Cypherpunk

Who is a Cypherpunk?

Cypherpunk is a movement where individuals and organizations use computer code and cryptography technology to preserve privacy. Advocates of the movement – many of whom are cryptographers, computer programmers, technologists, social activists, and crypto enthusiasts – refer to themselves as ‘cypherpunks’.

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What does 'cypherpunk' mean?
The word ‘Cypherpunk’ is derived from the words ‘cypher and ‘punk’. ‘Cypher’ means to put a message into secret writing. Punk refers to a subculture prevalent in the 1970s that is associated with rebelling against social and political norms.

Cypherpunk is not Cyberpunk

The Cypherpunk movement should not be mistaken for an identical term called ‘cyberpunk’.

Cyberpunk is a science fiction subgenre that explores a futuristic dystopian setting where technology is used to control and oppress society.

History of the Movement

The history of Cypherpunk goes back to the 1970s when researchers began extensive computer cryptography studies. However, the early 1990s is widely considered as the time that the movement was established.

It is said to have started when Eric Hughes (a mathematician and programmer), Timothy C. May (former chief scientist at Intel), and John Gilmore (computer scientist) founded a group in the San Francisco Bay area.

According to an article by Robert Manne, Jude Milhon – an editor at cyberculture magazine Mondo 2000 – jokingly called the group “cypherpunks” as a play on the word “cyberpunk,” and the name stuck.

They started the Cypherpunks mailing list in 1992. In 1993, Hughes published A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto.

Manifesto: What Makes One a Cypherpunk?

If we were to look to Hughes’ manifesto to define a cypherpunk, they would be defined as someone who builds anonymous systems that champion privacy and freedom.

“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.”

Over the years, cypherpunks have created systems that champion anonymity by using cryptography and decentralized technology. The critical nature of the global financial system to an individual’s life and their privacy has made it of particular interest to the cypherpunks.

“We, the Cypherpunks, are dedicated to building anonymous systems. We are defending our privacy with cryptography, with anonymous mail forwarding systems, with digital signatures, and with electronic money.”

Famous Cypherpunks and Their Creations

Let’s take a look at some of the popular names and their contributions to the world.

Who? What’s their cypherpunk innovation?
Philip Zimmermann and Pretty Good Privacy Zimmermann is the creator of a widely used email encryption software called Pretty Good Privacy. Zimmermann was a software engineer specializing in cryptography and data security.
Julian Assange and WikiLeaks Julian Assange is the founder of a media organization called WikiLeaks. The organization is infamous for publishing classified government documents. Assange is said to have joined the Cypherpunks email list in 1995.
Nicholas Szabo and smart contracts Nick Szabo is a computer scientist who is credited with introducing the concept of smart contracts. Smart contracts are widely used today in decentralized finance (DeFi) applications and Web3 programs.
Satoshi Nakamoto and Bitcoin Satoshi Nakamoto is the pseudonymous founder of a blockchain-based peer-to-peer payment system called Bitcoin. Bitcoin is the most valuable cryptocurrency network in the world, valued at over $1 trillion at its peak in 2021.
Zooko Wilcox and Zcash Zooko Wilcox co-founded a privacy-preserving cryptocurrency called Zcash.
Adam Back and Hashcash Adam Back is a British cryptographer who created a proof-of-work algorithm called Hashcash, which is used in Bitcoin mining.
Fiatjaf and Nostr Fiatjaf is the pseudonymous founder of an open protocol called Nostr (Notes and Other Stuff, Transmitted by Relays). Nostr can be used to build censorship-resistant social media applications.

The Bottom Line

The Cypherpunk movement has gained global prominence in the last decade, aided by the growing popularity of cryptocurrencies and decentralized blockchain networks.

We are seeing encouraging developments in the crypto industry with the advancement achieved in zero-knowledge proof and digital signature technologies.

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Mensholong Lepcha
Crypto & Blockchain Writer

Mensholong is an experienced crypto and blockchain journalist, now a full-time writer at Techopedia. He has previously contributed news coverage and in-depth market analysis to Capital.com, StockTwits, XBO, and other publications. He started his writing career at Reuters in 2017, covering global equity markets. In his free time, Mensholong loves watching football, finding new music, and buying BTC and ETH for his crypto portfolio.