If Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies were to disappear tomorrow, what legacy would they leave behind?
I can think of three main impacts:
First, Bitcoin raised awareness of the flaws in fiat money, the superiority of sound money, and the potential of people to trade with each other without third-party intermediaries.
Second, Bitcoin has provided a life raft to millions of people under regimes suffering hyperinflation (like Venezuela), confiscation (like India), or currency export controls (like China). These people have been able to safeguard and use their savings.
Third, Bitcoin has advanced the state of cryptography, from a plaything of spy agencies and banks to a ubiquitous privacy layer securing the information of the entire world.
While each of these points could be an essay, I want to focus on the third impact today, starting with the state of cryptography before the invention of Bitcoin.
In his 1988 “Crypto Anarchist Manifesto“, Timothy C. May introduced the concept of crypto-anarchism, the idea that ubiquitous encryption would allow total freedom of trade by blocking the ability of governments to spy on and thus interfere with markets.
Inspired by his essay, thousands of aspiring “crypto-anarchists” (like me) installed software like PGP/GPG and tried to bring about the revolution. Then we ran into a few problems:
First, the software was way too complex for laypeople to use. Only dedicated hackers have the ability and patience to encrypt our communications. As long as only a few cooky radicals used cryptography, there was no incentive for merchants to adopt it. Likewise, email and messaging platforms were not encrypted, and using encryption branded you as a radical, and maybe even a criminal.
Second, the public did not believe in the potential of encryption. This was for two reasons: First, cryptography was seen as something for the NSA and CIA, not the public. Until 1992, cryptographic algorithms were on the U.S. Munitions List as Auxiliary Military Equipment. While using encryption within the U.S. was protected by the first amendment, it was illegal to export strong encryption outside the U.S., which crippled the commercial cryptography market. Second, it was believed that hackers could break cryptographic algorithms — it was simply a matter of applying sufficient computational power. To some extent, until the adoption of AES in 2001, this was true.
The third problem we ran into was conducting an anonymous exchange. There was no way to transmit value without eventually involving the legacy financial systems, which were becoming less and less anonymous. Efforts to create a digital proxy for gold such as e-gold and e-Bullion survived for a time, but were shut down by the U.S. government around 2009. The Foreign Bank Account Report of 2010 was part of a wave of global regulations which ended banking secrecy worldwide.
This context is important to understand the import of Bitcoin’s invention in 2008:
Until Bitcoin, the entire field of cryptography lacked strong real-world validation. While the banking industry used things such as RSA tokens and browsers used SSL for decades, their security was unproven. Because it is generally possible to reverse or void legacy financial transactions, the financial industry does not face a strong motivation to ensure the integrity of its cryptography.
This skepticism was validated when the National Security Agency was proven to have secretly weakened the RSA standard, and that vulnerability was exploited against major U.S. corporations in 2011. Additionally, documents leaked by Edward Snowden showed that the NSA had aimed to subvert cryptography standards.
As Bitcoin’s market cap grew from $0 to over $1 trillion today, larger and larger sums were protected by cryptography. For the first time, there was actual value behind cryptographic algorithms, and the entire field of cryptography began a rapid evolution. A $1 trillion prize is available to anyone who can subvert the security behind Bitcoin. This is an enormous incentive to advance the entire system of cryptography, from better algorithms to the ecosystem of software and hardware devices.
In 2021, the entire world has moved online. 67% of the world’s population has a mobile device – nearly all adults, and quite a few children. Within a decade, nearly all of those users will use a smartphone, which facilitates not only voice conversations but embedding all aspects of one’s life – business, shopping, education, romance into the global Internet. Thanks to advances in cryptography, we’ve seen the vast majority of that communication moved from plain-text to encrypted networks. With the notable exception of Chinese platforms, the most popular apps now use P2P encryption. WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal are end-to-end encrypted, so no individual or government can spy on them. (Apple iMessage is E2E encrypted when iCloud iMessage backups are turned off). VPN networks have gone from corporate and esoteric to cheap and ubiquitous. In 2011, I struggled to set up my VPN while living in China to evade censorship. In 2021, in the U.S. I use my home VPN like millions of other Americans to enhance my privacy. It’s fast, invisible, and costs under $2/month.
Today, all my computers and backups are encrypted, and they come with hardware-level encryption so that there is no impact on performance. I secure my access to Google, Facebook, and other popular services with U2F hardware tokens. My Bitcoin is secured by hardware wallets that incorporate plausible deniability and multiple cryptographic signatures.
While we can’t simply give Bitcoin credit for all these achievements, embedding value in communication networks has been the single most powerful incentive for the world to step up its security game.
Observe that after the NSA paid RSA $10 million to backdoor the security tools used by the world’s largest corporations, it took from 2006 to 2013 for the world to exploit the flaws in RSA. By contrast, cryptocurrency exchanges and custodians are a much more lucrative target, and thus face much stronger pressure to keep evolving their security practices. When Northrop Grumman was hacked with the RSA exploit, some Chinese or Russian agent received a promotion, whereas the hackers of Mt Gox, Binance, and dozens of other exchanges were set for life, with little fear of repercussions.
Today, I am a lot more skeptical that ubiquitous encryption will bring about Timothy May’s dream of a crypto-anarchist utopia. However, I think there is a very good case that the invention and adoption of Bitcoin has dramatically advanced global privacy and financial autonomy.