Thoughts on “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto”, part 6


We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy out of their beneficence. It is to their advantage to speak of us, and we should expect that they will speak. To try to prevent their speech is to fight against the realities of information. Information does not just want to be free, it longs to be free. Information expands to fill the available storage space. Information is Rumor’s younger, stronger cousin; Information is fleeter of foot, has more eyes, knows more, and understands less than Rumor.

When we read this piece of text, I think it’s worth to continually remind ourselves this was written in 1993.

It’s not a new text, but the ideas embedded in it seem so recent, because we live in the times when the warnings contained in it (and that went largely unheard) are recognisable. We know about how information can run wild. We see the proof of this around us, in the news and possibly in our own lives if we’ve ever been unlucky enough to have been stalked, doxed or have our personal information misused.

Still, the excerpt that is quoted above is neutral: simply by incentives it is not in the best interest of a company or government to have our privacy at the center of their agenda. Certainly companies want to have as much information, so as to be able to effectively target prospective customers. It saves time and makes a sale more probable. Because of this, information is valuable, so it makes perfect sense for companies that trade in this commodity to emerge, and they have.

For governments likewise, privacy is a tough one and I am not necessarily talking about some kind of Big Brother scenario. Privacy not only protects law abiding citizens, it also enables criminals to hide their activity. That is a plain fact and something that is diametrically opposite to what a government that wants to protect its citizens wants. The sad thing is: the incentive to encroach on citizens rights is a lot larger, because failure to protect is so very visible and maintaining privacy usually is not. It takes some pretty strong principles to protect something you will most probably not be thanked for, while you will constantly be blamed for any bad consequences of enabling criminals in the process. It’s a Scylla and Charibdis scenario.

As a consequence, it’s up to the citizenry itself to keep alert to encroachments on this territory.

The part on Information is poignant. It is all but a mantra that “Data is toxic” these days. Any company touching it knows the problems it begets by having to deal with data. The reason: it spreads and is almost impossible to contain. Moreover, it’s valuable and the rules surrounding data are strict.

Anyone who has ever heard of the Streisand Effect (if not, you have now) knows that even the act of trying to hide a piece of data after it’s become public on the internet is bound to backfire.

Information is precious, but once its out there, it will RUN.

Even worse: information without context is prone to manipulation. By now, most of us realise how easy it is to mistrepresent data to support near every position. That’s not new, by the way: any textual interpreter can tell you that textual analysis for meaning is one of the hardest things to do. Just look at the many denominations of Christianity to see how many interpretations are possible from just one text. Or, to stay closer to home for most of my readers: just look how many diverging opinions exist about “what Bitcoin is” just based on the Satoshi Whitepaper (and that’s a damn sight shorter than the Bible!).

Suffice to say that it boils down to this: if you want to keep something private, you are on your own; it’s our own responsibility to keep things private if we want to. And we have good compelling reasons to want to do so.

Bas Wisselink
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