Red de Servidores Públicos
Right to Privacy and Cryptocurrency, a new paradigm for Human Freedom
Nicolás H. Varela
Throughout history, possessing information has been an essential tool for those in power. As Francis Bacon mentioned: "Knowledge is power". Kings, emperors, presidents, as well as private individuals have tried to get information about their subjects or enemies.
The reasons behind that quest for information can have diverse motives: national security, blackmail, wealth, among many others. The problem lies in defining how these actors obtain that information and what individuals, organizations and governments can do to protect their sensitive information through cryptography to ensure their privacy and promote freer societies without inappropriate interference with their private information.
This essay seeks to explore the concept of cryptography, an essential tool in the fight against State surveillance and control as well as its history, uses and benefits, focusing in particular on a cryptographic-based tool with the unparalleled potential to transform the economy in modern societies: Cryptocurrencies.Finally, we will focus on the importance of cryptography for the construction of free societies as well as the dangers that its non-use would imply with respect to state surveillance.
Cryptography is the technique used to encrypt messages that contain information. The concept comes from the Greek words Kryptos and Graphein, which mean "hidden" and "writing", respectively (Sgarro, 1990), therefore, encryption assumes a degree of security by preventing the message from being read by the wrong people.
In this way, the cryptanalysis activity can be defined in two different ways: the word "decipher" would be used if the person performing the activity is a legitimate recipient, and "decrypt" if the analysis corresponds to an attack or intrusion by a non authorized user.
Until the emergence of modern computers and the use of binary systems for telecommunications, cryptography was based on a relatively elementary science through different techniques to hide messages so that they cannot be discovered.
Nowadays, instead, cryptography is related to multiple areas of knowledge, such as information theory, computing, telecommunications, among others, which makes it a more complex and interdisciplinary subject.
History of cryptography
The need to transmit a message while preserving its confidentiality is not new; the first methods that were used to ensure the transmission of messages were through steganography, the study and application of techniques that allow hiding messages or objects within others, so that its existence is not perceived.
One of the oldest stories that are known about the use of these methods is that of Herodotus, in The Histories where he tells about a message to the Spartans to warn them of the dangers represented by the invasion plan of the Persian king Xerxes. The technique used was to remove the wax from a pair of wooden tablets, write on the wood what Xerxes planned to do, and then re-coat the message with wax. In this way, the tablets, being apparently blank, would not cause problems with the guards on the road. (Scarro, 1990).
Another story is when Histaiaeo sends information to Aristagoras of Miletus, he does so by shaving the head of his messenger; where he wrote the message, once his servant's hair grew the message was hidden.
One of the most famous cryptographic application references to send information for military purposes is that of Julius Caesar, who used steganographic, cryptographic and encryption techniques to ensure the confidentiality of his messages, which were vital for the achievement of the expansion of his empire. The historian Suetonius mentions what has been called the Caesar cipher, a method of substitution that moves each letter a certain number of spaces in the alphabet. Another system used by Julius Caesar was writing messages in Greek, a language that was unknown by his enemies, thus, even if the messages were intercepted, they were indecipherable, because they did not know the language, the code.
In 1914 during First World War, and in less than a century, advances in telecommunications would change not only commerce but also combat strategies. During all wars, each side has sought to transmit information in a secure way, and for this to use cryptosystems that allow reliable communication, and at the same time that they try to communicate in a secure way, the same effort is made in attacking the opponent's communication systems, intercepting communications and, if the information is encrypted, decrypting it. This effort to decipher the messages has made cryptographic systems evolve and at the same time promote the development of mathematics and computer science.
After World War II, interest in crypto continued to rise. Many of the developments that have been made in modern computers have been generated to have a primal application in cryptography and a large part of the resources that were invested at first in these technologies was due to military applications.
With the advent of increasingly powerful computer systems and the increased use of this equipment to process and transmit information, new needs arose in the face of cryptography. When the information that had to be analysed grew exponentially, the need to examine so much information implied the need to use new methods to be able to carry out such a task.
A key development in cryptography: the public key.
The fundamental problem with symmetric key systems is the distribution of the keys. A notable example of this is that in World War II a German soldier had to distribute a key book to all Enigma operators (Sgarro, 1990), which implied a very high vulnerability. In data transmission environments, where there is a very high flow of information, a private key system would hinder communications, since immediacy would be lost, as well as very high costs for the transfer of keys.
In 1976, Martin Hellman and Whitfield Diffie, the latter named the first cypherpunk, created the concept of asymmetric key, which uses a key to encrypt, which will be public and another to decrypt, which is private. A message encrypted with the private key, ensures authenticity, since only with the public key of the same issuer can the message be decrypted, thus giving the certainty that the person sending the message is the owner of that public key.
Since then, asymmetric or public-key cryptography was implemented by the crypto-punk movement as, in essence, cypherpunks propose an alternative to the continuation of the status quo where cryptography is closely watched and privacy is increasingly rare. Ultimately, the lessons taught by these activists, as well as the tools they produce, are designed to help shape a world where crypto runs freely.
Thus, ideas about taking power away from the government and private organizations to give it to individuals so that they can carry out private transactions, prompted the cryptopunk movement, which brought together a group of people who defended a common cause: resistance against impositions, and government encryption regulations. According to themselves, the outcome of their struggle could determine the amount of freedom that the societies of all countries would have in the 21st century.
The rise of cryptocurrencies
The cypherpunk movement was very active during the crypto wars in the 1990s, but it was not until 2008 that the technical and ideals proposals that were initially raised regained strength. This was in the midst of the financial crisis, when major flaws in the world economic system became apparent.
After this historical event, the name of Satoshi Sakamoto, who is suspected not to be a person but a group of people specialized in computer science and cryptography, came to light by sending an email to a select list of 100 specialists passionate about cryptography, publishing an article describing a peer to peer (P2P) digital money system. In the short message he stated: "I have been working on a new electronic cash system that is person-to-person, with no trusted third parties." Satoshi Nakamoto, used the phrase "cash system" to define the system that he developed with the objective of carrying out certified transactions without the need for a banking institution as an intermediary. Thus, creating the Bitcoin protocol and in 2009 this first cryptocurrency was launched.
Cryptocurrencies are a decentralized and intangible new means of payment. They are presented as an alternative to the use of traditional cash, that is, it can fulfil the same functions as traditional money but represented by virtual currencies using digital security encryption. Nakamoto created a protocol based on encryption and blockchain technology, which allows various transactions through a consensus-based system where multiple connected computers participate. Recently, this cryptocurrency which started with a minor value, has reached a historical maximum value of US $ 69,000 in November 2021. Bitcoin is the first and most popular of the cryptocurrencies but not the only one, it is estimated that there are currently more than 8,000 different cryptocurrencies.
Blockchain technology and freedom
The technology that enables the development of cryptocurrencies, the blockchain, can be defined as a mathematical structure for storing data in a way that is almost impossible to falsify. It is a public ledger that can be openly shared among users thus creating an immutable record of all transactions. Each digital record in the chain is called a block (hence the name), and it allows full transparency where everyone can see the history of every transaction.
Among its many advantages, it can be noted that the blockchain can only be updated by consensus among the participants in the system, and when new data is entered, it can never be deleted, this allows to ensure the integrity and reliability of the system when there is a verifiable record of each and every one of the entries made. The blockchain database is not stored in a single location, which means that the records it keeps are truly public, easily verifiable, and virtually impossible to destroy.
One of the greatest benefits it provides is its security, since the transmitted data is inherently encrypted. In addition, this technology enables person-to-person (P2P) transactions in a secure, reliable and irreversible way. This eliminates the need for an intermediary for data validation and significantly reduces costs and time to validate operations by not requiring government institutions or intermediaries and, being open-source, verification is practically immediate and inviolable while maintaining the anonymity of users.
The blockchain technology proposal in short provides a low-cost solution through an encrypted, open, decentralized, tradable, transparent and secure system for all its users. Likewise, it has applications that go far beyond cryptocurrencies alone, and could be used in fields as diverse as legal, health, fiscal, electoral, among many others to ensure that people's private and sensitive data is protected and cannot be hacked.
With all these advantages with respect to fiat money, the use of blockchain and cryptocurrencies are undoubtedly elements that allow increasing the freedom of individuals, by being able to have greater control of our own finances, maintaining independence from intermediaries such as banks and governments. Cryptocurrencies allow us to maintain independence and freedom from political decisions and local economies; therefore, we can consider them an alternative for those who seek more freedom.
Likewise, blockchain technology allows to trust a transparent and verifiable system to avoid corruption, fraud, theft or security breach within the ecosystem.
In addition, it is a highly open, global and decentralized system which allows anyone in the world with the minimum necessary knowledge to access and enjoy its benefits just by having an internet connection, which really democratizes access to e-commerce. It also involves relatively low transaction costs compared to traditional money transfer and its immediacy allows you to send money anywhere in the world easily and faster.
The limited supply of certain cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin implies a hedge against inflation, the volatility of its value could imply large economic gains for its users and the safety of stablecoins, currencies "tied" to the value of an asset such as the US dollar, It allows more caution investor not taking many risks with respect to the volatility of other cryptocurrencies.
Privacy is one of the main attractions of cryptocurrencies since, in principle, you do not need to provide personal data for its use, which allows you to remain anonymous. Moreover, access to the cryptocurrencies in the wallet can only be obtained by providing a private key, which only the owner has. This means that no one can remove coins from an account or freeze their movements.
Furthermore, being a relatively new technology, the uses that these tools will have in the future will probably allow new uses that we cannot even imagine today. For example, “Smart Contracts” are already beginning to be implemented as a legal tool that is changing the way of signing contracts.
For all these reasons, more and more people are adopting cryptocurrencies worldwide and every day more businesses accept cryptocurrencies as a payment method, truly generating an unprecedented revolution in financial matters.
Cryptography and mass surveillance
Cryptography is also an essential tool to protect our identity from people, corporations and governments that may try to monitor and surveillance us. As the United Nations mentioned: anonymity and encryption are essential for freedom of expression.
Privacy is a constitutional right of the individual, which as a consequence of the progressive introduction of electronic telecommunication systems, turns out to be increasingly threatened. All Internet users possess confidential information that they probably wish to remain as such. From the credit card numbers used in business transactions, to the messages sent to a partner that probably do not want to be read by anyone else. A crucial element in protecting privacy is anonymity.
However, this right seems to clash with the national security plans of certain States, which consider cryptography more as a terrible threat in the hands of terrorists and drug traffickers than as an instrument that guarantees the privacy of citizens. A situation arises here in which the interests of the citizen and the State come into conflict.
However, faced with the excuse of stopping terrorism and improving national security, everyone's privacy has been violated without any particular reason or suspicion, which is a highly unreasonable measure.
Likewise, the surveillance of an entire population by its government seems an aberrational matter, but if the surveillance is carried out by a foreign power, the danger naturally increases exponentially and the sovereignty of the monitored nation is highly affected.
One of the greatest challenges imposed by the information society is to consolidate the privacy of citizens, where the simple fact of connecting to a computer network without sufficient security measures puts us in a situation of vulnerability.
Government surveillance is a growing problem, and forms of surveillance threaten to jeopardize the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. The technologies developed in the second half of the 20th century undoubtedly play a significant role in the construction of new forms of social control, which represents a change in the forms of social organization. One of the novel aspects of this type of society that evolves along with technological development is the systematization of technologies, where surveillance is, fundamentally, the strategy that progressively replaces physical coercion as a means of maintaining order and security. In this scenario, information and communication technologies play a vital role in the new ideological, political and cultural context.
In 1949, George Orwell wrote 1984 , one of his great literary works in which he glimpsed a society controlled and guarded by an undemocratic state, where he makes a deep criticism of authoritarian regimes, their media and the lack of individual freedom. In his work, the author introduces the term Big Brother, with which he conceptualizes a society subject to controls that are beyond its reach, and views information as the fundamental pillar in any power relationship. In other words, the work supports the thesis that the state has achieved total control over the individual, where the military and police forces were instruments of that social control.
With the technification, these controls were virtually overcome. Sixty-two years later, in 2011, with the effervescence and heyday of social networks, the Australian journalist who created Wikileaks (one of the most important sites for document leaks), Julian Assange used the term Orwell's Big Brother to denounce that the Internet is under the gaze of the US secret services, making strong criticism against Facebook and also against the largest search engines on the Internet: Google and Yahoo! And then, in 2013, Assange denounced that the Internet has been militarily occupied by the United States and its allies to dominate societies by threatening their national sovereignty. In addition to Assange's efforts to disseminate documents leaked from government databases with the ultra secret classification, is added the former intelligence technician of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA), Edward Snowden.
In June 2013, The Guardian newspaper published the first of a series of revelations by Snowden about the massive espionage of the United States, highlighting the scale, the objectives and the methods with which the NSA, which is the largest surveillance organization and secret of the United States, collects information around the world. This marked a milestone in global awareness of the existence of a State apparatus for mass surveillance.
Far from being a tool that allows freedom of expression, the Internet has become, in the opinion of Julian Assange, "a threat to human civilization", because the States have become the largest apparatus of espionage and surveillance of the citizens that ever existed. In his view, if information could be freely shared and transmitted on the Internet, this could be the best impetus for progress. However, just the opposite occurs: those who want nothing to change, obstruct dissemination through this medium and ensure that nothing that is transmitted remains out of their reach and control. In doing so, they manage to eliminate any threat to the status quo. For Assange and his collaborators, there is only one tool to safeguard Internet freedom: detailed knowledge of how the state control system is organized and the development of cryptography to deal with it. The activist assures that the acts of surveillance and control will continue in cyberspace, for which he recommends the use of tools that counteract this invasion of privacy.
Due to all these events, it can be said that in 2013 the world became aware that digital surveillance by the world's governments knows no limits. The NSA, and other similar entities, monitor thousands of communications under the guise of national security and the fight against terrorism. The digital nature of information on the Internet means that everything we do online leaves an imprint, that is, navigation traces that should remain private. Thus, indiscriminate surveillance has broken numerous laws and violations of human rights, especially privacy.
International regulation on privacy
Various international instruments regulate the right to privacy. Among them, we can highlight:
The United Nations General Assembly adopted the resolution 68/167 in 2013, on the right to privacy in the digital age. In the resolution the Assembly affirmed that the rights held by people offline must also be protected online, and called upon all States to respect and protect the right to privacy in digital communication. It further called upon all States to review their procedures, practices and legislation related to communications surveillance, interception and collection of personal data, emphasizing the need for States to ensure the full and effective implementation of their obligations under international human rights law.
Moreover, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of human rights provides that “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”.
Similarly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, provides in article 17 that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honor and reputation”.
In this sense, interference that is permissible under national law may nonetheless be “unlawful” if that national law is in conflict with the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Moreover, reasonableness indicates “any interference with privacy must be proportional to the end sought and be necessary in the circumstances of any given case”. However, mass surveillance program are in conflict with such parameters as surveillance in this way is not the exception, but the general rule.
Where there is a legitimate aim and appropriate safeguards are in place, a State might be allowed to engage in intrusive surveillance; however, the onus is on the Government to demonstrate that interference is both necessary and proportionate to the specific risk being addressed. The absence of effective use limitations has been exacerbated since September 11, 2001, with the line between criminal justice and protection of national security blurring significantly.
Human rights provide a frame of reference for the protection of individual privacy, however, these essential rights require a joint effort between States, civil society, international organizations, technology companies, activists, academia and the general public to ensure that users have meaningful transparency about how their data are being gathered, stored, used and potentially shared with others.
As communication technologies continue to evolve, the protection of privacy, personal data, and anonymity will be essential for digital security.
Any type of surveillance, whether by the State, companies or individuals, should be the exception rather than the rule, and be regulated in order to be used in cases where such surveillance is really necessary.
Otherwise, we run the risk of falling into the kind of society that Orwell predicted several years ago would happen, where the rights to privacy are almost non-existent and our individual freedoms will be increasingly at risk.
Faced with these risks, cryptography presents itself as a weapon to safeguard our privacy, protect our personal information and build a safer and private world.
Assange, J. (2012) Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet. Or Books.
Bacon, F. (1957) Meditationes Sacrae.
Cesar Cayo Julio. Gallic War.
Herodotus. The Histories
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI) of 16 December 1966. entry into force 23 March 1976, in accordance with Article 49. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/ professionalinterest / pages / ccpr.aspx
Jhonny Antonio Pabón Cadavid. The cryptography and the protection of digital information.
Levy, S. (2001) Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government - Saving privacy in the Digital Age. Penguin.
Marx, GT (2005) Surveillance and Society. Thousand Oaks, California. Encyclopedia of Social Theory.
Orwell, G. (2009). 1984. Barcelona. Destino Editions.
Perritt, H. (1998) “The Internet as a Threat to Sovereignty? Thoughts on the Internet's Role in Strengthening National and Global Governance ”. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies.
Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 18 December 2013 [on the report of the Third Committee (A / 68/456 / Add.2)] 68/167. The right to privacy in the digital age. Resolution Available at: https://undocs.org/A/RES/68/167
Sgarro, A. (1990). Secret Codes. Madrid: Pyramid Editions.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights
 In his work Meditationes Sacrae written in the year 1597 is the Latin aphorism ' ipsa scientia potestas est' which is literally translated as 'knowledge in his power', then reinterpreted as "knowledge is power".  In this it is sought to transmit the message as best as possible, that is to say that the receiver achieves a message as faithful as possible, for which the message transmission channel will have to be evaluated.  For example, the difference engine made by Charles Babbage in the 19th century, the machine developed by the British inventor that managed to decipher the Vigenere cipher, the advances that Alan Turing made in helping to decipher the Enigma system of the Germans during the World War II have brought together the advances also for cryptographic purposes of Max Newman to the foundations of today's computers. By the same token, the first computers created around the Second World War were encryption and decryption tools for information for security agencies. Perhaps if these uses had not existed in computer systems, the explosion of information technologies would have been very different.  The 'cryptopunks' are a group of cyberspace activists who promote online security and privacy.  It is estimated that the first purchase made with bitcoins was two pizzas that Laszlo Hanyecz bought for 10,000 bitcoins in 2010.  According to Investorpedia. Available at: https://www.investopedia.com/tech/most-important-cryptocurrencies-other-than-bitcoin/  https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomOpinion/Pages/CallForSubmission.aspx  UN resolution available at: https://undocs.org/A/RES/68/167  Communication No. 488/1992, Toonan v. Australia, stop. 8.3; see also communications Nos. 903/1999, para 7.3, and 1482/2006, paras. 10.1 and 10.2.