Today the future of Bitcoin is among the most widely discussed topics in the cryptocommunity. However, the fierce debate induced by hard forks and block size disagreements seem to have put other important aspects of cryptocurrency, like user privacy, to the back burner. The issue of personal privacy, though important, is but a part of a bigger problem, which is the intrusion of governments in private lives of people. Fight against terrorism funding or money laundering are possibly the most frequent causes cited to justify their fight with data encryption.
There are lots of opinions regarding counteracting governments as an outwardly legitimate limiter of personal freedom. The debate includes, among other parties, cryptoanarchists, who call for using new technologies to change the very character of state regulation, as well as the notions of trust and reputation.
We talked to two of them, Smuggler and Frank Braun, at the recent annual Hackers Congress at Paralelni Polis in Prague.
Smuggler calls himself a cypherpunk, a cryptoabsolutist and an expert in encrypted communications. He is also known to have penned a few books and essays, including Second Realm: Book on Strategy, The Treasure that Is Privacy, and Aristocracy of Action. Frank Braun, who claims to be “somewhat disillusioned in mainstream tech”, identifies himself as a darknet advocate and a critic of technological constructivism.
In their exclusive interview with ForkLog, Smuggler and Frank Brown spoke about the importance of privacy, global challenges created by new technologies, and the freedom of cryptocurrency transactions in the times of increasingly stiffening control and regulation on the part of the nation state.
ForkLog: Hello Smuggler, hello Frank. Will you introduce yourself to those still not familiar with you and tell what you are doing?
Smuggler: I’m Smuggler. You may ask why Smuggler. It’s a long history: I come from a family that carried out some smuggling operations with Eastern Germany. Besides, one of my first jobs was to actually smuggle things, so it was my profession for a while. Today I’m not smuggling things anymore, I’m a privacy extremist which means I care about how to increase privacy. This is a very important issue since we have to remain private. I work in the IT-security business for a company that is bolstering communication security, like encrypted anonymous networks, e-mail security and storage security.
Frank Braun: I am Frank Braun, and I work in the software development industry, IT-security specifically. I am interested in what I usually call ‘freedom technologies’, how technologies can make us more free. Privacy is very relevant in this aspect as it helps us stay anonymous and lets us say things without having to encrypt them. And while digital currencies help us get the ultimate freedom of transactions, I am also more concerned about the negative aspects of technologies, things like how technologies can make us less human, less free. I can see a lot mainstream trends that are not too positive.
ForkLog: Talking about privacy and reaction to the sometimes too much state attention, what do you think are biggest challenges people face today?
Smuggler: I think we have a lot of challenges, and I’m not sure I can point to any specific one. There are challenges of a global nature, and there are also individual challenges. Privacy is really about how do we as humans become and stay humans in face in technologies. Another big challenge is whether we can act without permission, and what cryptocurrencies really did was creating the ability to take part in the international trade without needing a license. And I think that the move towards more digital payments comes with that big threat that all of our interactions are dependent on permissions.
The real problem is that we are building systems that are too big. We are building computer systems that are too big, we are building political systems that are too big, and we are regulating them too deep. This means that we are basically creating a lot of monocultures and those monocultures fuse with each other. In the end we will have two or three of them, and monocultures are a really bad idea for resilience. And I think that with the speed of transactions and with the speed at which we communicate and make decisions this leads to actions somewhere else making the systems very brittle without anyone noticing this.
The mistakes we make today potentially have much bigger influence on our future than ever before, and that is true not just for a few politicians or emperors or whatever, that is actually becoming more and more true for individuals. And the real problem that we might face is that we move ourselves into a corner where a slightest mistake can mean that millions of people might actually die, or whole economies are wiped out, or that lives are destroyed, or that ideas are suppressed. And that’s the real threat to the very existence of the human civilization.
Frank Braun: I also find it very hard to find one specific challenge, there are plenty of them that can make our future very messy. We have many technologies coming to a mainstream adoption, and they all potentially have very big problems.
ForkLog: Don’t you think that way too many people lack awareness of this kind of threats, or even don’t attach any significance to things like privacy?
Smuggler: I think that privacy is actually a value of second order. The real question is about what people think they should be. If we look at the people in the West today, their values are not self-defined. They are like parrots copying the thoughts of people around us, and I don’t think privacy has any value to someone who is a parrot. If you define yourself as just someone in the crowd, privacy has no value for you. So the first thing to regain this authority is to try to define what your real values are, and only after that privacy becomes a fortress. Before that privacy is a nuisance.
Frank Braun: Yes, I totally agree with the lack of awareness, but also the whole thing is very complex. It impossible to understand all things around us and that leads to what you say. People just say ‘Oh, I can’t deal with that because it’s too complicated’. I think the problem usually starts when you think the state can do things better.
And that’s why it’s important to go back to ourselves, to think who we actually are and what we really want instead of delegating things to some ‘experts’ hoping that they have a better idea. The point is they don’t have a better idea. You can clearly see it with digital currencies because there’s no one really understanding them. Politicians are trying to figure out how they can stay in power with all these things happenings, bankers are trying to figure out how to make money and keep their profits. Everyone has his own agenda but there’s no real understanding.
ForkLog: Speaking at various events and trying to get your message across, do you actually have any particular mission?
Smuggler: No, no, I don’t have any mission. I gave up on having missions long time ago because having a mission is actually a problem. What I’m doing is trying to understand what’s going on with myself, I’m trying to make decisions and turn those decisions into actions. That is my mission. To be and stay an individual is a huge thing in itself, and if you are doing this you might be an inspiration to other people. You might have a question they never ask, or you might have a challenge they never face. I personally don’t have answers, but I think I’m pretty good at creating questions. So yes, maybe that’s my mission: to ask myself questions and to do that loudly so that others might profit from those questions.
Frank Braun: I really like answers, but for me the big problem we have is that we also try to find a solution for everybody. As for the mission, I totally agree with what Smuggler says. For me it’s really important to find out what is the truth and then to act in accordance with that. It’s a very hard thing to do, and if I have friends, relationships, or family where I can act like a good person and the way I define myself I will see this as a big success. I don’t think it’s realistic to go on a mission and try to change the world.
Smuggler: It’s actually a dangerous thing, because if our problems come from monocultures, from too little questions and too little answers. It could be dangerous to say that I’m going to introduce the next concept that people will follow. It’s not really about creating a concept that people can follow, it’s about an individual becoming aware and courageous again to create their own mission. The diversity of solutions, the diversity of approaches, and diversity of questions and ideas is actually what creates things we didn’t have before. So, if speak about the mission again, the problem is that it introduces too much order while we have to introduce a little more creative chaos.
Frank Braun. Yeah, that’s like biodiversity where you have different opinions, different people next to each other without killing each other. It’s like your neighbor is having a different religion but you don’t kill him for that.
Smuggler: If you look at a bigger picture, the interesting thing is how do we actually create political systems, technical systems, economic systems that cater for those conflicting and diverse positions? How do we create social structures that value their core expression on one hand, and don’t raise violent conflicts with other groups on the other hand? How these groups can co-exist while fully expressing themselves? That is something that we really don’t know how to do, but it’s also something that is very important for the future.
ForkLog: Cryptocurrency exchanges are also getting too much attention from the authorities which often results in them forcing their users to reveal plenty of personal information. Their motivation is quite clear since it’s almost impossible today to carry out any activities without getting licenses and having to comply with the AML/KYC regulation. From this point of view, what role do you think decentralized exchanges and other decentralized platforms will play in the future?
Smuggler: It’s a huge problem if you mix systems or interface systems of different assets. For example, cryptocurrencies are more or less protocol regulated while banks and exchanges are law regulated. The one thing is not reputable, the other thing is reputable, and I always think that mixing those things is an issue. Besides that, I don’t think that you can preserve the freedom of transactions when you interact with the system that is built against you. It’s like you cannot be a little pregnant, it doesn’t work this way. And when it comes to cryptocurrencies, I never use exchanges to get some euros. I’ve never done this and will never do this. The only thing that matters are p2p exchanges between cryptocurrencies, and OTC exchanges if you want to get some cash.
ForkLog: There are still risks that you can lose some of your privacy even at OTC exchanges.
Smuggler: You have to look at them a little like a drug dealer. Instead of asking whether you have some amount of hash you ask about Bitcoin. Of course, there are OTC exchanges that are targeting big markets and they might ask for your Facebook page, but that’s their problem. If you do an OTC exchange with me, you will meet me at a café and it will take a minute maximum. You give me cash, I give you something like an OpenDime wallet or whatever in return, and that is the most fitting thing for the concept of free transactions.
Frank Braun: It’s actually funny, when we started wearing masks and giving interviews, it was like five years ago, and I was giving a presentation on OTC trading, and basically we were predicting that when Bitcoin becomes more popular regulators will crack down on exchanges. So if you want to have an alternative it has to be a real alternative. You can’t just say ‘Let’s make Bitcoin’ but do all things on exchanges that are regulated and connected to the banks. What you have to do is to build something completely different.
ForkLog: Can one suggest that that centralized exchanges will eventually lose a good share of today’s market, or that their role will be significantly reduced?
Smuggler: I don’t see them going away especially because a huge portion of cryptocurrencies is stuffed there and is used for speculation. People are investing in Bitcoin not for making transactions but for skimming the price.
Frank Braun: Agreed, it’s mostly speculation. People don’t use Bitcoin for transactions that much, and even currencies like Monero are mostly used for laundering Bitcoin.
At the Hackers Congress in Prague Smuggler presented Fog of CryptoWar, a talk on variuos aspects of crypto-politics and activism related to the recent debate about banning encryption. Frank Braun’s speech was titled Dehumanizing Technology.
Smuggler and Frank Braun were interviewed by Andrew Asmakov