17 October 2020 · 2 min read

Cryptography vs Big Brother: How Math Became a Weapon Against Tyranny

This second part of the four-part series on the history of the cypherpunk movement of the 1990s by Jim Epstein explores how and why the cypherpunk movement came to be and how it is meant to prevent a dystopian future of the state and tech surveillance in which the internet serves as a panopticon.

"Large bureaucracies, with the power that the computer gives them, become more powerful," said New York Times reporter David Burnham in a 1983 C-Span interview about his book The Rise of the Computer State. "They are escaping the checks and balances of representative democracy."

Burnham warned that the integration of computers into every aspect of daily life could lead to a "level of automated surveillance unknown in any previous age." For society to change course, Burham argued, citizens would need to rise up through the democratic process and demand new legal protections to safeguard their privacy.

"There are ways to deal with it," Burnham told C-SPAN. "We have done it. And all I hope is that we're on our toes enough and alert enough to see them and go after them."

"This is just political jawboning," retorted Timothy C. May to the idea that politics could keep the computer state in check.

May, a former Intel physicist, believed that putting faith in representative democracy was naive and that only technology could save us from the Orwellian state. He became a co-founder of the cypherpunk movement, which came together in the early 1990s around the idea that a recent breakthrough in the field of cryptography was the key innovation for combatting tyranny.

The cypherpunks saw cryptography as comparable to the crossbow, which had enabled individuals to go up against medieval armies, as mathemetician Chuck Hammill argued in a 1987 paper presented to the Future of Freedom Conference.

"I certainly do not disparage the concept of political action," Hammill wrote, but "for a fraction of the investment in time, money and effort I might expend in trying to convince the state to abolish wiretapping and all forms of censorship — I can teach every libertarian who's interested how to use cryptography to abolish them unilaterally."

Hammil's paper, "From Crossbows To Cryptography: Techno-Thwarting The State," was the first item posted to the cypherpunks' widely read email list.

"The mathematics which makes this principle possible," as Hammill put it, was public-key cryptography, an astonishing breakthrough. It was developed by the Stanford cryptographers Whitfield Diffie and Martin E. Hellmann, who first explained the concept in a November 1976 paper published in IEEE Transactions on Information Theory. The following year, a team of researchers at MIT developed the first working public-key system, known as RSA.

The short film is written, shot, edited, narrated, and graphics by Jim Epstein; opening and closing graphics by Lex Villena; audio production by Ian Keyser; archival research by Regan Taylor.

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This is part two of a four-part series on the history of the cypherpunk movement of the 1990s.

Watch part one: