Cryptography as a Democratic Weapon Against Demagoguery

CoinDesk contributor Nozomi Hayase tackles democracy, corruption and bitcoin's security model in her latest Op-Ed.

AccessTimeIconAug 6, 2016 at 12:55 p.m. UTC
Updated Mar 6, 2023 at 2:59 p.m. UTC

Nozomi Hayase, PhD, is a writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency and decentralized movements. 

In this opinion piece, Hayase discusses what she asserts is the current disorderly state of US democracy, arguing that the system is rigged, and that efforts to improve it may benefit from a better understanding bitcoin's security model.

America has passed the twilight zone.

The nomination of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential primary confirmed the charade of US politics. Elections are sold to the highest bidder. No matter how much popular support a candidate like Bernie Sanders might garner, the corporate masters who sponsor this rigged game in the end take all.

Many know that we do not live in a democracy, yet the level of corruption is becoming even more blatantly apparent. Now, the oligarchic class doesn't need to lobby candidates. They can simply run for office, just like Donald Trump.

When essential functions of democracy are disabled and the system has lost its internal safety mechanisms, what can ordinary people do? The success of Bernie Sanders in galvanizing millennials, along with his independent campaign financing, revealed that the people do care and that the issue is not a lack of will for change.

The problem goes much deeper into the very structure of current governance. The fundamental challenge seems to revolve around a lack of true understanding of adversaries and the psychology of those in power.

Most people tend to assume good in others and think they operate with similar motives.

The deep failure of democracy has shaken up these assumptions, showing this to be a naive and overly idealistic view of man. The 2008 financial meltdown and crisis of legitimacy exposed the existence of individuals who have a radically different makeup than the rest of the population. These are psychopaths, whom psychopathy expert Robert Hare called "social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life".

They embody a dark side of man, with aggressive and narrow selfish desires that often come in conflict with the public good. Our innocence about these individuals makes us easy prey.

How can ordinary people effectively resist the agendas of this hidden cannibalistic, two-party duopoly, trying to devour all that is human?

Assange's call for cryptographic defense

The battlefield became visible in 2010, when a little known organization called WikiLeaks came to public limelight with the publication of the Collateral Murder video.

This whistleblowing site began revealing what Julian Assange once described as "a system of interacting organs, a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls."

WikiLeaks continues to be effective. From the Turkish ruling party email archive to a database from the DNC, they just released vital documents that shed light on the machinations of governance, which are in many ways holding people hostage.

Assange, who has become a lightning rod for the world’s superpowers through his work of publishing their secrets, has seen the true face of the enemies. In his New York Times Op-Ed, he described the parallel between George Orwell’s time and ours. Assange described Orwell’s prophecy in his 1945 essay "You and the Atomic Bomb", about the future of society, noting that when dominant weapons are expensive and complex, society tends to fall into dystopia, and when weapons become cost efficient and simple, they give common people a chance; giving, in Orwell’s words, ‘claws to the weak’.

With this as a context, Assange described the power of math.

"If there is a modern analogue to Orwell’s ‘simple’ and ‘democratic weapon’,

which 'gives claws to the weak' it is cryptography, the basis for the mathematics behind bitcoin and the best secure communications programs."

Bitcoin’s underlying technology provides proof of publishing and helps WikiLeaks counteract state censorship. In its seven years of existence, bitcoin has gained wide mainstream attention with its disruptive potential in finance. Yet, currency is only its first application.

Bitcoin’s underlying technology, the blockchain, is a public asset ledger. This is a distributed database that records all history of transactions in a network without anyone in charge. Once data is verified, no one can undo it. The real breakthrough of this invention lies in its immutability and its potential to create a new form of governance that is censorship free and resilient to corruption.

The left's response to this technology has typically been very critical, simply viewing it as money for 'libertarians' or associating it with 'capitalism'. Yet, through an openness to grasp the fundamentals behind this innovation, we may be able to build our own tools to fight against these wolves in sheep’s clothes, who conspire to enact their neoliberal agenda.

Security holes in representative democracy

Bitcoin is built with a keen understanding of adversarial forces.

Instead of naively assuming good intentions in others, the creator of this technology, Satoshi Nakamoto expected that some would try to cheat and attack the network. This assumption is shared by developers who are committed to Satoshi's vision of this particular security model.

At the Hong Kong Scaling Bitcoin conference, developer Andrew Poelstra explained the mindset that bitcoin lives in an adversarial environment and that the possibility of individuals acting selfishly and taking advantage of others' goodwill needs to be factored into designing its governance.

Bitcoin Core developer Peter Todd also emphasized the necessity of adversarial thinking. In a Twitter interaction on the topic of security, Todd noted, "security isn’t about people promising they won't do something, it’s about people being unable to do something".

At the core of bitcoin’s development is an acknowledgment that we live in a world where psychopaths exist. So efforts are made to meet this beast within humanity. Psychopaths assault human trust for their predation.

As articulated by psychiatrist Hervey M Cleckley in "Mask of Sanity", deception is at the core of psychopathy. These ruthless individuals fake empathy to elicit trust and then exploit it. When a governance model is structured in a manner that relies heavily on trust, such a system inevitably becomes vulnerable to this unknown member of society who can cleverly mimic good attributes of human nature and blend in.

This representative democracy that requires people to trust elected officials has increasingly become a mask used by ruthless individuals behind the scenes to hide and gain a grip on the people.

Bitcoin as a new security model

Bitcoin’s security is designed to offer armory against psychopathic attacks.

In the seminal white paper, creator Satoshi Nakamoto described bitcoin as a purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash that would allow "online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution".

Nakamoto stated that it was put forward as a solution to the "inherent weakness of the trust-based model", where financial institutions act as trusted third parties.

Author and security expert Andreas Antonopoulos called this new model of security "trust by computation" that has "no central authority or trusted third party".

He explained this form of trust as follows:

"Trust does not depend on excluding bad actors, as they cannot 'fake' trust. They cannot pretend to be the trusted party, as there is none. They cannot steal the central keys as there are none. They cannot pull the levers of control at the core of the system, as there is no core and no levers of control."

With this trust by computation, the need to trust institutions or central authorities is replaced with mathematics. Human trust is easily exploited by those prone to act with little concern for others. In the bitcoin network, where there is no point of control, attackers cannot fake trust. In order to gain control over the network, they would have to compromise math.

Bitcoin’s new security model is embodied in a particular consensus mechanism called proof-of-work. Composed of a combination of cryptographic hash functions, game theory and economic incentives, this proof-of-work facilitates creation of networks that self-regulate and develop their own defense mechanisms against attackers.

The function called mining contributes significantly to this process.

Bitcoin mining is a broadcast math competition engaged by computers around the world with clear rules, such as the total number of bitcoin created, a predictable issuance rate and automatic adjustment of mining difficulty. By using precious resources, miners work to solve difficult math problems.

Each 10 minutes, problems are solved and whoever solves the problem first wins a fixed number of bitcoins. This process leads to both creation of money and validation of transactions and it is designed to create economies of scale, with rewards incentivizing all players to follow the rules of consensus.

Law of self-regulation

As with any system of governance, the question may arise as to how will a network without any authority maintain law and order. How can this math-based network enforce these rules of consensus and fair play?

In traditional systems, psychopaths rise to power, cheat and control the game. In these new cryptographic systems, anti-social forces and psychopathic deception to cheat the system could manifest in anti-network tendencies.

This might be translated into covert chip fabrication, spam attacks or miners colluding in a mining pool to earn more than their fair share.

While most people are bound by empathy and naturally restrain actions in consideration of others’ needs, those who are devoid of conscience are not governed by these internal laws of empathy and therefore cannot regulate self-interests. Before this master manipulator, traditional systems of accountability have shown to be ineffective.

Regulation and laws often fail to restrict their actions or offer protection because this very mechanism has been gutted and used by those in power for their advantage. Moreover, efforts of law enforcement to regulate and punish selfish actors often just make them more cunning, controlling and deceitful.

This bitcoin network governed by proof-of- work rewards those who work honestly and the transparency it provides penetrates deception. There is no shortcut to gain rewards without work. If one wants to be rewarded, they have to solve math problems by using resources and playing by the rules just like everyone else. Under Bitcoin’s rule of consensus, the old tactics of coercion and aggression won’t work.

Robert Wolinsky, senior manager of blockchain research, explains how "Satoshi introduces a cost equation to cheating and collusion via the proof-of- work protocol", making it clear to parties what the cost of attacking the network is and having them pay for it upfront.

Furthermore, by making the rewards for playing by the rules higher than the value of attacking the network, it can proactively protect the system from the lack of impulse control of those who are instinctively programmed to act against any network with no remorse.

Bitcoin developer’s approach to security incorporates the attacker's mind into the system.

It is like taking a pathogen in order to strengthen the immune system. Concrete rewards are used to channel self-serving aims and the insatiable hunger for power, turning this energy into generating global level security for all.

Decentralization as collective dissent

Power corrupts, and the best way to check and balance power is to not have these points of control in the first place.

Decentralization disarms those who seek to control us behind a façade of democracy. In a horizontal system, there is no ladder of power that psychopaths can climb to exploit others. Through distributing trust across a network and minimizing the necessity to trust a third party, the system removes vulnerabilities that often lead to concentration of power.

Psychopathic infiltration of society has expanded globally with secret corporate trade deals like the TPP, cycles of merciless austerity and endless wars, creating instability of regions and massive migrant crises. Now the battle for democracy has gone digital. With mass-surveillance and censorship on the Internet, with drones and dissemination of Artificial Intelligence, technology is being used in many ways to make humanity bow down to the tyranny of corporotocracy.

The question of our time is; in whose hands will the future of governance lie? Will it be centralized or decentralized? Will technology be used to enslave humanity or used as a tool for emancipation?

No matter how noble the genius of this consensus algorithm is, by itself it can’t do anything. Encryption technology alone did not create WikiLeaks. It is the network of contagious courage built around this technology that made it truly revolutionary, showing how great power requires the human heart to harness it.

No matter how imperfect the Framers of the US Constitution were, they recognized that ‘We the People’ is a preamble to any legitimate form of governance. In a similar way, a code that carries this same democratic premise needs to be defended and amended whenever necessary by an open network of peers.

Cryptography can become our non-violent democratic weapon. It can be used as a shield for our collective dissent against institutional hierarchies. Elections have become a distraction to pull the wool over our eyes. Now networks of ordinary people, empowered by a deep obligation to one another, can fight against this two-horned beast that would have us all descend into a dystopia.

Only a democracy freely claimed by all people can defeat the rise of demagoguery.

This article originally appeared on Counterpunch and has been republished here with the author's permission.

Democracy image via Shutterstock


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