Edward Snowden and “Bitcoin Democracy”

I recall being concerned about Internet privacy earlier on this blog. I even had a phase where I declared my blog a “Google-free zone” because I was so angry about their wholesale privacy violations, and had a whole category dedicated to that.

Here is a post I wrote seven years ago in my “Google-free zone” category:

Danny Sullivan has an essential post on search engine privacy up at Searchenginewatch. He discusses and explains a recent survey.

News.com has asked some questions to search engines. One of the question was if the search engine in question gives the government the data it has on its users.

Google and others replied with a no comment.

Now anybody paying half attention knows that the Bush administration does not believe in obeying any privacy laws. They operate under the weird theory that they can do any spying they please. See for example Glenn Greenwald’s blog for some pointers.

Under these circumstances, I for one read “no comment” as “yes, of course we are selling out our users to the NSA for any data mining they might be interested in”.

Posted by Karl-Friedrich Lenz at February 9, 2006 09:49 AM

I have changed that category name two years ago, since Google’s support for renewable energy trumps my concerns about privacy.

Since I was expecting Google to sell out their customers to the NSA seven years ago, as documented in the post above, I am not surprised by the recent leak by Edward Snowden, which confirms that Google does in fact sell out their customers to the NSA.

Of course they do. Why do you ask?

So what was the significance of this whistleblowing? Everybody paying attention knew what Snowden disclosed almost a decade ago. That of course includes terrorists. Any terrorist dumb enough to assume Google would not pass his search history on to the NSA isn’t much of a threat in the first place.

The significance was that now the ACLU can file a lawsuit and ask the Courts to explain how watching everybody all the time is supposed to be compatible with the American Constitution. And they did exactly that.

So now the whole program is in the open. It will be discussed by the Courts. There may be even hearings at Congress.

Which leads me to my point about Bitcoin democracy.

Imagine for a moment that someone at NSA thinks it would be nice to change the Bitcoin protocol slightly. No big change. Just require that anybody spending or receiving money first registers at their friendly local police station. Or maybe some exchange or other. No transactions without registration. All bitcoins would be white under the new policy.

Users may disagree with the NSA on the desirability of such a change. What would be needed to make it happen?

Of course the NSA could build their own brand-new Bitcoin client that has this snooping capability built-in. That’s the beauty of open source. Then they could release it and wait for everybody to change to their new version.

And wait.

And wait some more.

Right now, I would not expect that such a client would gain much traction. Most users would view this kind of thing as a bug, not as a feature.

And one interesting thing about open source software is that it comes with built-in democracy. Whatever the majority wants to happen will be the standard from there on.

With the Bitcoin network, that majority is calculated by counting the mining capacity. Since the NSA does own a computer or two, they might even be in a favorable position in that regard. They could own a significant number of votes.

Anyway, there is no way to change the Bitcoin protocol without anybody knowing. All the code is out right in the open.

And there is no way to change it without a majority approving.

I think that’s interesting to note. It is a strong contrast to how the NSA was able to build up their snooping capabilities in other areas.

It also is a potential answer to the question what the Bitcoin network is as a matter of law. One could understand the Bitcoin client as a Constitution. A Constitution that is in the open, that can’t be changed in secret, and that can’t be changed without approval from a majority.

The American Constitution could learn a thing or two from Bitcoin in that regard.


Published by kflenz

Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo. Author of Lenz Blog (since 2003, lenzblog.com).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: