“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
In the months since Edward Snowden revealed the nature and extent of the spying that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been perpetrating upon Americans and foreigners, some of the NSA's most troublesome behavior has not been a part of the public debate.
The problem for NSA apologist is that when guys like Snowden disclose that the government conducts comprehensive surveillance in ways that would have made 1984’s O’Brien drool, it puts the entire progressive agenda in jeopardy.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The financial world is plodding along like a drunken sailor avoiding debt collectors by keeping no cash in his wallet. It’s not the kind of calm that’s going to last or end well. But the storm will have to wait until after the Olympics.What a game! We’ve never watched ice hockey closely before. But watching […]
In times of war and national emergency, it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety. In those cases, we may have to accept a loss of privacy or freedom rather than invite mass slaughter of Americans.The National Security Agency’s domestic phone records collection is not one of those.Never have […]
Last year was quite the year for Bitcoin. We’ve seen exponential growth in Bitcoin’s exchange rate and extensive coverage in the media. Another phenomenon we have witnessed is the proliferation of alternative cryptocurrencies, five of which we’ve provided below.What all of these cryptocurrencies have in common is that they rely on a decentralized network to […]
Image: ShutterstockBitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem, along with alleged co-conspirator Robert Faiella, was arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly laundering more than $1 million worth of Bitcoins. This is a tiny amount compared to the largest drug-and-terrorism money laundering case ever. Yet when British bank HSBC was found guilty in 2012 of laundering billions, […]
The exercise had an awesome name, inspired by the movies: “Quantum Dawn 2.”On July 18, scads of U.S. banks, stock exchanges and government agencies took part in a digital fire drill — a practice run in the event all of Wall Street came under massive cyberattack.This isn’t the first time banks have come under an […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
The New York Times published an interminable article on health care recently. Plenty of facts — how scrupulous are these journalists! — but the article displayed absolutely no comprehension of the basics of cause and effect. I was left wondering about the whole point.The article details how the health care system rewards specialists to an […]
We’ve pointed out in the past that President Obama’s views on the surveillance state shifted completely from when he was Senator to when he was President. As Senator, he supported a bunch of reforms that are very much like the ones his panel have suggested — and which he’s about to ignore. The NY Times […]
Bitcoins are largely considered digital currency (or “crypto currency”) so you’d expect it to be treated like currency on a retail web site. But the Internal Revenue Service might not think so.
The great inventors/businessmen of the First Industrial Revolution, such as James Watt and Matthew Boulton of steam-engine fame, were not just smart but privileged. Most were either born into the ruling class or lucky enough to be apprenticed to one of the elite. For most of history since then, entrepreneurship has meant either setting up […]
Both research and production look poised for a revolution as 3-D printing applies its high-tech charms to the business of creating chemical compounds and turns the production of medicine into a DIY project.
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
The market has selected different things as money throughout history. Some of these items have served as money in isolated places for specific periods of time — for instance, cigarettes in prisoner-of-war camps. Cigarettes continue to be a currency in prisons if allowed, but if not, according to Wikipedia, “postage stamps have become a more […]
[Ed. Note: This article originally published on Jan. 24, 2013]Stocks up. Gold down. Bitcoin… waaay up.The S&P 500 busted through the 1,500 mark this morning. Stocks haven’t been this expensive since 2007… right before they got a whole lot cheaper… for a whole lot longer. Gold, meanwhile, dipped a tad. This, despite central bankers of […]
Before the housing market collapsed and the government pumped billions into the economy to save it, there was a programmer named Satoshi Nakamoto. And without much fanfare, he created an idea that’s in the process of changing the world. His idea was Bitcoin.Some background information is in order before I go any further.Think back to […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
The online Internet exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are up and running.OK, they’re up. Uhh, OK, some of them are sort of up.It has been almost a week since last Tuesday’s initial launch, and there have been more than a few problems.Website crashes, excessive response times and other problems have plagued the exchanges. […]
A growing consensus of IT experts, outside and inside the government, have figured out a principal reason why the website for Obamacare’s federally sponsored insurance exchange is crashing. Healthcare.gov forces you to create an account and enter detailed personal information before you can start shopping.This, in turn, creates a massive traffic bottleneck, as the government […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Today, like most days, I fired up my computer.I read freely available information on the latest developments in technology that would, in the not too distant past, have required a drive to a library to flip through journals too numerous for me to afford. I read the latest national and global news without having to […]
On a Sunday afternoon swim, a 6-year-old boy was bugging me in a sweet sort of way. He rode up and down the handrail on the stairs in the shallow end of the pool where I was trying to sit in peace. He was laughing and talking, but I couldn’t understand a word through the […]
I’ve just completed a heavy schedule of talks at the Agora Financial Investment Symposium in Vancouver. All my talks centered on information economics, Web startups, and the productivity of the Internet and its meaning. As usual, I learned as much from the attendees as (I hope) they learned from my talks. The research I did […]
Shanghai’s leading code slinger, David Veksler, who is also a good friend and long-time collaborator on all things digital, has come up with something wonderfully subversive. It is an encrypted messaging service that takes a giant step toward making cryptography available to the rest of us.
It is called cryptabyte.com. It is the first, easy-to-use, web-based service to provide absolutely uncrackable security in communications and file sharing. It’s a free product for now, and will probably remain so, but I have hopes that he can eventually commercialize it, if only to insure its viability over time.
This new technology is a brilliant example of a theme I’ve been turning over in my mind, namely, how technology is blazing new trails to give us freer lives even in times of rising state despotism the world over. It is becoming clearer by the day that it is not the politicians or even the intellectuals who are going to save civilization but the entrepreneurs and the digital cowboys who are liberating humanity in practical ways, every day.
As I often do with these events, I was last night musing over the historic significance of his invention. Communications in general received a gigantic boost with the telegraph in 1837. It was the first tool to provide a means for people to communicate over geographically noncontiguous spaces. The radio, telephone, and television continued the revolution, and the coming of age of the Internet provided the biggest boost ever to the driving force of social cooperation.
But there has always been a problem here, namely that there has been no assurance of keeping government’s mitts off our communications. To be sure, the spectacular rise of digital technology has made it impossible for government to monitor everything. But each day the threat becomes more real that government can find a way. Even now, governments have successfully intimidated many internet service providers into forking over data that is none of their business. The public side of the web is ever more being controlled by state authorities.
To some extent we are all vulnerable. Most of us are happy to get and send email, chat on FB, text things through our smart phones, tweet, and all the rest, with virtually no thought given to the privacy implications. And that’s fine for most things, and mostly for now. But in the future and maybe in the present, there are times when we will all need more guarantees.
The hyper-geek contingent is different. They’ve long known that the government wants nothing more than to monitor all communications, and to gain access to all email you send and receive if and when they demand it. This was obvious as early as 1993 with the so-called Clipper Chip. This was device developed by the National Security Agency that the government tried to get all telecommunications companies to install.
The Clipper Chip would have given the government instantaneous access to all communications archives whenever it wanted them. In effect, it would have enabled the creation of a mass surveillance state, which is the dream of every state. The government thought it was a no brainer: of course they need access to all things whenever they want them!
One might think that the bureaucratic class would wake one day and think: hey, are we like the bad guys in an Orwell novel, and, if so, shouldn’t we cut this stuff out? But there is something about working for government that apparently dulls one’s sense of irony. They develop a kind of caste consciousness (h/t Ludwig von Mises) that pursues a course that advances the caste interest to the exclusion of other concerns.
Regardless, the push back from industry and from consumers toward the Clipper Chip was extreme. It was widely rejected. By 1996, the Clipper Chip was completely dead.
Contributing mightily to the death of the Clipper Chip was an inauspicious little program called “Pretty Good Privacy,” now known widely as PGP. It was developed by Phil Zimmerman, one of the great heros of the digital age who is not given nearly the attention he deserves. He developed a method for transmitting communications that were and are completely uncrackable by any outside source other than those party to the communication.
Zimmerman sent his PGP program around the Internet (this was before the web) and it was used by people all over the world who were resisting governments in various ways. This is what triggered the trouble. Zimmerman was brought up on charges by the U.S. government. Because cryptography was regarded as a munition by the government, he was charged with violating the Arms Export Control Act (!).
Rather than cave to the pressure, Zimmerman fought back by releasing the entire code of PGP to the world. It was shared in thousands and millions of groups, and became commonly available after the development of the world wide web. Just to insure its permanent availability and as if to underscore the powerlessness of government, MIT Press even published the entire code in a book!
By 1996, the government was forced to drop its case against Zimmerman. PGP has survived the onslaught. And today, it remains the most important single means for people who fight for freedom to be able to outwit the despots trying to control them.
But even after all these years, PGP still isn’t entirely accessible to the rest of us. There are some services such as hushmail that rely on it and that people who are not code monkeys can use. But there are some remaining problems with hushmail, such as that it requires registration, it maintains an archive of communications, and its security is, to some degree, dependent on the integrity of the company that runs the service.
What Veksler has done with Cryptabyte.com is provide a simple web interface to provide all the benefits of PGP-level privacy but without registration. The use is entire anonymous. It is also more convenient than PGP has ever before been. It works through a one-click operation. And the public key is stored not in a long string of digits but in the URL of the website itself, one that can be easily copied and pasted and then opened with a chosen passphrase.
Let me back up just a moment to explain how this works. A public key is something that is attached to you personally. It is like an email address. It works as a kind of destination where people know they can send your communications. A private key or passphrase is then required to unlock the messages, and this is something that only you know and you never have to write down.
Neither the sender nor the server administration can know the private key. The message itself is completely scrambled as it is sent and then unscrambled when it arrives.
Veksler’s tool embeds all of these operations on a single page and makes it all happen with one click only, and all through a clean URL. And the passphrase you use is stored on the program for only 120 seconds after the message is delivered — which sort of reminds me of the “self destructing” meme made famous by Mission Impossible.
But it gets more brilliant. How can you know that you can really trust the service, or that Veksler himself works for the FBI or the like? Well, you don’t have to trust him. Veksler is making the entire apparatus completely open source so that anyone can inspect the code. He does nothing on the site that is not wholly open to the world, so that way anyone can know everything that is going on in the engine room but no one, not even the service owner, can know what is being communicated.
The service is in the early stages, but his next step will be to develop a desktop client that will work even when you are not on the world wide web. It seems obvious that the next stages will be smartphone apps, ever clear interfaces, and ever quicker operation. You can see where this is going. It creates an infrastructure that the whole world can use to communicate that is impenetrable to any nation state.
To me, this qualifies as absolutely revolutionary. It is only one example of a larger point. The path to freedom in our times is being blazed by brilliant minds like this. We can’t make the state go away but we can do our darndest to achieve a good life and protect ourselves through advances in technology, among many other ways. In the end, it is up to us to take the necessary steps to reclaim the freedom that is ours as a human right.
Note: In an interview in the Libertarian Standard, David explained some basics of the code he uses:
CryptAByte uses public-key encryption just like HTTPS/SSL and OpenPGP/PGP. The algorithms used are RSA for key pairs, AES 256 to encrypt messages and files, and SHA 256 for hashing. The servers hosting this application support can encrypt 2.1 GB of data per second using the latest Intel CPU’s with AES support built into the chipset. The service is built with ASP.Net MVC and Sql Server for the backend and jQuery UI for the front end. A RESTfull API is available for third party web and desktop apps to build on the platform. The full source code will be released when the platform is stable.
You can also view his powerpoint presentation on security fundamentals.