Timothy May's 'preemptive protection' prophecy

In the 1980s, as advanced fields of mathematics evolved and cryptography developed, a number of privacy advocates troubled by growing state surveillance capabilities recognised the radical potentiality of strong encryption. On the horizon of their vision existed an equilibrium, where the same standard of cryptographic measures abused by the state to invade privacy could be transformed into instruments that protect it. They labelled themselves the Cypherpunks, and their co-founder, Timothy May, authored what would forever set the benchmark for crypto discourse online, The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto.

“A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy.”

This prophetic document, penned over three decades ago, accurately predicted phenomenon such as Tor, WikiLeaks, the Bitcoin economy, and Anonymous. To this day, May’s manifesto offers critical insight into how encryption allows for anonymity, decentralised economies, and the subversion of autocratic power. For many crypto enthusiasts today, his words remain an ongoing guide, an omen, and a timeless legacy, with each of his remarkable predictions now firmly cemented within the vanguard of crypto advocacy.

What is crypto anarchism?

Crypto anarchism is a virtual implementation of anarchy that originates from a form of political discourse. It is a set of Internet practices that aims to combine the use of the Internet with modern cryptography to enable individual empowerment and undermine traditional state control. Crypto-anarchists leverage encryption tools and technologies to circumvent censorship, protect privacy, and safeguard important political freedoms. Their methods can be confrontational, and often wrestle directly with a number of the social constructs seen as fundamental components to the operating system of society (such as currency, identity, territory, and law).


One of May's lesser known predictions was that crypto, like guns, could offer an individual ‟preemptive protection”. Ironically, this parallel was symbolic of how Western governments in the late '70s classified encryption as a munition. While the Cypherpunks at the time were keen to expand encryption tools and technologies, Western governments saw crypto as something that threatened their monopoly on its use and desperataly sought to outlaw public adoption. This conflict, the famous battle over encryption, became known as the Crypto Wars.

With history comes expectation, and history has shown that the term ‘national security’ commonly defines the trajectory of modern state intervention. Whilst the Cypherpunk movement ultimately prevailed (which is why encryption is so widely used today), the controversial struggle to balance national security needs against the individual's right to privacy is expected to continue. As state-sanctioned offensive measures evolve to erode fundamental rights, so too does the arsenal of defensive tools the security community relies on to protect them, and this innovation remains the residue of our defiance.

It seems clear that any individual driven by an earnest will to expose wrongdoing and corruption is now at greater risk than ever. Journalists and whistleblowers are beginning to recognise the profound importance of secure practice, but it’s clear that some still need our support. The public conscience is beginning to understand that the punitive posture of the state threatens more than just liberty, it also threatens the public interest. The bar for preemptive protection is being raised, and I believe that it's here — somewhere in the raw and turbulent nature of Internet autonomy, that the purest forms of the revolutionary Cypherpunk agenda can be revived.

Arise, you have nothing to lose but your barbed wire fences.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacob Riggs

Jacob Riggs is the Founder and Managing Director of Deadswitch. He is a Security Specialist based in the United Kingdom with over a decade of experience working to improve the cyber security of media and third sector organisations. His contributions focus on expanding encryption tools, promoting crypto-anarchist philosophy, and pioneering projects centred on leveraging cryptography to protect the privacy and political freedoms of others.

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