Crypto as in Crypto

Is crypto short for cryptography or cryptocurrencies? Grab your pitchforks!

I’ve ranted against crypto-means-bitcoin since I first heard it. But the last few days have me wondering if we, the greying and already-grey cryptographers, should just accept it. At the very least, when prominent VC Fred Wilson keeps calling it crypto, we have to realize we are losing the battle very rapidly.

Cryptography is a lot more than Blockchain

100 years ago, cryptography was mostly secret codes. It’s become a lot more than that over the last 40-50 years. It’s public-key encryption, signatures, identity-based crypto, deniable encryption, homomorphic encryption, zero-knowledge proofs, secure multi-party computation, program obfuscation,  … and yeah that’s a lot more than Blockchain, even if Blockchain is a fascinating and novel combination of techniques in its own right.

Think of a transaction, any transaction, be it financial or data, where a trusted third-party mediates interactions between participants who don’t fully trust each other… now think of doing it without the trusted third-party. That’s cryptography. Don’t have a perfectly honest courier who can confidentially and securely transport your private messages to your friends? You probably need public-key encryption and signatures. Don’t have a perfectly honest vote counter whom you’re willing to trust with the tallying of your election without anyone else verifying? You probably need some kind of secure multi-party computation, possibly implemented with physical processes like sealed ballot boxes and statistical audits.

Put another way, cryptography is how people get things done when they need one another, don’t fully trust one another, and have adversaries actively trying to screw things up. The less you want to “just trust someone” with a portion of that transaction, the more cryptography you need. 

Fans see in Blockchain a lot more than Blockchain

Interestingly, the vast majority of people who are now discovering Blockchain via cryptocurrencies — thus calling it “crypto” — think that Blockchain is exactly the thing I described above. It’s “trustless computing!”

In fact, Blockchain is a very specific kind of secure multi-party computation in a very specific trust setting with very specific incentives that keep participants motivated. But those are sufficiently complex and subtle distinctions for everyday conversation, so instead everyone talks about Blockchain like it is the entire field of computation without a trusted third party. It gets even more confusing because some of the more advanced blockchains (e.g. zerocash) use zero-knowledge proofs for added privacy, which many fans seem to believe didn’t exist before blockchain, so when cryptographers say “crypto is a lot more than blockchain, for example it’s zero knowledge proofs,” the blockchain crowd’s answer is “oh yeah, we’ve got ZK proofs, aren’t they awesome?” while cryptographers roll their eyes in disgust and mutter something about lawns and young whippersnappers.

Why can’t we all just get along?

Blockchain fans have accepted Satoshi as their Lord and Savior. They believe Blockchain is single-handedly providing groundbreaking “trustless” computing. And they call it crypto.

Cryptographers see Blockchain as one very neat application of some aspects of cryptography. They think the field of cryptography is the rightful owner of all these trustless computing innovations. And they call it crypto.

What if we all simply call it crypto and agree to disagree on year 0 and the Messiahs? We are all into crypto, some of us are just more into the blockchain flavor than others.

Also, use case

Whatever we call it, we still need a use case for full trustless crypto. The reason you find many cryptographers skeptical of Blockchain as a major new technological framework (Internet 3.0!) is that many of us have tried to pitch and develop trustless business models before. And all of the use cases we had in mind have consistently been better served by more centralized, higher-trust alternatives. So we look at Blockchain with a feeling of “we’ve tried this before, and it’s not clear there’s anything sufficiently new to make users want this.”

Maybe we, the greying cryptographers, are just old men screaming at clouds. Maybe Blockchain makes trustless computing easier to deploy. Maybe the times we live in call for more distributed, more trustless solutions that customers will adopt. I’m dubious, but maybe.

Either way, it’s probably best if we all call it crypto, because we’re actually all talking about the same thing, even if we strongly disagree on year 0.