Artist Information

The visuals for this article were submitted by Nathan Stinson of Nathan Stinson Photography.

All images are ©1996 Nathan Stinson Photography.

Crypto-Anarchy and Virtual Communities

by Timothy C. May


This paper describes the combination of two major technologies:

Strong Crypto: including encryption, digital signatures, digital cash, digital mixes (remailers), and related technologies.

Cyberspatial Virtual Communities: including networks, anonymous communications, MUDs and MOOs, and "Multiverse"- type virtual realities.

These areas have generally remained separate, at least in published papers. Certainly the developers of cyberspace systems, such as MUDs, MOOs, and Habitat-like systems, appreciate the importance of cryptography for user authentication, overall security, and certainly for (eventual) digital purchase of services. But for the most part the combination of these two areas has been the province of the science fiction writer, notably writers such as Vernor Vinge, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Orson Scott Card.

The "Cypherpunks" group, a loose, anarchic mailing list and group of hackers, was formed by several of us in 1992 as a group to make concrete some of the abstract ideas often presented at conferences. We've had some successes, and some failures.[1] The Cypherpunks group also appeared at a fortuitous time, as PGP was becoming popular, as Wired magazine appeared (they featured us on the cover of their second issue), and as the publicity (hype?) about the Information Superhighway and the World Wide Web reached a crescendo.

The site has a number of essays and files, including crypto files, in the directory pub/cypherpunks. I have also written/compiled a very large (1.3 MB) FAQ on these issues, the Cyphernomicon, available at various sites, including my ftp directory,, in the directory pub/tc/tcmay.

The Cypherpunks group is also a pretty good example of a "virtual community." Scattered around the world, communicating electronically in matters of minutes, and seeming oblivious to local laws, the Cypherpunks are indeed a community, and a virtual one. Many members use pseudonyms, and use anonymous remailers to communicate with the list.

The list itself thus behaves as a "message pool," a place where information of all sort may be anonymous deposited and anonymous received (since everyone sees the entire list, like a newspaper, the intended recipient is anonymized). Legal Caveat: Consult your local laws before applying any of the methods described here. In some jurisdictions, it may be illegal to even read papers like this (seriously). In particular, I generally won't be giving ftp site addresses for copies of PGP, remailer access, digital cash systems, etc. These are well-covered in more current forums, e.g., sci.crypt or talk.politics.crypto, and there are some unresolved issues about whether giving the address of such sites constitutes (or "aids and abets") violation of various export and munitions laws (crypto is considered a munition in the U.S. and probably elsewhere.... Some nations consider a laser printer to be a munitions item!).

PowerGrid Journal is ©1996 ElectriCiti Incorporated