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Crypto pioneer David Chaum on election security and the decline of democracy

Crypto pioneer David Chaum on election security and the decline of democracy

Aug 10, 2020

Democracy has entered a period of acute danger, says David Chaum on the most recent episode of Orchid's podcast, Follow the White Rabbit. David is widely considered the forefather of the crypto movement: he proposed the first digital currency in his 1981 paper "Untraceable: Electronic Mail, Return Addresses, and Digital Pseudonyms." His 1982 dissertation "Computer Systems Established, Maintained, and Trusted by Mutually Suspicious Groups" is the first known proposal of a blockchain protocol, including the code needed to implement it. This visionary document proposed all but one of the elements of a blockchain that were later put forward in the 2009 Bitcoin white paper.

Beyond cryptography, David is also known for his work on secure election systems. And he's deeply worried about studies that show, for instance, that confidence in democracy has fallen below 50% everywhere but a handful of small, prosperous countries. And once people stop believing that democracy works, "it's game over," says David. This is one of the reasons he founded xx Network, which is building an easy-to-use, private, and scalable platform for messaging and payments. xx Network not only obscures the content of messaging and communications, but "shreds" the associated metadata as well.

This may be a key to preserving privacy, and democracy, into the future. As David explains, authorities don't need to know the content of conversations to exert control. All they need is the metadata: who is talking to whom, and when. He warns against what he calls a government "panopticon," in which the authorities are able to monitor all communications from a central position. People cannot participate meaningfully in democracy unless they can communicate candidly with friends and family, he says, but the global expansion of surveillance is threatening people's ability to do so without fear of manipulation or retaliation.

It's antithetical to the kind of participation people need to have in order to have democracy, and if you lose democracy you lose the whole game," he says.

What would be required to protect democracy from collapse? David argues for a "protected sphere" for political discourse that includes truly private messaging and payments. On the second point, David says that although he does not believe money equals speech, there has to be a mechanism for compensating those who ferret out, present, and help analyze information for the benefit of the body politic. Without high-quality information shining a light toward truth, a any protected sphere would be hollow, he contends.

Follow us down the rabbit hole: listen to the conversation here or on your favorite streaming service.

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Mar 16, 2021
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