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Back to the Future: Adam Back Remembers the Cypherpunk Revolution and the Origins of Bitcoin

Bitcoin Knowledge Podcast host Trace Mayer interviewed legendary cryptographer Adam Back on his role in the creation and deployment of some of the most potent privacy software to ever affect the world of Bitcoin. A transcript of the podcast is published in We Use Coins.

Trace Mayer is an entrepreneur, investor, journalist, an expert on the Austrian School of economic thought of Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises, and a staunch defender of freedom of speech.

Adam Back is the inventor of Hashcash, the proof-of-work system used by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies as part of the mining algorithm. “To implement a distributed timestamp server on a peer-to-peer basis, we will need to use a proof-of-work system similar to Adam Back’s Hashcash,” wrote Satoshi Nakamoto in the original Bitcoin white paper.

Back is also one of the authors of the Bitcoin Sidechains white paper “Enabling Blockchain Innovations with Pegged Sidechains,” released in October, and one of the founders of Blockstream.

Blockstream, which in November closed a $21 million seed-funding round with nearly 40 high-profile investors, develops open-source software to implement sidechains and accelerate developments in the cryptocurrency space.

Blockstream recently announced Sidechain Elements, a sidechain development framework with open-source code and a developer sidechain for testing, featuring intriguing new possibilities such as confidential transactions. Blockstream also isworking on lightning networks, a somewhat-related concept that shows great potential for Bitcoin scalability.

“We’re going to be having a full week with [Back] on the podcast discussing confidential transaction, sidechains and the lightning network along with some of his other innovations and thoughts on bitcoin and where it’s going,” Mayer announces at the end of the interview.

In fact, the conversation doesn’t go – yet – deep into ongoing technology development. Rather, it’s a recap of the history of cryptography and P2P technologies in the last couple of decades, and – especially – a thoughtful and passionate defense of the techno-libertarian ideas that are dear to both Mayer and Back. Today, with the original pro-privacy, anti-bureaucracy spirit of Bitcoin is threatened and cornered by governments, banks and sanitized “permissioned” blockchains, it’s refreshing to follow Mayer and Back – to the future.

Cryptography pioneers and “cypherpunks” such as Phil Zimmerman, David Chaum, Nick Szabo, Hal Finney, Wei Dai, Stefan Brands, and other affine spirits since the days of Alan Turing, wanted to make society better – by writing code. Phil Zimmerman’s PGP was one of the first cryptographic codes able to change society for the better.

“[PGP was] a way for you to have privacy or anonymity via email,” says Back. “So it’s a simple piece of technology, but they have this kind of mantra cypherpunks write code, which is to say, you know, you can go lobby all you want but what ultimately changes the game is deployment of technology.”

Back tells the story of Hashcash, PGP, David Chaum’s DigiCash and Stefan Brands’s electronic cash system, Bitcoin precursors such as Nick Szabo’s bit gold and Wei Dai’s B-Money, leading to Nakamoto’s Bitcoin white paper.

“So they were a number of people in the cypherpunks list who were talking about designs, and some of them were anonymous because it’s cypherpunks, and they developed the remailers so they were kind of practicing their own technology,” said Back. “So there was some kind of jovial or joking comments from anonymous people that are actually insightful, technical, cryptographic protocol comments from anonymous people.  And, of course, we don’t know who they were. Potentially some of them Satoshi, right?”

“Unless you are Satoshi,” says Mayer at that point.

“No comment on that,” replies Back. “Don’t like to speculate on who Satoshi might be.  I think it’s probably a good thing that Satoshi is anonymous because you know there’s a lot of political pressure that could land on somebody who is seen to somehow have control and all sorts of things.”

Toward the end of the podcast, Back mentions privacy-preserving cryptocurrencies and recent developments in cryptography that could be applied to new version of Bitcoin, including ZerocoinZerocash, and zero-knowledge Succinct Non-interactive ARguments of Knowledge (zk-SNARKs).

It’s interesting to speculate on the possibility to implement Zerocash as a sidechain interoperable with Bitcoin. Hopefully, Back will say more in the forthcoming podcasts.

Giulio Prisco

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