the government. Moreover, they carry their own risks, including bankruptcy or other reasons for withholding funds. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for using exchanges; they permit futures trading and other Wall Street niceties, for example. But decentralized exchanges are preferable; exchanges outside the U.S. or other crypto-hostile nations are preferable, as are ones that do claim jurisdiction over private keys. Even then, wealth should be moved in and out as quickly as possible, without allowing the third party to control it for longer than necessary.
Find Discreet Ways to Cash Out. The crypto veteran Kai Sedgwick wrote,
“Bitcoin transactions are semi-anonymous: every transaction on the blockchain is broadcast publicly and visible for all eternity, but the owner of each wallet is unknown. Tying addresses to real-world identities is now relatively easy for the powers-that-be, because everyone has to cash out somewhere, and that usually involves linking bitcoin addresses to bank accounts.” Don’t. As much as possible, deal with people one-on-one. Seek venues that exchange crypto for gift cards to stores you regularly use, such as grocery stores. Be inventive in avoiding the banks and centralized exchanges; they are the “trusted third parties” that Bitcoin was designed to obsolete.
Use a Privacy Currency. Dozens and dozens of private currencies exist, with several being solid. Although most of them use different techniques to preserve privacy, anonymity is a theme. The founder of Zcash explained the philosophy behind that particular privacy currency. “We believe that privacy strengthens social ties and social institutions, protects societies against their enemies, and helps societies to be more peaceful and more prosperous…. A robust tradition of privacy is a common feature in rich and peaceful societies, and a lack of privacy is often found in struggling and failing societies.”
Zip It on Public Forums. Public forums, like Facebook or Twitter, are monitored and mined by government and corporations. They are collection points for data, even if a person tries to post anonymously. If social media is necessary for professional reasons, then use it to the bare minimum. Never post anything on social media that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the New York Times, and that includes crypto forums.
Be Careful in Writing Down Information. Do not write down your private keys, for example, without having a secure, undisclosed place to store them.
The government is coming for crypto, which means it is coming for users. Its front line attack will be an attempt to eliminate privacy; it realizes privacy is the backbone of cryptocurrency as a freedom tool, even when users do not. Now it the time for heightened vigilance. To paraphrase the comedienne Lily Tomlin, “No matter how paranoid I get, it is never enough to keep up.”
[To be continued next week.]
Reprints of this article should credit bitcoin.com and include a link back to the original links to all previous chapters
Wendy McElroy has agreed to ”live-publish” her new book The Satoshi Revolution exclusively with Bitcoin.com. Every Saturday you’ll find another installment in a series of posts planned to conclude after about 18 months. Altogether they’ll make up her new book ”The Satoshi Revolution”. Read it here first.
Purchase Bitcoin without visiting a cryptocurrency exchange. Buy BTC and BCH here.